Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Toward a Christian Theology of Interfaith Cooperation

(This is a summary of what I have learned from my interfaith internship. Please take it as my stumblings toward meaning, not any kind of absolute truth. And please don't send me to hell.)

Over the past year, I have been constantly exposed to a wide variety of world religions and to deeply pious practitioners of those faiths. I have realized the value of interfaith cooperation and interaction by simply doing it. It has broadened my understanding of God, it has deepened my respect for other cultures and believers, and it has made me a better citizen of the world. But why should a good Christian girl “validate” other religions by giving them a hearing? This paper will attempt to give an answer.

Forbidden Fruit
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “To me, religious life is life. I do not see any reason to spend one’s whole life tasting just one kind of fruit. We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions” (Hanh, 2). Hanh’s metaphor recalls the decision by Eve to take the forbidden fruit. For Christians, opening oneself to interfaith dialogue may feel at first like biting into the infamous apple. There is knowledge to be gotten, but are we sure we should partake? Or are we being tempted to something that would not be good for us? Does the gain of a closer walk with God on a dangerously open road outweigh the bliss of ignorance?

The knowledge of good and evil is positive for humanity and affirmed throughout scripture (Lev 27:12, 14; Num 13:19; Deut 1:39, 30:15).[1] Whatever God’s reasoning for placing the forbidden fruit within our reach, the end result was incarnation and redemption. The Latin mass proclaims: O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorum — “O happy fault which received as its reward so great and so good a redeemer;”[2] and the old English carol sings:

Nor had one apple taken been,
The apple taken been,
Then had never Our Lady
A-been heaven’s queen.
Blessed be the time
That apple taken was.
[3]

We are now called to taste a new fruit, one that carries with it similar danger and reward. “Can our encounter with people of other faiths enrich our understanding and experience of the one we call ‘God’?” (Eck, xii). Or will it merely confuse and alienate us? I propose that when Christians refuse to participate in interfaith contexts, they are only depriving themselves of a greater understanding of the world and of God. Diana L. Eck, director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard, suggests: “Our encounter with people of other faiths gives us the precious opportunity to become theologically bilingual, to understand the God-language of another community, and to understand our own more clearly in the process. Only in the give-and-take of dialogue will we come to see just how our languages are very different and how they are alike. Encountering God in all God’s fullness enables us to see how rich and profound our many theisms really are” (Eck, xvi).

Eck uses the metaphor of a river to describe religious traditions (Eck, 2). They should be alive, not static. They should be refreshing, not burdensome. They should shape us and form us, not simply be in our possession. They can change dramatically, dry up, or overwhelm us. Our faith doesn’t own us: “Our faith must be alive. It cannot be just a set of rigid beliefs and notions. Our faith must evolve every day....If it does not continue to grow, it will die” (Hanh, 136-137). When we reach out beyond the artificial boundaries established by institutions, we discover a world of wisdom.

God Gets Bigger
Rivers are dangerous and can consume us (so also the waters of baptism). Yet when God becomes safe for us, comfortably part of our understanding, then we have shortchanged the Almighty.

Christians frequently look at those of other religions as deeply confused or as having been misled. They cannot understand that this person’s faith is as deeply ingrained in who she is as their Christianity is in them. They do not admit that they largely did not choose Christianity – it chose them. Because they believe they wield power over God and who is in God’s kingdom, they believe they can change other people’s ideas about God. Many Christians want God to be strict and closed off, but that goes against everything we believe about grace and God’s great love for the world. “To see God as our special ally in judgment is a dangerous move. It is too easy to call such a God into the service of our own projects. Our possessive ideas of God may become graven images of ourselves as we raise the sacred canopy of our religion over the most self-serving of worldviews…Can we continue to cling to ideas of God that are essentially provincial, imagining, even now in the twenty-first century, that God is primarily, if not exclusively, concerned with us and our tribe?” (Eck, xv) We must not allow our God-talk to become “idolatrous” (Eck, xvi).

The living God cannot be controlled. God is beyond the categories we set or the way we expect God to behave. When we encounter God “in the prayers, presence, and faith of the ‘other’” (Eck, xiv), it is extremely challenging because we suddenly realize God cannot be squeezed into our categories, boxes, even our religions. “No single tradition monopolizes the truth.” (Hanh, 114). When we explore other faiths, God simply gets bigger.

Can the Christian trust that God knows what God’s doing with these other people? God is big enough to handle all the religions, all the systems we have set up to attempt to explain and comprehend God. Do we really believe that when a person sincerely reaches out to God, seeking truth, God will not reach back with open arms? Once you are sitting at table with people of strong faith that is not your own, you can no longer just write them off. You can see they are not deluded. You can see God’s fire and God’s peace within them. “When you are able to love your enemy, he or she is no longer your enemy. The idea of ‘enemy’ vanishes and is replaced by the notion of someone who is suffering and needs your compassion” (Hanh, 79). How much more Christlike could we be than to see beyond our created differences to the one God whom we all worship?

