After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, politicians, psychologists, and economists, are still studying the effects of the attacks. And we can add to that list theologians. World events have registered profound influence on how Christianity is perceived and on how future leaders of the church are being prepared to lead the church and to represent Christ in a pluralistic culture.
Attempts to counter violent zealotry have led peaceful practioners within many differing religions to form common bonds. While such development has some positive features, it has also contributed subtly to the view that all religions are, by and large, equally true. These perceptions have made more difficult the challenge of presenting a Christian witness.
Many in seminary education candidly acknowledge their students and alumni were not fully prepared to see their communities through a crisis of this magnitude (not that anyone would have reasonably expected them to be). Many seminaries have added courses or course emphases intended to better prepare future pastors to guide their congregations through times of national or community crisis.
Beyond this dimension of pastoral ministry, however, September 11 (9/11) has opened new avenues for intellectual exploration in graduate-level theological education. The typical seminary student today is far more conscious of the role religion plays in political conflicts. This is reflected, in part, by the addition of courses and seminars intended to facilitate greater understanding of Islam and how to witness to Muslim communities both in the United States and abroad.
The changes taking place at seminaries since 9/11, however, go far beyond the need to come to a greater understanding of Islam. Increasingly seminaries are focusing on such topics as the relationship between religion and world conflict and the unprecedented challenges of presenting the gospel in an increasingly pluralistic culture. In addition, theological education is having to come to grips with the reality that the reputation of Christianity is on occasion tarnished. In some contexts those who have Christian beliefs become victims of guilt by association with religious fundamentalism in general.
Religion and world conflict
Kevin W. Mannoia, Dean of Azusa Pacific University's Haggard School of Theology, believes it is misleading to conclude that 9/11 has led to an increase in the role of religion in world conflict. He states, however that "the tragedy of 9/11 served to coalesce the thinking of the world around the fact that religion is at the heart of nearly every major conflict."
Samuel Shahid, Director of Islamic Studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, agrees. "Undoubtedly religion plays a very important role in various world conflicts," Shahid says, "especially where that conflict involves Islamic countries.
"Since Muslims associate 'Christian' with the West and the Western media allude to the East as the 'Islamic East,' the nature of the conflict has taken a drastic change on the basis of the Islamic understanding of the relationship between State and religion," Shahid says. The association between religion and national political powers, he notes, is stronger in the Islamic tradition, whereas religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism "focus on the ideological differences but do not revolve around religio-political issues."
Media spotlight turns on Christianity
With the attacks by Islamic terrorists have come increased media attention to the connections between religion and terrorism. It was inevitable that media coverage would eventually include Christianity. Shahid, for one, feels that the result has been negative. He maintains that the Western media have "created the concept of evangelization as a monster that threatens other religions, especially Islam. On the other hand," he adds, "Islamic media directly or indirectly sustain the Western media's view, nourishing this attitude. Christianity thus receives great attention, but from a negative perspective."
It might be expected that Islam and Christianity would be at odds, since both are "exclusive religions," according to Donald L. Brake, Vice President and Dean at Multnomah Biblical Seminary. They are exclusive in that neither accepts the other's theological system as valid. "The Western world understands and has no problems with an exclusive Islam, but when it comes to Christianity, the media continues to try to back Christian leaders into a corner by forcing them to admit to an exclusive religion and then ridiculing it for not being universal—or, at least, for not accepting and tolerating other systems," Brake says. "Christianity is being portrayed as just as narrow as Islam, thereby nullifying its validity."
The response by some leaders has been to tone down Chrsitianity's claims to exclusivity. "Anyone who dares to suggest that Jesus Christ is the only way to God risks being compared to the Taliban or other Islamic extremists who also believe that they alone possess the truth," says Michael Wittmer, professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. "Before 9/11, many in our culture winked bemusedly at our evangelistic zeal. Now they think we're dangerous. For the first time in our nation's history, anyone who affirms the exclusivity of Jesus Christ risks being lumped with terrorism. Belief in John 14:6 is almost un-American."
Not everyone agrees that the media attention on Islam has led to increased scrutiny of Christianity. Says Malcolm Hartnell, Intercultural Studies instructor at Phoenix Seminary, "Overall, I don't think the interest in Islam has spilled over into a general interest in religion, including Christianity. In the public media in the U.S., President Bush's faith generated more comment on Christianity than Islamic terrorism. Media portrayal of evangelical Christianity is influenced by the American political/social scene, not Islam," Hartnell says.
