How would you explain your understanding of God, the Divine, Higher Power, or however you understand that which is bigger than ourselves? Are you apophatic (the so-called ‘negative’ approach, which means emptying the mind of words and ideas about God) or cataphatic (the so-called ‘positive’ approach, that uses words, images, symbols, ideas for the Divine)?
Are you a theist (for whom God refers to a being beyond the universe, another being in addition to the universe) or a panthentheist (for whom God does not refer to a being separate from the universe, but to a sacred presence all around us)?
And how would you convey your understanding to a person of a different religious tradition?
That is my assignment for the next two weeks. On August 18, the Peninsula Multifaith Coalition will hold a panel discussion that will explore the concept of God. Six different faith traditions will be represented, and I have the challenge of presenting the Christian understanding of the Divine in just nine minutes.
This is a daunting task and the intrafaith nature of such an endeavor is that there are numerous ideas about God within Christianity. I have always approached assignments like this by explaining that I could speak only for myself, not for every branch of the Christian tradition. As a progressive Christian who leans more towards the apophatic and panentheistic, I’ve found that I’m not always in alignment even with my Lutheran background. And this assignment will be even tougher. Our planning group wanted someone from within mainline Christianity to talk about – Dum Dum Dumm – the Trinity.
Oh, boy. Should I start off with the claim by theologian Karl Rahner that if the Trinity were to quietly disappear out of Christian theology, never to be mentioned again, most of Christendom would not even notice its absence! Probably not.
It’s not like I haven’t written and spoken about the Trinity. Looking back in my records, I can find a bunch of sermons and blog posts that deal with it. That kind of made me wonder why I’d spent so much time on a topic most of Christendom wouldn’t even miss. I mean, many progressive Christians have ditched it altogether. But I am one who is reluctant to throw out the baby with the bathwater. And there are some theologians, like Richard Rohr (The Divine Dance) and Cynthia Bourgeault (The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity) who have made the Trinity much more intriguing to me.
But how to approach it an interfaith setting – and in nine minutes? Do I go with the good old ice/water/steam analogy (very kataphatic)?
Or a more apophatic image, conveying the unknowable Mystery?
You can probably guess which appeals more to me.
So I have an interfaith and an intrafaith dilemma. My understanding of the Trinity actually is very interfaith friendly. But it isn’t the mainline version.
I don’t have an answer yet. But as soon as I figure out what to do with my nine minutes, I’ll let you know.
I was very interested when I learned that the book club of my area’s interfaith organization was reading When One Religion Isn’t Enough: the Lives of Spiritually Fluid People by Duane R. Bidwell. I hadn’t heard of this book, even though it was published in 2018. But I was intrigued because in my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation, I have a chapter entitled “New Voices.” And one of those voices is “Hybrid Spirituality: Multiple Belonging.” In it I quoted Francis X. Clooney, SJ:
The phenomenon of “multiple religious belonging” is now deeply engrained in American culture. We can no longer imagine simply the prospect of well-established religions and their members deciding whether to dialogue or not. People, younger people in particular, find themselves in the position of having multiple religious attractions, and experiences and commitments which cannot easily be fit into any given religious system. For such people, it is unlikely that even upon ecclesial insistence they could give up strands of identity not easily reducible to a single tradition or church.
This obviously has huge implications for the church in the 21st century and we would be wise to pay attention to it.
I did learn (or relearn)some things from Bidwell’s book, beyond enjoying the stories he told of people living out their hybrid spirituality and resonating with his experience as an ordained pastor navigating the ecclesiastical institution as a hybrid.
First, was his statement “I do not believe that God is one or that all paths reach the same mountain.” This reminded me of Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One: the eight rival religions that run the world– and why their differences matter. I squirm when I hear interfaith friendly people declaring that “it’s all the same God” and “we’re all clinging the same mountain on different paths.” Even at a session of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I was surprised when a speaker declared that we all worshipped the same God – especially when we’re also including people of no faith.
But I realized that I have preached about the one-ness of the Divine myself. A few weeks ago, when John’s gospel’s Jesus prayed “that we might all be one,” I played the music video “One” by Billy Jonas. It’s really a very cool video, but now I can see the problem in some of the lyrics.
