Category Archives: Interfaith

The Intra-faith Quandary of John Allen Chau

go-therefore-and-make-disciples-of-all-nations-matthew-2819a

The tragic story of missionary John Allen Chau should cause us to ask: what is Christian mission in an interfaith world? 

The Great Commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew has always been the impetus for doing mission in the world. It’s so familiar, we might not stop to consider what we mean when we read it or say it. But, in fact, it’s a prime example of our need for the intrafaith conversation. The recent death of Chau – and the controversy over his actions – reveal the dilemma. 

“Thinking about Missionaries: Stupid Fools or Believers Obeying Core Christian Beliefs?” on GetReligion hits the nail on the head (GetReligion is a website that attempts to highlight the religious aspects of news stories often neglected by mainstream news outlets). Author Terry Mattingly explains that he has three “hot-button” doctrinal questions that he finds “useful when exploring debates inside Christian flocks.” In other words, the intrafaith conversation.

He goes on to say, “The Chau story is, in my opinion, linked to question No. 2.”
And w
hat is question No. 2? “Is salvation found through Jesus Christ alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  One of the big questions at the heart of the intrafaith conversation.

So, what’s the debate over Chau’s actions and death? The thing is: the definition and purpose of mission has been changing. In my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Emmaus_a0000402Church in America (ELCA), mission is described as a journey, in which disciples  walk with others, listen to them, learn from them and with them. The biblical story used as a model is the “road to Emmaus,” in which the gospel is revealed in the relationship that develops among the travelers: in talking, listening, and breaking bread together. This way recognizes the mistakes of past history, such as seeing people as “objects of mission,” and defines mission as accompaniment.

On the other hand, there are those who still subscribe to the goal set forth by All Nations, the  mission-training organization which trained John Allen Chau: “to see Jesus worshiped by all the peoples of the earth.” 

The people on both sides of this interpretive chasm are faithful Christians. However, one side looks at the Chau story and sees an oblivious young man propagating the worst of Christian imperialism. The other sees a martyr who died attempting to fulfill Jesus’ mandate. Both have biblical texts and theologies to support their positions. Who is right? 

The better question is: how do we talk with our brothers, sisters, and siblings in the faith about such matters? 

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Christianity on the Spot

IDP-2018-graphic“Can I put you on the spot?”
That was the question asked by the woman who came up to me after the International Day of Peace brunch at Pacifica Institute.

I might have been the only Christian in the room. I’m not sure about that, but of all the people who spoke and identified their tradition, most were either Jewish or Muslim. But I was the one who was there in a clergy collar, was introduced as a reverend, and had stood on the stage to42487030_597514903998950_2624665346493120512_n offer a peace blessing after brunch. 

Can I put you on the spot?”
“Of course,” I said, pretty much guessing at what the question would be.
“What do you think about these Christians who are supportive of Trump?” 

I knew it! Immediately the anger rose up in me – not at my new friend, but at the awful predicament we Christians are in. I explained about the growing divide between us. On one side are some evangelicals who are trying with all their might to hold onto a dying theological worldview which embraces tribalism, exclusivity, individual salvation, and a hierarchical/patriarchal ordering of the world. On the other side are those who are leaning into a new paradigm of interconnectedness, interdependence, interspirituality, and inclusivity. 

I also shared my theory that the reactivity we’re witnessing in both religion and politics is due to the fear engendered by this shift. In a way, I can sympathize. Theologian Hans Küng calls what we’re going through a “Macro-Paradigm-Shift,” affecting all of our institutions on a global scale. Some characteristics of the emerging paradigm are:

  • It’s global. Humanity is seen as a single tribe and this one tribe is interconnected with the total cosmos.
  • It’s an age of dialogue, not monologue. Instead of talking only with those like us, we meet with people of differing convictions, not as opponent, but in order to listen,  share and learn from one another. 
  • It will be characterized by a deep commitment to environmental justice, including a shift from an exclusively anthropocentric view to one which sees humanity in interdependent relationship with all other life forms and with the Earth itself.
  • It will involve a redefinition of religion. Many of the answers given in the past do not address questions being asked today. Just as Christianity moved from a Jewish way of thinking into one of Greek philosophy (which produced the ‘substance’ language of the Nicene Creed), we are now moving into a new way of reflecting on theological matters.

