God of Many Names:

An Introduction to Dialogue with Other Religions

Robert C. Brow

Evangelism and Dialogue

Religions and ideologies are inevitably being propagated. In our universities there are still those who claim total objectivity. In our post-modern world that claim has worn very thin. We are all in the business of influencing others and persuading them to adopt our models. Better do it honestly. If we refuse to declare what we believe, and give our reasons, nobody else can engage us in moral discussion. Which is why it is dishonest for parents, school boards, and university professors to profess world view neutrality.

The Greek word evangelium meant good news. It was a metaphor derived from the idea of a good announcement (eu + angelium). A friend would rush in and say "I have evangelium. Your wife has just born you a son." Or "there is evangelium from Marathon: the Persian fleet is destroyed." The English equivalent for evangelium was evangel or gospel. So the four accounts of Jesus' life in the New Testament were called gospels.

The word evangelical was originally coined to describe those who wanted the Christian faith to be preached as good news. It was an alternative to the dismal bad news that droned out of most churches. The term was unfortunately narrowed down to one specific explanatory logic of what Christian good news should be. "He does not preach the gospel" became an insult to express disapproval of how another structures the metaphors of the Bible.

It would help if our English word gospel could be used in the original sense of the Greek word evangelium to mean good news. In a church setting it would be understood to be Christian good news. One would then need other metaphors to specify what kind of Christian good news was in mind. In the Bible there is good news of joy, and of love, of forgiveness and reconciliation, justice and liberation, of resurrection and heaven, and of peace and brotherhood in one body among different cultures, classes, and gender differences.

The earlier chapters of this book suggested that evangelism could well begin by asking what is the other person's supreme goal in life, what prevents its attainment, and what is the way of moving from what is wrong with humanity to the goal? We noted the importance of making sure one has understood the explanation of another's religion or ideology in his or her terms. We can then ask if the person would be interested in the good news that we have to offer? In that sense personal evangelism is a mutual exchange of two explanations of good news.

That is not to deny the work of an evangelist who functions as a good salesman helping the customer to buy, or "close," when they instinctively know they need. Such "goodnewsing" includes how the desired benefit of love or joy or peace, assurance of forgiveness or resurrection, can be appropriated in one's life. For this purpose the Bible is full of metaphors which can be used to present the good news of the love of God from many different angles.

But there again we should distinguish the effective goodnewsing of an evangelist from his model of doctrinal explanation which may be morally unacceptable. We nourish ourselves from the scriptures that provide metaphors that express our values. But we need to keep reminding ourselves that tradition is often wrong in telling us how they should be explained. [Matthew 15:6]

For example the richness and paradoxical nature of our metaphors is important. The Son of God is called both shepherd and lamb, lion and child, king and servant, fortress and little seedling, vine and owner of the vineyard. If therefore we wish to be faithful to the Bible we have to set out the word of God with all the paradoxical metaphors that are offered to us. This kind of preaching is not forcing the hearers into elaborate theological reasons for a particular model of how parables should be ordered. We could learn how to do this from Jesus's own metaphors and parabolic metaphors. Most evangelists are tempted to achieve their results by a model of explanation that is simple enough to be persuasive.

Instead of working at the many metaphors that are offered to us, a previous generation of Biblical scholars made the opposite mistake of looking for certainty by trying to find out how the documents originated. That would be like spending one's time disentangling the sources that Shakespeare drew on instead of engaging with the moral issues of his plays.

A new generation of scholars has realized that the scriptures that nourish all Christian denominations are the various books of the Bible in their present form. [See for example Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testament: Theological Reflections on the Christian Bible, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992] We need some of our best scholars to identify the many metaphors, parables, explanation, and stories that are given to us, and set out new and old ways of organizing them in explanatory models with their moral implications. Jesus commented at the end of Matthew's collection of seven parables. "Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and old." (Matthew 13:52)]

In personal evangelism it is much easier, as Jesus did, to tailor our presentation of metaphors to the moral situation at hand. If the other person is stuck in the rut of a traditional explanation, or is not willing to give an explanation of what he or she believes, we could begin with a parable or any suitable life story with a moral. That was the method that Jesus used. "With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples."[Mark 4:33,34]

We can also use stories to draw out the moral implications of certain attitudes and behaviour. For example we describe the children overturning the old man in a wheelchair. We could then ask what response ought to have been given. If an answer is given, "You should not be mean like that," "You should treat older people with respect," or " God punishes injustice," the moral conversation has begun. And keeping the moral conversation going is one secret of effective personal evangelism.

