Tag Archives: interfaith

You Might Be a Christian Atheist If . . .

 

shutterstock_1455604277New Voices . . .

is a chapter in my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation, in which I describe some of the groups now included in the interfaith scene.

These groups include . . .

Atheists and Humanists

Since the book was published in 2015, there have been a lot of new developments. I was aware of the wide range of definitions for atheists and humanists when I wrote the book. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the further exploration, expansion, and definition of these terms. I’m not much interested in the fundamentalist atheists, who are just as dogmatic as the religionists they criticize. But I am drawn to those who are exploring the boundaries of who and what God (or Being or Presence or no word at all) is.

Probably the most public lately has been Gretta Vosper, the self-professed Atheist who is a pastor in the United Church of Canada (I wrote about her in Should the Atheist Pastor Be Defrocked?). In 1997, four years into her call to West Hill United Church in Scarborough, Ontario, she preached a sermon called “Deconstructing God.” At that point, she defined herself in a more “not this” manner, declaring that she did not believe in a theistic God. Then in 2013, she moved from non-theism to atheism after she read about the plight of Pakistani bloggers who faced punishment as blasphemers for questioning the existence of God. For her (according to her website), “god is a metaphor for goodness and love lived out with compassion and justice, no more and no less.”

In 2017, I met Carrah Quigley when we presented a workshop together at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto. Carrah identifies as a Spiritual Humanist. According to the Church of Spiritual Humanism, this is a “religion based on the ability of human beings to solve the problems of society using logic and science . . .  using scientific inquiry we can define the inspirational, singular spark inherent in all living creatures.” Spiritual Humanism is natural, not supernatural.

46159493._SX318_Atheists for Jesus?

Then, just this month I came across the category of Jesus-following Atheists (also known as Christian Atheists) in an article entitled Inter-faith Dialogue with Christian Atheists. 

Hmm. Intriguing.

From what I’ve read, it seems that the main focus of Christian Atheism is the life of the historical Jesus and the system of ethics drawn from his teachings. Although, regarding the subject of God, there is some divergence. While some do reject the idea of God altogether, others dismiss the belief in a supernatural, interventionist God. According to the author of What Does It Mean to Be a Christian Atheist?I still believe in ‘God.’ What I do not accept is belief in a theistic deity, a ‘being’ that created the universe, holds the universe together, or exists in or apart from the universe.”

Of course, Bishop John Shelby Spong has written and spoken much about the death of theism, and I greatly appreciate his insights about coming to reject the belief in a supernatural power. I don’t think he calls himself an a-theist; he’s more inclined to dismiss as inadequate these words for our experiences of the Divine. The experience is what is important. In this sense, I have no qualms about calling myself an a-theist. Especially since he doesn’t reject the reality of mystical experiences of the Holy, as do some who adhere only to the ethical teachings of Jesus.

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However, at the end of the day, I still resonate most with Teilhard de Chardin’s panentheism, in which all creation exists within a ‘divine milieu.’

Still, I am intrigued by the ongoing exploration of what we mean when we think about God (the Divine, Spirit, or no name at all). The freedom to go outside the bounds of our traditional (and limited) understandings enhances not only our own spiritual/ethical life, but our communal life as well.

The interfaith world benefits from the presence of those who do not fit the definition of “religion.” The intrafaith scene can benefit as well, if we get past our prejudices (especially when we don’t know the broad range of these groups) and listen to their stories.

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What to Do with “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”?

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In virtually every workshop I’ve ever led about interfaith matters, someone asks the question: “What about when Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me?”

Here is an audio version of the interview I did with Steve Kindle of Pastor to Pew a few years ago. We talk about my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation. But mostly it’s my take on John 14: 6 and how taking the intrafaith  question seriously is a necessity for today’s church. 

You can also see the video here.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does Progressive Christianity Say?
As a progressive Christian, I agree with the second point of The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity:
tcpc_logo_tag.pngBy calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey. 

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s talk!

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Bill Lesher’s INTRAfaith Journey

blesherThere’s a very nice article by Joseph Prabhu in this month’s edition of The Interfaith Observer entitled A Tribute to Bill Lesher.

