An interreligious pioneer: Evangelical seminary president builds bridges through 'convicted civility'
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?’”
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.”
Many evangelicals cried foul. “I got all kinds of nasty emails telling me that ‘you’ve been taken in by Bob Millet.’ Or that ‘he’s a liar,’” — rhetoric reminiscent of Walter Martin’s message to a younger Mouw from decades before.
Mouw has remained uncowed by the criticism. “Most of these people who were upset with me haven’t really checked out Mormonism and instead are uttering untruths.” For Mouw this is a particularly disturbing response for Christians. “As a people who worship someone who said ‘I am the truth,’ why would we want to bear false witness?”
Moving “Convicted Civility” Beyond Religion
Mouw believes that this method of “convicted civility” need not be limited to interreligious dialogue. “I’m a conservative on the social issues, but in my dialogues with the gay and lesbian communities, I think it’s important to find safe places where we stop shouting at each other,” he said. With the volume toned down, Mouw has found that real conversations can occur. “I ask my gay friends, what is it about me, a conservative Christian, that scares you so much? And they can ask me questions about what I believe, and I can do the same with them.”
Mouw even hopes that one day soon this pioneering spirit of “convicted civility” will spring up in Congress. He believes that if a Mormon and an evangelical can get along, why not two politicians from opposite sides of the aisle? “It would be great if a Democrat and Republican were to stand up and say, ‘We’re going to model friendship, and what it’s like to really talk to each other, even when we disagree, rather than trying simply to win the next vote.’”
During this fraught election year, Mouw isn’t holding his breath. But the greatest legacy of this pioneer of interreligious dialogue might just be that in religion and politics, sincere and open conversations among people of great difference can lead to friendships. And these friendships, Mouw’s longtime friend Robert Millet says, help people of different religious and political persuasions see that “God isn’t just on our side. God may be working with more than one people on this earth.”
Max Perry Mueller is associate editor of Religion & Politics, a project of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Twitter: maxperrymueller
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