One plus one Plus one plus one Makes ONE One likes Jesus One likes Judah Yogananda, Allah, Goddess, the Buddha! Says ‘wait how do you pick a path?’ Solution: NEW new math One plus one Plus one plus one Makes ONE ONE-der where its leading to. One-derful, wondrous thing One way – the way we’re going. One plus one Plus one plus one Makes ONE
It might not make a big difference when watching a video, but it’s something to think about.
The second thing I found interesting was Bidwell’s section called “Names Matter.” It reminded me of the explanation in my book of the dilemma of what to call the interfaith movement:
There is much ongoing discussion about what to call the movement. The Rev. Dr. Andrew Kille, executive director of the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council (SiVIC) writes that “interfaith carries some muddy implications that can be confusing – ‘interfaith’ organizations in the past meant ‘ecumenical’- all Christian, or, at best, Christian/ Jewish. It has also come to describe traditions that blend two or more religious observances into some whole. We chose ‘interreligious’ partly because the term is less familiar, partly because it suggests relationships between distinct traditions, rather than a blending of them. Multi-faith has much the same kind of sense about it. ‘Interreligious’ is also a term that hopes to include traditions for whom ‘faith’ is not really a meaningful concept- Buddhists, Wiccans, etc.” Interfaith? Multi-faith? Interreligious? Multi religious? Pan-spiritual? Religio-pluralistic? For the purpose of this book, I will usually use ‘interfaith.’
Now, Bidwell has added multiple religious belonging, dual religious practice, religious hybridity, to the list of problematic names and the challenge they entail. He chooses instead to use spiritual fluidity, religious multiplicity, and multiple (or complex) religious bonds.
For those of us who care about such things, it just goes to show the ongoing complexity of our religious/spiritual landscape.
And for those who don’t, there’s always One plus one Plus one plus one Makes ONE
Now, it’s here! “Same God” is being shown this month on some PBS stations. Watch the trailer and find local listings here. There will also be a limited theatrical release beginning March 8. The best way to get information is to follow @samegodfilm on FB, Twitter, and Instagram.
“Same God” was directed by Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Linda Midgett, who is herself a graduate of Wheaton. But make no mistake about it; this is not a defense of the institution. Nor is it a condemnation. It is a beautifully filmed, honest telling, not only of Dr. Hawkins’ story, but also of the history and current state and challenges of evangelical Christianity.
A Quick Recap
It really all started in 2013, when Dr. Hawkins (or Doc Hawk as students call her in the film) became the first female African-American tenured professor at Wheaton. At Wheaton, an explicitly Christian liberal arts college, all faculty members are required to annually sign a covenant which defines what it means to be “dedicated to the service of Christ and His Kingdom.” As the film tells us, Dr. Hawkins willingly and faithfully signed this covenant upon her employment and every year thereafter.
Then, on December 2, 2015, 14 people were killed in a terror attack in San Bernardino. Immediately, anti-Muslim rhetoric in the US began to ramp up. Then-candidate Donald Trump called for a Muslim travel ban. In response to this, Dr. Hawkins posted on her Facebook page that she was standing in solidarity with Muslims because they are also “people of the book” who worship “the same God.” As part of her Advent devotions, she posted a picture of herself wearing a hijab. That’s when it hit the fan. Long story short: she lost her job. The film covers all this very well, with interviews of Hawkins, plus faculty members and students. No one from the administration agreed to be interviewed.
A Rorschach Test There is so much in this film that could and should spark dialogue. Someone said that the picture of Dr. Hawkins wearing a hijab was like a Rorschach test; different people would see different things. For example, many Muslim women would see an act of compassionate solidarity (what Hawkins would call embodied solidarity). For others, it would surface questions about academic freedom, religious liberty, and theology. I would add that having seen the film, the picture is a stark symbol of the systems of patriarchy and white privilege at work. It’s also a reminder of the need for interfaith dialogue. The ignorance expressed in many of the reactions to Dr. Hawkins’ post is simply appalling.
What I see in the inkblot is an intrafaith conversation needing to happen. To be sure, there are many facets to this story: blatant racism and sexism; the emotional toll of the entire saga on Dr. Hawkins; and not to be ignored, the career and financial hits she was forced to take. All of these are very worthy of our attention. But what caught my intrafaith eye was the hurt she experienced in being accused of not being Christian. In a review in the Chicago Tribune, Linda Midgett expressed hope that her documentary will spark dialogue between people of different faiths so they can find common ground. I wholeheartedly agree! But I also hope it will encourage dialogue between people within the same faith – in this case Christianity.