William E. Lesher was truly a giant – and not just in Lutheran circles. Parish pastor, seminary professor and president, civil rights activist, champion of the environment: Bill put several lifetimes into his 85 years! But it was his commitment to the interfaith movement that had the biggest impact on me personally. His involvement with the Parliament of the World’s Religions was a powerful witness to me of what Christian leadership in a religiously diverse world looked like.

I knew Bill only in the later years of his life. He and Jean were just getting ready to move to Claremont when I met him for lunch. I knew that he’d often said that what we really needed was intrafaith dialogue. So of course I wanted to pick his brain about how to go about doing that. So I’m grateful that Prabhu mentioned this aspect of Bill’s life, which was not just an academic interest, but part of his spirituality. As Prabhu wrote:

“. . . he took interfaith dialogue seriously as a requirement of interreligious under-standing and also as a source of personal spiritual enrichment. This enrichment usually takes the form of learning and appreciating religious traditions other than one’s own. Thus, a Christian might learn about Hindu or Buddhist meditative practice and discern parallels with the contemplative practices of her own tradition. There is, however, a stage beyond this when inter-faith dialogue leads to rigorous intra-faith dialogue. Here, the differences with other traditions, and specifically differing truth-claims, challenge one’s original convictions.”  (bold emphasis mine) 

In my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? I found a phrase in John S. Dunne’s book The Way of All the Earth that described just this process: “passing over and coming back.”

Dunne wrote:
“What seems to be occurring is a phenomenon we might call ‘passing over,’ passing from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. 

“Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion. It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back,’ coming back with new insight to one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion. . .

“Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.”

Bill has now gone on to a new spiritual adventure. And I will always be grateful for his life, his example, his encouragement, his faith, his courage to move outside the boundaries of his own religious tradition, and the wisdom to come back with  new insights and understandings.  

Another Take on “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”

This is a re-blog of a sermon from Pastor Dawn Hutchings of Holy Cross Lutheran Church near Toronto. It’s entitled “Letting Go of the Words Attributed to Jesus So that We Can Embrace the WORD – Easter 5A – John 14:1-14”

For me, the best part of the sermon is her story of being paired with a Hindu student for an assignment in a Religious Studies program. They were each asked to bring a piece of sacred scripture from their partner’s faith tradition that they found intriguing. To her chagrin, her Hindu friend brought “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except though me” to the table. And to her surprise, he then launched into – as she says – “an exegesis of the text that put this particular Christian to shame.”

Read the rest of the story here.

Your INTRAfaith Opportunity: Easter 5

Way-Truth-Lifejy-if6-sIt’s the passage that’s always brought up when Christians get together to talk about interfaith relationships. It is one of THE intrafaith questions. What do we do about “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me”?

How do you answer that question? I was interviewed by the Rev. Steve Kindle for Pastor2Pew about this text.  You can see that interview here. Let me know what you think.

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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!

 

Moving toward Pluralism Sunday 2.0

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Since I’ve taken over as coordinator for Pluralism Sunday, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon.

Former coordinator Jim Burklo sent me his files with participating congregations, names of clergy, and email addresses going back to the beginning in 2007. I figured the first thing to do was update the list. So out went an email to 1) introduce myself and 2) ask if they wanted to remain on the distribution list. As you’d expect, a flood of mailer-daemons immediately filled my in-box. There were also a few messages from former participants who were now retired from ministry and didn’t want to continue.

But the surprise was in the messages from former participating clergy who asked to be removed because their congregations emphasize pluralism on a regular basis anyway. I brought this to our worship planning team and found that they agreed. They wondered why we would have one Sunday a year to celebrate religious diversity when we did that all year round.

Well now, I thought, this is an interesting development. I’ve just taken over as coordinator of Pluralism Sunday and my own congregation wants to opt out. Even though for the past four years, we’ve had not just Pluralism Sunday but Pluralism Summer – 12 weeks of guests from a wide variety of traditions (I guess if you put it all together, we’ve actually had 48 Pluralism Sundays in those 4 years alone!).

And we’re not really opting out. Our liturgy has continued to transform into a more interspiritual – although still rooted in Christianity – format. For this year, we’ve decided to have something during the year around the holy days of other religions, inviting some of our interfaith friends back to share their traditions.