Discovering Yourself Through the Other
Hanh says that in order to love our enemies we must “look at the person we consider to be the cause of our suffering. If we practice looking deeply into his situation and the causes of how he came to be the way he is now, and if we visualize ourselves as being born in his condition, we may see that we could have become exactly like him” (Hanh, 83). This same exercise in visualization can help us understand those from other religious backgrounds. If we can imagine ourselves brought up in the Other’s culture, part of the world, with her family and friends, we can begin to understand how the Other’s religion is frequently not a choice. It is an essential part of his formation as a human being, shaped by so many factors that he cannot possibly name them all. People do not initially choose a religion because they are confused, misguided, or seek to be confrontational. People are more often born to a path than choose it.

“When you touch someone who authentically represents a tradition, you not only touch his or her tradition, you also touch your own…When participants are willing to learn from each other, dialogue takes place just by their being together. When those who represent a spiritual tradition embody the essence of their tradition, just the way they walk, sit, and smile speaks volumes about the tradition” (Hanh, 7). This means that within the interfaith context, we must be aware of what we are speaking about our tradition in our communication, verbal and otherwise. We cannot help but be spokespersons for Christ – and thus, we must be the best Christians possible.

“Relationship is the mirror in which we see ourselves as we really are” (Indian philosopher Krishnamurti). “This is especially true in our relationships with people of other religious traditions. In the give and take of dialogue, understanding one another leads to mutual self-understanding and finally to mutual transformation” (Eck, xx). Time and again we see that a person who enters interfaith dialogue finds her faith strengthened by the experience. She will seek a more meaningful relationship with God, discovering facets of her own tradition that incorporate the new truths she’s learned from the Other. Far from weakening her commitment to Christianity, she in fact winds up solidifying and deepening her faith. In the process, “learning to touch deeply the jewels of our own tradition will allow us to understand and appreciate the values of other traditions, and this will benefit everyone” (Hanh, 90).

“But the most basic principle of interfaith dialogue is that the dialogue must begin, first of all, within oneself. Our capacity to make peace with another person and with the world depends very much on our capacity to make peace with ourselves. If we are at war with our parents, our family, our society, or our church, there is probably a war going on inside us also, so the most basic work for peace is to return to ourselves and create harmony among the elements within us” (Hanh, 9-10). This can be done extremely effectively through the learning process of interfaith cooperation. Once we get along with and appreciate the piety of the Other, we can more fully understand ourselves – and we can begin to model the peace our world so desperately needs.

Saving the World
I believe that at our time in history this critical practice of interfaith cooperation is central to the world’s salvation: “As a rabbi friend in Britain once put it, ‘It is dialogue or die’” (Eck, xviii). Our incredible shrinking globe leads to both positive and negative outcomes. Newly minted connections with those very different from us can help us to coordinate efforts toward justice and peace. “At the other extreme, these same systems distribute the energies of a new tribalism and religious extremism” (Eck, x). What cannot be denied is that “each part of the world is marbled with the colors and currents of the whole” (Eck, x). In the 21st century, people are world citizens. Interfaith and multicultural understanding is a requirement in nearly every field: politics, business, education, entertainment, and on and on.

“To work for peace, you must have a peaceful heart. When you do, you are the child of God. But many who work for peace are not at peace. They still have anger and frustration, and their work is not really peaceful. We cannot say that they are touching the Kingdom of God. To preserve peace, our hearts must be at peace with the world, with our brothers and sisters” (Hanh, 74-75). If we hold to misguided notions about God being inaccessible to those of other faith traditions, we cannot then hold them to be our sisters and brothers. We will not respect their basic dignity if we believe them to be ultimately deluded and stupid. Therefore, we will not be able to hold them as equals. We will not respect their culture or religion and will make war on them to “enlighten” them to our ways of democracy and Christianity. But Western ideals are not the solution to the world’s problems. God is.