It Really Is about Theology . . .
In the film, Dr. Hawkins says that the controversy in which she was embroiled was not about a theological debate. In the context of her grilling by the Wheaton provost, I agree and applaud her courage in naming what was unfair in the process and her refusal to engage in further “theological conversation.”
Having said that, it is clear that theological questions loom large over the whole saga. Dr. George Kalantziz, Professor of Theology, hits the nail on the head: “When we ask the question ‘does Islam (or any other religion than Christianity) worship the same God?’ it’s always a qualified ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ We don’t all understand the word, not only ‘God,’ the same way, but worship the same way.”
Bingo! Wheaton missed an opportunity to explore these questions.
And Even More So, Christology . . . I’m particularly interested in the Christological questions raised by the firestorm of responses to Dr. Hawkins’ assertion that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In the film, as Dr. Kalantziz is speaking, the camera pans across a beautiful church sanctuary. In the foreground is a gold processional cross. The symbolism is unmistakeable: this is a place that worships Jesus the Christ. Although never explicitly stated in the film, this is the heart of the matter. Who was/is Jesus? How does belief in Christ as the second person of the Trinity inform our beliefs about the truth of other religions?
The interview with Bishop David Zac Niringiye would be the perfect discussion starter on how our interfaith encounters inform/strengthen/challenge/change our own beliefs. Speaking eloquently of the need for Christians to listen to our Muslim siblings, he says, “There is something about what they know of God that might cause me to understand God more.” He goes on to qualify: “Now, it is true, that the revelation of God is finally in Jesus Christ. It is complete.”
There is where I’d want the conversation to begin.
“Your Christianity Isn’t Real” One of the most heartbreaking aspects of Dr. Hawkins’ story is the fact that her identity as a Christian was called into question. I can relate to a point. My job was never on the line. But I know that my adherence to orthodoxy has been questioned. In my case, it’s because I’ve moved further into Progressive Christianity, which has major differences with more traditional ways of believing. The ironic thing here, though, is that Hawkins is quite at home in evangelical Christianity. In the film, she movingly speaks about her baptism in her grandfather’s church, her love for Jesus and how that informs her work in the world. An interesting aspect of the film is its contrasting of African-American and white evangelicals. I was reminded that ‘evangelical’ does not describe a monolithic group; we on the more liberal side should not use the term irresponsibly.
I’m part of a denomination with ‘evangelical’ in its name: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We often have discussions about removing the ‘evangelical’ part because we don’t want to be identified with what has become white evangelicalism since the 1970s (this was a really helpful part of the documentary). Listening to Wheaton faculty members, it’s clear they’re having some of the same dilemmas. I believe we could easily find some common ground in an intrafaith dialogue.
Who Are We? Christian Identity in the 21st Century Most religious groups are undergoing a time of questioning about their place in the world. This is causing great anxiety among many people and institutions. As Dr Kalantziz said, “Questions have moved. People, ideas have moved . . . expressions of theology have changed.” This is not good news to many who are resistant to change, especially in theology and religious practice. He talks about the evangelicalism of the past and the future, about two kinds of leadership: pioneers and overseers. The role of overseers is to keep the heritage of American evangelicalism alive.
Wheaton College, despite its pioneering history as a stop on the Underground Railroad, has become an overseer, dedicated to an evangelicalism of the past. Larycia Hawkins, on the other hand, can be seen as helping to usher in an evangelicalism of the future. That’s obviously not an easy place to be. The film poignantly allows us to enter into her life – in the courage, strength, conviction, and resilience, as well as the vulnerability, suffering, and loss. I don’t know how anyone could fail to be moved by her story.
My interest in Dr. Hawkins began as a rather academic exercise in showing an example of an intrafaith issue. Having seen the film, I’m even more of a fan – of the person and her witness of faith in action. It’s still an intrafaith story, but so much more. I hope it will be seen by Christians, from evangelicals to progressives. And I sincerely hope that director Linda Midgett’s vision of her documentary sparking dialogue will be fulfilled: both between people of different faiths andbetween people within the same faith.
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.
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.
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.
This past week, my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), held its triennial Churchwide Assembly. One of the main events was voting on the proposed policy statement: A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment. I’m proud to say that it passed 890-23.
That might have been due to the fabulous array of ecumenical and inter-religious guests!
