Tag Archives: The Intrafaith Conversation

Historic vs Progressive Christianity: Can We Talk?

she likes itI just read a blog post which warns me what to look for if I suspect my church is heading down the heresy path to progressive Christianity. Since my congregation has long resided on that path, I was curious to see what these warning signs might be and if I’d agree with them. You can read the “5 danger signs” for yourself here.

Right off the bat, I did agree with one of the author’s opening comments: “it is difficult to pin down what actually qualifies someone as a Progressive Christian, due to the diversity of beliefs that fall under that designation.” This is most certainly true! The intrafaith conversation has to happen within all the strands of Christianity.

Now clearly this blogger is coming from a particular theological standpoint (she uses the term “historic Christianity”). There’s no doubt that she’s out to expose those who embrace a progressive Christian theology as “false prophets” infiltrating our churches. However – I think she’s done us a service. Take away the pejorative nature of the “5 danger signs” and you have a pretty good outline of some of the big differences within Christianity today. 

For example, #5:
The heart of the gospel message shifts from sin and redemption to
social justice
There is no doubt that the Bible commands us to take care of the unfortunate and defend those who are oppressed. However, the core message of Christianity is that Jesus died for our sins, was buried and resurrected, and thereby reconciled us to God. This is the message that will truly bring freedom to the oppressed. 
Many Progressive Christians find the concept of God willing His Son to die on the cross to be embarrassing or even appalling. Sometimes referred to as “cosmic child abuse, ” the idea of blood atonement is de-emphasized or denied altogether, with social justice and good works enthroned in its place.

There’s a lot to discuss in there. This question of Christology is really at the heart of our intrafaith challenge. I begin to get into it in Chapter Eight in my book with an opening quote from United Lutheran Seminary professor Kristin Johnston Largen: . . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously. 

So I’m not dissing the author of this blog because I certainly understand where she’s coming from. It’s what I learned and preached for many, many years. But I would take exception to having my Christology defined as simply “social justice and good works.”

But here – in the willingness to share and to listen, to thoughtfully agree and disagree – is where the intrafaith conversation can happen. I imagine sitting down with the blogger over coffee to share our stories of faith and belief, listening without judging to “her side,” speaking without the need to convince or win her over to “my side.” 

I think we might eventually even be able to come up with a really good study guide. We could change the title to something like “5 Discussion Points Between Historic and Progressive Christianity.” Although that’s definitely not as sexy as “5 Warning Signs.” We’d have to work on that.

 

Bring All People to Faith in Christ?– Maybe Not

band_3815_logo_6Today’s intrafaith question:
What about the Great Commission?

In Chapter 9 of my book, I wrote:  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 is the problem of Christian theology. Reconstruction of Christian theology must then precede reconstruction of Christian mission.”

So it was with great interest that I read of the resolution passed by the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) at its annual assembly in June. You can read the full resolution here, but the bottom line is this:

Whereas in the light of the growing positive and rich multi-faith engagement of the 21st century, we have come to a new humility about the question of God’s relation to other religions: Be it resolved that the New England Synod memorialize the ELCA Churchwide Assembly to initiate a process to amend the phrase “bring all people to faith in Christ” in C4.02b and its constitutional parallels in order to achieve greater consonance with both our understanding of Christian witness and sensitivity to our interfaith contexts.

I actually learned about this resolution from a blogger who is adamantly opposed to any such change which would “soft-pedal our faith” and move us further “out of historic and traditional Christian heritage and closer toward cultivating a rampant religious universalism.”

As much as I agree with and applaud the resolution and distain the language of demonic apostasy in the blog, I certainly recognize the intrafaith challenge presented here. What do we do with the mandate presented in Matthew’s Jesus to “go and make disciples of all nations”? What is Christian mission anyway?

I also applaud the second part of the resolution:
Be it further resolved that the resources of the ELCA enlist and consult its teaching theologians, Bishops, and other leaders in the drafting of such an amendment for consideration at its subsequent CWA.

We need input from theologians who will take seriously our understanding of mission in the midst of our religious diversity. I am sure there are members of our congregations who fall all along the continuum of belief about Christian mission: from the position of the resolution to the orthodox blogger. I’m also sure that many would welcome serious theological guidance from the church in answer to their questions about faith in the 21st century.

How about you? What do you think the Great Commission means today?

