Category Archives: Islam

April: A Month of Holy Days

BackCollageAs 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.

300px-Lord_Rama-imageBut 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.

shutterstock_268047593April 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.

slide_221583_887735_freeThe twelve day Festival of Ridván beginning on April 21 is considered the holiest for members of the Bahá’í Faith. During those dates in 1863, Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, left Baghdad and entered gardens now known as the Garden of Ridván, which means paradise in Arabic.

the_night_journey_kecil-03-03_1xFor 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!

 

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Christmas, Hanukkha, and the Qur’an

479113_gallery_5644449997087_jpg_fa_rszdIf 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 – disting180px-virgin_mary_and_jesus_old_persian_miniatureuished 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 llmc9237606menorah. 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.

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Why Not an Interfaith Advent?!

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

Interfaith Options for Christians at Advent

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

An Advent wreath – Photo: VG

An Advent wreath – Photo: VG

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.

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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!

In Short…
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.

The Professor Wore a Hijab in Solidarity – Then Lost Her Job: An INTRAfaith Case Study

16mag-16hawkins-t_ca1-superjumboThe New York Times Magazine ran an article in its October 13 edition entitled “The Professor Wore a Hijab in Solidarity – Then Lost Her Job”. It’s the story of Larycia Hawkins,  the first female African-American tenured professor at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian  liberal arts college. Dr. Hawkins lost her job after a controversy that began with her intention to wear a hijab during the Advent season, in solidarity with Muslims.

You can read the article here. It’s an important story on many levels, not the least being race and gender. But my point in posting  it here is that it’s a perfect example of the necessity of intrafaith discussions among Christians of differing theological perspectives.

Dr. Hawkins identifies as a Christian. Her Christianity allows her to make the statement she made by wearing the hijab. The administration and many alumni of Wheaton College have a different interpretation  of Christianity. Many students and faculty members were understandably upset with Dr. Hawkins’ “mutual place of resolution and reconciliation”  departure.

Rather than dismissing this popular, well-qualified educator, would it not have been wiser to use the controversy as an opportunity for an intrafaith conversation?

 

9/11 and the INTRAfaith Conversation

img_1470I returned to the Jersey shore this summer. I hadn’t been there since 2001. In fact, I was in Ocean City on 9/11/2001. As I watched the towers fall on TV, I could see fighter planes and helicopters flying up the coast. It’s not something you forget. Of course, others have more horrific and tragic stories to tell. But for those of us who were old enough to be aware of what was happening at the time, we’ll always remember where we were on that day. And we should remember: those who died, their families, the first responders, the ongoing after-effects of trauma.alg-flag-jpg

But we should also remember other stories. In Ocean City – and I’m sure in many other
places as well – there was a run on American flags. A friend who was staying with me that week was determined to get a flag to hang off our balcony. I was conflicted about it. I didn’t want to hang a flag off my balcony; I’m not a big fan of flags in the first place. So I was quietly thrilled that every store was sold out.

I also remember overhearing conversations that included words like “rag-heads” and “towel-heads” and references to the Qur’an that were either completely false or taken out of context. The first hate crime reported as a result of 9/11 didn’t happen until the 15th, but the seeds were being sown.

I was due back in the pulpit on September 16. Obviously, I’d have to talk about 9/11. I decided to try to make the service a combination of remembrance, lamentation, and confession. The remembrance and lamentation parts were fairly easy to do, and there were lots of resources being sent out for use that Sunday.

But I was determined not to let us off the hook for our part in the rise of global terrorism. Simplistic answers to “Why do they hate us?” make my blood boil. “Because they hate our freedoms” isn’t an informed answer. We Americans are famous for our ignorance about history, geography, and geopolitical affairs. It takes only a scratch of the surface to find reasons for resentment of American arrogance throughout the world. Even our remembrances of 9/11 will usually neglect to mention the acts of violence and terrorism experienced by people of other countries each and every day.

Do I condone terrorism? Absolutely not. Do I understand it. Definitely yes.

