New Book Urges Learning from Other Faiths

Walla Walla University theology professor Paul Dybdahl talks about how he came to write his new book about world religions, and how learn about those of other faiths, will challenge, refresh, and bless us.

Question: You recently published a book called Before We Call Them Strangers: What Adventists Ought to Know about Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. Did you write the book for the students in your World Religions class in the Walla Walla University School of Theology? Did you feel this material was not available anywhere else?

Answer: I would say the book was inspired by my students rather than written exclusively for them. While I hope the book will be used in some classrooms, I also wrote with the broader Adventist audience in mind, particularly Adventists in North America. There is quite a lot of information on the world religions available in the larger Christian world, but it seems to me that much of it is selectively presented so as to paint other faiths in a negative light. This book takes a different approach. I don’t think I’m the only one doing this, thankfully.

Do you feel that Adventists might know less about other religions than the average Christian?

I think both Adventists and Christians typically know astonishingly little about other religions. To make matters worse, much of what we “know” isn’t even accurate. Having said that, I suspect that, compared to other Christians, Adventists know about as much and maybe even more about other religions. Our emphasis on global mission and our worldwide organization push us in that direction, at least. Still, knowing slightly more than the average Christian isn’t much of a compliment.

You may be uniquely positioned to write this book, having grown up with your missionary parents in Thailand, and later during college living with a Buddhist family as you taught English to refugees. How did these experiences help to form your world view and your personal religion?

I’m sure the impact is deeper than I can even understand, and certainly deeper than I can articulate. What I will say is that my background has contributed to my belief in a powerful and good God who is always and everywhere at work. As Peter finally realized during his interaction with Cornelius, “God does not show favoritism.” Wherever we go, God has already been there, revealing himself in ways that are more creative than we could have imagined.

What is the primary thesis of your book?

In the 1980s, Adventist evangelist George Vandeman wrote a book describing some of the things he liked about Catholics, Charismatics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews, and several other Christian groups. I liked his approach and decided to move beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition to include Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. There must be things to like about them, too!

The book begins by establishing biblical support for learning from those we might label as “heathen.” Then, I provide a quick overview of Islam, Buddhism, and the collection of ideas we typically term Hinduism. I include interviews I conducted with two practitioners of each faith. (These conversations were a lot of fun!) Finally, I point out ways in which these other perspectives can challenge and bless us, as Adventists.

A thesis sentence would go something like this: When we learn about those of other faiths, we will be challenged, refreshed, and blessed.

Did you have to do a great deal of research for the book? How long did it take you to write?

I had to do some research, of course, but much of the groundwork for the book took place through several years of preparing for class lectures. The bulk of the writing was done during a summer and then a winter quarter sabbatical granted by Walla Walla University.

Did writing the book change any of your own religious or theological views?

There were all kinds of pleasantly shocking discoveries along the way—things that impact my daily religious experience. I guess I would characterize it as a growing experience, for sure. I’m sorry that sounds so clichéd! I’ve always thought that I was open to God’s activity in the world, and I knew that “God so loved the world,” but working on this book helped me realize how I shut people out once I believed they were religiously inferior or wrong. I often made this judgment very, very quickly. I think I told myself that I was being discerning and protecting myself from deception. Really, it was more likely a blend of laziness, arrogance, and, paradoxically, insecurity. I didn’t care enough to invest in people I didn’t agree with.

Writing the book also made me more appreciative of Jesus. I think those who read the book will understand what I mean by that.

Have you written a book previously? Why did you decide on AdventSource as a publisher?

This is my first book. AdventSource was recommended to me, and I liked their educational focus. They seem willing to publish what that they think might benefit the church.

What reaction have you received to the book so far? Have you sold many copies?

The responses I have received so far have been encouraging. People seem to especially like the interviews. I think most Adventists find it interesting to hear a Muslim imam talk about women, or a Zen Buddhist share her view of Jesus. I have no idea how many copies have sold so far.

How do you think the teaching about other religions in Adventist schools should change?

I hesitate to try to answer this question, because it may be that in many places, nothing needs to change. I might simply share a few things that I hope are happening in Adventist schools.

First, I hope we actually do teach about other religions. We don’t have to be afraid. We ought to be able to do this without tearing others down.

Second, I hope we would take the time to see how the Bible deals with those of other faiths. People often reference selective Old Testament passages and presume that “heathens” must be eliminated or kept at a distance. We then close our eyes to all the biblical material that presents a very different approach.

Third, we should seek out those of other faiths and give them a chance to explain themselves, rather than getting our information from a textbook, the internet, or other sources that are actively antagonistic. In my class, I require students to conduct at least two, in-depth religious interviews. It’s amazing what happens. North American culture now considers discussions of personal faith to be taboo, so much so that many Adventist college students have never had an extended, adult conversation with their own parents regarding their beliefs about God, ethics, death, prayer, heaven, demons, and so forth. Parents aren’t open with their children, and children often keep secrets because they are afraid they will disappoint their family. We don’t share our deepest and most transformative religious experiences with others. We seldom talk about our questions. If this takes place in families, imagine the gulf between those of different religions! I think talking together and listening to each other is mutually beneficial. God somehow works through these conversations.