A point of connection can be made between religions when one realizes that we all look at the world the same way – all religions see something wrong with the world and want it to be better. All religions ultimately seek peace. Some of the most encouraging moments in my interfaith experience have been when I realized another faith’s leader was calling his or her people to the same principles I hold dear. At an interfaith Iftar at Omar Ibn Al Khattab mosque in Los Angeles, Dr. Hassan Hathout admonished us: “We say God is love but we behave as if God is hate. God is love, and if you are not love, you are not a godly person.”[4] At the same event, Sheikh Saadullah Khan proclaimed, “Love means deeds, not good wishes.” Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us: “If while we practice we are not aware that the world is suffering, that children are dying of hunger, that social injustice is going on everywhere, we are not practicing mindfulness. We are just trying to escape” (Hanh, 83). Christians will hear echoes of the Sermon on the Mount in these words, yet they arise directly from the wisdom of the speaker’s faith tradition. We do not hold the monopoly on truth that leads to peace. Indeed, it is only through interfaith cooperation that we will be able to reach out across the world to spread God’s love. “We must glean the best values of all traditions and work together to remove the tensions between traditions in order to give peace a chance” (Hanh, 114).

Toward Interfaith Cooperation
We have made a case for the value of interfaith cooperation and dialogue in enriching Christian faith, understanding of God and the world, and working toward peace. But how does one engage in this most helpful interaction?

The first step to good interfaith cooperation is comfort within one’s own tradition: “if brothers and sisters in the same tradition cannot understand and communicate with each other, how can they communicate with those outside their tradition?” (Hanh, 7). Conversely, “respecting the differences within our own church and seeing how these differences enrich one another, we are more open to appreciating the richness and diversity of other traditions” (Hanh, 9).

So perhaps for the Evangelical, the process must begin by simply sitting down with Christians from mainline, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions – coming to an understanding of those who also worship Christ. A next step would be introduction to Jews and Muslims. The three major monotheistic faiths can find multiple points of dialogue. When one feels ready, or actually begins to hunger for more, then seek out those from Eastern and cosmological religions, and philosophical systems without a personal deity. Once you can ultimately see the faith of the Other as genuine, you have arrived. And if one day you can sit with an atheist, recognizing his sincere quest for truth, your God has gotten very big indeed.

This only describes my journey. Some may not need to go through all these steps nor in this order. Many people feel more readily connected to the Eastern or cosmological faith traditions. This process looks neat on paper, but in reality it would play out differently for each individual.

What is fortunate is that we don’t have to go far to find other faiths anymore. There’s no need for a trip around the world to meet Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is, Sikhs, Jains, or Taoists. Just to get along in our own society, we will necessarily know these people. To seek the knowledge of the forbidden fruit, we needn’t venture past our own backyard.

Epilogue
“It is our Christian faith in God which challenges us to take seriously the whole realm of religious plurality. We see this not so much as an obstacle to be overcome, but rather as an opportunity for deepening our encounter with God and with our neighbors. [We] affirm unequivocally that God the Holy Spirit has been at work in the life and traditions of peoples of other living faiths.”[5]

In the past year I have meditated with Buddhists, sung with Jews, danced with Hindus, prayed with Muslims, and stood in a sacred Pagan circle. I have witnessed firsthand the fierce devotion to God and the sincere quest for truth in the Other. I now can claim with Diana Eck: “When I think about the practical meanings of interreligious dialogue, the theological meaning of religious diversity, or about what some in the churches still speak of as the ‘destiny of the unevangelized,’ I am thinking not about a faceless crowd of people I do not know, but about students, colleagues, dear friends, and teachers…whose face I know like the faces of my own family. This is the kind of world in which all of us increasingly live.” (Eck, xix)

In the end, I cannot express what you need to hear in words. We will not be changed by reading about these issues. It is extremely difficult to understand the Other without knowing her or him. Interfaith dialogue “does not usually begin with philosophy or theory, but with experience and relationships” (Eck, 2). We talk about others much differently than we talk to them. It is much simpler to classify groups than to name and know individuals.

The truth of this essay is only discovered in the living of it. The journey of interfaith understanding can only be experienced. I urge you to go and learn for yourself. “Christians have to help Jesus Christ be manifested by their way of life, showing those around them that love, understanding, and tolerance are possible. This will not be accomplished just by books and sermons. It has to be realized by the way we live” (Hanh, 57).

Bibliography

Primary Texts
Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead, 1995)
Diana L. Eck, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (Beacon, 2003)

Additional Resources
Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness (Anchor, 2005)
W. Eugene March, The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love: a Biblical Case for Religious Diversity (Westminster John Knox, 2005)
Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism (Abingdon, 2003)

References
[1] John Goldingay, After Eating the Apricot (Carlisle: Solway, 1996), 34.
[2] Dr. Richard C. Leonard, “The Apple and the Adoption."
[3]Adam Lay Ybounden,” Words and Music Traditional English, 15th Century.
[4] Dr. Hathout is author of the fine book, Reading the Muslim Mind (American Trust Publications, 1995).
[5] Closing statement of a “theology of religions” working group, World Council of Churches, 1990 (Eck, xix-xx).

22 comments:

Rachel said...

This is fantastic!! I have just sent the link to the ten men who completed the extended unit of CPE with me this year -- I think this will resonate for all of them, too.