There was, however, one moment of concern from the intrafaith perspective. An amendment had been submitted calling a section of the policy statement “inconsistent with Scripture,” which proposed striking some of the language of the statement under the heading “Limits on our knowing” (lines 630-655). The author of the motion based his challenge on our old friend John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
In the amendment he wrote: “We have a clear statement from Jesus, who is fully God and fully man. We do therefore have a basis to know God’s views on religions that do not require faith in Jesus Christ as God’s son.”
Speaking from the floor, he added: “I am here to speak truth to power, even if it is an inconvenient truth. I would urge this assembly to repudiate and repent of any false teachings.”
The only other person who came to a microphone stated, “I’m embarrassed that we’re having this conversation in front of our interfaith guests.”
The motion to amend was overwhelmingly defeated and the policy statement was adopted.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am delighted that this policy statement has been adopted. But I’m also disappointed that this very appropriate question was not adequately addressed. To be fair, I doubt that it could have been adequately addressed in the context of the amendment’s discussion time. And I have to wonder how many other voting members had similar questions but not the courage of this one lone amendment-maker. Having the discussion with all the interfaith guests standing right there on the stage might not have been an embarrassment, but it sure might have been a deterrent.
As I have said innumerable times, the “What about when Jesus said . . .” question has come up in virtually every interfaith workshop I’ve ever led with Christians.
Here is an audio version of the interview I did on 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.
Presiding Bishop Eaton said (in reference to our ecumenical relations) that “ecumenism is not an add-on, but a central part of what it means when we say we are church.” I know even that’s a stretch for many congregations, but I wish that our inter-religious relations could also be central to what it means to be church.
But if we do take interfaith seriously,
we’re going to have to also take intrafaith seriously.
Thankfully, there’s a resource for this! (Shameless self-promotion warning)
“. . . meeting and respecting a person of another religion confronts us all with the question raised by Marjorie Suchoki in Divinity and Diversity:
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.
“As pastors and lay leaders we are responsible to our congregations to provide the theological foundation for affirming ‘these others.’ Rather than succumbing to what John Cobb calls ‘the danger that sensitive Christians will simply delete central beliefs rather than transform them,’ I believe that we have some serious theological and Christological work to do in defining, or perhaps re-defining, ourselves in light of our interfaith milieu.” (The INTRAfaith Conversation, Introduction)
I really hope we take up the challenge to build relationships with our inter-religious siblings. I also really hope that we’ll also take up the challenge to engage folks like the writer of the amendment. That’s not an add-on either, but should be part of what it means when we say we are church.
. . . if interreligious dialogue is to be real dialogue,
then intrareligious dialogue must accompany it.
– Raimon Panikkar
A lot happened at the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) last week. Some of it even made national news – and rightly so.
What you might not have seen in the news, but which is a very big deal, is all the interfaith activity. One of the matters brought to the attention of the 927 voting members in attendance was the relationship between Lutherans and Jews. It has not always been a good one.
Years ago, a co-worker who heard I was about to go off to the Lutheran seminary, exclaimed, “I hate Lutherans!” It turned out that her husband was Jewish and she’d read the ugly things that Martin Luther had written in some of his later writings. At that time, I was only barely cognizant of this part of my religious heritage. I didn’t know how to respond.
Many years later, when a group of college students visited my congregation on a tour of local religious communities, one of the first questions they asked was about Luther and the Jews. This time I was more prepared and, thankfully had something positive to contribute.
For one thing, I had studied Church History and Reformation Studies under Dr. Eric Gritsch at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (now part of United Lutheran Seminary) and was aware of his active involvement in the Christian-Jewish dialogue. And although his book, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment, was published long after my seminary days, I do remember him talking about this neuralgic (a favorite Gritsch word) part of our history.
In 1994, “Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community” was released. And in 1998, Guidelines for Lutheran-Jewish Relations. Both of these documents are important milestones. But, in my opinion, what took place at the Assembly took our relationship with our Jewish siblings to a new level. Members of the ELCA Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Jewish Relations led voting members and visitors in litany based on the 1994 statement, including this paragraph:
In the spirit of that truth-telling, we who bear his name and heritage
must with pain acknowledge also Luther’s anti-Judaic diatribes
and the violent recommendations of his later writings against the Jews.
As did many of Luther’s own companions in the sixteenth century,
we reject this violent invective, and yet more do we express
our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations.
