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An interreligious pioneer: Evangelical seminary president builds bridges through 'convicted civility'

By Max Perry Mueller

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, July 27 2012 4:44 p.m. MDT

Dr. Mouw with Rabbi Mark Diamond, Executive Vice President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Fuller Theological Seminary

Soon after horrific images from New York City began scrolling across television screens on the morning of September 11, 2001, Dr. Richard Mouw knew he’d be called upon to say something. As the president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, Mouw had been one of America’s leading evangelical voices for a generation.

Yet Mouw’s first response was not to issue a statement to his fellow Christians. Instead, his instinct was to reach out to the leaders of the local Islamic Center in Los Angeles to tell them “that we’re praying for them.”

“In the wake of 9/11, we knew that Muslims in America felt vulnerable, unsafe,” Mouw recalls. “They were being tarred with a brush that was deserved by many but not all in the Islamic world.” According to Mouw, the typical response — blaming Islam for the terrorist attacks — was exactly the wrong approach. “Instead of caricaturing all Muslims, we needed to engage those Muslims who are deeply devoted to a pluralistic society and a democratic process.”

For those who know Mouw, his response on 9/11 is characteristic of a Christian leader whose greatest legacy may be the interreligious dialogues he’s undertaken with diverse groups of believers, including Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and Latter-day Saints.

This legacy has been on the minds of his friends and peers since Mouw announced that he will step down next summer as president of Fuller Theological Seminary — an institution he has led since 1993 and helped shape into one of America’s largest and most influential Protestant seminaries.

According to Mouw’s longtime friend, BYU professor Robert Millet, “[Mouw] will be remembered as one of the greatest men in the Christian world during the 20th and 21st centuries … because of his theological commitment to ‘convicted civility,’ the duty to truly get to know people of other faiths.” Harvard Divinity School Dean David Hempton perhaps sums up Mouw’s legacy best: “Mouw is a pioneer. He’s helped chart a path for people with deep faith convictions to take those of other faiths seriously, critically, but with compassion and empathy.”

The Formation of an Interreligious Pioneer

Richard Mouw completed his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Chicago. But as Mouw tells it, his formation as a pioneer in interreligious dialogue began when he was a teenage member of a fundamentalist Bible club at his high school in New Jersey. “Dr. Walter Martin, a leader in what they called the ‘counter-cultist’ movement, conducted a four-part series against what he thought were the four major ‘cultist’ threats to Christianity, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists and Seventh-Day Adventists,” explains Mouw.

The last Sunday in the series was a class on Mormonism. Mouw recalls that the first two rows of chairs in the room filled up with Mormons who came to participate in the discussions, including missionaries wearing their typical identification badges. During the question and answer session, “a very articulate Mormon man stood up” and he and Martin “went back and forth for quite a bit.” Mouw recalls that the young Mormon man insisted that Martin “misunderstood Mormonism,” especially on the importance of Jesus Christ’s death in the Mormon conception of salvation.

“At a certain point the young man — with tears flowing down his face because Martin had been pretty rough on him — said, ‘I don’t care what you say, Dr. Martin. I believe that my sins have been forgiven by the atoning work of Jesus Christ on Calvary and nothing that you can say can change that conviction.’ And Martin turned to the audience and said, ‘See how they lie?’”

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