Much of what you say here rang a bell for me, and reminded me very much of what my teacher, Reb Zalman, has written about the need to move beyond triumphalism (e.g. the notion that we're the only ones who have it "right") into what he calls "deep ecumenism," a mode of being in the world that presupposes deep and meaningful interfaith interactions.

Thank you so much for posting this.

Chris said...

Thank you for this post. After working with several interfaith clergy gatherings over the years it gives me hope that the vital task of ongoing dialogue will continue, even if major segments of the various traditions either see no value in such dialogue, or are openly hostile to any movement that looks like a movement toward a "universal" theology. Interfaith dialogue is vital if humanity is to come to a place where there is a global ethic that can be embraced by all for the survival of all--see Hans Kung's ongoing work on this task.

The Middle-Wing Wacko said...

Very interesting and challenging article. You make some very good points about interfaith cooperation and appreciation and a lot of it rings true for me.

Over the past couple years, due to new contact with friends in the muslim community, I've begun studying that religion in an even, weighing manner rather than from the hostile presupposition I might have taken earlier in life.

There are certainly parts of that religion (as well as others, I am sure) that resonate for me as a Christian, and in fact have caused me to notice things in the Bible that I had not noticed before I had taken a clear look at islam.

Now, I do think you go a bit too far in stating that other religions should be viewed as alternative paths to God, etc. I have no logical problem with God giving one message to us and another to the hindus. However, I do have a problem with God overtly misleading us when He clearly said on more than one occaison that there was only one way to salvation.

That said, I also believe that God has placed knowledge of Himself in Nature, so that anyone can discover certain truths by simply observing and opening his mind. See my article on that here http://middlewingwacko.blogspot.com/2006/05/romans-faith-logic-and-skepticism.html

As a result of this, other world religions can be expected to have arrived on peices of the truth. Valuable nuggets that can be deduced and extrapolated from. In the absence of additional (directly revealed) information many of these religions have developed and integrated these nuggets into their lives more effectively than Christiandom has.

Yet the path to salvation, as revealed by prophecy and then physical fulfillment in Christ, is an additional step that is not replaceable. At best other religions can develop the law - see Romans 2:14-15 where Paul says that those who do not receive the law may do right things naturally, guided by their conscience. But salvation requires perfection in following that law, which cannot be achieved by human beings. The gift of grace, which depends on the historical fact of the crucifixion, cannot be deduced (because it was really an illogical thing for God to do, frankly) and is therefore missing from all religions. These other religions of the world are good at their basis, but incomplete.

The open-hearted Christian should, as you say, be willing to cooperate with other faiths. More than that, we should reach out and understand, and yes, appreciate the good things in other faiths. Those are the glimmer of the distance they have already traveled in the right direction. Often they have traveled those first steps far better than we ourselves did, because those were all the steps they knew to travel. The crucial step, salvation, remains to be communicated.

I am definitely going to have to look up some of the sources you've quoted. Some great wisdom there.

The Feminarian said...

The gift of grace, which depends on the historical fact of the crucifixion, cannot be deduced (because it was really an illogical thing for God to do, frankly) and is therefore missing from all religions. These other religions of the world are good at their basis, but incomplete.

The question is, does the gift of grace even depend upon our understanding/accepting/knowing about it? Or is a truly free gift that is given to all, regardless of whether we realize it's given or not?

If it is the latter, then practicioners of other religions, even though they may not include the gift in their story, are still covered by God's grace. And really, how many Christians truly incorporate the gift of grace into their faith? How many of us actually get it? Is it even possible to get it?

I just think it's interesting to make the leap that because another tradition doesn't include part of our story in their narrative, then that means that part of the story is not efficacious for them. If the death of Jesus really did what we claim it did, then it doesn't matter what we think about it or even IF we think about it. The only thing that matters is what God did.

And those of us who know the story are blessed, and those who seek truth through other religions and find God (though maybe not that particular part of the story) are also blessed. Because in the end, all we humans can do is seek God. Maybe God won't respond until we have our story straight, but I don't think that's what God is like.

Our religion having the right story is not what saves us. The only thing that matters is what God did, not what we think about it. In the end, none of us knows the entirety of God, of what God has done in the world. We can only tell our part of the story and join the cosmic tale on whatever level we're able to.

It's a different way of thinking about it, anyway. It's radically inclusive, I know. But it also takes God's grace radically seriously.

The Middle-Wing Wacko said...

[Sigh]

Now you've gone and got me onto this subject. I had to go write a lengthy post of my own about this.

http://middlewingwacko.blogspot.com/2006/06/interfaith-cooperation.html

The Middle-Wing Wacko said...