In concert with the Lutheran World Federation,
we particularly deplore the appropriation of Luther’s words
by modern anti-Semites for the teaching of hatred toward Judaism
or toward the Jewish people in our day.
Watch the entire litany here.
And then, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton introduced Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. His address to the assembly was incredible!
Watch it here. You’ll be glad you did!
I’ll be writing about more of the interfaith and intrafaith aspects of the assembly. But I thought this deserved its own post. Anti-Semitism has deep roots in American history, but in 2018, anti-Semitic attacks were near record highs.
All Christians should stand in solidarity with our Jewish siblings.
Lutherans should be in the forefront.
After watching the news from Churchwide Assembly, I believe – by the grace of God – we just may be.
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.
Grace to you and peace, from God our Creator and Christ our Wisdom. Amen.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. I’m always a little flummoxed by the day because I’ve never seen a real-live shepherd. I mean, I get it; the job of a shepherds is to take care of sheep. But I’ve often wondered if there couldn’t be an updated version, you know, one that modern people could relate to. I did see a couple examples (forgive the exclusive language):
A Programmer’s Psalm 23
The Lord is my programmer, I shall not crash. He installed his software on the hard disk of my heart; all of his commands are user-friendly. His directory guides me to the right choicesfor his name’s sake. Even though I scroll through the problems of life, I will fear no bugs, for he is my backup. His password protects me.
An Architect’s Psalm 23
The Lord is my architect, I shall not be mis-proportioned. He makes me enclose beautiful spaces, he builds me erect in tranquility, He restores my deteriorated parts. He puts me together to reflect righteousness for his namesake. Though I am overshadowed by skyscrapers and cathedrals, I will fear no evil, for you stay attentive to me; your pencil and creativity, they comfort me.
But they don’t really do the trick, do they? The shepherd image somehow works, even for 21stcentury, urban dwellers. How can that be? Maybe we can get a hint from Allstate. I almost always mute the sound when commercials come on TV. But there are some I actually like. Like the ads for Allstate Insurance that feature a character named Mayhem.
In one, a man is driving in his car and his cell phone starts buzzing. But the phone has fallen and gotten stuck between the seat and the console. As it keeps buzzing, the man keeps trying to get at it. Mayhem, who we can see lying underneath the seats where the phone would be, is goading him on: “Cold, warm, warmer . . .” until BOOM, the driver rear ends the car in front of him. “Jackpot!” exclaims a triumphant Mayhem.
Now, I’m pretty sure you know there’s no man on the floor hiding the guy’s phone – but you get the message. He symbolizes mayhem. Even if you’ve never dropped your cell phone and rear-ended a car as you frantically tried to find, there’s a whole series where “Mayhem” wreaks havoc in someone’s life. It’s a very effective way of tapping into the common human condition – stuff happens. The good news according to Allstate is: you’re in good hands.
Same message as the Good Shepherd. We know that neither God (23rdPsalm) or Jesus (Gospel of John) is a literal shepherd. But like “Mayhem,” the Good Shepherd (the anti-Mayhem?) hits us in the middle of our human condition. We get the message. The good news according to John: we’re in good hands. God cares for us, lovingly, faithfully, consistently. We matter to God. In Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we see that most clearly. The sheep and their shepherd are bound in a relationship that, when expressed in theo-logical language, is very powerful and moving. The 23rd Psalm is a prime example, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Or as one little girl, in telling her teacher she knew the entire 23rd Psalm, recited: “The Lord is my Shepherd, that’s all I want.”
Now, today I’m going to focus on women as shepherds. Particularly one woman. In the passage from the Book of Acts, we learned about a woman named Dorcas (Greek), also known as Tabitha (Aramaic). You might recognize the name Dorcas as part of a trio of women commemorated annually on October 25. The official title for the day is: “Dorcas, Lydia, and Phoebe – Faithful Women.”
But hold up a minute. Because we’re reading in English, it is very important to know that Luke identifies Dorcas with the Greek word ‘mathetria.’ You might wonder why that’s so important. Here’s why. Dorcas is “the only woman explicitly identified as a disciple in Acts, and 9:36 is the only occurrence of the feminine form of ‘disciple’ (mathetria) anywhere in the New Testament.”
