Category Archives: Interfaith

Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God: the Pope Said So!

Angelico,_san_francesco_fa_la_pova_del_fuoco_davanti_al_sultano_21219 CE: St. Francis and the Sultan
This year marks an important date in interfaith history. Eight-hundred years ago, as Christians and Muslims were in the midst of fighting the fifth crusade/jihad, St. Francis of Assisi had a remarkable 
visit with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil of Egypt. You can read more about that historic event here

What I really want to talk about is another, much more recent, historic meeting. Last month, Pope Francis visited Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, and met with  Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque. What transpired is just as momentous as the meeting of St. Francis and the Sultan.

2019 CE: The Pope and the Imam
On February 4, Pope Francis and Sheik el-Tayeb signed a document on improving Christian-Muslim relations called “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”. Pope_Francis_and_Ahmed_el_Tayeb_grand_imam_of_al_Azhar_signed_a_joint_declaration_on_human_fraternity_during_an_interreligious_meeting_in_Abu_Dhabi_UAE_Feb_4_2019_Credit_Vatican_Media_It begins:
In the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace . . .
By beginning this way, the document (hopefully) puts to rest the idea that we do not worship the same Deity, whether we call that Deity God, Allah, Ground of our Being, or Nameless One. 

The really stunning part comes two-thirds of the way down. Tucked into a list of convictions essential for upholding the role of religions in the construction of world peace, is this statement:
The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.
(I know. I have to temporarily suspend all of my convictions about exclusively male language for God. But the implications of the statement are too big to ignore.)

It’s Been Done Before
While potentially provocative, it’s not the first time the Catholic Church has made such a
declaration. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council approved Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Regarding Islam, it said:
The church also regards with esteem the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself, merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth.

16mag-16hawkins-t_CA1-mediumThreeByTwo440Remember the brouhaha at Wheaton College a few years ago when one the professors was fired for wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslims? It was also about quoting the Pope: “As Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” Her reference was to: Meeting with the Muslim Community at the Central Mosque of Koudoukou, Bangui (Central African Republic) on November 30, 2015. 

Pushback!
There has been criticism of these pronouncements. In 2000, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger issued a warning about the danger of “relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism.” In 
“Dominus Iesus,” the future Pope Benedict XVI said
This truth of faith (that Christ is the salvation of all humanity) does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism
“characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another.

Of course, the Protestants also got into the act. Hank Hanegraaff, known as the “Bible Answer Man” on his radio show has said that “the Allah of Islam” is “definitely not the God of the Bible.” And the evangelical Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry unequivocally states that Christians and Muslims do not adore the same God, and that the Catholic Church has “a faulty understanding of the God of Islam.”

Now granted, these are positions from the Catholic Church and evangelical Christianity. I have problems with both sides on issues other than this one. But I applaud the efforts of Pope Francis to further our interfaith awareness and acceptance.

What Does Progressive Christianity Say?
As a progressive Christian, I agree with the second point of The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity:
tcpc_logo_tag.pngBy calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who 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. 

The INTRAfaith Conversation
Agreeing to this statement, though, doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the dilemma that exists within these statements, pro and con. I give Cardinal Ratzinger just a tiny bit of credit because he attempted to engage the elephant in the living room: what about Jesus?  I don’t agree where he comes down, but he did engage the question. 
Pope Francis and Sultan al-Malik al-Kami didn’t get into knotty questions, such as the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity.

They were all about peacemaking – and props to them for that!

UnknownIt is left to us to wrestle with our inherited Christologies (as well as doctrines, creeds, liuturgies, hymns, prayers, etc.) in light of our desire to live in peace and harmony with our religious neighbors. As Kristin Johnston Largen  wrote in Finding God Among Our Neighbors, . . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously.” In other words, who/what is Jesus in an interreligious context? 

Such wrestling is what I attempt to facilitate in my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?

Pope Francis and the Imam have given us a lot to think about. 

Let’s talk!