So on that Sunday I tried to gently insert some reminders of our own American culpability. I don’t know how well I pulled it off. I do know that at the end of the service, one member asked if we could sing “God Bless America.” I didn’t handle it well. Following Nancy Reagan’s advice I “just said no.” Looking back, it would have been an opportunity to suggest singing “Finlandia” (“This Is My Song”). Here it is, sung by Joan Baez.

This is my song, O God of all the nations, joan_baez
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is,
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

So what will we do this Sunday? Will we have only remembrances and memorials? Or will we acknowledge the ongoing interfaith and intrafaith work we still have to do in knowing and understanding ourselves and our neighbors?

 

Are the Days of Doing Evangelism Over?

I read an interesting blog post the other day called Why Progressive Christians Can’t Evangelize, which critiques the accompaniment model adopted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In Global Mission for the 21st Century, the ELCA defines accompaniment as:
walking together in a solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality. The basis for this accompaniment, or what the New Testament calls koinonia, is found in the God-human relationship in which God accompanies us in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

The blog author, however questions whether most of us have seriously reflected on the who, what, why, and whether of Christian mission. In other words: why do we think it’s a good thing to share the gospel in the first place? And while he doesn’t disagree with the need to be sensitive to our history of colonialism, he does warn that “our fear of colonialism is performed daily in our tepid to non-existent faith-sharing.”

It was an interesting post. But what followed made it even more so. In the “Comments,” a reader confessed to his or her own struggle with the issue:
 I firmly base my life on the death and resurrection of Jesus (or try to), and believe that through my baptism into Christ’s death, I will share in a resurrection like his. HOWEVER, I am not convinced that everyone needs to be a Christian . . . if I meet, say, a Buddhist, who has found meaning, and a spiritual path, and is exhibiting “good fruits,” why should I attempt to “evangelize” her?

And that is the INTRAfaith question!

As Asian theologian C. S. Song has written: “The 

problem of Christian mission is the problem of Christian theology. Reconstruction of 

Christian theology must then precede reconstruction of Christian mission.”

Documents such as “Global Mission for the 21st Century” and “Accompaniment” that are available from my denomination (and I am sure from others) are important teaching tools. But I don’t know how many of our congregations are using them.

The conversation needs to happen at the grass roots. And a fine place to start is with the experiences that most of us have had with people of other religions and cultures. The question is no longer “if I meet a Buddhist (or a Jew or a Muslim, etc.),” but when I do . . . then how am I to think about evangelism?

When you go out with your evangelism team to knock on doors on your neighborhood and a man in a turban answers – or a woman in a hijab – or a man in a yarmulke – or a monk in saffron robe, what are you going to say?

There are, of course, several theological options. And you’ll probably find a variety in your own church. It’s not only an interesting question for pastors to ponder, it’s a necessary one for the whole church as we ponder together the place of Christianity in a multi-religious world.

New Voices in the Conversation Part 3: Atheists and Humanists

 

th It is all too common for those of us in the church to disregard people in these categories. We might dismiss them with “There are no atheists in foxholes” and similar sayings. And while I struggle to find ways of communicating my understandings of the Divine to those whose unbelief is more of a reaction to the abuses of church and religion, I also recognize that there are many good, thoughtful, moral people who do not feel the need for a Higher Power. Yet more and more of them are joining the interfaith conversation (you see why interfaith and interreligious are problematic terms!).

During the summer months, we welcome guests from different religious and non-religious traditions to speak at our church on a specific topic. Two years ago the subject was caring for creation. Most of our guests were easy to describe, e.g. Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim. But one speaker, was not so easy to categorize. He didn’t like using any labels at all, but finally settled on “free-thinking naturalist.” Beginning his talk, he jokingly said that he had deliberately avoided the “A” word when referring to himself.