The first stage of this mutual sharing of good news might include some heated discussion. But it should not be to win debating points, and prove that the other is wrong. The object is only to clarify the moral implications of the other's model. As we go on, we recognize that however complex is our logical system we eventually come to a point where no further explanation is possible. Why is justice better than unfairness, why are all people equally worthy of respect, why is love a supreme value, and eventually who made God or how did our world come into being from nothing? Such questions have no answers. This means that eventually there has to be a very personal choice of at least one fixed point.

When therefore we encounter a person with another ultimately fixed moral point and the logic that derives from it, we may accept that his or her system is logically self-consistent, but we are compelled to declare our rejection. Such a declaration or witness can have nothing to back it up except our own moral commitment. "I am sorry I cannot prove that love is better than selfishness, or that justice is better than unfairness. But that is what I am committed to, and I purpose to live by that." The only religious or ideological certainty must be our own moral conviction.

Say we encountered a committed Nazi, and asked him why he wants to destroy the Jews? He explains that Aryans are the chosen race to save the world, and that Jews are an impurity that must be removed. We might try asking "What if your best friend turned out to be Jewish?" or "What if your mother was proved to be half Jewish?" But if he turned out to be ruthlessly logical and insisted he would send his best friend or his own mother with too much Jewish blood to the gas chamber, then we realize that at least for the present this person has adopted a moral stance and explanations which we abhor. If we believe in prayer, we can ask God to pry open a gap in his armour and make him see the awfulness of his commitment.

However effective is our goodnewsing and dialogue, there will therefore be some people with whom we can go no further. There is inevitably a point of irreconcilable difference between religions and ideologies, and to assume that all are fundamentally the same is muddle-headed nonsense. But it is also clear that people could be caught in a personal or social system of religion or ideology while the moral conviction of their heart was in a quite different direction. If God loves all people and knows their heart, we can assume that God is not going to hold explanatory wrongness against them. In The Last Battle C.S. Lewis tells the story of a defeated enemy soldier who was brought before Aslan, and greeted with "Well done my good and faithful servant, sit here on my right hand." When he protested that he had served the god Tash all his life, Aslan explained that he knew his heart was in the right place.

We can therefore be committed to teaching the good news of true morality and love among all nations without believing that the ignorant will go to hell. After all the great commission is to make disciples among all nations and teach them all that Jesus has imparted to us. It is not to conclude that all those who don't catch our logic are going to hell. [Matthew 28:19,20]

Which now encourages us turn our model inside out and imagine goodnewsing from God's point of view. To hazard an explication of the mind of God is very precarious, but several of Jesus' parables do just that. I assume they invite me to put myself in the shoes of God.

Presumably loving parents have good news for their children. In the beginning children may not appreciate the good news of discipline and education but the whole purpose is to free them not only to grasp our good news but to enjoy it to the full. What kind of a model could I picture for a God who is more loving than the most loving parents in the world? Let me try putting it into the words of my fallible imagination.

"The freedom to love and be loved is the greatest good I can conceive of for my children. Love and loving both require a freedom of moral commitment. So I had to give them the linguistic ability to permit that. The other animals could function by instinct and learning to react to the world around them. Human children should enjoy asking questions and engaging in moral discussion. It is too bad when parents say "don't ask questions, just do what I say."

To say anything about what they value humans have to use metaphor, and if they want to give an explanation they have to order the metaphors in a logical structure. That encourages them to discuss the moral implications of different forms of explanation. At first that took place among moving tribes where justice was settled by moral discussion among people who all knew each other. Everyone heard each others' stories of love and war, courage and betrayal, good sex and bad sex, greed and generosity, joy and pain, justice and oppression. They spent their evenings discussing the moral implications around the camp fire. And I of course know the heart even of the youngest and most retarded.

From the beginning I used the killing and eating of an animal for food as a way of teaching them the idea that "this animal is dying so that I can eat." The whole family was gathered around and it was an occasion of thanksgiving and worship. It was also a good way for them to make peace with enemies by eating together. And I liked them to know I accepted them and came to share in these sacrificial meals. Sacrifice was therefore an important way for them to know my love and forgiveness. Sometimes the horror of injustice had to be corrected as the Son intervened to assign wrath consequences. But of course you shouldn't assume that all who died in Sodom and Gomorrah went to hell.