Oh wow, I wasnt expecting a response so fast or I would have looked before I posted that last comment. Well here goes #3

You make an interesting point there. You're right, it is a burning question: Do we actually have to know how salvation can be given in order to accept it?

Hmm, well there is a bit of a logical quandary there. I don't think you have to "have your story straight" for it to "work" really.

But at the same time, without at least certain parts of the story it is hard to work our logically that the salvation can be available.

The natural logic requires sources of evil to be punished, and the logic also indicates that every human being functions as a source of evil. Now if God simply just decides to give grace, we place Him in the position of being an unjust judge - dishonest. Because that is essentially ignoring the fact that we deserve punishment.

Now, in natural logic someone could work out that the only way for God to justly grant grace is for there to be an alternative. They could even work out that the only candidate to be that alternative is God Himself. So the need for a sacrifice can be logically deduced.

But that's as far as it goes, because in the end there is no logical reason for God, being perfect and infinitely worthwile to sacrifice Himself to save a bunch of worthless, evil human beings.

The reason He did was "Love". And Love is, if nothing else, unpredictable and completely outside the bounds of reason. Basically, God was being illogical when He did that. Which, of course, is what Love does - its an anomaly.

So, even though I don't think it's necessary to "get your story straight" to accept salvation, the unpredictable decision by God to do what was necessary to be able to offer it is a necessary part of discovering that it is on offer in the first place.

Because, in order to accept salvation by grace, you have to at least recognize that you do not deserve it at all. And if you recognize that you don't deserve it, and that there is no logical reason for it to be offered, you cannot deduce that it is offered - and therefore can never accept it.

Gavin Brown said...

Feminarian,

With all due respect, you said, "all that matters is what God did," but you never actually state what that is.

you seem to suggest that we all have a little slice of the cosmic narrative.

are you serious? 'theologically orthodox' you say?

do you believe there is an objective source for truth?

do you believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that no man comes to Father but by Him?

Elaine said...

Long time interested reader here...

It's all very interesting and reflective of your own experience up until you suggest what Evangelicals should do - are you addressing a Fuller audience with this article? Because you yourself are admittedly not Evangelical, so mentioning them and then giving advice as to how they should go about relating with other faiths just sounds petty to me.

I know you've come out of an Evangelical background, so have lots of anger towards them, but it really does no good to finger-point and lecture at them at what they *should* do. Finger point at your own tribe.

The Feminarian said...

Hmmmm...I'm not sure how to respond to that exactly. I sense a little hostility and I'm not sure why you'd be angry with me. But I'll start by telling you the parameters of the assignment and perhaps that will help you understand what I was going for.

I am studying at an Evangelical seminary and come from an Evangelical background. While I now don't consider myself Evangelical, the majority of my Christian friends are. Definitely the people teaching me at seminary are. I feel I have a very strong understanding of Evangelicals and when I call them to think about something, I don't feel that I am "finger-pointing" (as you put it), but rather attempting to provide prophetic witness - to my own "tribe".

This year I did my seminary internship with an interfaith group at USC. I worked with undergrads all year. This assignment was for me to write some suggestions for ways of helping our more conservative Evangelical students (at USC, that is - the ones with whom I've made relationships over the past 9 months) know how to approach an interfaith context. Many of those students simply have no paradigm for joining such a context. They have not been taught how to understand the Other beyond evangelizing. Because interfaith work usually precludes proselytizing, I wanted to offer some suggestions of safe and comfortable ways that Evangelicals (such as myself once) may be able to begin approaching some of the ideas in the article. So yes, it is written to Evangelicals, but it is entirely meant to be helpful and suggestive, not in any way condescending or demanding. I surely hope it doesn't sound that way!!

The audience may one day be Fuller people (my supervisor suggested I work it into a presentation for them), but when writing it I specifically had in mind 18-21 year old undergrads involved in such evangelism-heavy ministries as Campus Crusade and InterVarsity. Those are the students who have trouble joining an interfaith conversation, so I wanted to suggest some next steps for incorporation. Of course they are welcome to ignore me. Interfaith work isn't for everyone. But if someone is curious about it (and many, many students in that age range today are very curious about other world faiths), I wanted to provide an entryway.

In all truth, the real audience of this piece is me, my supervisor, and the field ed office at Fuller. And also you nice folks here who read the blog. There's not much future for the piece. I just mainly wanted to organize my reflections from the year. And I chose to share it with the blogverse because I hoped it could be helpful to others. It is primarily my story. But I always find myself in others' stories, so I thought this might do the same for someone else.

