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Christian Vitality in an Interfaith Culture

One Faith Among Many

Christian Vitality in an Interfaith Culture

by Bud Heckman

Researchers tell us one of the most important assessments made by young people in sizing up any faith is “authenticity.” They are discerning consumers in a marketplace of ideas. Does this tradition/scripture/institution/leader/group appear authentic? One mark of authenticity is its vitality. Is it “vital” in the sense that it has relevance to the ways of the very diverse world we all now live in? It must pass a sniff test.

Is it looking at its own belly button or outwardly engaged unabashedly with a pluralistic world? Most established traditions seem to devolve to doing just the business of carrying forward their own traditions. Navel gazing is a path to certain death and does not bespeak vitality.

Christian hegemony is dying or, in some cases, gone, nationally and globally. Christians today have to account for how and what their faith is in relationship to other faiths in the world.

What Does Christianity Say about “the Other”?

Steve Killelea – Photo:    PeaceConference 2016

Steve Killelea – Photo: PeaceConference 2016

Steve Killelea, the visionary founder of the Global Peace Index and Global Terrorism Index once asked me a pointed question. “Why?” Why had I chosen a career in interfaith relations. His question is one that I, ashamedly, stumbled to answer. Australian entrepreneur, philanthropist, and a practicing Buddhist, he asked, “So why does a Christian care about interfaith relations? What in your Christian faith and scriptures makes you want to do that?” One of the reasons he is so successful is that he cuts directly to the point. Steve was not lacking in imagination for possible answers, but I feel I failed in answering him and learned from it.

I talked about the way Jesus encountered and embraced many who were “the other.” I mentioned the Apostle Paul who tried to argue in a statue-filled court of Athens (Sermon at the Areopagus, Act 17:16-34) about the one statue dedicated to “an unknown god.” It is not clear if Paul thought the Athenians were just covering their bases. Paul either arrogantly or clumsily proclaimed to them “you are ignorant of the very thing you worship” and proceeded to tell them what he thought it was that they were missing.

No surprise in what Paul pitched, but it was more debate than dialogue, lecture than invitation, in my mind. My first parish mentor agreed and called it “the worse damn sermon ever.” The same day a seminary professor called it “one of the best.” I don’t think either of them was wrong, per se. They were speaking from two different understandings of our faith task, two different outlooks.

Practical and Theological Approaches

Many people who engage in interfaith dialogue and action, in fact, are doing so simply out of the practical necessity of living in a very diverse world. Harmony, social cohesion, and community building all depend on peaceful relations between people of distinct faiths. Apart from the polite theater of formal dialogue, theology is often bracketed, off the table, in interfaith relations work, especially competing truth claims.

It is tougher to engage with the religious “other” from the basis of their scripture, tradition, or theology, than from practical necessity. For one, most scriptures have exclusionist-leaning passages, even if they have inclusionist-leaning ones. For another thing, our human tendency, according to neuroscience, is to form and then vigorously stick to reinforcing identity frames, including especially our religious identity. It requires a prolonged and conscious effort (read: heavy second-order thinking) to work to move outside of our own frame/tradition to engage different ones with openness and earnest respect. In the U.S., six out of every ten people stick with the tradition in which they were raised, even today.

Tensions within Tradition and Texts

Unfortunately, certain passages of scripture in the Christian faith have been given outsized attention and taken on a stand-alone and literal meaning that may have never been intended. They are at the crux of the exclusivist point of view of Christian faith: John 14:6 (“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”) and Matthew 28:16-20 (“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.”).

In “Perfecting Unity,” Dr. Glen Alton Messer asks Christians, struggling with the limitlessness of God’s love in contrast to the specificity of the call to make disciples, whether or not we haven’t wrongly conflated the message of God’s love with the demanding call to discipleship and evangelization. He notes that very few elected to become disciples even in Jesus’ time, and yet before Jesus’s life and ministry the world was declared “good” from the beginning.

This struggle and these tensions are not new. The National Council of the Churches in Christ of the USA’s Interfaith Relations Commission reminds us that grappling with the religious “other” goes to our origins and is a perennial question:

The Church of Christ has always lived among peoples of many different cultures and religions. Thus, we join Christians of many times and places when we ask, How do we live in faithfulness to the Gospel when our friends and neighbors, colleagues and associates, parents and children are members of other religious traditions or no religion at all?

But the lead of the Catholic Church in issuing Nostra Aetate during the Second Vatican Council, the sweeping cultural changes of the 1960s, and rapid advancements in technology and travel broke the damn of religious isolation in the face of diversity. So, we live in a different world now in many ways. Diversity is inescapable. Isolation is a choice. Truth is argued between traditions, not just within them.

Living as Neighbors and Seeing God in Others

In my experience, Christians will continue to widely differ in our understandings of and dispositions towards the religious “other.” Even if such contention continues, as a Christian, I personally remain animated by the inclusive actions of Jesus.

When Jesus was asked what was most important in all of the scriptures and tradition, he answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:25-27). Hospitality to the neighbor and stranger is essential to the Christian faith. And even Jesus held up the “other” as being an exemplar of good faith, such as in his comments about the Roman centurion, the Syro-Phoenician woman, and the good Samaritan. He saw them as they were, as the “other,” without demanding conversion.

In nearly twenty years of doing interfaith work now, I have come to see engaging the religious “other” as something which sharpens and clarifies the contours of my own Christian faith. It gives it vitality and life. It also gives me humility in how I “wear” my own faith and often deep respect for how others live theirs. Some of the people who have taught me the most about what it means to be a good human and a good Christian, aren’t Christian. They are Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and so on. F. Max Müller was right, “He who knows one, knows none.” Interfaith engagement only brings vitality to our own faith.