Response to Eboo Patel’s Lecture (Given on 10.25.12) at HDS

Last week I attended a guest lecture hosted at Harvard Divinity School titled, “New Rooms in the House of Religious Pluralism: Evangelicals and the Interfaith Movement.” The lecturer was Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, based in Chicago. Eboo Patel is one of the most influential Muslim’s in the U.S. who is self-described as “theologically liberal,” “politically progressivist,” and who is also interested in “spiritual enrichment in general.” As an Evangelical Christian who is not theologically liberal but especially interested in Christian-Muslim dialogue in particular, I thought I’d listen in.

Beginning with a slight tweak of C.S. Lewis’ analogy in his Mere Christianity where orthodoxy is described as “the hallway” and the rooms on the side are particular denominations – Patel began by saying that the three main rooms within “interfaith orthodoxy” are filled with:

1) Liberal theologians

2) Political Progressivists

3) Those interested in spiritual enrichment (I would have liked to hear more about what Patel meant by this although I suspect this refers to those who understand other religions as legitimate ways to the One Ultimate Reality. I’m guessing those interested in “spiritual enrichment” are not really interested in converting anyone for any reason).

Patel noted the “aggressive hostility” toward Evangelicals from the majority of those already involved in inter-religious dialogue (IRD) since those currently involved are also the ones who fall in the previously described categories. Of course, Evangelicals usually don’t self-define themselves according to those categories (the assumption is that most Evangelicals are politically conservative, theologically conservative, etc. This is actually very often the case even though Patel did highlight Evangelicals who don’t fit the stereotypical mold, like Brian McLaren for one). In this talk Patel was lamenting the fact that Evangelicals do not have a spot at the inter-religious table. As well, Patel sought to convince the audience that this should not be so. Patel believes that Evangelicals should be included in IRD encounters… but why? Well, because:

1) 1/3 to 40% of Christians in America are “broadly Evangelical.” So to excuse them from a religious discussion is to excuse a major component of the religious landscape here in the U.S.

2) The Evangelical “relational turn” as he calls it. He told the story of Nick, who is an Evangelical Christian (and yet!) also interested and involved in inter-religious dialogue. Nick is not involved in dialogue so he can convert anyone, but Nick believes the “Great Cooperation” is just as important as the “Great Commission” and in this space, for the good of society, the “Great Cooperation” must be done. It is clear to Patel that Nick isn’t the only Evangelical who is now “more relational” and willing to deal with people of other faiths, or non-faiths in a non-confrontational and non-proseltyzing way.

3) Evangelicals excel in strengthening civil society in non-confrontational ways. World Vision was given as one example. Since for Patel this is a “perfect vehicle through which to do inter-religious dialogue,” Evangelicals should be brought in.

Patel has observed in his over 15 years of experience that too often IRD encounters are simply a gathering of theologically liberal/politically progressivist/etc. types and IRD ends up simply as an event filled with people all patting each other’s backs since the participants all generally believe the same thing or at least affirm the same sorts of principles despite the religious diversity that may be present at any one table or in any “one room.” In this context, IRD is simply and sadly a solely commensurate event. Patel believes that inter-religious encounters should include both “bonding” and “bridging” aspects. Unfortunately, many times these IRD events as currently run involve lots-o-bonding and hardly any bridging between people who actually have significant disagreements with each other.  In order to avoid the conflict, those who don’t typically fall into the three main houses of IRD orthodoxy (Evangelicals especially) never get invited to the party and for Patel, there is something intrinsically wrong with this.

Patel explained that in the end, the purpose of inter-religious dialogue is to “bridge social capital between different individuals” (See  Robert Putnam’s Social Capital theory to fully understand this phrase). Inter-religious dialogue seeks to solve polarity problems between individuals especially since positive relationships are necessary for peace in this pluralistic age. Patel believes religion gives people good reasons to exercise good civil duty – and Evangelicals in particular are doing good work in this area and so they should be included. Inter-religious encounters will be all-the-better if Evangelicals are allowed to participate. As long as everyone can stay focused on that which is “not immediately divisive” and which is similar to all religions – which Patel believes to be the “notion of civil service” – then we ought to include Evangelicals in this important work. In all of this it is clear that we are to avoid things which are controversial (especially when it is theological in nature). Patel said that in this situation, “nobody is ignoring the elephant in the room [which is the clear political/spiritual/theological differences between Evangelicals and the majority of those currently involved in IRD]… instead, we are dealing with other animals and convergent similarities.” He says that it is clear, especially after Stephen Prothero’s book, “God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter” (2011), all religions are NOT the same. So we ought not pretend that they are. Instead, we should include those people who do seek to solve polarity problems (even when they are unorthodox), and Evangelicals are doing this. Evangelicals should thus be included.

What I liked: 

1) This is bold! Anyone who seeks to challenge the current paradigm or “orthodoxy” will get critiqued, and usually pretty harshly. Patel is putting himself in this spot. There will surely be those in the IRD movement who will come back with their own responses… and they won’t all be positive. Patel, get ready for the onslaught!