Atheism is a tricky subject. It used to be simple: an atheist was someone who didn’t believe in God. Then many of us read or heard Marcus Borg describe his many conversations with university students. He recounts,

“Every term, one or more of them says to me after class, ‘This is all very interesting, but I have a problem every time you use the word ‘God’ because, you see’- here there’s usually a pause and a deep breath- ‘I really don’t believe in God.’ I always respond the same way: ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’” [1]

As Borg tells it, the student then describes a version of God perhaps learned in Sunday school, from parents or simply from popular culture. When Borg says, “Well, I don’t believe in that God either,”[2] a space opens up for conversation about other possible ways of understanding the Divine.

As more people discover that there are other ways of thinking about their concept of God, the old definition of “not believing” becomes more problematic. Also, we are becoming more familiar with religions that are non-theistic (hence a-theistic), such as Buddhism, which has no concept of a creator God or divine intercessor. It is not so much that Buddhists do not believe in God (as if a conscious negative choice) as the fact that those are simply not aspects of their tradition.

Karen Armstrong has this to say:

“Atheism is often a transitional state: Jews, Christians, and Muslims were all called atheists by their pagan contemporaries because they had adopted a revolutionary notion of divinity and transcendence. The people who have been dubbed atheists over the years have always denied a particular conception of the divine. But is the God who is rejected by atheists today the God of the patriarchs, the God of the prophets, the God of the philosophers, the God of the mystics, or the God of the eighteenth-century deists? All these deities have been venerated, but they are very different from one another. Perhaps modern atheism is a similar denial of a God that is no longer adequate to the problems of our time.”[3]

Of course there are those who do not believe in any kind of Divine being, no matter how we might reimagine what that means. Many of these folks are also interested in being part of interreligious conversations. Henry, a long-time member of the board at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio is a co-founder of an organization in Berkeley called Ahimsa (the Sanskrit word meaning ‘nonviolence’). One of the goals of the organization is “to encourage dialogues and public forums on issues which bridge spirituality and science and society.”[4] Henry is also an avowed atheist, yet appreciates deeply the opportunity to work on projects together with others who want to be peacemakers in the world.

I contrast Chris and Henry with militant atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher, who denounce the God they don’t believe in, but are never willing to listen to or discuss any other possibilities. I consider them to be as intractable as any fundamentalist of any religion.

I will admit that I never got the consternation that many Christians had about humanists (or as one elderly church member called them hoomanists). I thought humanists were pretty good people. I do now understand why they are considered by some to be fair game for Christian conversion: they value human agency and critical thinking over faith and doctrine. It could be said that humanism is a kinder, gentler atheism. As Nathan Phelps has said, “What I am is a proud humanist. Atheism says what I don’t accept, humanism says what I do.”[5]

But these terms are very fluid. Another guest in our speaker series was Vanessa, who is very involved in the interfaith scene and describes herself (at least for today, she said) Original-Happy-Human-w100as a Secular Humanist. However, she said that others have called her a “faitheist.” This was the first I had heard of the term, which comes from the book Faitheist: How an Atheist Found CommonGround with the Religious by Chris Stedman.[6] Stedman’s point is that atheists should be involved in respectful dialogue with those of religious persuasion. Vanessa said, however, that being called a “faitheist” was not a compliment. The Urban Dictionary defines it as “an atheist who is ‘soft’ on religious belief, and tolerant of even the worst intellectual and moral excesses of religion; an atheist accommodationist.”[7] For some reason, it gives me satisfaction to know that there are factions even among the non-believers!

What I have learned from listening to those on the interfaith scene who describe themselves with the “A” word or with other isms is that these are people of good will and great love for humanity and the world. I welcome the opportunity to be in dialogue. Right now I have members in my congregation with family members who are declared atheists. I would love to have the “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in” conversation with them – not in order to convince them that they are wrong, but to see where they really fit in the wide range of what atheism means today. And what “God” means today.

 

FOR REFLECTION:

  • Do you know someone who is an atheist? Have you ever had or could you have a conversation with him or her about what that means?
  • How do you think it is possible for an atheist, agnostic or humanist can participate in interreligious dialogue?

