Category Archives: Jesus

Not That Kind of Christian!

backto3It’s a tough time to be a Christian. More and more, we’re being forced to choose what kind of Christianity we shall be identified with. Evangelical, fundamentalist, progressive, traditional, conservative, liberal: the labels aren’t that simple.

In this presidential election campaign, a rift has split evangelical Christians. The candidacy of Donald Trump has required many evangelicals to do theological gymnastics to defend their candidate. Even after the release of the video which graphically revealed Trump’s ugly, misogynistic character, his defenders stood fast. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and a member of Trump’s Faith Advisory Council, said Trump is “still the best candidate to reverse the downward spiral this nation is irotaten.”

But other evangelicals disagree. In a letter published on September 28 (so even before the video was made public), about 100 evangelical Christian leaders, including Rachel Held Evans and Jim Wallis, condemned Trump’s candidacy. Some snippets from “A Declaration by American Evangelicals Concerning Donald Trump:
Wallis and AOS book, 2.jpgWe believe that racism strikes at the heart of the gospel; we believe that racial justice and reconciliation is at the core of the message of Jesus.
We believe the candidacy of Donald J. Trump has given voice to a movement that affirms racist elements in white culture – both explicit and implicit.
We . . . simply will not tolerate the racial, religious, and gender bigotry that Donald Trump has consistently and deliberately fueled.

Although I don’t agree with all of the theology expressed in the letter, what I like about it (besides its condemnation of Trump) is its unapologetic Christian witness. They clearly do make the disclaimer of “not that kind of Christian”:
A significant mistake in American politics is the media’s continued identification of “evangelical” with mostly white, politically conservative, older men. We are not those evangelicals. The media’s narrow labels of our community perpetuate stereotypes, ignore our diversity, and fail to accurately represent views expressed by the full body of evangelical Christians.

But they also clearly say what kind of Christians they are. We progressives often fail to do that. We’re very good at saying “not that kind of Christian!” but not always so good about putting our beliefs out there. So in the interest of putting my money where my mouth is, here’s my declaration:

As a progressive Christian, I am a follower of Rabbi Jesus, who consistently taught that the realm of God is near, within us and around us. My role as a citizen of my community, country, and world is defined by the example of Jesus, which includes boundary-crossing, inclusivity, and prophetic witness in the face of oppression. It is also defined by the teachings of Jesus, which include compassion, forgiveness, and concern for the “least of these.”

I also believe in the mystical body of Christ, which I do not see as limited to Christianity. One might call this the Cosmic Christ, the Tao, the Universe, or Buddha Nature. In this body, in which all things are interconnected, there is no separation between divinity and humanity, humanity and the rest of creation, male and female, body and spirit, etc., etc. My connection to this great web of life is what gives me the inspiration and ability to follow the teachings of Jesus.

Therefore, as a progressive Christian, I cannot condone the misogynistic behaviors, the racist rhetoric, or unethical business practices of Donald Trump. I just can’t imagine what Jesus those evangelicals who continue to make excuses for him follow.

I am unapologetically (not arrogantly, exclusivistically, or obnoxiously) Christian – just  not that kind. 13722038_975213099262133_1521863844_n

 

 

 

 

Join the INTRAfaith Conversation

Reviews for  The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?   

Ishe likes itnevitably, profound questions arise out of respectful encounters with people of religions other than our own. Many who have been involved in cooperative engagements with people of other faith traditions discover that it is often easier to talk with people of a different religion than it is with the person sitting next to you in your own congregation. For others, the struggle is within, as in the case of Elsie L., a parishioner in Buffalo. After a church session in which a Hindu woman active in interfaith activities had spoken to the group, Elsie spoke to Pastor Strouse. “If I accept the Hindu path as equal to Christianity,” she said, “I’m worried that I’m betraying Jesus.”

Years of wrestling with that question and similar ones resulted in Strouse’s new book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? In it, Dr. Strouse addresses the challenges that the increasingly interfaith realities of today present to Christians, and invites reflection on how Christian theology and identity might be shaped and even strengthened by cooperative interfaith relationships.Blending personal stories, thoughtful reflection on the changing face of America and pastoral concern, The INTRAfaith Conversation invites readers to understand and appreciate just what doing Christian theology means in today’s multi-religious world. The book’s sections reflect the breadth of Strouse’s focus: dealing with the new religious context; what it means to think theologically as a comunity; tolerance, exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism; personal experience; and pastoral and leadership issues for congregations entering the interfaith world.

