Monthly Archives: February 2016

The INTRAfaith Landscape: A New Reformation


imagesAbout every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. -Bishop Mark Dyer

Like it or not, change is happening within American Christianity. New ways of being church are springing up all around. Unlike the “worship wars” of previous decades, which pitted traditional and contemporary proponents against one another, the movement today is not so easy to classify. Terms such as emergent, post-denominational, post-modern and progressive attempt to describe the Christian scene and the movements going on within it. Each of these categorizations contains within itself a wide variety of interpretations of what it really means.

All of these are taking part in a “giant rummage sale,” as Bishop Dyer so brilliantly describes it. However, it’s clear that we’re not all in agreement about what to keep and what to give away. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we’re in the process of getting ready for the rummage sale. If you’ve ever held a yard, garage or rummage sale, you know the work that goes into putting it together. The first thing you have to do is look over all of your stuff with a critical eye. As you look at each cherished possession, you ask: Do I want to keep this? Is it still useful? Does it still fit? Does it still work? If the answer is ‘yes,’ the decision is easy; it’s a keeper. And if ‘no,’ to the sale it goes.

It gets a bit more complicated when you have an item that is tarnished, worn or outdated but you think there just might be some life left in it. You have to ask yourself if maybe, if it were cleaned up, restored or reworked, it could still be of value to you. A dusty old heirloom might just turn out to be a new treasure.

So it is in present-day Christianity. We’re looking with critical eyes at social issues, liturgical forms, biblical interpretations, theological teachings and the use of language. However not all churches necessarily deal with all of these, nor would they all agree. For example, a few years ago I attended, along with some members of my current congregation, a conference on the emerging church. First United considers itself to be a progressive congregation, committed to the use of inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for God. At our rummage sale, we had examined patriarchal language and decided that it had to go. So we were quite surprised by the lack of inclusive language used at the conference and by the fairly orthodox theology. We realized that we are all making different value judgment about our treasures. This is the reformation that is happening all around us. Old ideas are being reexamined, transformed or rejected; new ones are emerging.

Why is all this change happening now? Taking her cue from Bishop Dyer, the late Phyllis Tickle posited that we are in this current “giant rummage sale” simply because it’s time for one. In The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, she outlined the upheaval that has occurred every five hundred years since the time of Jesus. The Protestant Reformation began in the 16th century. The 11th century saw the Great Schism, which split the Eastern and Western Churches. In the 6th century, the Roman Empire collapsed and Europe entered the Dark Ages. All of these upheavals included both societal shifts and theological issues, just like we are experiencing now in the 21st century.

What I find most helpful about Tickle’s theory is that what we’re going through is normal. That means we can go about being creative and hopeful, rather than hidebound and anxious. This is good news because the church has been anxiety-driven for quite a while. Our outreach efforts have been fueled by the decline in membership in Christian congregations. Pundits have been writing ad nauseam about the reasons for this. The latest trend is expounding on the characteristics of the Millennial generation and how the church can reach out and reel them in. Some of these same “experts” also tell us how to appeal to those who are “spiritually independent” (a more positive way of saying “spiritual but not religious” or “none”) all around us.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m all in favor of doing outreach to those searching for a way to explore their spirituality and to those with no church home. However, as a veteran of the church growth movement of the 1990s, I know the pitfalls of easy characterizations and easy solutions. The experts told us then that we had to adapt to the needs of Generation X and that if we would just follow their instructions to the letter, our churches would grow. I learned an important lesson from those days: there are no one-size-fits-all answers to the questions of doing ministry in different settings. Another thing that I learned from the traditional/ contemporary worship wars is that for many the rummage sale included only musical styles, not language and theology.

For instance, the popular contemporary Christian song “Forever”includes the lyrics
Give thanks to the Lord
Our God and King
His love endures forever
For He is good, He is above all things
His love endures forever

This one hits the trifecta: exclusively male pronouns, hierarchical imagery for God (“Lord,” “King”) and an outdated view of a three-tiered universe (“above all things”).

Not that this is limited to recent contemporary music. One song, written in 1966, brought the interfaith/intrafaith issue home to me. One of my favorite songs used to be “I
Am the Bread of Life.”That is until I sat with Kitty at a funeral. I knew Kitty from a women’s interfaith group, so when I saw her at a funeral at a neighboring Episcopal church, I sat next to her. As the priest read the familiar passage from John’s gospel, I heard it through the ears of my friend who is Jewish: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” I was God-smacked. I had preached on that same text many times, but hearing it this time was such a powerful epiphany that I didn’t
want to go up to receive Holy Communion. It felt rude, exclusionary, and offensive. The next time we sang the song I almost choked. I could not sing these lyrics:
Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man

And drink of his blood, you shall not have life within you.