2) Even though Patel is neither an Evangelical nor a Christian, he still felt the need to advocate for Evangelical-Christian involvement in his own line of work. It seems to me there is something very noble/just about what he was doing. Or if that isn’t true, at the least he is showing himself to be one who in his own line of work is consistent with what the movement is supposed to be in the first place. Patel has major disagreements with Evangelical theology but he still was willing to fly across the country to a place that is not known for it’s evangelicalism (although the movement is growing at Harvard) to advocate for this still-minority group to be included. As an expert in the field, his comments won’t go unnoticed (notice I didn’t say, “his comments won’t be ignored”). In this way Patel is urging the IRD movement further into a composition that is truly reminiscent of the differences and polarities that really do exist between individuals living side-by-side in this nation. And Patel is willing to be one of the first non-Evangelicals (all-the-while of a different faith completely) to make the push.

3) He knew that what he was saying was a bit controversial and uncomfortable, but he stuck to it even in the Q&A section. One person shared how he can’t but help to make verbal stabs at those who don’t agree with him (just recently this audience member asking the question was on a panel and he asked the Mormon why the Mormon church is so discriminant to homosexuals like himself). Another person asked how we can get more LGBTQ inclusion in such discussions. Patel answered both times by telling them that even though he was on the side of the question-asker in terms of their agenda (as it was politically progressivist and theologically liberal), their questions highlighted the crucial problem. We advocate for those who already agree with us, and we think it is rediculous that others could have such-and-such a belief (which is different than ours, of course). Patel says this is itself the problem (and in a private conversation he told someone who was complaining about their “born-again uncle” that in fact this person was at the same time trying to “convert” their “born-again uncle.” The only difference was the agenda to which each was trying to convert the other into). And the answer isn’t to find people to dialogue with who we already agree with. But instead, others need to be included EVEN IF they have fundamentally different political/social/theological convictions than you. That is the whole point.

What I didn’t like/Need to think about more: 

1) What Patel didn’t address is the underlying and unstated fact that his view on the purpose and value of dialogue remains a theologically liberal one. It’s mildly ironic: as Patel is arguing to allow Evangelicals in despite their differences, he at-the-same-time bases much of his inclusion argument on the fact that Evangelicals are already doing what he believes in. More than this, he sees that Evangelicals could fit into his already-decided purpose for IRD and thus he makes the argument in the first place. So is he advocating for letting others in since in the end they fit into his paradigm? This isn’t a fully inclusive program – it is one where Patel finds an outsider group that should be assimilated in since they can help further his own programmatic hopes for the world. This is not a despite argument, it is a since argument – which goes against his initial critique of the movement and further entrenches the movement into its already overt weakness of being less diverse than it ought to be.

After all, what do we do when those potentially included Evangelicals do things in the future that are not entirely in-line with Patel’s purposefully theologically minimalistic program? Patel asks us to avoid “the elephant” but there are plenty of people who not only disagree with that strategy (see especially the Scriptural Reasoning Movement currently thriving in Cambridge) or who don’t think that is even possible, but, even worse, would find themselves to be inauthentic or dishonest in that experience. For example, any Orthodox Christian or Muslim desires all others to be converted to their own faith. If the others don’t convert, the Orthodox believer believes that the unconverted will see judgment in the after-life. To ignore any sort of “elephant” is also to ignore core aspects of these people and their beliefs – including how they view themselves since they may view themselves primarily as religious or even as a sort of “textual” being as they do adhere to the religious texts. Furthermore, presumably, the true Evangelical who is interested in IRD is interested in IRD because she sees herself as being faithful to Evangelical theology in the first place (I would argue this point, personally). How can an Evangelical (or anyone else in a similar spot) ignore the primary theological reasons for involvement, which might also at the same time differ from Patel’s program and may actually lead to different hopes or outcomes? What a theologically-liberal Muslim and an Orthodox, Evangelical Sunni Muslim believe to be “core” and “most beneficial to society” will probably be fairly different. So how do we proceed in light of such a truly diverse community of the real world? Are we willing to allow the IRD world to look like the real world? As well, must we all agree with Patel’s conclusions on what IRD even ought to be? How does he feel if we don’t? To ignore such importances is to not take the Evangelical believer seriously.

2) Many advocates of IRD believe that in order to be sufficiently authentic, one must enter the IRD space with a willingness to, at the least, change (some even say, “convert”) their own views in light of what one hears from “the other.” I asked Patel about this afterwards, and he told me that he believes this to be a rediculous notion. He says if this is true, then no one will get involved in the first place. But then my question is, how can I/should I think about personal change within an IRD encounter? Surely I am seeking to change the world in some positive way, but am I willing to change myself in the process? Can/should I expect as a person to be changed in an IRD encounter? How can I actually be “bridged” closer to my fellow human beings who disagree with me on so many fundamental issues of life in those IRD moments? Shouldn’t I come to this sort of activity with a “stance” of, at the least, epistemic humility (Cornille’s term)? Ignorance here is easy, but it is not necessarily bliss. Patel assumes we just avoid these hard theological/political/spiritual issues all-together… But is this actually possible if we are being fully honest with one another?  What does it mean to truly accept another in those IRD moments? I agree that our desire for positive change in society should be a major thrust for our work, but can it be the only one?

I so enjoyed this lecture by Patel. I found (and continue to find) Patel’s work inspiring. I disagree with Patel on the “elephant” issue and I’m pretty sure I also disagree with him on his view on the purpose and value of IRD. Or at the least, I would say his view is too minimalistic. But, then again, I am still trying to work out my own views on these topics. Of course I agree with him that people like me ought to be involved in IRD encounters and I am inspired by his Truly Ecumenical attitude. Lastly, Patel seems to me a very good thinker and an equally great activist which is not a common-enough combination. I hope Patel is continually blessed in all he does.