Hmm. Isn’t it interesting that “when men take care of widows, Luke calls it ‘ministry,’ but when Tabitha (Dorcas) performs the same services Luke calls it ‘good works .’
“Good question, and one that illuminates for us the power of words, especially when we consider the exclusion of women from ordained ministry for so many centuries (and in some churches, even today).” Sermon Seeds
Scripture, of course, identifies many women who play important roles of shepherding and leading (even without the designation‘mathetria’). And they come by it honestly. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God as a shepherd, including the feminine aspect, Like a shepherd you feed your flock, gathering the lambs in your arms, and carrying them in your bosom, and gently leading the mother sheep.
Shepherds care for the most vulnerable in our society. Jesus followed that job description, and we follow his example. In Jesus’ time, one of the most vulnerable of God’s flock was the widow. In today’s story we know that Dorcas conducted her ministry among the widows of her community. Hebrew and Christian scriptures alike declare God’s desire for widows to be treated with kindness and justice.
The frequency of these urgings suggests that God’s will was not always obeyed. Widows remained very vulnerable. So what does Dorcas do? She makes clothing for them. In the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, her compassion is hands-on. The emphasis in the story is her discipleship among them. She is their pastor.
An interesting fact is that the town of Joppa where Dorcas lived was where Jonah had been called to go to the hated Assyrians. This seems to have been a place where ministry happened on the margins of society. Dorcas ministered with women that society routinely overlooked. They had obviously become a close-knit community. When she died, these women came together to grieve her death – and then miraculously her restoration to life.
This is one of the several ‘restoration to life’ stories in the Bible. They are hard to deal with sometimes because they cause us to wonder ‘why that person and not this person?’ That question was certainly on many peoples’ minds last week after the tragic death of Rachel Held Evans. If you’re not familiar with her, she was the 37-year old mega-popular Christian writer, blogger, and speaker. Her ministry on the margins was with exvangelicals, those who have left evangelical Christianity for a more progressive church. Rachel herself had moved away from being an evangelical Christian to becoming Episcopalian. For many exvangelicals, she modeled the transition away from a constricting form of faith to one of openness and inclusion.
Rachel entered the hospital in April with flu-like symptoms, and then had a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma when she developed seizures. When they attempted to wean her from the drugs maintaining her coma, the seizures returned. Her condition worsened in early May and her doctors discovered severe swelling of her brain. She died on Saturday, May 4th, leaving behind her husband and her children, a 3-year-old boy and a girl who turns 1 later this month. I imagine that Mothers Day will not be a happy occasion for them.
And I imagine that the many faithful people who were praying so hard for her recovery – and today hear this story of the restoration to life – will wonder, “why not Rachel; she was every bit the shepherd/minister as Dorcas.”
Sometimes these Bible stories really hit us where we live – and die. I remember the Sunday after ministering to a couple who had lost their baby to SIDS, when the first reading was the story of Elijah restoring life to the son of the widow of Zarephath and the gospel reading was the one in which Jesus brings back the only child of the widow of Nain. It seemed as if the lectionary was playing a cruel joke on us that week
These are the times we really wrestle with our faith and our understanding of scripture. It’s impossible for us to know the mechanics of healing. Living as we do with both faith in the healing power of God and knowledge of modern science, we wonder. When I was a hospital chaplain in Buffalo, NY years ago, there was a patient who had been declared brain dead. There was no possibility of recovery. But her family, all very devout Christians, believed with all their heart that she would be healed – not unlike the Oakland teenager whose family refused to have her removed from a ventilator after being declared brain dead. I know from working with the family in Buffalo the fine line I had to walk between faith and medical science.
So I wouldn’t want us to get so embroiled in these questions that we can’t answer that we lose sight of some truths that we can know. First Dorcas, though raised up by Peter at this point in time, would eventually die. Death is part of our human condition. We take a whole Easter season to celebrate the fact that death does not have the last word, that it is the gateway into life eternal. What we see in all of these restoration stories is the power of God at work through prophets like Elijah, through Jesus, and through some of the shepherds who followed in his path.
But the one I want to raise up today, on this day that we honor mothers and others who give motherly care, is Dorcas: not only ‘faithful woman’ but a mother of the church, disciple, shepherd, pastor. And all the disciples – women and men – who show us what a shepherd of God’s flock looks like and acts like, so that we can do the same – go out into the margins and care for the most vulnerable of our community. And we do so without fear, knowing we are in good hands – in life and in death. Believing with all our hearts:
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in God’s house forever.