In time as cities got bigger, and temples became impressive, priests made sacrifice into a means of forcing me to give people what they wanted by way of health or money or victory in war. To enable people to see the immorality of that idea, the Spirit moved prophets in every nation to denounce it. As people discussed what they said, different scriptures emerged with religious denominations around them. It is wonderful to see the constant hum of moral discussion going on in taverns, saunas, market squares, women in a harem, ships at sea, soldiers away from home, disciples with a guru. I made sure no ordinary person could avoid defining what they really care about. And if any of them want love or friendship or inspiration, all they have to do is ask.

When the confusion of immoral religions and explanations became too great, we decided the Son should go and take birth among them. We had prepared one nation with a very particular set of scriptures for his coming. He certainly wasn't quite what the professional teachers expected. The Son knew that he would eventually be rejected because he was used to that in his dealings with men and women from the beginning. If you love to the limit you always get hurt. That is why one of his many names is the sacrificial lamb.

At that point the Spirit not only raised him from the dead but took over the work of making our good news known. The method was fairly simple. There would be a church in every community where the Spirit would teach, and distribute a variety of gifts among the believers. As a result of that all the people around would hear what was going on, discuss it and reject the traditions that bound them. When that happens, and our scriptures are translated and made available, the old religions wither away or are changed beyond recognition. But in any case it is the heart of each individual that concerns us. That is what love is all about."

Every reader will want to change my imagination of what good news God had in mind, and how he makes it known. All that seems certain is that if God is love he must have good news for us. We can only use one way of goodnewsing at a time depending on the situation we are in. God must have an infinity of ways of communicating his good news to the heart of every person. It seems incredible presumption to assume that he is limited to using preachers to do this.

[This assumption is based on Paul's questions, "how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?" (Romans 10:14) But evidently these questions concern human goodnewsing. They cannot refer to God's goodnewsing because Paul immediately goes on to explain that God's good news goes out to everyone in the whole world. (Romans 10:14-18) In the sermon in Athens he claims that nations are appointed so that in many different ways people "would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him." (Acts 17:26-27, see Acts 10:35, Psalms 22:27-28, 65:5,8, 67:1-2,7, Malachi 1:11)]

But however the good news is communicated to us it is bound to be in rather paradoxical metaphors. God is the God of many names, and their truth can never be proved by any of system of logic.

Finally we go back to Paul's claim that it is impossible to believe without hearing, and one cannot hear without a preacher. God is not dependent on humans to make himself known to the hearts of individuals, but the great commission at the end of Matthew's Gospel requires all nations to be taught. A person's heart may be right with God, but adult men and women in every culture can be gripped by ignorance, fear, lack of motivation, fear of death, and total lack of assurance that they are loved, accepted and forgiven. And in the New Testament it is clear that God has chosen to have his good news made known by planting churches in every place. Churches cannot be planted and nourished without preachers and teachers.

Having received the goodnews, and found ourselves wanting to make it known, we have an another assurance that the Bible is the very Word of the God that we serve. It is quite obvious from church history that the great mass of effective preachers and church planters have been persons who believed in the inspiration and authority of the Bible. The astonishing work of translating the whole Bible into six or seven hundred languages and the New Testament into many others has been done by men and women who were totally committed to the Bible as the Word of God. I have no doubt that God is pleased with their heroic labours, and thereby confirms their faith. I would be willing to stake my life on that fact, even if I lacked the many other assurances I have tried to outline in this book.

We end on the note of thanksgiving. Being an ungrateful person is far worse than being poor. Everybody else can read our body language and see us as sour, grumpy, crabby, unappreciative. Thanksgiving on the other hand sweetens the heart. It even makes a plain person look attractive. Compared with cosmetics, just a few minutes of being thankful puts a radiance on your face, influences the way you stand and walk, puts zest in your zest for life.

The problem is that thankfulness can only be expressed to a person. Which suggests that it is much easier if you can address your thanksgiving again and again throughout the day to a personal God. "Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thessalonians 5:18 ). For Paul thanksgiving is what God desires for his children. It is certainly impossible to believe that thanksgiving ever did anybody any harm. And it is hard to imagine a good argument for a religion or ideology which sapped thanksgiving from the heart.

Thanksgiving is certainly the heart of Christian worship. The weekly community gathering to eat and drink together is called a eucharist, which means "thanskgiving." And it is to be characterized by thankful praise. "Be filled with the Spirit as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 5:18- 20). Those who enjoy that quality of thanksgiving need no other proof that they have found what life is about.

Appendix A...