| 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:
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.)
As I was looking at the interfaith calendar to see what’s coming up in April, I saw an unusually long list. Of course, Christianity takes up a lot of space with Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter – all major holy days for most Christians.
But there are big days coming up for other religions as well. On April 5, Hindus will celebrate Rama Navami, the day when Lord Rama, the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu, was incarnated in human form.
April 10 is Mahavir Jayanti, the most important festival in the Jain religion, celebrating the birth of Saint Mahavir the founder of Jainism. It is a peaceful religion that cherishes simplicity. Their core values are such that they do not believe in killing even an insect.
April 11-18 is Passover, commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from slavery. Jews will also observe Yom HaShoah beginning at sundown on April 23. Known also as Holocaust and Heroism Day, it is observed as a day of commemoration for the approximately six million Jews and five million others who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany and its accessories, and for the Jewish resistance in that period.
For Muslims, April 24 is Lailat al Miraj (Night Journey),the day that commemorates the Prophet Muhammad’s nighttime journey from Mecca to the ‘Farthest Mosque’ in Jerusalem where he ascended to heaven, was purified, and given the instruction for Muslims to pray five times daily.
All of these are significant holy days. It would be a wonderful time to reach out to neighbors of any of these traditions and acknowledge their sacred time. If you’re in a congregation with a synagogue, mosque, or temple nearby, it could be the perfect opportunity to plan a get-together to learn about one another’s holy day beliefs, customs, foods, etc. We could share our favorite Easter recipes!
Actually, it would be great to expand to May 1 and include the Celtic/Pagan festival of Beltane, which celebrates the coming of summer and the fertility of the coming year.
Wow! Interfaith opportunities abound! And then – the intrafaith conversations!
I’m feeling extremely honored to have been invited to be interviewed for a website called Pastor2Pew. See that line in the banner to the left that says “video interviews with prominent pastors/theologians?
Honored indeed – also terrified!
Steve Kindle, founder and interviewer, emailed to say he’d seen my book and blog posts about the INTRAfaith Conversation and thought his viewers would be interested in what I had to say. Then he left it up to me to figure out what text in the lectionary would lend itself best to my field of interest.
So off to the lectionary I went and discovered that the gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (John 14:1-14) includes the well-known verse 6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The perfect text for my interview!
This is the verse that fuels much of resistance to interfaith engagement. Take, for instance, the argument of the Contradict Movement. In opposition to the image of
they’ve created . . .
. . . it proclaims “They can’t all be true.”
Here we have the crux of the Christian dilemma. What do we do with verses like this?
I actually have a collection of ways that various theologians and biblical scholars have answered the John 14:6 dilemma. And I address it in my book, giving an example of an encounter between two people – one from each of the above camps. The book was written to help members of congregations wrestle in the space in-between.
Evangelical Christian Andy Wrasman has also written a book: Contradict – They Can’t All be True. It’s actually a pretty good book. I agree with his argument that we need to be informed about other religions and how each is different from our own before we make blanket statements about all of them being the same. Wrasman ends up at a different place than I do, but he lays out his rationale for his Christology and I respect him for that.
I was all prepared to criticize the book and the movement. But in reality I respect its openness to conversation. I can’t go as far as appreciating the next steps of evangelizing and convincing others that Christianity is the only “true” religion. But it works well as an example of a thoughtful exclusivism that respects other religious traditions.
I’d bet there are members of our mainline congregations who would agree with Wrasman’s exclusivism. And others who’d agree with my pluralism. And a whole bunch in a continuum between the two.
All the more proof, in my mind, of the need for the intrafaith conversation.
Now – how to distill my interpretation of John 14:6 into to a half-hour interview? Thus comes the terrified part!
Since I’ve taken over as coordinator for Pluralism Sunday, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon.
Former coordinator Jim Burklo sent me his files with participating congregations, names of clergy, and email addresses going back to the beginning in 2007. I figured the first thing to do was update the list. So out went an email to 1) introduce myself and 2) ask if they wanted to remain on the distribution list. As you’d expect, a flood of mailer-daemons immediately filled my in-box. There were also a few messages from former participants who were now retired from ministry and didn’t want to continue.
But the surprise was in the messages from former participating clergy who asked to be removed because their congregations emphasize pluralism on a regular basis anyway. I brought this to our worship planning team and found that they agreed. They wondered why we would have one Sunday a year to celebrate religious diversity when we did that all year round.