Finally, I hope that in teaching about other religions, we don’t neglect to study Seventh-day Adventism. I’ve been teaching in North America for nearly 20 years now, and I can testify that among young adults, there is a deepening disillusionment with Adventism as they have experienced it. I think there is a lot in our history, doctrine, and lifestyle that isn’t as understood or appreciated as it could be. There are good things to share.

What other projects are you working on, now that the book is finished?

AdventSource is planning on breaking the book into three shorter books—one each on Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. This involves a bit of additional work on my part. That’s the project for now. That, and I have some caulking to do in our kitchen.

Paul Dybdahl has been a professor in the Walla Walla University School of Theology since 2001. He has a bachelor’s degree in theology from Walla Walla University, a master of divinity degree from Andrews University, and a doctorate in missiology from Andrews University.

Buy Before We Call Them Strangers: What Adventists Ought to Know about Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus from AdventSource.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8202

Thank you Paul for writing this great book! I remember the times when we as students used to discuss in the class at Andrews University whether we can learn from others. I was astonished to see the class being divided 50/50 on that simple question. There were indeed people in that Master level class claiming that we as Adventists have already gathered all the knowledge in the world and that there is nothing additionally to be learned. Our purpose is, they have claimed, to snatch people out of the world and to drag them into our FORTRESS of truth closing the door behind us, so nothing unclean und uninvited can come in. Our professor at that time was actually arguing for a different biblical model: Being the SALT to the world, mingling with people, being friends with them, learning about them and from them, and then sharing with them our hope in Jesus Christ, applied to their context and needs. I have been practicing that model of salt now for years and I can testify to have been learning a lot from others. Believing that we have reached the apex of knowledge leads us into isolation of our own fortress and makes us irrelevant to the real world outside. How arrogant must it appear to the others around us to hear the claim that we have it all and have nothing more to learn?

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Graham Maxwell and Edward Heppenstall’s were my favorites, None in the Southern union. but I found one at Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church USA.

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Great ! I will buy the book !!!

There are humans all aroud the world, with their ways of experiencing, thinkinig, imaging.

I only can compare Catholicisms possibilities (no teachings) I experienced.
Were you ever in a monastery for one week ? Silence. Austere meals in the refectory., prayers in choros, in the cathedral ( I do not discuss some words and phrases I could just not accept !) All together solemn, quiet atmosphere . And twice I was in a womens orrders sanatorim , two week each time : The whole Keipp program, a special diet , and in the afternoon meditatios on texts of Isaia Ii never have heard of - shame on me, only studying the Bible texts that support our “Thruths” in Sabbath School.
The Sister had broad experiences in Eastern meditation techniques.

Of course after every from these oportunities of new experiences I did not come home with pages and pages filled with all that I have learned in workshops, lectures, from speakers, famous because coming from all over the world -

we did not “learn”, did not eagerly listen and write t read it at home,we made an experience, a new experience…- this we took home.

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The two attributes both Islamists and Adventists have in common:

Both of them are misogynists and homophobic!

My splendid friend, Adventist pastor Kara Dale Johnson will be "commissioned " on September 15. I am thinking of not attending, in
protest, because this superb woman should be ordained,
not " commissioned ".

Shame on the NPUC for not taking a stand on this issue. The NPUC comprises two of the most progressively liberal states in North America – Oregon and Washington, but one would think they were in backward Mississippi, for all their lack of modern twenty first century egalitarianism!

I like the Methodists and I am transitioning to that denomination.

Why?
Because they have been ordaining their women pastors since 1956!

My senior women pastor, will be on her way to Berlin next month for a major Methodist world congress – how to make the church more INCLUSIVE of its LGBT members. When will Adventism host such a conference?

My own congregation the First United Methodist Church of Portland, prints in EACH WEEKLY WORSHIP BULLETIN ( and on their website ) the following beautiful statement:

Members of the First Methodist Church have pledged to support FULL PARTICIPATION of all races, ages, genders, abilities, classes, gender identities, and sexual orientations,.

Which Adventist congregation anywhere, prints such an inclusive/welcoming/ harmonious/inviting statement in their weekly worship bulletin??

The shunning/shaming of our LGBT offspring, and our SHABBY treatment of women, rivals that of our Islamic "brethren.

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The fact that this book has to be written, “New Book Urges Learning from Other Faiths” says more about the insular tunnel vision of some among us as we relate to the world we live in. The Bible writers wrote within the context of a diverse panoply of cultures and faith groups. If true learning takes place when there is change in our faith, beliefs and values then learning from other faiths is going on all the time. Ellen White makes this clear in her book Great Controversy as she relates story after story of the development of God’s church through the prism of many diverse groups and faith experiences. I suppose a sequel to this “earth shattering” book would be New Book (Part Two) Urges Wearing Glasses When You Need Them",

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Robin,
Kara is my pastor and my friend; speaking for myself, not her, I am quite certain that she will be disappointed not to see you - whatever your deep feelings about the underlying issues. I hope and pray that you can come and help Kara (and her Sunnyside church) celebrate her advancement in ministry, even though it is not in the way not all would wish (including me). Blessings as you continue to follow Jesus!

I well remember a professor in adventist education, philosophy and history teaching us that “all truth is God’s truth.” Regardless of who says it, what group or ideology it comes out of, whether it’s one of “ours” or not. This statement has been a wise informer of my exploring ideas and life. It’s also challenged the exclusive adventism of my origin.

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