Evangelical scholar reflects on role of faith in public life
Don Milici, Fuller Theological Seminary
During two decades as president of one of the world's largest theological seminaries, Richard Mouw has a long list of accomplishments. And at the top of the list is his work in interfaith relations between evangelicals and those of other faiths.
He has received both praise and criticism for reaching out to Mormons, Muslims, Jews and others, seeking not to convert but to gain a better understanding of the differences between them and to find areas where they can work for the common good.
"We understand we have deep disagreements, but we are going to make sure those disagreements are of the nature we thought they were. We are going to approach each other in friendly engagement and really try to understand each other," he said of his approach.
Now 73 years old and retired from being president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Mouw plans to apply his concept of "convicted civility" to explore ways religious communities can constructively impact social, political and economic life. Next fall, Mouw will direct a newly funded Institute for Faith and Public life.
During a recent visit to Utah, where he spoke to students at the LDS Institute of Religion at Utah Valley University, Mouw squeezed in time for an interview about his future plans and past work as a leader in interfaith dialogue.
Deseret News: What are some issues the institute can address in the area of faith and public life?
Richard Mouw: One issue has to do with immigration. How do we serve our values as Christians who believe God is concerned about the family and God is concerned about what the Bible calls the "stranger in the land"? ... I believe we have to worry about security and secure borders. But at the same time, if we are concerned about families, the stability of family life, then we need to find ways to give these people, who have come here because there are economic opportunities and they comprise a very important labor market, a path to citizenship.
The other issue is the question of sexuality, same-sex marriage and questions of religious freedom. Does Fuller have the right to express our views on this subject without being accused of hate speech? Do we have the right to receive federal loans for our students when our admissions and hiring policies are in accordance with more traditional and conservative views?
I am conservative on those issues. But I also believe we live in pluralistic society where I think a person of same-sex orientation should have the right to work and have equal rights in the marketplace and in political life. But at the same time, I think institutions that are guided by traditional convictions on these matters ought to have the religious freedom to configure the life of their communities in accordance with their convictions.
DN: Explain your concept of convicted civility.
RM: I got that from Lutheran historian and theologian Dr. Martin Marty, who said there are a lot of people today who have strong convictions but are not very civil, and a lot of people are civil but don’t have very strong convictions. What we need is to put them together. One of the real challenges is for those of us who, for example, have strong convictions on sexuality that are based on what we take to be the traditional Christian consensus on this matter. We need to be able to treat people who believe differently and who act differently with a kind of kindness in public life, respecting people’s dignity, while at the same time we don’t want to compromise our own personal convictions.
DN: What is different about the students entering the seminary today compared with those who entered 20 years ago or when you entered school?
RM: Typically, the students coming to Fuller are more globally aware. Many of them have traveled abroad so they are concerned about issues like human trafficking, the environment, poverty. This isn’t about getting into left-wing causes. It’s a deep sense that to be a follower of Jesus is to care about these things. They are not always sure we are doing the right things on these issues, so they are really struggling on what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the present world.
But there is also a younger generation of evangelicals who may not be liberal on things, but they resent the highly judgmental, homophobic spirit of some of the older generation. Not that (the younger evangelicals) disagree theologically or morally, but they know people who are gay or lesbian and they don’t want those people to think that if they are evangelical means they are hateful, spiteful people. They are really struggling with this and how do we exhibit a kinder, gentler spirituality without sacrificing our convictions.
DN: In addition to your interfaith outreach, what would you say were other major accomplishments during your 20 years as president of Fuller Theological Seminary?
RM: We took on a major project of interfaith theology and the arts. As a part of that, we started a program called Reel Spirituality and developed a strong ongoing relationship with Christians in Hollywood. We brought together screenwriters, producers (and) actors with pastors and just talked about how does Hollywood tell stories. How can we learn from Hollywood to better communicate the gospel to the youth culture? ... Now, we offer a lot of classes on theology and film. We have a woman who evaluates scripts for Disney studios and has a master's degree from Fuller because she wanted to be guided by Christian concerns in discerning good from bad scripts in terms of Christian values.
We have also done a lot with international relations. I started going to China at least once a year since 1994 to build relationships with the government there and to build up churches. We now have 21 approved seminaries that are part of the government-approved system. We just try to work with government officials and gain a better understanding of their situation and form partnerships.
DN: Describe what is taught in the seminaries in China.
RM: Fuller has three schools: theology, a missions faculty that does a lot of anthropological and intercultural study and clinical psychology. There is a lot of interest in our psychology program. When talking early on with government officials in China in charge of religious affairs, they said they didn't have a mental health system that could help with problems such as divorce, intergenerational conflict, suicide and addiction — four big problems that have surfaced with the growth of a market system in China. They asked if Fuller could help churches learn how to counsel people.
So we bring about 30 Ph.D. psychology students to China for three-week periods to help in that.
This is a wonderful time for faith-based communities in China to be moving out of their sense of martyrdom and persecution and into an active engagement and even partnerships, trying to be a resource and partner wherever we can.
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