Tag Archives: Christology

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).

she likes it

Beyond Tolerance

Jo-Mead-Beyond-ToleranceTolerance … usually has an elitist lining; either an elitist lining in the sense that you can be tolerant because for you it is not that important, or an elitist lining of noblesse oblige I know, but I cannot expect the other to know as much as I do. – Krister Stendahl.

Words matter. The meanings of words also change. Consider the ongoing discussions about the differences between interfaith and multifaith or between interfaith and interreligious. That debate is a topic for another book, but it points to the evolving picture of this work.

We could say the same of the word “tolerance.” I’ve often seen the “Practice Tolerance”tolerance3 bumper sticker, with “Tolerance” spelled out with symbols of the world’s religions, and know that it’s meant to be an inclusive sentiment. When Swami Vivekananda addressed the World Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1893, he spoke of “a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity.” Since the Congress was the first formal gathering of representatives from both Eastern and Western traditions, it is easy to understand why he paired persecution and intolerance in his speech. Tolerance was then a great improvement over prejudicial beliefs and actions.

But there are problems with the word tolerance. It can imply a willingness to put up with something disagreeable or disliked. If I say that I tolerate you, I convey a very different thing than if I say that I admire or respect you. The issue came to the fore in the global arena in the year 2000 at the United Nation’s Millennium Religion Summit. As reported by Rajiv Malhotra, founder of the Infinity Foundation, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the head of the Hindu delegation proposed that the term “mutual respect” be substituted for the word “tolerance” in the Summit’s final document “Commitment to Global Peace.” According to Malhotra, the words became a fierce topic of debate, in which adherents of the Abrahamic religions were strongly challenged to respect the non-Abrahamic religions as equals. Mere tolerance was not enough.

This was not a matter of mere political correctness. Christians, by agreeing to go beyond tolerance to mutual respect, begin to swim into the deep waters of church teachings about salvation. Although Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict), head of the Vatican delegation, objected strongly to the wording of the resolution, “mutual respect” won the day. However, the Vatican quickly issued a statement that affirmed that while “followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.”

Inherent in these challenges is the Christological question: in light of our religious
diversity who and what is Jesus? If we do not reject the truth claims of other traditions, we may have some problems with our own. These dilemmas are not solely academic exercises. They are very practical issues that need to be addressed, for example, in our practices of evangelism and mission. As Asian theologian C. S. Song has written: “The problem of Christian mission is the problem of Christian theology. Reconstruction of Christian theology must then precede reconstruction of Christian mission.”

It is not merely a matter of political correctness at the congregational level either. The question of tolerance or respect may relate to our willingness to be open to the real people we meet in interfaith encounters, to engage in dialogue which goes beyond tolerance. As Swami Dayananda and Cardinal Ratzinger found, however, moving from tolerance to mutual respect is not without challenges.

(This is an excerpt from The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters?)

Book Launch: Coming Soon!

she likes itIt’s almost here. This is just the draft cover. We have one more proof-reading to do. And then – book launch!

For the past several weeks, I’ve been publishing excerpts here on this blog. If you’ve liked what you’ve read, I hope you’ll be interested in reading the entire book.

Why did I write this book?

I’m a pastor (Lutheran) with over twenty-five years of parish experience. I’ve also been involved in interfaith work in both western New York and the San Francisco Bay area. I received a doctorate degree in interfaith education from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley in 2005.

In the course of my work I’ve noticed that many Christians who are open to other religious traditions become confronted with the exclusive claims of Christianity. In the midst of our wonderful religious diversity, many questions have arisen. Members of our congregations struggle with texts such as “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” They wonder about the commandment to “have no other gods before me.” They are unsure what to make of the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Our interfaith awareness has now led us to the intrafaith questions.

Through my doctoral work I became aware of the great amount of work being done at the academic level. Works on theology and biblical criticism abound in the seminary library. But, in spite of this leap forward into new ways of thinking about God, Jesus, scriptural interpretation, mission, etc., especially in relation to other religions, there’s hardly anything coming down to the congregational level.

My purpose in writing the book is two-fold:

1) to address the interfaith issues facing congregations and provide a resource for local Christian congregations to enter into relationships with their neighbors of other faiths; and

2) to provide a process of theological and christological reflection in order to help Christians address the intrafaith questions that inevitably arise as a result of their interfaith encounters.



The INTRAfaith Landscape: A New Reformation


imagesAbout every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. -Bishop Mark Dyer

Like it or not, change is happening within American Christianity. New ways of being church are springing up all around. Unlike the “worship wars” of previous decades, which pitted traditional and contemporary proponents against one another, the movement today is not so easy to classify. Terms such as emergent, post-denominational, post-modern and progressive attempt to describe the Christian scene and the movements going on within it. Each of these categorizations contains within itself a wide variety of interpretations of what it really means.