I get it; change is difficult. Even when I’m in full agreement with a change in my own life, I still feel discomfort as I go through it. So I get the resistance to change. I can even sympathize with it to a point – but not with the reactionary, knee-jerk attempts to hold back the flow of history.

As a Christian, it is helpful (although sometimes frustrating) to be in an interfaith setting. Seeing myself through the eyes of a Jew, Muslim, Pagan, or Atheist reveals the intrafaith spot we’re in. It’s not enough to vehemently declare, “I’m not like those Christians. We have to define ourselves by who we are. 

At another interfaith gathering last week, a Jewish woman spoke up and said that she was usually more comfortable with Muslims because the issue with Jesus never comes up; with Christians, you just couldn’t be sure. Once again, I felt the desire – the urgency – to promote a different kind of Christianity than the kind that turns people off. 

The divide is growing and we are on the spot. How will we contribute to peacemaking in our churches, communities, and world – as Christians of a new paradigm?

Remembering Swami Vivekananda: We Need INTRAfaith Harmony

pranab“Need for intra-faith harmony, says ex-Prez”
is the headline in The Pioneer, the second oldest English language newspaper in India.

Remembering Swami Vivekananda’s historic appearance at the Chicago World Parliament of Religions, held in 1893, many notable personalities, including former President of India Pranab Mukherjee organised a interfaith meet at Vivekananda Mission on Wednesday to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the historic speech.

Celebrating the anniversary,  Mukherjee said,
“There is perhaps a need for intrafaith harmony
even more than the interfaith harmony.”

Vivekananda’s historic speech  has been remembered and celebrated by many across the country every year.

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The INTRAfaith Conversation in Islam

“The Shoe Is On the Other Foot: Pluralism and the Qur’an” is a terrific article by Professor Jane Smith from Harvard Divinity School. She raises the question of whether or not Islam itself can find a way to live out the pluralism that many are persuaded is at the heart of the Qur’an’s message. She writes:

It seems to me that the future of Islam, at least as I understand it in the American context, has much to do with the way that Muslims figure out how they are going to position themselves on the question of pluralism. That we all live in a religiously differentiated society is a given. But is that a good thing in the Muslim perspective? While Muslims struggle to be truly accepted by Christians, Jews, and other groups in America, can they promise the same in return? And if so, at what level?

This is the crux of the intrafaith conversation within Islam. Mostly the same kind of questions as within Christianity. The content of the issues is different but the process is essentially the same. 

You can read the whole article here.

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Bill Lesher’s INTRAfaith Journey

blesherThere’s a very nice article by Joseph Prabhu in this month’s edition of The Interfaith Observer entitled A Tribute to Bill Lesher.

William E. Lesher was truly a giant – and not just in Lutheran circles. Parish pastor, seminary professor and president, civil rights activist, champion of the environment: Bill put several lifetimes into his 85 years! But it was his commitment to the interfaith movement that had the biggest impact on me personally. His involvement with the Parliament of the World’s Religions was a powerful witness to me of what Christian leadership in a religiously diverse world looked like.

I knew Bill only in the later years of his life. He and Jean were just getting ready to move to Claremont when I met him for lunch. I knew that he’d often said that what we really needed was intrafaith dialogue. So of course I wanted to pick his brain about how to go about doing that. So I’m grateful that Prabhu mentioned this aspect of Bill’s life, which was not just an academic interest, but part of his spirituality. As Prabhu wrote:

“. . . he took interfaith dialogue seriously as a requirement of interreligious under-standing and also as a source of personal spiritual enrichment. This enrichment usually takes the form of learning and appreciating religious traditions other than one’s own. Thus, a Christian might learn about Hindu or Buddhist meditative practice and discern parallels with the contemplative practices of her own tradition. There is, however, a stage beyond this when inter-faith dialogue leads to rigorous intra-faith dialogue. Here, the differences with other traditions, and specifically differing truth-claims, challenge one’s original convictions.”  (bold emphasis mine) 

In my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? I found a phrase in John S. Dunne’s book The Way of All the Earth that described just this process: “passing over and coming back.”

Dunne wrote:
“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. 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. . .

“Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.”

Bill has now gone on to a new spiritual adventure. And I will always be grateful for his life, his example, his encouragement, his faith, his courage to move outside the boundaries of his own religious tradition, and the wisdom to come back with  new insights and understandings.  