 

SUGGESTED READING:

  • Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious by Chris Stedman[11]

  

[1] Borg, Marcus, The Heart of Christianity. Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 2003, 68-69.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “A New Axial Age: Karen Armstrong on the History—and the Future—of God” by Jessica Roemischer, http://www.adishakti.org/_/a_new_axial_age_by_karen_armstrong.htm (accessed February 26, 2016).

[4] http://ahimsaberkeley.org (accessed February 26, 2016).

[5] Nathan Phelps is the son of Westboro Baptist Church founder, Fred Phelps. He responded to my inquiry that this quote was something he had posted on Facebook and now has become a meme.

[6] Stedman, Chris, How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. 2012.

[7] Urban Dictionary, s.v. “faitheist,” http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=faitheist (accessed February 26, 2016).

 

[8] Trent, Dana, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Baptist Minister Married a Hindu Monk, Nashville, TN: Fresh Air Books, 2013.

[9] Brussat, Frederic and Mary Ann. “Welcoming the Spiritually Independent.” patheos.com.
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dailylifeasspiritualpractice/2013/09/welcoming-the-spiritually-independent/ (accessed February 26, 2016).

[10] Shapiro, Rami, Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent. Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths, 2013.

[11] Stedman, Chris, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.

New Voices in the Conversation Part 2: Multiple Belonging (Hybrid Spirituality)

The phenomenon of “multiple religious belonging” is now deeply engrained in American Culture – Francis X. Clooney

51dfJ8lOEVL._SY445_The first time I heard someone referred to as a Jewbu, I thought it was a pejorative term. But it’s not. Jewbu (or Jubu or Bu-Jew) is simply is the abbreviation for a Jewish Buddhist. This fairly recent term can refer to either a Buddhist who grew up Jewish but no longer practices Judaism (“This is true of a staggeringly high percentage of American Buddhist leaders; well over half by most counts,” according to Rabbi Julian Sinclair) or a Buddhist who still practices and identifies with Judaism.

UnknownSylvia Boorstein, a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA, is a good example of this category. Her autobiographical memoir, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist, places her squarely in the camp of those with multiple belongings. Her story of coming to terms with her identity as both a Jew and a Buddhist – and her deepened love for Judaism – is an engaging, easy read for anyone wanting an introduction to this phenomenon.

buddha-christUnfortunately, Christianity doesn’t have a catchy term to describe its hybrids (Chrisbu or Bu-Chris is just not as mellifluous as Jubu!). But there are those who are multiple belongers. For example, Father Gregory Mayers, coordinator of the East-West Meditation program at Mercy Center retreat center in Burlingame, CA, is both a Redemptorist priest and Associate Roshi of the Sanbô-Kyôdan Religious Foundation in Kamakura, Japan. Catholic theologian Paul Knitter, author of Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, considers himself to be an adherent of both Christianity and Buddhism.

It may be that the popularity of Buddhism has not caused a lot of consternation in our churches because Buddhism is not a theistic religion (not all Buddhists would even call it a religion at all). So now we have to wade into deeper waters to examine more controversial examples of multiple belonging.

Many years ago a member of my congregation told me that she had become a Muslim. When I asked her how she reconciled that with being a Christian, she said that she saw no problems with it. At the time, I couldn’t understand that. Now I see that she was merely ahead of her time.

past-holmesIn 2007, Episcopal priest Ann Redding Holmes declared herself to be a Muslim after a profound experience of Muslim prayer. However, she didn’t abandon her Christian identity, saying that her acceptance of Islam was “not an automatic abandonment of Christianity. For many, it is. But it doesn’t have to be.” In response to those who said that the two traditions are mutually exclusive, she said, “I just don’t agree.” The Episcopal Church did not agree with her and she was defrocked in 2009. In interviews, Redding has argued that her views about Jesus “fit well in the range of Christianity.”

As strange as this story may seem, there are more and more examples of multiple belonging on the religious scene, as S. Wesley Ariarajah puts it, “throwing spanners into the smoothly oiled works of religious particularities.” But, reminding us that we are looking through Western lenses, he reports that multiple belonging is not a new phenomenon in Asia:
It has been a common feature among the peoples especially in North Asia. Many of them have fund ways of holding together two or more of religious traditions like Confucianism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Shamanism, Christianity etc. as tributaries that feed their overall religious consciousness and practice. 