All of these are taking part in a “giant rummage sale,” as Bishop Dyer so brilliantly describes it. However, it’s clear that we’re not all in agreement about what to keep and what to give away. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we’re in the process of getting ready for the rummage sale. If you’ve ever held a yard, garage or rummage sale, you know the work that goes into putting it together. The first thing you have to do is look over all of your stuff with a critical eye. As you look at each cherished possession, you ask: Do I want to keep this? Is it still useful? Does it still fit? Does it still work? If the answer is ‘yes,’ the decision is easy; it’s a keeper. And if ‘no,’ to the sale it goes.

It gets a bit more complicated when you have an item that is tarnished, worn or outdated but you think there just might be some life left in it. You have to ask yourself if maybe, if it were cleaned up, restored or reworked, it could still be of value to you. A dusty old heirloom might just turn out to be a new treasure.

So it is in present-day Christianity. We’re looking with critical eyes at social issues, liturgical forms, biblical interpretations, theological teachings and the use of language. However not all churches necessarily deal with all of these, nor would they all agree. For example, a few years ago I attended, along with some members of my current congregation, a conference on the emerging church. First United considers itself to be a progressive congregation, committed to the use of inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for God. At our rummage sale, we had examined patriarchal language and decided that it had to go. So we were quite surprised by the lack of inclusive language used at the conference and by the fairly orthodox theology. We realized that we are all making different value judgment about our treasures. This is the reformation that is happening all around us. Old ideas are being reexamined, transformed or rejected; new ones are emerging.

Why is all this change happening now? Taking her cue from Bishop Dyer, the late Phyllis Tickle posited that we are in this current “giant rummage sale” simply because it’s time for one. In The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, she outlined the upheaval that has occurred every five hundred years since the time of Jesus. The Protestant Reformation began in the 16th century. The 11th century saw the Great Schism, which split the Eastern and Western Churches. In the 6th century, the Roman Empire collapsed and Europe entered the Dark Ages. All of these upheavals included both societal shifts and theological issues, just like we are experiencing now in the 21st century.

What I find most helpful about Tickle’s theory is that what we’re going through is normal. That means we can go about being creative and hopeful, rather than hidebound and anxious. This is good news because the church has been anxiety-driven for quite a while. Our outreach efforts have been fueled by the decline in membership in Christian congregations. Pundits have been writing ad nauseam about the reasons for this. The latest trend is expounding on the characteristics of the Millennial generation and how the church can reach out and reel them in. Some of these same “experts” also tell us how to appeal to those who are “spiritually independent” (a more positive way of saying “spiritual but not religious” or “none”) all around us.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m all in favor of doing outreach to those searching for a way to explore their spirituality and to those with no church home. However, as a veteran of the church growth movement of the 1990s, I know the pitfalls of easy characterizations and easy solutions. The experts told us then that we had to adapt to the needs of Generation X and that if we would just follow their instructions to the letter, our churches would grow. I learned an important lesson from those days: there are no one-size-fits-all answers to the questions of doing ministry in different settings. Another thing that I learned from the traditional/ contemporary worship wars is that for many the rummage sale included only musical styles, not language and theology.

For instance, the popular contemporary Christian song “Forever”includes the lyrics
Give thanks to the Lord
Our God and King
His love endures forever
For He is good, He is above all things
His love endures forever

This one hits the trifecta: exclusively male pronouns, hierarchical imagery for God (“Lord,” “King”) and an outdated view of a three-tiered universe (“above all things”).

Not that this is limited to recent contemporary music. One song, written in 1966, brought the interfaith/intrafaith issue home to me. One of my favorite songs used to be “I
Am the Bread of Life.”That is until I sat with Kitty at a funeral. I knew Kitty from a women’s interfaith group, so when I saw her at a funeral at a neighboring Episcopal church, I sat next to her. As the priest read the familiar passage from John’s gospel, I heard it through the ears of my friend who is Jewish: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” I was God-smacked. I had preached on that same text many times, but hearing it this time was such a powerful epiphany that I didn’t
want to go up to receive Holy Communion. It felt rude, exclusionary, and offensive. The next time we sang the song I almost choked. I could not sing these lyrics:
Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man

And drink of his blood, you shall not have life within you.

That revelation widened for me a quest that had previously been one of interfaith exploration. I had been happily content to meet people who followed other paths, but I had not been confronted with the intrafaith question. But once it  entered into my consciousness, I had no choice. I had to look with a critical eye at my belief in Jesus as the only way to salvation and make a decision about whether to keep it, give it away or transform it into something new. And if I wanted to transform it into something new, how could I do that with faithfulness and integrity?

Issues may change. Culture may change. The task of the church is to live out “ecclesia semper reformanda est” (“the church is always to be reformed”).In reaching out to Millenials, spiritual independents, the “church alumni society,” we must take up the challenge in our own time. The inclusion of interfaith and intrafaith is an essential part of living out this challenge.

The reformation process is not only about the above-mentioned groups. Many members of congregations want to know how to navigate this “rummage sale” process. If we’re going to be part of this new reformation and we’re serious about relating to people of all ages in our congregations and to the spiritually independents, then the interfaith/intrafaith conversation must be part of our ministry.



Wheaton College: an Intra-faith Controversy

If you haven’t been following the news from Wheaton College, an evangelical college in Wheaton, Illinois, the story is this:
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.

Since 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, 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.”

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?”