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ELCA’s Inter-Religious Commitment

One of the workshops I attended at the Parliament of the World’s Religions (PWR) in November was At theunknown-1 Intersection of Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations. One of the reasons that session appealed to me (among the 15+ other offerings at the same time) was the moderator of the panel was Kathryn Lohre, executive for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations for my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

She is also one of the members of the task force that created Inter-Religious Commitment: A draft policy statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This is a new social statement that will be considered at our national church gathering this coming August.

Here’s the PWR workshop description – and if you’ve read my book or anything else on this blog, you’ll understand why it was right up my alley (bold type is mine):

In the midst of rapid changes in our global religious landscape, Christian churches, denominations, and councils of churches are increasingly exploring what it means to be Christian — and to seek Christian unity — in a multi-religious world. New approaches to interreligious relations are emerging, and focus is being given to understanding complex forms of religious and spiritual identities, practices, and communities. All of this is raising important and timely questions about the challenge of Christian supremacy in interreligious spaces and relationships.

The panel also included Donna Bollinger, executive director of Religions for Peace USA; André Lavergne, Assistant to the Bishop for ecumenical and interfaith matters for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada; Karen Thompson, minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the United Church of Christ; and Paul Tché, president of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the US and Canada.So, I thought, here were some heavy-hitters for the mainline churches on the interfaith scene. I wanted to hear about how we Christians were going about navigating all the issues inherent in engaging with our multi-religious milieu. And I wasn’t disappointed. That is, until the Q&A time.

One of my gripes about the Parliament is that there’s never enough time to really engage in a topic after a workshop or presentation. The conversation that began after this one could have gone on for hours. Although unfortunately it got sidetracked by a couple of guys, members of non-Christian groups, who thought it necessary to “mansplain” how we Christians could get around our issues. By the time I got to ask my question, our time was almost up.

What I wanted to know was this: how are the interfaith departments in our denominations working with other departments to promote the idea that interfaith  – and of course I’ll also emphasize intrafaith – engagement is not simply an add-on to all the other work that goes on in our churches? Understanding our religious diversity – and our response to it – is a necessity for our work in Christian education, evangelism, seminary training, to name a few. Most of the clergy I know are overwhelmed with the day-to-day stuff that leading a congregation entails.

Plus, in the midst of the down-sizing of the Christian church, many congregations are anxiously trying to figure out how to stay open. Interfaith dialogue seems to be a luxury they cannot afford. But my premise is that it is not a luxury. In fact, as the church learns how to be present in the 21st century, albeit smaller, it will have to add interfaith and intrafaith engagement to its toolbox.

So I’m excited about the upcoming presentation of Inter-Religious Commitment: A draft policy statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at our Churchwide assembly in August. Although I do have some questions, as well as suggestions for implementing the document. But that another post. Stay tuned.

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World Interfaith Harmony Week

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Now that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity  has ended, how about expanding the vision outward? Create some good news in the world by creating or participating in an event for World Interfaith Harmony Week, which begins February 1. 

What is World Interfaith Harmony Week?

World Interfaith Harmony Week was first proposed at the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2010 by H.M. King Abdullah II of Jordan. Just under a month later, on October 20, 2010, it was unanimously adopted by the UN and henceforth the first week of February will be observed as a World Interfaith Harmony Week.

World Interfaith Harmony Week is based on the pioneering work of The Common Word initiative. This initiative, which started in 2007, called for Muslim and Christian leaders to engage in a dialogue based on two common fundamental religious Commandments; Love of God, and Love of the Neighbour, without nevertheless compromising any of their own religious tenets. The Two commandments are at the heart of the three Monotheistic religions and therefore provide the most solid theological ground possible.

World Interfaith Harmony Week extends the Two Commandments by adding ‘Love of the Good, and Love of the Neighbour’. This formula includes all people of goodwill. It includes those of other faiths, and those with no faith.

World Interfaith Harmony Week provides a platform—one week in a year—when all interfaith groups and other groups of goodwill can show the world what a powerful movement they are. The thousands of events organized by these groups often go unnoticed not only by the general public, but also by other groups themselves. This week will allow for these groups to become aware of each other and strengthen the movement by building ties and avoiding duplicating each others’ efforts.

You can find ideas for events here.

 

 

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”

This 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.