 

 

 

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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Contradicting the Contradict Movement

Banner A LentI’m feeling extremely honored to have been invited to be interviewed for a website called Pastor2Pew. See that line in the banner to the left that says “video interviews with prominent pastors/theologians?
Honored indeed – also terrified!

Steve Kindle, founder and interviewer, emailed to say he’d seen my book and blog posts about the INTRAfaith Conversation and thought his viewers would be interested in what I had to say. Then he left it up to me to figure out what text in the lectionary would lend itself best to my field of interest.

So off to the lectionary I went and discovered that the gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (John 14:1-14) includes the well-known verse 6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The perfect text for my interview!

This is the verse that fuels much of resistance to interfaith engagement. Take, for instance, the argument of the Contradict Movement. In opposition to the image of

coexistthey’ve created . . .

cropped-contradict01. . . it proclaims “They can’t all be true.”

Here we have the crux of the Christian dilemma. What do we do with verses like this?images

I actually have a collection of ways that various theologians and biblical scholars have answered the John 14:6 dilemma. And I address it in my book, giving an example of an encounter between two people – one from each of the above camps. The book was written to help members of congregations wrestle in the space in-between.

Evangelical Christian Andy Wrasman has also written a book: Contradict – They Can’t All be True. It’s actually a pretty good book. I agree with his argument that we need to be informed about other religions and how each is different from our own before we make blanket statements about all of them being the same. Wrasman ends up at a different place than I do, but he lays out his rationale for his Christology and I respect him for that.

I was all prepared to criticize the book and the movement. But in reality I respect its openness to conversation. I can’t go as far as appreciating the next steps of evangelizing and convincing others that Christianity is the only “true” religion. But it works well as an example of a thoughtful exclusivism that respects other religious traditions.

I’d bet there are members of our mainline congregations who would agree with Wrasman’s exclusivism. And others who’d agree with my pluralism. And a whole bunch in a continuum between the two.

All the more proof, in my mind, of the need for the intrafaith conversation.

Now – how to distill my interpretation of John 14:6 into to a half-hour interview? Thus comes the terrified part!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Lent from an INTRAfaith Perspective

she likes itWe’re going to use my book, The  INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Mattersfor our mid-week Lent discussion group this year. You might be thinking that it’s an odd choice for a Lent study.

I agree that some seasons of the church year lend themselves better than others to delving into interfaith education/discussion/relationship-building. Epiphany, for instance, with its Zoroastrian Magi crossing over into Judaism to pay homage to Jesus, then going back to their own country and religion “by another way,” is a wonderful example of what John S. Dunne calls “passing over and coming back” in his book, The Way of All the Earth.

Lent, however, might seem to be more problematic. The cross looms over us, and questions about the identity, mission, purpose of Jesus also loom large. But I suggest that it is, in fact, the perfect time for intrafaith education and discussion. At the very least, worship planners can take a new look at some of the anti-Semitic texts that will come up. I address this in more detail in Chapter 23 of my book, but here are a few examples.

The Gospel of John especially gets into rants against “the Jews.” While some people know that this reflected the growing split between Judaism and the followers of Jesus, not all will understand the context. In The Passion According to John, which is often read on Good Friday, the phrase “the Jews” appears nineteen times in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). We don’t have to look very far for evidence of the damage done by anti-Jewish rhetoric. Language matters. Repetition nineteen times only reinforces hateful stereotypes.

In The Inclusive Bible (TIB), “the Jews” appears only six times, when the reference is to the title “King of the Jews.” In seven places, “Temple authorities” is used to convey the part played by Jewish leadership is the crucifixion of Jesus. In other places “the Jews” is omitted entirely. For example, in contrast to John 19:20 in the NRSV, which reads “Many of the Jews read this inscription,” TIB has “Many of the people read this inscription.” And in verse 21, where the NRSV reads: “the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews . . . ”, TIB has: The chief priests said to Pilate, “Don’t write ‘King of the Jews . . . ’”.

And another: changing John 20:19 from “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews . . .” (NRSV) to “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Temple authorities . . .” (TIB)

A helpful resource here is Sermons without Prejudice. Its stated purpose is “to counter this anti-Semitism by addressing the anti-Judaism that some New Testament readings may convey.” Another is Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary by Ronald J Allen and Clark M. Williamson. These would be excellent places to start.

But the questions do go much deeper and raise issues within Christianity and among members of our churches. In Chapter 8 of my book I ask: “Is a professed belief in Jesus Christ the only way to salvation?” What do we mean by salvation? What do we believe about Jesus that effects this salvation?

