In Fort Apache, a Western directed by John Ford in 1948, Henry Fonda is a martinet Army officer sent West against his will and full of disdain for the Apaches he would be fighting. He comments to an experienced frontiersman played by John Wayne that he saw a few of the Indians hanging around the fort and they didn't look particularly tough. Wayne's reply is, roughly, "If you saw them, they weren't Apaches."
That's the way it increasingly seems when Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus engage in "interfaith dialogue" with Christians. Such dialogue is good as long as the Christians defend the gospel, but in book after book spokesmen for other religions come to play and the Christian side comes to surrender.
One example is the book Buddhists Talk about Jesus, Christians Talk about the Buddha (Continuum, 2000, edited by Rita M. Gross and Terry C. Muck). The six Buddhist contributors are on the attack; for example, Buddhist Jose Cabezon offers this put-down: "Most, and perhaps all, of the extraordinary feats performed by Jesus would be classified by Buddhists as 'common accomplishments' ... requiring a certain degree of meditative competence, but no real degree of permanent spiritual maturity."
Do the Christians in return criticize Gautama Buddha, perhaps because he abandoned his wife and young child? No: Co-editor Terry C. Muck writes that "this 'weakness' on the Buddha's part makes me respect him all the more." Mr. Muck explains that Gautama didn't solve the problem of how to stay committed to both ideals and personal relations, "and that relieves me of the problem of having to solve it, too."
The pattern is repetitive: Buddhists attack Christ but Christians praise Buddha. Mr. Muck writes, "I have loved the Buddha since I first started reading about him in graduate school ... I couldn't think more highly of anyone." British Methodist Elizabeth Harris says, "I revere the Buddha." Bonnie Thurston of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary credits the Buddha with propelling her into ordination as a Christian minister of sorts.
So maybe the representatives of Christianity in the book are being sweetly diplomatic, positioning themselves to respond vigorously when Ms. Gross calls the Bible's claims that Christ alone is the way, the truth, and the life "dangerous, destructive, and degraded," one of the most "immoral ideas that humans have ever created." Alas, no: The Christians appear to agree with the Buddhist attacks. Even Ms. Gross, reviewing the book's contents, notes that "the Buddhists were much bolder in their comments about Jesus and their assessments of Christianity than were the Christians in their comments about the Buddha and Buddhism."
I'm not the only one to be dismayed by such lack of boldness. Another Buddhist, Grace Burford, asks about the Christian participants in this typical dialogue: "If they were so taken by Buddhism, why did they hang on to Christianity?" She even wonders whether the only Christians who participate in such dialogues are those who will not stand firmly for Christ; in other words, are the Apaches she sees real Apaches?
Ms. Burford's questioning is the embarkation point for Timothy C. Tennent's valuable Christianity at the Religious Roundtable (Baker, 2002). The Gordon-Conwell seminary professor writes that he has read "dozens of books on interreligious dialogue" but has "enjoyed precious few of them ... the basic reason for my dissatisfaction is that the average Christian would hardly recognize the Christianity that is often presented in such works," and the apostles "would go away scratching their heads in bewilderment."
The solution here is not to dismiss or avoid interfaith dialogue but to see it not as Christian surrender but as real debate in which Christians try to convince others that Christianity is true. Mr. Tennent writes, "I fully expect Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists to do their best to convince me that they have more coherent worldviews and clearer visions of God or reality than the Christian faith has. Likewise, I am free to make the best case I can for the Christian gospel."
If we believe in objective truth, it is condescending and patronizing to say to others that all religions are basically the same. Mr. Tennent notes that "God either is or is not personal. Either God became incarnate in Jesus Christ or He did not. Either Allah spoke to Muhammad through Gabriel or he did not." Mr. Tennent goes on to explain ways to enter into dialogue fruitfully, but the essential issue is one of will, not methodology: Is the search for truth more important than the desire for good vibrations?