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

Mouw says this moment has stuck with him for the rest of his life. “It was this stark contrast between a genuinely sincere person wanting to be understood … and an evangelical hardliner totally insensitive to the basic human need to be understood on one’s own terms.”

Civility Does Not Mean Compromise

Mouw leads a seminary that, according to his good friend Millet, “dares to represent a kinder, gentler brand of evangelicalism,” very much reflecting the approach of its president. Yet, like all pioneers, Mouw is well known for his willingness to go beyond known horizons, to find spiritual inspiration in other faith traditions, and has encouraged his fellow evangelicals, including the students at Fuller, to follow his lead.

Mouw’s method of “convicted civility,” (a term that originated with renowned scholar of American religion Martin Marty) is different from what he calls the “‘anything goes’ compromised relativism so popular in American religion.” The question at the heart of Mouw’s interfaith ministry — and one that he has imparted to thousands of graduates of Fuller Seminary — has always been: “What do we do when we confront people with sincere and deeply held beliefs that are not our own?”

And what is Mouw’s response to this question?

“You treat them like the fellow human beings they are. You talk, and you listen.” This engagement, Mouw believes, isn’t intended to find all the answers, or to come to some consensus. Instead, “dialogue is about forming connections and relationships, even, or especially, with people who don’t see the world like you do.”

Finding Inspiration Across Theological Divides

In the wake of the global economic crisis that began in 2008, Mouw was one of dozens of prominent American evangelicals who called on Christians from around the world to “read, wrestle with, and respond to Caritas in Veritate," an encyclical issued by Pope Benedict XVI that “offer(ed) a Christian alternative to corporate interests and partisan ideologies.”

After 9/11, Mouw helped Fuller win a grant from the U.S. Justice Department to host a series of national and international Muslim leaders in Muslim-Christian dialogues, to highlight “what the Muslim leaders see as teachings they share with Christians.”

During the first Ramadan (the Muslim holy month) after the 9/11 attacks, Mouw even fasted for a day. He made it clear that he wasn’t “‘joining Muslims’ in their observance … As an evangelical Christian, I even have a hard time getting in the mood for many of the ‘ecumenical’ events sponsored by inclusive Christian groups.”

Instead, Mouw said that he was inspired by Muslims to engage in some spirit-building “self-denial and self-discipline.” To be sure, Mouw says, there are radical Muslims that pose a danger to free societies around the world. Yet he insists that this is also true for all religious traditions. “Christians make a huge mistake when we compare their worst with our best.

Mouw may be best known for the semiannual Mormon-evangelical dialogues he and Millet began hosting in 2000 for groups of faith leaders from both traditions. Through these dialogues, Mouw explains, Mormons and evangelicals have learned from each other “what we have in common” (for example, he says, a belief in the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation), “and what we don’t” (for example, a fundamentally different understanding of the “ontology of God”).

These Mormon-evangelical dialogues have been closed, invite-only sessions. Yet in 2004 Mouw, like any pioneer worth his salt, stirred up controversy when he publicly chastised fellow evangelicals, whom he said had “sinned against Mormonism.” During introductory remarks at a gathering of evangelicals and LDS scholars at the Mormon Tabernacle, Mouw stated, “We’ve often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of members of the LDS faith.” He continued, "It’s a terrible thing to bear false witness against our neighbors.”

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