Well now, I thought, this is an interesting development. I’ve just taken over as coordinator of Pluralism Sunday and my own congregation wants to opt out. Even though for the past four years, we’ve had not just Pluralism Sunday but Pluralism Summer – 12 weeks of guests from a wide variety of traditions (I guess if you put it all together, we’ve actually had 48 Pluralism Sundays in those 4 years alone!).
And we’re not really opting out. Our liturgy has continued to transform into a more interspiritual – although still rooted in Christianity – format. For this year, we’ve decided to have something during the year around the holy days of other religions, inviting some of our interfaith friends back to share their traditions.
Then it occurred to me that something is happening here. It’s clear that some clergy and congregations still need to be encouraged to dip their toes into interfaith waters, especially in the context of Sunday worship. But it’s also becoming clear that many have moved beyond the toe-dipping stage and are swimming in the deep water. And I think these clergy and congregations have something to contribute: resources, experiences, collective wisdom, etc.
So I’m wondering if we need to be thinking about Pluralism Sunday 2.0. I know that I’d appreciate discussion on being a Christian church seeking to embrace pluralism. Issues around liturgy, biblical interpretation, hymnody come to mind. Also addressing questions and concerns in the congregation thoughtfully and pastorally.
So the next stage is to revise the website. And not only update information about this year’s Pluralism Sunday, but add a 2.0 page as well. I hope those congregations who’ve opted out will opt back in and participate. I hope that others will join in, too.
As always, I appreciate your thoughts and ideas.
MAY 7, 2017
(or another day of your choosing)
A little history . . .
Pluralism Sunday began in 2007. The idea came out of the 8 Points of Progressive Christianity, especially points 1 and 2:
By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who…
1. Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life.
2. 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.
Coordinator of the project, Rev. Jim Burklo, explained that there are three general ways in which religions relate to each other:
(i) Exclusivism, which is the idea that my religion is correct, and all other religions are wrong, at best, and evil, the worst…
(ii) Inclusivism, which is the idea that my religion is the only true one, but yours is interesting. So we should tolerate each other’s religions and find ways to cooperate and communicate…
(ii) Pluralism, the idea that my religion is good for me and your religion may turn out to be as good for you as mine is for me.
“Pluralism is the concept that there are multiple loci of truth and salvation among the religions. [It] does not imply that all religions are the same or that all religions are equal; but it does recognize the possibility that my way is not the only way and that my religion is not necessarily superior to your” (J. Burklo, Pluralism Sunday, 2007).
You can observe Pluralism Sunday in any way you like. Click here for more information or to see what other congregations have done in the past. There will soon be an overhaul of our website page, so please stay tuned. In the meantime, I am always happy to share my experiences and resources and would love to hear yours!
Send me an email to let me know you’ll be participating!
How different might this election cycle have been had more voters been willing to be curious about, understand, accept, or even embrace a pluralist nation, rather than panic in the face of “the other? – Kate Blanchard
Kate Blanchard, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Alma College, asks a very important question. If we think that engaging in interfaith activities and education is just a nice “add-on” to the more important work of ministry in our churches, we are sadly mistaken.
And if part of our hesitancy of doing it is that people within our congregations might disagree on some of the issues that will be raised, we need to buckle up and prepare for the ride.
It would be strange if there were not differences of opinions and beliefs within a group of people – even in our credal, doctrinal churches. Trust me; if you allow people to express themselves and ask questions without fear of being branded heretics, you’ll discover a wealth of theological perspectives. Maybe that’s why so many leaders don’t want to ask!
But the truth is that people do have minds of their own, they do think about spiritual and theological matters, and they do form opinions about other belief (and non-belief) systems.
A wise leader would be willing to enter into the experience of interfaith and intrafaith discussions, not in order to tell people what to think and believe, but to facilitate the process of discovery.
As Professor Blanchard’s question articulates so well, this isn’t an abstract matter. There are concrete consequences to our avoidance of the challenges of pluralism.
If you’re looking for an excellent time to introduce something interfaith-y in your church, that time is NOW!
On Christmas Eve, Christians will celebrate the birth of Jesus. And while Christmas isn’t a holy day in Islam, the birth of Jesus is a very big deal. Surah 3:45 in the Qur’an tells the story of the Annunciation this way: [And mention] when the angels said, “O Mary, indeed Allah gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to Allah].
There are some 71 verses in the Quran that refer to Jesus. And Mary (Maryam) is revered as one of he most righteous and greatest women in Islam. She’s actually mentioned more times in the Qur’an than in the New Testament. Here’s an interesting video of the Nativity story. You’ll definitely see some differences from our versions. But what a great topic for discussion! Especially if you invite some Muslim friends to join in.