If you read Chapter 8, you’ll discover – as I did –  that things start to get complicated and scholars debate this from every which way. But as a parish pastor, I wanted to know how to bring these issues to bear on the beliefs and questions of our church members and the educational and liturgical practices of our congregation.

So we’ll be delving into topics, such as:

  • The Intrafaith Landscape: A New Reformation
  • New Voices: Spiritual Independents and Hybrid Spirituality
  • Faces of God and Jesus: “Who Do You Say I Am?”
  • Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism
  • Heresy, Syncretism and Relativism – Oh, My!
  • The Mystic Heart
  • Evolutionary Christianity

It will be a mix of intra and inter faith work. Once you begin, there’s no way to separate them. Shameless promotion alert: there are reflection questions at the end of each chapter and suggestions for further reading. So  if you haven’t chosen your Lent study book yet, might I suggest . . .

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Beginning the InterPolitical Conversation

Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person. – Dinah Craik dscn0223

“Safe Space” is one of the thousand plus words added to the Merriam Webster dictionary this week. MW defines a safe space as “a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.”

I must take exception to that last bit, although I understand its purpose. No one should be physically or verbally threatened or attacked. However it is likely in conversations about highly charged issues that one’s assumptions, worldviews, and belief systems will be challenged – if not threatened. In that sense, it’s not a safe space.
I address this issue in my book as it applies to interfaith and intrafaith conversations.

For some people, entering into an interfaith experience can be confrontational. For some, engaging in intrafaith conversation can be equally or more challenging. For this reason, I usually begin a new group with the poem, “It Is Difficult, O God” by C.S. Song. I do this to let them know that discomfort is to be expected, in fact it is perfectly normal. Having said that, it is essential to create an environment of respect and safety. By safety, I do not mean that one’s belief system may not be shaken. It is entirely possible that it might be. What I mean by a safe environment is one in which viewpoints are respected and in which the leader is capable of managing the group process under all circumstances. There will inevitably be challenging ideas and differences of opinion. There will often be conversations that will cause some participants to become distressed or upset. The idea is not to avoid conflict, disagreements or upset, but to manage them in appropriate and safe ways.

I am coming more and more to the belief that this is the same kind of basis we now need in order to enter into interpolitical conversations. Many of us are recognizing that people on opposite sides in our polarized nation need to talk to one another. But what I also hear again and again is that we don’t know how to do that. From both sides I hear the expectation of not being heard and/or verbally attacked.Thankfully, help is becoming available. I’ve recently discovered a resource called Reaching Across the Red-Blue Divide, a free download from the Essential Partners website.

Their pitch:screenshot-2016-11-23-08-37-31
Most of us have at least one important relationship that has either been strained by painful conversations about political differences or silenced due to fear that it could get ugly. Bring it up and fight about it or avoid the conversation – and sometimes the person – altogether. Both options limit who we can be together as friends or family and limit what we can accomplish in our communities. What alternatives are there? You can let media pundits and campaign strategists tell you that polarization is inevitable and hopeless. Or you can consider reaching out and taking a journey with someone who is important to you. With some tools to support your best intentions, you can actually learn about what motivates other people and understand how they’ve come to believe the way they do. Connecting across our differences is both possible and necessary.

The introduction promises to:
help prepare you to speak about what is most important to you in ways that can be heard, and to hear others’ concerns and passions with new empathy and understanding even if — especially if — you continue to disagree.The guide offers a step-by-step approach to inviting another person — someone whose perspectives differ from your own — into a conversation in which:

  • You agree to set aside the desire to persuade the other and instead focus on developing a better understanding of each other’s perspectives, and the hopes, fears, and values that underlie them;
  • You agree to be curious and to avoid the pattern of attack and defend;
  • You choose to ask questions and move beyond stereotypes and assumptions.

A lot of the process they outline is very similar to what I advocate in The INTRAfaith Conversation. But there is material specifically geared to the interpolitical, such as how to be at our best on social media.

So – now there’s no excuse. The plan is pretty simple. We – I – just have to do it. As I read my words describing interfaith and intrafaith conversations, I wonder if I can substitute political and be able to say the same thing. I think it’s worth a try.