Does this make sense? In no way was I trying to rag on Evangelicals. I've just learned about some of the things that are difficult for them and wanted to offer a perspective on approaching the sometimes-scary world of interfaith work. This comes completely out of personal contact with actual people to whom I was talking. It is not just thrown at all Ev's everywhere. And again, my Ev friends know that I love them and that if I make suggestions for them, I'm not pointing my finger, I'm just suggesting things I think may help them because I'm like them, at least in some ways.

I do have to correct you on one point - I am not angry with Evangelicals. I love my Evangelical sisters and brothers very deeply. There are places where they make some mistakes, and there are places where mainliners do as well. We learn from each other. Evangelicals are my people right now - the people with whom I am learning, my Christian community, the people I call to accountability and they call me to it as well. Believe it or not, they love the challenges I present to them. And it goes both ways. Being at Fuller puts me smack in the middle of Evangelical Intellectualism - smart people who are truly openminded and devoted to God. I can relate to them quite readily on all of those points.

The Feminarian said...

Oh, wow, I just saw the other posts too. Okay. Let me try to respond.

Middle-Wing, you bring up great points. Thank you for adding to this discussion. I want others to join in so I'm just going to let your thoughts sit and be pondered.

OK, I'll say one thing, which is that I've been struggling for a while with the whole idea of "accepting" God's gift...I mean, at what point does that become a "work" (not by works but by faith, right)? I don't know. Honestly. What's the difference between works and faith? Is there one? Can faith become a work? I'm really unsure about that whole thing. I do trust God to decide about the salvation thing. Hopefully some of this will be cleared up for me when I start taking systematics. I think if anything, we do accept God's story by our baptism. But is baptism salvation? Who knows?

Gavin, you're hitting on exactly what I've been turning over all year. I've finally decided that I don't think Jesus was saying I am THE way, the truth, and the life (as in the ONLY) but was pastorally responding to his disciple's question: Show us the way to the Father. Jesus says, "I am the way...no one comes to the Father but by me." In other words, hey, dude, you've been with me all along and you're doing the right thing! You don't need to worry about finding some way to the Father because I'm standing right here! I am the way. Not I am the way.

It's so hard to explain this without vocal inflection. :)
I'm not doing a good job of it. But Diana Eck does a great job on pages 93-97 of Encountering God. Please read her and don't go by my faulty ramblings.

Thank you all for a spirited and deeply theological conversation. I had hoped for such a response.

The Feminarian said...

Oh, and that one sentence originally said "all that matters is what God did on the cross," but I changed it because I wanted it to be more inclusive. Also because I'm not exactly sure whether it's the cross or the incarnation or creation or the resurrection...I still have to take soteriology. :)

The Middle-Wing Wacko said...

Feminarian,

On acceptance and works let me say your comment brings up an important distinction I'd like to make.

Acceptance is not a work, rather it is the cessation of works. So in a sense, accepting God's free gift is not even an action that you take, but rather it is a marking point, a transition in your motivations.

Prior to acceptance, a religious person is acting in accordance with logic - trying to earn their way to heaven. Of course, logically this is impossible. Any action we take in order to earn our way to heaven is done for the wrong reasons, and is therefore actually a selfish act, and therefore has no positive moral value. Or maybe it is even added to the charges against us! So these cannot add up to cancel out the evil we do. (This is borne out in scripture as well)

So the whole point of acceptance is not that this is something that you do to get into heaven. It is rather the relinquishing of control, of responsibility up to God.

In default religion (ie, religious systems based solely on natural logic, without the final step provided by direct historical revelation) the basic problem is that it is a religious system - an attempt to trade works for heaven (or some other spiritual goal). Every world religion is an attempt at spiritual commerce with God, trying to buy what cannot be bought but only given.

Thus, the moment of surrender, of giving up that futile attempt and begging for it as a gift - this marks a transition from dependence on a religious system to dependence on a personal relationship with God. See, the primary weakness of attempts at multi-faith combination is that true Christianity is not actually a religion at all.

Ignore the cultural trappings, as well as a lot of the "religious" attitude that is, in my mind, a pollution of actual christian doctrine. That stuff isn't what makes a christian a christian, it's just a very complex culture that has sprung up amongst Christians, and has been there for so long that many (especially Christians themselves) confuse Christian culture with Christianity.

Rather, Christianity is a post-religious condition that exists in individuals by virtue of having been adopted by God as His child.

That adoption is voluntary, however. God isn't going to force you to quit trying to earn your way to heaven if you don't want to. So...you have to accept His offer in order for it to happen. You have to give up, let go of your bargaining position, and just ask.

The Feminarian said...

But what do you ask for? Or ask about? I'm just wondering if a Buddhist could say I relinquish all control of my life and all desires, all attempts to control my world and please any power, and I surrender myself to the ultimate reality.

Would that then be enough for God to adopt the person as God's child?