Also on December 24th is the first night of Hanukkah, the eight-day “festival of lights.” As Christians celebrate the Light that has come into the world, Jews will light the first candle on the menorah. Again, differences between our religions – but similarities too.
If these differences raise questions among the people in your church, hallelujah! Now it’s time to enter the intrafaith conversation.
You can check out my website for more information on how to go about doing that. Or simply buy the book and get a group together to explore what it means to be a faithful Christian and to be in respectful relationship with those of other religious traditions.
It’s safe to say “Merry Christmas” again. So says Corey Lewandowski, former campaign manage for the president-elect, declaring victory on the War on Christmas. “It’s OK to say, it’s not a pejorative word anymore.” One of the main contributing factors in this so-called war, according to Lewandowski, et al has been President Obama’s refusal to say it. Despite evidence to the contrary (see a video compilation of President Obama saying “Merry Christmas” over and over again), many people still think that Christmas has been under attack.
I suggest that what is really going on here is the belief of many that it’s Christianity itself that is under attack. The fourth chapter of my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation is entitled “A Question of Identity” because our increasingly diverse world is challenging our assumptions about who we are. This makes us anxious.
Not that this anxiety is unique to Christianity. In her book, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist, Sylvia Boorstein 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. I think it’s the natural, self-protective, genetic response of tribes.”
Amidst all this religious diversity, our Christian tribe is anxious. And when we’re anxious and afraid, we’re not readily able to process facts and rational arguments. So one response is to retreat into an exclusivist, triumphalism that claims that we’re right and every one else is wrong. At the other extreme is the unexamined assertion that “we’re all worshipping the same God anyway.”
In the middle is where intrafaith conversations can help. Respectful sharing, listening, and relationship-building can bridge the divide between those for whom “Merry Christmas” is a sacred cow and those who are able to encompass a multitude of traditions within their “Happy Holidays.”
Maybe when we take the need for this kind of conversation seriously, we’ll finally get to the place where it’s not a matter of saying either “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” but “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.”
In my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation, I suggest times of the church year when doing something with an interfaith flavor might be appropriate. In this month’s issue of The Interfaith Observer, Vicki Garlock gives us another wonderful option.
LIGHT, BIRTH STORIES, AND FEASTS
By Vicki Garlock
For Christians, another Advent season will soon be upon us. As one of the quintessential periods in the liturgical calendar, it might seem like the wrong time to be thinking about interfaith efforts. It’s a feeling further heightened by the encroachment of numerous secular obligations. Who has time for “the other” right now? I tend to view things from a slightly different perspective, though, and I think Advent offers a great opportunity to bring a bit of interfaith into your household. Here are a few ideas to get started.
Light to the World
For Christians, Advent is a time of anticipation. Many churches mark that time by lighting candles on an Advent wreath for each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas/Jesus’ birth. With all four candles lit by Christmas Eve, the wreath burns brightest just when the nights are at their longest (at least in the Northern hemisphere).
The Advent wreath therefore serves as a visual reminder that Jesus, for many, is a light to the world. This is most clearly stated in the first few verses of the Gospel of John.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1:1-5, NRSV translation]
Interestingly, the Qur’an also refers to the message of Jesus as a light.
And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him. We sent him the Gospel. Therein was guidance and light, and confirmation of the Law that had come before him, a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah. [Surah 5 (al-Maida), verse 46, Yusuf Ali translation]
So an easy way to make your Advent more interfaith is simply to use “Light” as your theme. It’s no accident that Christmas falls around the same time as the winter solstice, and many Advent/Christmas practices are derived from the ancient pagan traditions of Northern Europe. Teaching your kids about the winter solstice through books, recipes, and crafts is a good place to begin.
The Winter Solstice (written by Ellen Jackson and illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis) and The Shortest Day (written by Wendy Pfeffer and illustrated by Jesse Reisch) are both good book options. And even though Circle Round (by Starhawk, Diane Baker, and Anne Hill) was published in 2000, it’s still a great go-to book for crafts and activities. Because pagan traditions are grounded in our relationship with the earth, focus your activities on plants currently available in your geographical area. Create a small home altar and decorate it with winter fruits and greenery. Bake some pumpkin seeds or flavored nuts. You could even teach older kids how to can/freeze food to last through the winter.