Timothy C. Tennent, Associate Professor of World Missions and Director of Missions Programs at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary concurs. "I do not think that negative associations or comparisons [between Islam and Christianity] have been overly extreme in the Western media. I do think that a number of prominent Muslims have mistakenly associated the actions of the U.S. government with the Christian faith, especially in invoking 'crusader' language."
For his part, Azusa Pacific's Mannoia cautions against an undue focus on how Christianity is treated in the media: "I would rather not reduce the security of Christianity's place in the world to some determination of whether we have been treated fairly or to the question of whether we have equal time. Neither is it germane to our calling, and in fact, we will probably not be treated fairly or get equal time. Jesus told us so.
"Without compromise," Mannoia says, "we simply proceed with confidence, declaring Jesus as redeemer and Lord and demonstrating the peace, love, and boldness God has granted through the Holy Spirit."
What to say to Muslims
The terrorist attacks produced at least one positive outcome. "The shock of 9/11 focused evangelicals on a much overlooked group—Muslims in America and around the world," says Timothy Robnett, associate professor of Pastoral Studies at Multnomah Biblical Seminary. "Investigations into the beliefs and practices of Muslims, in America especially, have attracted much attention. Now, years after 9/11, a degree of understanding is leading to many creative initiatives toward the Muslim community."
The question becomes, What do we say to explain our faith? "The resurgence of Islam will give new importance to the doctrine of the Trinity," Grand Rapids Seminary's Wittmer says. "We still struggle to understand the Trinity, but at least now theologians are mining the doctrine for its rich, distinctively Christian implications. I believe that we will begin to cherish our triune God and the huge advantage he provides over the bare monotheism of other religions."
"More Muslims have come to faith in Christ after understanding about Jesus than for any other single reason," Hartnell of Phoenix Seminary notes. And the new imperative to share faith with Muslims is changing the methods taught in the classrooms. "When verbally presenting your faith, don't attack the other religion, but instead positively affirm biblical truth," Hartnell says. "In giving a verbal witness to Muslims, one should be aware that Muslims are taught that the Bible has been corrupted by Jews and Christians. Most Muslims think that Christians are tri-theists, and that the Trinity consists of God the Father, Mary the Mother, and Jesus the Son. We can correct these misunderstandings with patient, clear explanations."
Hartnell adds that it is helpful in witnessing to Muslims to be aware of major differences between Christianity and Islam in the following areas:
(1) the biblical nature of God vs. the Muslim concept of Allah;
(2) the nature of revelation: Jesus vs. Qur'an;
(3) the nature of salvation: faith in God's provision, Christ as opposed to good works;
(4) theology of suffering in Christianity vs. a theology of triumphalism in Islam;
(5) views on and treatment of women;
(6) views of society: Kingdom of God vs. the Muslim state; and
(7) the nature of heaven.
There are three major theological differences between Christianity and Islam, according to Fuller Theological Seminary professor of Islamic studies Dudley Woodberry: the nature of God's unity, the divinity of Jesus, and the human condition and its solution. "Muslims believe that human nature is good or neutral so that the solution is forgiveness and the law," Woodberry explains. "A Christian understanding is that the image of God in humans is fallen, so besides forgiveness and the law, we need a new birth."
Azusa Pacific University's Mannoia advises, "Christians are on a journey of faith, not religion. They are centered on a risen Savior, not a dead prophet. Christians are on the way of knowing God, not on a list of adherents. Christians are the Body of Christ, not merely his followers. The Church is primarily organismic, not institutional. Christians submit to a loving Lord, not to a system of beliefs."
New challenges beyond Islam
Those shaping the next generation of church leaders caution there are many obstacles besides Islam threatening the spread of the gospel. While Gordon-Conwell's Tennent notes that "Hinduism remains one of the most challenging contexts for Christian witness," Fuller Seminary's Woodberry observes that in some parts of the world "militant Hinduism is presenting some problems similar to militant Islam."
Says Phoenix Seminary's Hartnell, "In addition to Islam, Hinduism, New Age, Mormonism, and post-modernism present difficult challenges to Christian witness. Each one of these belief systems has it own particular obstacles with which to deal."
