Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Christians in a Pluralistic World

As we become more aware of the diversity of beliefs within our communities, our nation and in the world, we find ourselves sharing our lives with those who practice a wide variety of faith traditions. One of the results of this increased awareness of diversity is the inclination for religious beliefs to become a private matter, for the sake of the harmony of the larger community. Consequently, our beliefs are becoming more and more subjective, and the values and universal principles that such beliefs offer become "true" only for the individual. In other words, all "truth," to the degree that we can discern it, becomes relative.

Diversity can certainly be a positive development for any community, but when our beliefs become isolated, with little or no interaction, I think it can be unhealthy.

So, how can we interact with other faith traditions?

Before making some suggestions, I need to offer a brief disclaimer. This is an aspect of my Christian faith that I personally struggle with. There has never been a time in my life when I did not believe in God. I have set aside that belief as an academic exercise in college, but even that was quite difficult. And, for most of my life, I have been a Christian. For me, that also is simply not optional. The Incarnation is essential for my life to have purpose and meaning. Heaven and earth being bridged, making possible both the transcendent and immanent experience of God, while also redeeming the created realm, are at the core of how I understand myself and the world. Beyond that, experiences of God, some subtle, and some more transformational, have affirmed for me that Jesus Christ is the way to God.

Consequently, it is extremely difficult for me to imagine anyone claiming that there might be another way to God. I just can't quite wrap my head, let alone my heart, around such a notion. And, when I encounter such persons, my first inclination is to consider it my Christian duty to correct them of the errors of their ways by introducing them to Jesus Christ.

I am a Christian. This path has filled me with much joy and hope. I want to offer it to everyone.

I have encountered people who are following other traditions that do indeed seem to have a strong relationship with God. This is always rather confusing to me. I imagine it is probably similar to the experience of Peter in the home of the Gentile Cornelius when the Holy Spirit fell upon his entire family. How can this be?

I have come to the point that I have to recognize that God's ways are not my ways. I know that Christianity is the way to God. I cannot say that about other faith traditions. But, my experience is that to interact with other traditions so that we might work together towards common goals requires me to not always immediately give voice to my inclination to discount their experience of God.

But, isolationism, individualism and subjectivity in regards to religious beliefs simply will not do. There has to be a way in this pluralistic society for the various faith traditions to interact without boiling things down to the lowest common denominator, or immediately launching into arguments about their differences. And, there has to be a way to do this while still offering a witness that Jesus Christ is the Savior and Redeemer of the world.

On what basis might such interactions happen?

Terry Holmes and John Westerhoff, in their book Christian Believing, offer the following observations:

We need not enter into a dialogue with a Buddhist or a member of Islam to win or lose. Our intention ought to be that we will both win. It is highly doubtful, given the cultural context in which Buddhism exists, that such a dialogue will result in the baptism of many who were previously Buddhists. It is improbable that it will result in theological agreement between the representatives of two very disparate systems of belief. It is altogether possible, however, that in our point of contact we will find enrichment which will flow over into the beliefs of each religion...
Holmes and Westerhoff continue by listing these "points of contact" between the major world religions, as identified by Friedrich Heiler, a German historian of relgion. The following are common beliefs held by Judaism, Islam, Zorastrianism Mazdianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity:

1. A belief in the reality of the transcendent; the "holy other."
2. That the transcendent is immanent in human hearts.
3. This transcendent and immanent reality is the highest good.
4. The reality of the divine is ultimate love.
5. The way to God is through sacrifice.
6. In loving one's neighbor, one is loving God.
7. It is the love of God that leads to union with God.

Recognizing these "points of contact" will help our interactions with other traditions be less confrontational. But exactly how can such interactions occur without requiring us to compromise our own beliefs?

One example is offered in an essay by Craig David Uffman, a senior M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School. Although I found this essay to be overall quite well written, some parts were somewhat irritating; specifically the sections that seem to infer that the Episcopal Church is responsible for the current unpleasantness in the Communion. But that is not the part I want to highlight.

In speaking of evangelism among Muslim populations, Uffman refers to the Most Rev. Josiah Idowu-Fearon, Archbishop of Kaduna. You may recall that Abp. Idowu-Fearon was recently installed as a Six Preacher in Canterbury Cathedral. Here are a few segments that describe the Archbishop's approach:

...Sympathetic understanding," or, to borrow John Milbank's more descriptive phrase, "relational receptivity," is the approach Fearon has learned to take in leading the encounter of Christians with Islam in the volatile frontier of such encounters from his cathedral at Karduna. However, it is a lesson he learned the hard way. After a long period of frustrating sterility in his efforts to bring Muslims to Christ, he looked in the mirror one day and stared at a T-Shirt he wore emblazoned with a slogan often found in orthodox Christian closets in the West: "Repent or Perish!" The Spirit was with him that day, however, and led him to ask of that slogan the question that guided his ministry ever since: "where is the gospel in this? Where is the good news?" He realized that day that his missional harvest was barren because his theology was barren.

Today, the Archbishop's methodology of evangelism is patterned on the Lukan account of the walk to Emmaus. Fearon explains that the goal in engaging Muslims should be to help them find "the missing Christ." Because Islam recognizes Jesus of Nazareth as a great prophet, the problem Muslims have is not with "Jesus the Man." Just like most of us, the problem Muslims have in encountering the Gospel is with "Jesus the Christ." The risen Christ is a stumbling block for them, just as it was for those disciples who encountered him on the road to Emmaus. The Nigerian methodology is patterned on how Jesus engaged those disciples. Though they did not recognize him, he did not confront them and did not try to force them to see the truth in their midst. Instead, he walked with them. He walked with them a long way. Indeed, he "overaccepted" them, continuing with them in dialogue until they reached their true destination. It was only in the sharing of bread with him that they were given eyes to see it was Christ who fed them...

...Fearon's approach to evangelism to Muslims begins with the observation that Christians and Muslims share an understanding that God transformed chaos into order in creating the universe. Thus, the first thing upon which Christians and Muslims can agree is that our natural state is one of peace. Authentic personhood incarnates peace with sisters and brothers. Furthermore, Fearon claims his role is not to confront and convert, but rather to incarnate this peace-giving Word in his relationship with Muslims. That Word is one of love, which for Fearon begins with accepting and understanding Muslims in their context. He speaks Arabic and has made himself an authority on Islam, and, through extraordinary sensitivity grounded in this knowledge, is able to actively affirm them without compromising the Gospel. By living in solidarity with them, by acting out the Gospel first, he evokes the questions that are his permission to proclaim it verbally. Thus, true mission looks like the walk to Emmaus. It remains alongside in the dialogue of receptive relationship, trusting that Christ is revealed in the sharing of bread and wine together...
"...by acting out the Gospel first..." As St. Francis would say, "Preach the Gospel! If you must, use words!"

I recognize that the Episcopal Church is a big tent, and there will be a diverse reaction to some of what has been presented here. I'm comfortable with that. But, let me just say that in response to the anticipated reply that the desire to offer a Christian witness has to be removed for any meaningful engagement with other traditions to sincerely happen, as Holmes and Westerhoff seem to imply; I disagree with that approach. I can respect other traditions. I can learn from other traditions. But my desire is for them to have a relationship with the living God. The only way for such a relationship to grow is through Jesus Christ. That is what I know. That is what I have to offer. To not offer such a treasure would be to withhold God's love for my neighbor.

Enough preaching from me. Your thoughts?


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