Because I could kind of see a Buddhist saying something similar to that. And my only thing is that I kind of wonder if that wouldn't make God kind of happy to hear.

Gavin Brown said...

Feminarian,

I respect and appreciate your willingness to say that you are searching for truth and are working through some issues. (hope I'm not reading too much into your words)

your issue, it seems to me, is one of competing influences. I implore you to allow the Holy Scriptures to guide you to the Truth, not Eck or any other world religion, or even the Christian 'religion' for that matter.

No matter where you place inflection, Christ's words are the same. "I am the Way..." Say it either way....it is soooo penetrating and even a bit offensive if you buy into the lie that there are many paths to God. See there, even my suggestion that 'there are many paths to God' is offensive. Let's face it, the cross is offensive.

Isaac Watts said, "No man can judge me more severely than has the cross of Christ."

I will pray for you.

The Feminarian said...

It's less that I listened to the other writers first and more that I listened to my life...to the prompting of the Spirit (maybe?) as I became close with people from other faiths. Then I found writers who helped me make sense of what was feeling true but didn't work with my old paradigm. Nobody could have convinced me with an argument, just like I don't believe you can make truly deep disciples of Jesus simply with apologetics. There was something else going on. I tried to express that in the piece but I seem to have not done a good job. I didn't want it to turn into a pluralism debate, although of course I can see where it looks like that. But it's really much much more about how can we learn to dialogue and respect those of other faiths, whether we are exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist. I lean towards the latter these days, but I was formerly the middle (as is J). The latter came through in the paper, but I fluctuate - some days I feel like the other faiths are seeing some aspect of God but definitely missing the main point; other days I feel like it's not fair for me to judge how much God has revealed Godself to others and where God stands on how well they are doing with God. I go back and forth a lot these days. Since I'm reading Eck, I'm leaning toward pluralism. When I'm back in full seminary classes, I'll probably lean back towards inclusivism.

But yes, do pray for me. All us seminary students need a lot of prayer. Seminary does a number on your faith. It really puts you through the ringer. Some days you feel like the ultimate hypocrite and just want to give up. How in the world can I preach to people when I have no idea what I even believe? But other days I think maybe that's why people will appreciate my ministry, because I'm never going to pretend that this stuff is easy to figure out nor that it's easy to follow Christ.

Anonymous said...

Point one: I love the post. Love it, love it. I'm quite happy with the label "evangelical" though I'm constantly told by others that I shouldn't be using it of myself. They can take a hike. Evangelicals should love interfaith and inter-religious dialogue.

Point two: "all religions see something wrong with the world and want it to be better." This isn't quite true. The fine folks at NCCJ sponsor Intersem, where Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish seminary students meet for a 24-hour retreat. At one of those retreats, inter-religious folks came and gave talks about furthering our interfaith dialog. One of those was a Hindu woman who worked at a shelter for battered women. She talked a bit about how Hindu theology does NOT see something wrong with this world, because nothing happens that is not in complete accord with divine will. The world is exactly as the Divine intends it to be.

It took a while to sink in for me, so let me repeat: a Hindu woman, working with battered women, believes that nothing happens unless the Divine wants it to happen. Divine sovereignty is absolute; beatings in this life are ultimately due to bad behavior in previous lives, and as such exactly conform to the will of the Divine. They will move the women to higher places in future lives. Our speaker was asked why she was working with battered women whom the Divine wanted beaten, and she said that it is always appropriate to intervene between bad behavior of past lives and consequences in this life, because it is possible for someone to learn without the consequences. The discussion continued. At the large-group debrief, one of the Jewish students said "I used to think Jews and Christians talking about Jesus was hard, but we've entered a whole new level here."

Point three: When Jesus says "I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes... except by me", we cannot know what that means. It's not a case of God misleading anyone; Middle-Wing's concern. We might have a guess, but we cannot know (There are other examples of this: Paul says "spiritual body" and we might have an inkling, but no one knows. We see now through a glass darkly, but then...). And not only don't we know what Jesus means, it is not for us to speak as if we do know what Jesus will do with those who did not come "by him." All we can do is speculate, guess, and be a bit more tentative in our pronouncements of divine judgment upon those who don't come "by him" the way we think they should have. What the Godhead will do with those people is the Godhead's own business; we can't know, and it is hubris to say that we do. But it's not that we know nothing. What we DO know, the unassailable Christian teaching is that they will face no different, suddenly ungracious or malevolent god. Christians believe that they will face Jesus. And if we actually believe Jesus is the incarnation of the graciousness of the first person of the Trinity, we seem on firmer ground to speculate that Jesus will be gracious to them than to insiste that Jesus is gonna be pissed. Jesus told the parable of the workers, and those that came late in the day got the same as those who had worked all day. Since death has no power over Jesus, it could well be that everyone will face Jesus after their deaths (that is, as late in the day as you can get), and will have a conversation much like the one C.S. Lewis described in The Last Battle, where those who worshipped the false god Tash are quite easily embraced by Aslan. I think that this won't sit well with Middle-Wing, but it'll definitely frustrate Gavin to no end. He'll be praying for me too. I hope so, anyway.