I learned that entering into an exploration of other peoples’ religious faith and practice is a wonder-filled experience. For me, hearing another’s story is an intimate look inside that person’s heart, and that is not something to be taken lightly. In both my interfaith and intrafaith encounters, I have heard stories of joy, as well as stories of pain and hurt. In many of the encounters, each participant brought his or her whole self into the process. Entering into an examination of religious beliefs took us even more deeply into one another’s lives. It was crucial that an atmosphere of safety and trust had been created because, as I came to realize, the ground of this kind of encounter is a place of extreme intimacy and vulnerability. It is sacred ground. I often found myself in awe at the willingness of many of the participants to give of themselves, not only in terms of time, but more importantly in terms of openness — to me, to others, to their own growth process.   It is a privilege to be in the company of such people.

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How Can We Talk to ‘Others’ When We Can’t Even Talk Among Ourselves?

There’s a lot of talk these days about how we need to be able to listen and converse with those who hold differing political opinions from ourselves. I don’t disagree with this. But I do know that it’s easier said than done. We’ve lost the ability to go outside our silos and behave respectfully.

It’s the same in the religious realm. Progressive Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. enjoy one another’s company and often comment that these relationships are much easier than the ones within their respective religions. I know that some evangelical Christians have lamented that, despite their willingness to talk, progressives aren’t interested.At every interfaith gathering I attend, someone inevitably says, “What we really need to have is an intrafaith dialogue.” But we know that this is just as hard to do as the political one.

Which is why I like hearing about people and groups working in this area. Back when I was working on my book about Christian intrafaith dialogue, I identified Jesus as  our “elephant in the living room.” I wrote The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? as a guide to help work through differing ideas and beliefs about Jesus.

But I also wanted to know about other traditions. When I asked a Jewish friend what issue divided Jews, she immediately replied, “Israel.” So I was delighted this week to learn about a program called iEngage, which brings together differing sides among Jews on the subject of Israel.  Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is a curriculum that can be used by groups who want to gain “greater understanding for the ideals that shape their own political views and a  greater respect and empathy for those who hold different views.”

That is the quintessental mission of the intrafaith conversation!

Every tradition has its internal issues. How can we expect to be in honest dialogue with “the other” when we aren’t able to do it among ourselves? Now more than ever, we need to relearn our conversational skills, get outside our solos, and create peace among ourselves and throughout the world.

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Can We Cross INTRAfaith Boundaries?

divisionsI happened to see a question submitted to answers.yahoo.com: “What is the difference between interfaith and intrafaith boundaries?”

Someone replied: “There is no such thing as intrafaith boundary.”

I was relieved to see that of the six responses to that reply, all were thumbs-down.

If we didn’t know that Christianity has intrafaith boundaries, we certainly know it now that election polling results are in.

According to The Washington Post, 80% of white evangelical Christians voted for He Who Shall Not Be Named (HWSNBN), even though a group of 100 evangelical leaders posted a declaration before the election stating that they would “not tolerate the racial, religious, and gender bigotry that (HWSNBN) has consistently and deliberately fueled . . .” Divisions within evangelical Christianity continue to widen, as Jim Wallis, evangelical author and founder of  Sojourners, said he felt Christians who voted for Trump “ought to be embarrassed.”

Progressive Christianity, of course, is used to being out of the mainstream. But now, many are declaring a new area in American Christianity. In What Progressive Christians Need To Do To Take Back Their Faith, Pastor Jacqueline Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan declares, “Maybe what’s happening is progressive people of faith are finding ways to connect around our shared beliefs that all people are children of God. All of those people are joining together right now, we’re crying together, plotting and planning how to resist together. That to me is the new religion, the new Christianity.”

Emerging Church leader Benjamin Corey suggests that progressive Christians should start evangelizing  among other Christians: “We need to continue converting Christians to following Jesus. We need to create disciples, and reach evangelical Christian Americans with the gospel of Jesus.”

piocs_-00_without-background_christian-cross-special-design-pin-with-usa-flagSome are even calling for a new “confessing church” like that in Germany, when pastors and churches banded together to resist the Nazi regime. For example, Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent in the Wesleyan Church, said “I wonder if we may be heading toward a confessing church as opposed to a nationalistic church.”

The question is: will Christians of differing stripes be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with one another?

sg_dividedMany are advising that we must reach out across the boundaries and listen to those with whom we disagree. I can’t argue with this; it’s what I advocate in my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation. But most of what I’ve been hearing is “not yet.” The shock and anger are too raw.

What shape will Christianity take in this new era? Will we be able to cross our intrafaith boundaries? It was difficult before the election; it’s even more so now.

Time will tell.