That revelation widened for me a quest that had previously been one of interfaith exploration. I had been happily content to meet people who followed other paths, but I had not been confronted with the intrafaith question. But once it  entered into my consciousness, I had no choice. I had to look with a critical eye at my belief in Jesus as the only way to salvation and make a decision about whether to keep it, give it away or transform it into something new. And if I wanted to transform it into something new, how could I do that with faithfulness and integrity?

Issues may change. Culture may change. The task of the church is to live out “ecclesia semper reformanda est” (“the church is always to be reformed”).In reaching out to Millenials, spiritual independents, the “church alumni society,” we must take up the challenge in our own time. The inclusion of interfaith and intrafaith is an essential part of living out this challenge.

The reformation process is not only about the above-mentioned groups. Many members of congregations want to know how to navigate this “rummage sale” process. If we’re going to be part of this new reformation and we’re serious about relating to people of all ages in our congregations and to the spiritually independents, then the interfaith/intrafaith conversation must be part of our ministry.



What’s the Difference Between INTERfaith and INTRAfaith?

This question keeps coming up. So here’s the best way I can explain it.

First, the prefix matters. “INTER” means “between,” “among,” “in the midst of,” “mutually,” “reciprocally,” “together.”INTERfaith is different religions being together.

“INTRA” means  “within, inside, on the inside.” INTRAfaith is one religion examining just itself in light of its INTERfaith experience.

Here’s how John Dunne puts it. In his book, The Way of All the Earth, he describes the 2-way process of interfaith engagement:

“What seems to be occurring is a phenomenon we might call ‘passing over,’ passing from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another.
Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion.” (interfaith)

“It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back,’ coming back with new insight to one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion.”adventure of our time.”  (intrafaith.)

Professor Judith Berling at the Graduate Theological Union also uses this kind of language in Understanding Other Worlds: A Guide for Interreligious Education.
She describes the two poles of the interreligious learning process:

1) understanding another religion faithfully (interfaith)

2) reappropriating Christian tradition in light of new understandings and relationships.(intrafaith)

I love how Dunne ends his explanation: “Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.”

I agree! And I hope others do too and will join in the conversation.


Dunne, John, The Way of All the Earth. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
Berling, Judith, Understanding Other Worlds: A Guide for Interreligious Education. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004.

A Question of Identity

imagesWay back in the 1980s, when I was doing my year of internship in a large Lutheran church, I had the opportunity to observe my supervisor conduct a rehearsal for a Jewish-Christian wedding. When the wedding party arrived, someone reminded my supervisor that he had agreed to remove the Paschal candle from the front of the church.

I was appalled. I remember thinking, “But this is a Christian church; this is who we are. We shouldn’t deny that!” I never mentioned it to my supervisor and missed an opportunity to discuss the issue. At the time, I was forming my own pastoral identity, steeped in “correct” theological beliefs and church practices, so I may not have been open to a more expansive view at that time.

Decades later, however, I look back and see the question of identity as a crucial one with which the church of today must wrestle. It’s part of both the interfaith and intrafaith landscapes. And it is an ongoing process! Even now, when officiating at a wedding at the chapel at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, I flinch a little when we pull the drapes over the cross in the front of the church. It’s like telling Jesus to turn his back for a little while.

Identity is important. How can I make my way in the world if I don’t know who I am? If I’m confused or if I allow myself to be swayed by someone with a stronger sense of self, I risk losing myself completely. Boundaries are a big part of identity. Part of an infant’s growth process is discovering where she ends and her mother and others begin. We’ve learned that poor boundaries lead to all kinds of dysfunction in individuals, families and organizations. So it is no wonder we become alarmed when we feel that our identity as Christians has been eroded. We feel threatened, under attack from all directions – secularism, science, a new generation that does not find the same meaning in the institutions in which we were raised.

And then there’s the reality of religious diversity. Just look at the panicked responses to “the war on Christmas.” My Facebook page this past season was filled with challenges to dare to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.”

This anxiety isn’t unique to Christianity. Sylvia Boorstein, who is Jewish, reflects on the popularity of Buddhism:
“. . . I think the alarm people express about Buddhism has more to do with instinctive fears about tribal survival than philosophical error. . . Doing an action that another group does . . . arouses concern. I think it’s the natural, self-protective, genetic response of tribes.” [1]

Our Christian tribe is anxious. We lament the decline in membership in our churches and try to figure out how to attract new people. We worry about how to pay for the expenses of the staff, buildings and programs we’ve come to expect as necessary parts of being “church.” We live in survival mode and when we can no longer afford these perceived necessities, we count ourselves as failures.

For many in the Church, interfaith encounter seems superfluous or downright threatening. However, I believe that our tribe will be in trouble, not because of all the other tribes out there, but because we will not have figured out who we are in the midst of them. In family systems terms: we must be self-differentiated while remaining connected. Just as this is the way to health in personal relationships and families, so it is with the Church.


[1] Boorstein Sylvia. That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, 135-6.