The book is designed to be used with a discussion group; each section is followed by a series of questions for reflection and discussion along with suggestions for further reading.I personally have been involved in interfaith work in the Bay Area for over 35 years and have never seen a book quite like The INTRAfaith Conversation. It addresses a very real issue with depth, humor, and pastoral sensitivity. I highly recommend it not only to pastors and other leaders in Christian churches, but to lay people who may be asking some of the same questions. Further, although it is specifically aimed at a Christian audience, it offers a model for how similar questions might be raised and wrestled with in non-Christian contexts as well.
Rev. Dr. D. Andrew Kille

This crisp and cogent book by the Rev. Dr. Strouse is published at a time when both interfaith and intrafaith dialogue are critical to the vitality of spiritual life in our nation. As a parish pastor in a small, struggling congregation I have become increasingly aware of the insularity and isolation of many of our parishioners. This seems less the result of inadequate parish education as it is the byproduct of too many people getting their information from biased TV networks, so-called social media or word-of-mouth. We parish pastors need to examine our internal (intra-congregational) conversations about diverse faith traditions and how they bear on congregational mission. I was particularly impressed by the author’s use of footnotes and her extensive bibliography. The book is a “walking-talking workshop” in print with its detailed reflection/discussion questions and suggestions for further reading. Thank you, Pastor Strouse, for such a comprehensive presentation of how to approach constructively this timely and important conversation.
Rev. Richard G. Eddy

Expertly laid out, providing a roadmap for a much needed dialogue.
Russell H. Miller

Available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble,
and at Sagrada Bookstore in Oakland, CA

The INTRAfaith Conversation at Synod Assembly

 

Last week The INTRAfaith Conversation went to the annual assembly of the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).

At least for an hour.

My presentation was one among a group of offerings  during the Saturday afternoon workshop time. It was a decidedly truncated version of my workshop at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, but it was just as stimulating – and affirming of my assertion that this is a wanted and needed conversation in the church today.

Some recurring themes:

  • How can we talk non-judgementally/non-dogmatically to young people about their faith/God questions?
  • How can we understand baptism in a non-exclusionary way?
  • If other religions are valid, why did Jesus have to die?
  • What is the goal of evangelism? Is Christian mission about conversion?
  • How can we express our Christian identity, unapologetically but not offensively?
  • What do we do about language in our scriptures, liturgies, hymnody, etc. that imply Christian superiority?

Great questions!

And as I always say: there are no cookie-cutter answers to these questions. However the answer to the question of methodology is conversation. If you want to know how to get a conversation  started, check out The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? It’s a congregation-friendly way of getting started.
And if you have questions, comments, stories to share, please feel free to contact me. I’d love to hear from you!

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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.

Is Jesus the Only Way to Salvation?

Excerpted from The Intrafaith Conversation:

Is a professed belief in Jesus Christ the only way to salvation? When Rob Bell published his book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, in 2011, his answer in essence was “No.” Accusations of heresy immediately began to fly from Bell’s evangelical community.

Bell anticipated their criticism in the book:
As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth. Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.

Whether or not you agree with all of Rob Bell’s conclusions, he has certainly highlighted the challenge for Christians today as we come into contact with those of other  religious traditions (as well as many within our own).

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New Voices in the Conversation Part 3: Atheists and Humanists

 

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) as 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

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.

Sylvia 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

In 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

Baptism in the INTRAfaith Conversation

baptism_JesusThis Sunday , which commemorates the Baptism of Jesus, is a leap forward in time. Seems like we just celebrated his birth, and now here’s the adult Jesus down at the Jordan River getting baptized. They grow up so fast!

What this Sunday does for progressive Christians, however , is raise a lot of questions about what baptism is. It also raises questions for those of us who have come to regard other religious traditions as equally valid. It was much simpler in the days before our interfaith engagements caused us to question how we Christians propagate an (often unintentional) exclusivism and triumphalism. Our theology of baptism should be a central topic in the intrafaith conversation.

I am indebted to Pastor Dawn Hutchings, a colleague from the Lutheran Church in Canada. Her recent blog post, A Progressive Christian Wades into the Waters of Baptism, is a fine piece of writing on this theological task. I re-post it here as a conversation starter.
http://pastordawn.com/2016/01/06/a-progressive-christian-wades-into-the-waters-of-baptism-3/

Then the next step is to broaden the topic into the interfaith arena.

I encourage you to look over your baptism liturgies, hymns and prayers. But read them through the eyes of a person of another belief system.

What are the issues, questions, and concerns that arise for you? How has your theology of baptism changed/ evolved through your interfaith encounters?

How might you adapt these changes in the congregation?

What is baptism to you?

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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.”

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 of 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: “Who do you say I am?”