In an ongoing “Ask Pastor John” series on the Desiring God ministry website, John Piper offers his answer to the question, “If I want people of other religions to consider the message of the Bible, should I be willing return the favor and read their holy books as well?” (Follow that link for a video as well as a transcript.)
I was excited to see this question discussed because I think it’s a very pertinent one. If you’re an evangelical Christian and you spend a significant amount of time and energy telling other people in one way or another that they ought to read the Bible — it seems most appropriate for you to give their reading recommendations a fair shake. I mean, put yourself in their shoes. They already have holy scriptures they believe in, just like you do. Why should they take yours any more seriously than you take theirs?
Obviously, not all of us have holy scriptures we believe in. Some of us aren’t part of any religion. But I still think, if you’re an evangelical Christian and you want to convert me, you’ll have a (marginally) better shot if you’ve read some other holy books and can tell me why the existence of so many of them isn’t itself an argument against devoting your life to any one of them.
John Piper seems fine with Christians reading other holy books, but he expresses that sentiment with a lot of hedging.
But if you have a serious conversation going with an intellectual person, a professor of Islam or a thoughtful colleague who takes their holy book very seriously, and you want them to consider reading the Bible, and they say, “Could we trade? We’ll talk about my holy book this week, and we’ll talk about the Bible next week.” And if you are wired to be involved with an intellectual person at that level, then yes! I think that would be good.
The worst hedge here is, “if you are wired to be involved with an intellectual person on that level.” It sounds like he is saying, “If you are just not the sort of person who is capable of intelligent debate, then no worries! You don’t have to consider alternative viewpoints!” This is confirmed by later statements, including that some people just don’t have “the intellectual wherewithal.”
I agree in part, that people who don’t have “the intellectual wherewithal” shouldn’t be expected to read and analyze every holy text put to them in challenge. But I would also say that those people shouldn’t be approaching others and asserting their own beliefs to be true. If you are not ready to answer questions and debate opposing viewpoints, if you are truly not ready to have a conversation, you should not be evangelizing in the first place. Or, I guess you could, but you should know that merely insisting you are right without any intelligent arguments whatsoever is going to be extremely ineffective and irritating.
Piper closes with what I think is a really strange point.
If you trust that what you have is honey, and somebody else says, “I’ve got another brown thing over here that is honey.” But you know you already have honey, and you can tell it is honey because you’ve tasted it. You don’t need to experiment with every brown thing that is brought to you in order to be sure that what you have is honey.
What he’s saying is probably true, but I don’t think it’s analogous at all. If I’m eating honey, and my friend tells me she has some honey too, that doesn’t imply that she thinks I am not eating honey. We could very easily both have gone to the store separately and each bought our own squeezable plastic bear full of honey. I am able to confirm pretty well for myself that I do in fact have honey, regardless of how many plastic bears (and containers of other shapes) have been filled with honey out there in the world.
The claims actually in question, though, are not like this situation with honey. If you believe in the Bible, and Amir believes in the Qur’an, and you each say your own book is true, then each of you is also necessarily saying that the other book is false. If he claims to have “honey,” and turns out to be right, then it means that what you thought was “honey” really isn’t. (Maybe you’ve been eating some other “brown thing.”) It doesn’t fit with the evangelical Christian belief system to say, “I have my honey, and Amir over there has his honey, and that’s fine.” I highly doubt that Piper is trying to promote the idea that different religions can each be true for different people.
What it really comes down to is — what makes you so sure you have honey? And what makes you sure that what other people think is honey really isn’t? Why are you right and they wrong? These are the crucial questions to answer, and you are not prepared to evangelize for your religion if you are comfortable just ignoring them.