Bring All People to Faith in Christ?– Maybe Not

band_3815_logo_6Today’s intrafaith question:
What about the Great Commission?

In Chapter 9 of my book, I wrote:  If we do not reject the truth claims of other traditions, we may have some problems with our own. These dilemmas are not solely academic exercises. They are very practical issues that need to be addressed, for example, in our practices of evangelism and mission. As Asian theologian C. S. Song has written: “The problem of Christian mission is is the problem of Christian theology. Reconstruction of Christian theology must then precede reconstruction of Christian mission.”

So it was with great interest that I read of the resolution passed by the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) at its annual assembly in June. You can read the full resolution here, but the bottom line is this:

Whereas in the light of the growing positive and rich multi-faith engagement of the 21st century, we have come to a new humility about the question of God’s relation to other religions: Be it resolved that the New England Synod memorialize the ELCA Churchwide Assembly to initiate a process to amend the phrase “bring all people to faith in Christ” in C4.02b and its constitutional parallels in order to achieve greater consonance with both our understanding of Christian witness and sensitivity to our interfaith contexts.

I actually learned about this resolution from a blogger who is adamantly opposed to any such change which would “soft-pedal our faith” and move us further “out of historic and traditional Christian heritage and closer toward cultivating a rampant religious universalism.”

As much as I agree with and applaud the resolution and distain the language of demonic apostasy in the blog, I certainly recognize the intrafaith challenge presented here. What do we do with the mandate presented in Matthew’s Jesus to “go and make disciples of all nations”? What is Christian mission anyway?

I also applaud the second part of the resolution:
Be it further resolved that the resources of the ELCA enlist and consult its teaching theologians, Bishops, and other leaders in the drafting of such an amendment for consideration at its subsequent CWA.

We need input from theologians who will take seriously our understanding of mission in the midst of our religious diversity. I am sure there are members of our congregations who fall all along the continuum of belief about Christian mission: from the position of the resolution to the orthodox blogger. I’m also sure that many would welcome serious theological guidance from the church in answer to their questions about faith in the 21st century.

How about you? What do you think the Great Commission means today?

 

 

 

Another Take on “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”

Bible text - I AM THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFEThis is a re-blog of a sermon from Pastor Dawn Hutchings of Holy Cross Lutheran Church near Toronto. It’s entitled “Letting Go of the Words Attributed to Jesus So that We Can Embrace the WORD – Easter 5A – John 14:1-14”

For me, the best part of the sermon is her story of being paired with a Hindu student for an assignment in a Religious Studies program. They were each asked to bring a piece of sacred scripture from their partner’s faith tradition that they found intriguing. To her chagrin, her Hindu friend brought “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except though me” to the table. And to her surprise, he then launched into – as she says – “an exegesis of the text that put this particular Christian to shame.”

Read the rest of the story here.

Your INTRAfaith Opportunity: Easter 5

Way-Truth-Lifejy-if6-sIt’s the passage that’s always brought up when Christians get together to talk about interfaith relationships. It is one of THE intrafaith questions. What do we do about “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me”?

How do you answer that question? I was interviewed by the Rev. Steve Kindle for Pastor2Pew about this text.  You can see that interview here. Let me know what you think.

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0a21aaab-a4d4-4d03-978e-665f0bfe6fdaPLURALISM SUNDAY
May 7, 2017

The teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey.

………………….Pluralism isn’t just diversity;
………………….it’s something we create out of this diversity.

Dr. Diana Eck, founder and director of the Pluralism Project

 On May 7th (or other times during the year) – churches dedicate their worship to a celebration of our religiously diverse world.

Progressive Christians give thanks for this diversity! We don’t claim that our religion is superior to others. We recognize that other religions and traditions can be as good for others as ours is for us. We can grow closer to the Divine and deeper in compassion – and we can understand ourselves better – through a more intimate awareness of all the world’s religions and traditions.

Sponsored by ProgressiveChristianity.org, Pluralism Sunday is one way of fulfilling Point 2 of The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity:
By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey.

On PLURALISM SUNDAY, churches celebrate other traditions in a variety of ways: sermons, litanies, and music; speakers and singers from other traditions, for example. Some congregations have exchanges with other faith communities, going to each other’s houses of worship. It’s entirely up to you!