Catherine Cornille, editor of Many Mansions: Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity agrees:
It may be argued that . . . religion in Europe, America and Australia is just coming to terms with a practice or a form of religiosity that has been prevalent for ages in most of the rest of the world, and especially in the East.

For many of our clergy and church members, learning how to relate to those who claim multiple belonging may seem to be a very steep learning curve. And to be honest, it is. It involves looking carefully at our assumptions about what it means to be a Christian, to listen to the stories of those who have different assumptions, and to participate in a religious quest that is ongoing and evolving.

For example, a member of my congregation admitted that she considered herself to be a Christian-Pagan. When I shared her story with a friend who is a Wiccan elder, he laughed and told me that Wicca is actually losing some of its appeal among disenfranchised Christians. Once, he said, Wicca was attractive to those looking for an earth-based, environment-friendly belief system and practice. But as Christianity has been slowly leaving behind its earth/ spirit dualism and rediscovering its “roots” in theologians such as St. Francis of Assisi and Hildegard of Bingen, it is retaining some of those who in the past would have become Pagan.

It is clearly a new day for Christianity!

 

Sinclair, Rabbi Julian. “Jubu.” thejc.com. http://www.thejc.com/judaism/jewish-words/jubu (accessed February 26, 2016)

Tu, Janet I. “Episcopal Priest Ann Holmes Redding has been defrocked.” seattletimes.com. http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2008961581_webdefrocked01m.html (accessed February 24, 2016).

Zimmerman, Cathy. “Ann Holmes, A Christian and a Muslim, to Share Message at St. Stephens.” tdn.com http://tdn.com/lifestyles/ann-holmes-a-christian-and-a-muslim-to-share-message/article_de097bc0-1727-11e2-a92d-0019bb2963f4.html?print=true&cid=print (accessed February 24, 2016).

Ariarajah, S. Wesley. “Religious Diversity and Interfaith Relations in a Global Age.” flinders.edu.au. http://www.flinders.edu.au/oasisfiles/chaplains/geoff_papers/ariarajah.pdf

Wheaton College: an Intra-faith Controversy

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Students chant “Reinstate Doc Hawk,” as the bell rings for the first chapel of spring semester at Wheaton College. Religion News Service photo by Emily Miller

If you haven’t been following the news from Wheaton College, an evangelical college in Wheaton, Illinois, the story is this: larycia-hawkins
In December, Larycia Hawkins, a tenured associate professor of political science at Wheaton since 2007, decided to show solidarity with Muslims by wearing a hijab and stating that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.”

The college almost immediately placed her on paid administrative leave. They said that this would give them time to explore questions regarding the theological implications of her recent public statements.  On January 5, they issued a Notice of Recommendation to Initiate Termination-for-Cause Proceedings.

attachment-1Since then, there’s been a firestorm of protest against Wheaton’s action. Numerous petitions calling for the reinstatement of Dr. Hawkins (including moveon.org and change.org) have been circulating. Christian clergy of various denominations and leaders from other religious traditions have rallied in support.

Which is all well and good.

However, what we have here is a classic example of our need for an intrafaith conversation.  For some Christians, the statement that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God” poses no theological problems. For others, it’s an impossible statement to make. Members of each group consider themselves to be faithful Christians. Although I don’t know any of them, I seriously doubt that the administrators of Wheaton College are bigots. Dr. Hawkins herself has written on her Facebook page, “Friends, Embodied Solidarity is not demonizing others in defense of me” and asks for “prayers and actions that emanate love, grace, peace, and if necessary, forgiveness.”