Then it occurred to me that something is happening here. It’s clear that some clergy and congregations still need to be encouraged to dip their toes into interfaith waters, especially in the context of Sunday worship. But it’s also becoming clear that many have moved beyond the toe-dipping stage and are swimming in the deep water. And I think these clergy and congregations have something to contribute: resources, experiences, collective wisdom, etc.

So I’m wondering if we need to be thinking about Pluralism Sunday 2.0. I know that I’d appreciate discussion on being a Christian church seeking to embrace pluralism. Issues around liturgy, biblical interpretation, hymnody come to mind. Also addressing questions and concerns in the congregation thoughtfully and pastorally.

So the next stage is to revise the website. And not only update information about this year’s Pluralism Sunday, but add a 2.0 page as well. I hope those congregations who’ve opted out will opt back in and participate. I hope that others will join in, too.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts and ideas.

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Pluralism Sunday 2017

firstsundayheader1On Pentecost Sunday 2007, we had our first Pluralism Sunday at First United. In fact, that was the very first ever Pluralism Sunday. The event was initiated by Rev. Jim Burklo, a pastor in the United Church of Christ and now Associate Dean in the Office of Religious Life at USC. A long-time proponent of progressive Christianity, affiliated with The Center for Progressive Christianity (now progressivechristianity.org), Burklo got the idea from the second of The Eight Points of  Progressive Christianity:

By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey.

This was the original promotion:
Progressive Christians thank God for the diversity of religions in the world!  We don’t claim that ournov6-1 religion is superior to all others.  We grow closer to God, grow deeper in compassion, and understand our own tradition better by honoring and exploring the world’s religions.  Many if not most people think that in order to be a Christian, it’s necessary to believe that Christianity is the only valid way to salvation, and that other religions are inferior at best and evil at worst. But Pluralism Sunday spreads good news: there is a way to be Christian without making this prideful claim, which has been the cause of so much inter-religious division and misunderstanding.  Pluralism Sunday takes a big step beyond mere “tolerance” of other religions, and affirms that other faiths may be as good for their adherents as our faith is for us.

This week, Jim handed the reins of Pluralism Sunday over to me. Yikes!

Thankfully, the folks at progressivechristianity.org will maintain the website; all I have to do is send them stuff. My immediate goals will be to:

  • update the website with resources, stories, etc.
  • get publicity out for this year’s Pluralism Sunday

The next stage will be actively recruiting new participants. So this is where you can help. If you’d like to receive information about Pluralism Sunday (and I promise there will not be a flood of emails), let me know and I’ll add you to the list.

Pluralism Sunday is May 7 (although you can change that date to suit your congregation’s needs). It’s not too late to plan something for this year. And I’m happy to be of assistance! 10425105_685298248244578_4828843527378246256_n

PS – If you’re concerned about how Pluralism Sunday will be received in your congregation, might I recommend The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? It would be a good place to start.

Pluralism and Election Politics

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How different might this election cycle have been had more voters been willing to be curious about, understand, accept, or even embrace a pluralist nation, rather than panic in the face of “the other? – Kate Blanchard

Kate Blanchard, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Alma College, asks a very important question. If we think that engaging in interfaith activities and education is just a nice “add-on” to the more important work of ministry in our churches, we are sadly mistaken.

And if part of our hesitancy of doing  it is that people within our congregations might disagree on some of the issues that will be raised, we need to buckle up and prepare for the ride.

It would be strange if there were not differences of opinions and beliefs within a group of people – even in our credal, doctrinal churches. Trust me; if you allow people to express themselves and ask questions without fear of being branded heretics, you’ll discover a wealth of theological perspectives. Maybe that’s why so many leaders don’t want to ask!

But the truth is that people do have minds of their own, they do think about spiritual and theological matters, and they do form opinions about other belief (and non-belief) systems.

A wise leader would be willing to enter into the experience of interfaith and intrafaith discussions, not in order to tell people what to think and believe, but to facilitate the process of discovery.

As Professor Blanchard’s question articulates so well, this isn’t an abstract matter. There are concrete consequences to our avoidance of the challenges of pluralism.