SIGN UP NOW to be listed as a participating congregation for 2017 by emailing Rev. Susan Strouse, Pluralism Sunday Coordinator.  (You can celebrate the event on other dates and still be listed as participants – indicate your plans for the event to Susan so these details can be listed on our site.)

Can We Talk About Good Friday?

good-friWhen I was a teenager, I used to go to the community Good Friday service every year. Back then, all the stores downtown were closed from noon until 3:00 and during that time crowds of people would attend this service to hear local pastors preach on the “seven last words of Christ.”

I liked these services. But even though I was a pretty orthodox Christian, I did have questions. The reason for the crucifixion of Jesus – as explained by the church at that time – just didn’t make sense to me. Why would God – who was supposed to be almighty and good – need to send his son (it was all male language back then) to be tortured and killed? It just didn’t seem to be a good use of omnipotent power. But that was the church’s story and it wasn’t prudent to ask questions.

Much later, after years of ministry, the questions came back with a vengeance. When I came to the conclusion that Christianity isn’t the only way of thinking/believing about the Divine, I couldn’t continue to buy (or preach) the party line. If non-Christians weren’t going be rejected by God, then why in heaven’s name did Jesus have to die ? I mean, if I were Jesus, I’d be really pissed.

Thankfully, about the same time I discovered religious pluralism, I also discovered Progressive Christianity. But the way forward was not without bumps in the road. A
common experience of many who begin to explore this way of thinking is to deconstruct the belief system we were taught. And this did happen to me. Rejecting theologies of atonement that explained the crucifixion was liberating, but it left allergic-1me with a vacuum. Now what do I do with Good Friday? This was such a confrontational issue for me that, in the last year at my previous congregation, I broke out in a serious case of hives during Holy Week. The doctor in the ER kept asking what foods I’d eaten recently. When I said I’d had shrimp salad for lunch, his “ah ha!” look said that was the answer. But I knew better. I told him, “I’m not allergic to shellfish; I’m allergic to the church.” I now know I should have said, “I’m allergic to atonement theology.”

Thankfully, along with the deconstruction of Christianity comes the possibility of reconstruction. It doesn’t work that way for everyone; some people stop with deconstruction and abandon Christianity altogether. Others, like me, find ways to stay – rejecting some of the outdated theology, while “redeeming” ideas that still have merit.

So what about Good Friday? Or in other words, what about the cross? If it’s not a reminder that “Jesus died for my sins” or “Jesus paid the price for our redemption with his life” or “God demanded a sacrifice for the sin of Adam” then what is it?

Cosmic-Child-Abuse-BLOG-image-1030x1030-1The first thing I would say is that God did not send Jesus to die; there was no “divine plan” for our salvation. Jesus was killed by the Roman empire because he was a threat to their imperial authority. The Temple authorities – who served as functionaries of the empire – were also threatened. So it was not “the Jews” who killed Jesus, but a collusion of these powers-that-be.

The second thing is that Jesus was not operating out of a mandate from God to be the sacrificial lamb. Rather he willingly pursued his course of teaching and actions, knowing the risk involved. If you’ve seen the movie “Selma,” you might remember the scene in which Martin Luther King wrestles with the decision to go on the march. He and his family had received numerous death threats. Continuing to speak and act on behalf of dignity and liberation for African-Americans under the boot heel of Jim Crow carried a very high risk of death. King was not naive; he knew the risks. But he chose to go the distance for the cause. Just as Jesus had done before him. One does not have to be divine to make the supreme sacrifice.

Third thing is that it’s not all about sin or about the afterlife. Jesus didn’t die to cancel out “the bad marks in God’s little black book (that my mother warned me about) so we could get into heaven. Jesus’ life – his example and his teachings – show us how to live in the kin-dom of God now. His willingness to become empty of ego, completely selfless, fully connected with Divine Presence gives us incentive to strive to do the sashutterstock_88601464me.

So – back to Good Friday. I will remember Jesus’ death on the cross. It was a terrible thing, suffered by many thousands of people in the Roman empire. But I will not glory in his suffering. I will mourn the arrogance of imperial power, the complicity of those who should have known better, and the ignorance of fearful people who went along with the crowd. I’ll mourn the same thing as it’s happening today.

And I will hold out the same hope symbolized by the cross – that there is nothing an imperial power can do that will defeat the power of life, love, and liberation. We can look at the cross, Good Friday, and Christianity itself in a new way. And find hope – even in the midst of our own imperial empire.