We are confronted with the question raised by Marjorie Suchoki in Divinity and Diversity: “How do Christians deal with this phenomenon (religious pluralism)? Our Christian past has traditionally taught us that there is only one way to God, and that is through Christ. But we are uneasy. Our neighborliness teaches us that these others are good and decent people, good neighbors, or loved family members! Surely God is with them as well as with us. Our hearts reach out, but our intellectual understanding draws back. We have been given little theological foundation for affirming these others – and consequently we wonder if our feelings of acceptance are perhaps against the will of God, who has uniquely revealed to us just what is required for salvation.”1

There are a number of ways to answer the question. Within our congregations, we’ll find exclusivists, inclusivists, and pluralists of various stripes – all faithful Christians. How will we help them to listen to one another, respect one another, and come to some agreements of how we will love and work together? 

As Kristin Johnston Largen of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg has written: “. . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously.”2

We should be taking the theological position of Wheaton College seriously. We should be taking the theological positions of Dr. Hawkins and her supporters seriously. Petitions won’t solve the underlying problem. Only our intrafaith work will do that.

 

[1] Suchocki, Marjorie, Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism, p.9.

[2] Largen, Kristin Johnston, Finding God Among Our Neighbors, Neighbors: An Interfaith Systematic Theology, Fortress Press, 2013, 137.

 

 

 

 

Christmas in the Qur’an

Some years ago, a seminary student told me that, according to some of her professors, the interfaith Christology question is going to be the “next big issue” confronting the church. Theologian  Kristin Johnston Largen, from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, has picked up the banner. In her book Finding God Among Our Neighbors, Neighbors: An Interfaith Systematic Theology, she writes:
“. . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously.”islams_jesus

It’s already happening in our Christian/ Muslim book study. As we began reading Islam’s Jesus by Zeki Saritoprak, we Christians soon realized that there’s a whole lot about Jesus in the Qur’an, particularly about his birth. Check out the story of the Annunciation:

“And mention in the Book, Maryam, when she withdrew from her family to a place facing east. She placed a screen from them; then We sent to her our angel (Jibrael, or Gabriel), and he appeared before her in the form of a man in full human form. She said: 
’I seek refuge with The Most Beneficent God from you, if you do fear Him.’ The angel said: 
’I am only a Messenger from your Lord, to announce to you the gift of a righteous son.’ She said: ‘How can I have a son, when no man has touched me, nor am I unchaste?’ The angel said: ‘So it will be, your Lord said: ‘That is easy for Me: And to appoint him as a sign to mankind and a mercy from Us ‘, and it is a matter already decreed.'”—Qur’an 19:16-21

As we listened to our Muslim friends tell of their devotion to both Mary and Jesus, we were challenged to rethink our own understandings of who and what Jesus was and is. Surprisingly to us, Jesus is called the Messiah (al-Maseeh) at least nine times in the Qur’an. But, we had to ask, what does ‘messiah’ mean? We already knew that there are differences between the  Jewish and Christian messianic job descriptions. And so it is with Islam. The Qur’an indeed identifies Jesus as the Messiah, a messenger who will bring justice, prosperity and peace. But it does not agree that the Messiah is the son of God.
Indeed, they are unbelievers who say, ‘God is the Messiah, the son of Mary.’ (5:72)
The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger; messengers before him had indeed passed away. (5:75)

Now, for orthodox Christians, the answer is clear-cut. Jesus is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made.”

But many Christians are reexamining the Jesus 0f the Nicene Creed. Coming from both our expanding knowledge of the cosmos and of other Christologies from other places and people, we’re no longer satisfied with outdated “substance” language.

We’re also not satisfied with dualistic separations between human and divine, heaven and earth, and matter and spirit. As we think more about the interconnectedness of everyone and everything, the question of who and what Jesus was and is comes into play. 

Personally, I find great meaning in distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the cosmic Christ. I value both. And find that this Christology can be very interfaith-friendly. 

We’ve only begun to delve into these ways of talking about Jesus with our Muslim book study friends. I’m pretty sure that the Christians in the group are all on the ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum. How we will explain some of these non-orthodox ideas and how they will receive them remains to be seen. 

The importance of this study, in my opinion, is not only the interfaith dialogue we’re having between Muslims and Christians, but also the intrafaith one we’re having among ourselves as we work through our own answer to Jesus’ question: 

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