Now in Joppa there was a disciple, a woman named Tabitha—“Dorcas,” in Greek—who never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity. About this time she grew ill and died. They washed her body and laid her out in an upstairs room.
Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples sent two couriers to Peter with the urgent request, “Please come over to us without delay.” Peter set out with them as they asked.
Upon his arrival, they took him upstairs to the room. All the townswomen who had been widowed stood beside him weeping, and showed him the various garments Dorcas had made when she was still with them.
Peter first made everyone go outside, then knelt down and prayed. Turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, stand up.” She opened her eyes, then looked at Peter and sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her to her feet. The next thing he did was to call in those who were believers—including the widows—to show them that she was alive.
This became known all over Joppa and, because of it, many came to believe in Jesus Christ. Peter remained awhile in Joppa, staying with Simon, a leather tanner.
The time came for Hanukkah, the Feast of the Dedication, in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the Temple area, in Solomon’s Porch, when the Temple authorities surrounded him and said, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you really are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus replied, “I did tell you, but you don’t believe. The work I do in my Abba’s name gives witness in my favor, but you don’t believe because you’re not my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never be lost. No one will ever snatch them from my hand. Abba God, who gave them to me, is greater than anyone, and no one can steal them from Abba God. For Abba and I are One.”
Fifty years ago, my friend’s mother was in a bad car accident. She hung between life and death for several days. I remember begging God to heal her; I truly believed that God could do it. But she died. And I wondered.
Today, in the wake of the death of Rachel Held Evans, many people are wondering. On Facebook and other social media, I’m hearing the pain of those who had been praying so faithfully and diligently for her recovery. Some are expressing anger at God. Others are having a crisis of faith. And some are asking the question, “What’s the point of prayer?”
As painful as that question is right now, it is the right question.
Rachel Held Evans holds a particularly important place in the inter-Christian conversation. An evangelical Christian, who moved into a progressive-evangelical space, and then on to becoming a member off the Episcopal Church, she modeled for many the transition away from a constricting form of faith to one of openness and inclusion.
I’m not familiar with enough of her writings to know what she thought about prayer. But I do know that her death has brought the subject into the foreground for many people, especially those still in theological transition. And to be fair, it’s not an issue just for exvangelicals. Mainline Christianity hasn’t really grappled with it yet, either.
I began my own process of re-thinking the meaning of prayer when I first heard Bishop John Shelby Spong speak back in the late ’90s after the publication of Why Christianity Must Change or Die. A lot of what he said was new to me. Some of it really challenged my belief system. Some of it made so much sense, it was positively liberating.
One of his stories really hit me between the eyes. He talked about the time before death of his first wife. Because her husband was a bishop in the Episcopal Church, there was a sizable prayer chain in operation for her healing. When she lived 6 ½ years longer than had been expected, some people credited those prayers. But Bishop Spong began to question a God whose actions were influenced by social status. I remember him comparing the prayer chain for his wife and the small number of prayers for the woman dying in a village in Somalia (I don’t know if that’s correct, but it sticks in my mind as the country he named. I don’t think it matters; you get the point).
What kind of God listens to the prayers of hundreds and decides to act, yet ignores the plight of those who can’t muster up enough “prayer warriors”?
His question made sense. That wasn’t the kind of God I believed in any longer. But then, what is prayer? Why should we pray? How should we pray? After a book study at my church on Why Christianity Must Change or Die, a long-time member in her 70s came to me with a statement and a question: “I wish I had read this 50 years ago!” and “But then, what do we do about prayer?”
Exvangelicals and mainline Christians moving into progressive Christianity have the same responses. There is initial excitement in discovering a form of faith that makes much more sense. But then come some hard questions as we navigate away from old understandings into uncharted waters.
Thankfully, some have gone before us to do some of the charting. Bishop Spong is a great resource. Any writer or speaker coming from a process theology standpoint is good. Praying for Jennifer by John Cobb is great because it explores the different ways of thinking about prayer in story form. God Can’t, a new book by Thomas Jay Oord, is another helpful way to grapple with our question of why God allows bad things to happen to good people.
I still believe in prayer. In my next post, I’ll talk about my own take on the subject.
1219 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”. 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 adeclaration. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council approvedNostra 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.
Remember 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.
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: 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.
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!
It 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.