Hanukkah is another one of those light-related holidays that happens at this time of the year. Start with one of the many books available. There are board books, like the Hanukkah “touch and feel” book by Roger Priddy and My First Chanukkah by Tomie dePaola, for toddlers. For slightly older kids, you’ll find pop-up books covering the various Hanukkah traditions, like lighting a menorah or spinning a dreidel. One book, Maccabee! (written by Tilda Balsley and illustrated by David Harrington), even portrays the legendary brothers who took the temple back from the Seleucids, as super heroes. Hanukkah books are found in most local libraries, and many craft/discount stores now sell Hanukkah-related products. You can also find resources at your local synagogue, which offers a great excuse to visit with your kids!
Advent Stories from the Islamic Perspective
Another way to make your Advent more interfaith is to read Islamic versions of typical Advent stories. For example, many Muslims are familiar with the story of Mary/Maryam being told she is pregnant with Jesus/Isa (sometimes spelled Eesa). In that account, Hannah, Maryam’s mother, promised to dedicate her unborn child to God/Allah. Years later, as a young woman serving in the temple, Maryam was visited by the angel Gabriel who told her that she would give birth to a son. Some of the story can be found in Surah 19 (called Maryam) of the Qur’an.
He said: I am but a messenger from your Lord that I may bestow on you a pure boy. She said: How shall I have a boy, when no mortal has touched me, nor am I an unchaste woman?” He said: Thus it shall be; your Lord said: It is insignificant for Me; and: We shall assign him as a Sign to humanity, and as a mercy from Us. It was a decreed command. [Surah 19 (Maryam), Verses 19-21, Laleh Bakhtiar translation]
The Qur’an is non-narrative, for the most part, but Muslims do read stories to their kids based on Qur’anic passages. A good, kid-friendly version of Gabriel’s announcement to Maryam, the subsequent birth of Isa, and Isa’s first days can found here. Note how in the Islamic narrative, Isa is able to talk at birth. On the right is a kid-friendly video of the birth story. The video is seven minutes long, but the narrative about Zachariah, Mary, the birth of Jesus, and Jesus’ first words are in the first 5 minutes (before the quiz). For interested adults, a more complete version of the story, with specific excerpts from the Qur’an, can be found here.
Birth Stories from Other Faith Traditions
You can also make your Advent more interfaith by focusing on amazing birth stories from other traditions, several of which include the idea of a virgin birth. One of the most popular comes from the Buddhist tradition. According to that narrative, an elephant with a lotus flower was responsible for Queen Maya’s pregnancy of Gautama Buddha. In most versions, the Buddha takes seven steps as a newborn infant. In some versions, angels appear and the baby Buddha speaks (much like Isa does in the Islamic narrative). The Life of the Buddha site has kid-friendly narratives of Queen Maya’s elephant dream and the Buddha’s birth. Finally, the 8-minute video above, in English, tells the story.
Add an Intrafaith Twist
If an interfaith Advent seems too far removed from the spirit of the season, you might want to focus on various Advent practices within the Christian tradition. One of the most notable is the Nativity Fast observed in the Orthodox tradition from mid-November until Christmas Eve. Here the word “fast” does not mean a total absence of food. Instead, Orthodox Christians abstain from meat, dairy, fish, wine, and oil, except on certain days of the week. The specifics, if you’re interested, are complex but fascinating and can be found here.
As many Orthodox moms have discovered, the Nativity Fast diet is closely related to a vegan diet, which means many families break out their vegan recipes for the holiday season. One post offering great Orthodox Advent recipes can be found here, but you can also simply search the internet for vegan recipes that you and your kids might enjoy. Just make sure they don’t require any oil if you really want to stick with the rules!
It’s easy to assume that Advent offers few or no opportunities to interact with other faith traditions. After all, the entire focus is on preparing for the arrival of Jesus. However, a little creative thinking reveals several possibilities. During this unsettling time of the year – when the pendulum swings wildly between “traditional Christianity” and “rampant commercialism” – consider a move away from both ends of the continuum, and bring a bit of interfaith into your holiday season.
According to a recent article in the Christian Century (Sept. 28, 2016), one reason America has become less religious is our religious diversity. It goes on to say:
Although religious pluralism is not necessarily the cause of declining religiosity, it does expose people to ideas and prices that challenge their faith.
All I have to say is, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
The story of Elsie (see blog post from December, 2015) is a perfect illustration of the above quote – and further rationale for engaging in the intrafaith conversation.
This is not simply an interesting add-on to the work of ministry today. It is integral to the message we preach and preach, the mission we promote, and the church we want to become.
A big thanks to all of you who are reading the book in your churches and passing it along to friends. Keep the movement going!