The greatest hurdle to spreading the gospel, says Azusa Pacific's Mannoia, "is that of contemporary relativism, which, centered in humanistic self, is insidious and subtle in its encroachment into the Church. Our contemporary culture emphasizes tolerance as a virtue. Its effect blunts the incisive and discriminating mind of Christians to distinguish truth from falsity, good from evil, sin from holiness."
Multnomah's Albert H. Baylis, Chair of the Department of Theology, observes that in the culture of the Pacific Northwest, where diversity is highly regarded, "proclaiming your own faith as the right way yields more suspicion than in the past." He adds that for many intellectuals, "tolerance" means that all religions are equal because none are true.
Gordon-Conwell's Tennent responds, "Those who say all religions are the same have quite obviously never studied world religions, because those of us who have given our lives to the careful study of world religions are constantly amazed at the deep and abiding differences between the world's great religions."
Christianity's major, unique distinction is its emphasis on grace, Wittmer of Grand Rapids Seminary observes. "Christianity is the only religion that teaches both a full-blooded concept of sin and salvation. No other religion teaches both our moral inability and the free grace that overcomes our depravity. Jesus Christ is the only God who announces both the bad news that we can do nothing to earn our salvation with the good news that we don't have to."
"Truth is not relative," Phoenix Seminary's Hartnell adds. "And the most complete revelation of truth was in the person of Jesus Christ."
Bold, yet sensitive
If the message for the time is the uniqueness of Christ, the role of the Trinity, and the foundation of salvation by grace, then the remaining question is, In what manner do we share this good news?
"We live in stressful times, and such times usually yield multiple opportunities to give a gentle and humble witness to the hope that we have in Jesus Christ," Hartnell says. "This is particularly true after 9/11 and the current economic downturn. I praise God for such times, because it often helps people realize the transitory nature of this life and turns their attention to matters of eternal significance."
While cultural relativism does not affect the truth or importance of proclaiming the gospel, Hartnell points out it does affect the way in which the gospel is presented. "Although some in America will resent anyone sharing their convictions about religious truth, it is often our method of witnessing that creates needless barriers and resistance."
Multnomah's Baylis agrees: "In this setting of diversity and tolerance, salesman-style evangelism is less and less successful. Fewer people want to discuss dogma. It is tempting to start with the necessity of universal truth, followed by a proof or two to demonstrate that Christianity is right. This approach is legitimate, but less useful today in personal witness. What people want today—and probably always have wanted—is someone who cares enough to listen respectfully and empathetically to their own individual story and struggle with life. People seem to have a sixth sense about whether you care or whether you are just another solicitor trying to enlist another customer."
Mannoia of Azusa Pacific warns, however, these kinds of concerns should not prevent a bold, confident sharing of the gospel. "If we are witnessing out of a concern that we not send a message that 'our religion is better than yours,' we risk so eviscerating the gospel as to result in a minimalistic pablum of psychobabble."
"Let our concern for witnessing be our concern that we will be held accountable by Christ," Mannoia adds. "Our motive is not to tickle the ears, but to convict the soul. Certainly we enlist grace-filled methods. Of course, we don't force it down someone's throat. If we witness with a catty, sophomoric superiority, God will not honor it. But I certainly hope the result of witnessing will be that 'this gospel is truth and life to your soul. Whatever else you may be considering is a dry desert compared to this water of life.'"
Witnessing in a religiously pluralistic society requires that we learn to present the exclusivity of the Christian faith; but in the aftermath of 9/11, we are more aware of the inclusive imperitives of evangelism. Christianity is for everyone who will receive Christ, and everyone needs to hear the gospel.
"In his book, The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins has demonstrated very clearly that Christianity is now predominantly non-white and non-Western," Gordon-Conwell's Tennent says. "On a given Sunday right here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, more people will worship Jesus Christ in a language other than English than will worship him in English. Thus, proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus is a global proclamation and need not be—and should not be—associated with any kind of Western or personal triumphalism."
Tennent adds, "G.K. Chesterton once said, 'All religions may be taught; only Christianity may be proclaimed.' Christianity is unique in that it proclaims a historical singularity: Jesus Christ raised from the dead."
Randy Frame, a freelance writer and editor, also serves as Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Palmer Seminary.