So I'm with the Feminarian that when a Buddhist says "I surrender all" it makes God happy. But it sure doesn't make Gavin happy. And the god who has to be behind the system as Gavin seems to understand it doesn't sound much like Jesus to me. In the meantime, I hear the Christian scriptures calling me to give an account for the hope that is in me, not to give an account of where people who believe differently than I do are destined to be sent.

The Feminarian said...

That's a wonderful comment. I learned something about Hinduism! Very interesting. I will talk to my Hindu friends to see what their take is on that (although they are probably more "liberal" since they're college students - I really can't fathom any of them saying what that woman said - she probably also is in favor of the caste system, which many of the younger people have roundly rejected as a part of their faith that needs to go away. And we do that with Christianity all the time - slavery, ordaining women - so we can't judge them for wanting to improve their tradition).

Anyway, I went to InterSem too, but I went this year. We didn't have any guest speakers like that - too bad. Ours was strictly Christian/Jewish, which felt hardly interfaith to me. :) You can look back to my post about it if you like, it's a few months ago.

The final thing I want to say is that I think we have to draw a sharp line when we're talking here that we are not talking about salvation because that is entirely God's business. We cannot fathom the intricacies of a life that lead the Almighty to call someone God's friend. So I think we're best off not trying to make any pronouncements ever about salvation or not. Or at least about the afterlife. I think what the anonymous poster said is right on (if a little LDS - but that's okay, I like LDS thinking on this one point - the idea of spiritual growth after death).

Is it possible for us to begin thinking about "salvation" not as what happens after you die but rather you are "saved" when you are living the life God wants? When you have joined the cosmic story of God's work in the world? When you are flourishing as a human being (not by any human standards, mind you) because you have everything you want because you only want what God wants...to me, that is salvation. That is life, and life abundantly. And I've actually had people I love tell me that the only thing that matters is heaven, is after you die, and I just don't buy it, because Jesus touched and healed and taught so many people while he was here on earth and his message was always immediate - the Kingdom of Heaven is AT HAND. Not coming. Here.

Oops, I started preaching there. Well the point is that if we can have a discussion apart from the issue of salvation, I think it can be more fruitful. Then we can start exploring truth claims and perhaps even agree that competing truth claims are impossible to rectify. That's what J's been trying to get me to admit for several days, anyway. But in order to talk objectively about the various claims of the various religions, you have to completely put aside the question of salvation (which I know is the central and only question for many people) and just look at what we say that is alike and what is different, how we understand God the same and different, how my revelation from God adds to yours and vice versa. Then we could make some progress.

Okay, I have to go write a sermon now!!!

Anonymous said...

"Sacred Pagan circle?"

You are standing against the whole of Christian tradition by deeming pagan practice "sacred." That's cool and all, just making sure you know that.

And just a hint, don't use Diana Eck (a woman who has nothing but vitriol for evangelicals) to convince evangelicals of anything!

The Feminarian said...

I wasn't saying I thought it was sacred, that's simply the name of the activity: Sacred Pagan Circle. I should have capitalized it, maybe, so that it was obviously a name not an adjective. Of course I don't think it's sacred, and I didn't get into it in this paper, but I actually didn't like standing in it and told my supervisor later that we should have been able to abstain. That was the one and only experience I had where I felt I was very much at odds with the religion which I was exposed to. But I still got along great with the leader of the Pagan group - she's a really smart, awesome student!

I've never heard Eck speak or read her writing on Evangelicals. Fortunately, I'm not "using" her to convince people - I have my own relationships both with Evangelicals and with the interfaith context, and I'm trying to bridge the two with what I hope is a lack of vitriol. I just found some of Eck's writing helpful for clarifying my own thought process. But point noted - it's never wise to cite a source that will immediately turn off your audience (I guess I assumed that, like me before now, most Ev's would never have heard of her).

Soen Joon Sunim said...

I agree with the first comment: fantastic post. I'd also recommend John Hick's "Interpretations of the Divine" for more on religious pluralism from an academic standpoint (and Christian background).

Gavin Brown said...

Anonymous,

We obviously have a completely different view of epistomology. By stating that we cannot really know what Jesus or Paul mean when they speak is to give away several clear assumptions that you hold:

1. that absolute truth is unknowable, if it even exists at all.

2. Personal truth (which is different for each person) is grounded in experience.

3. You in no way take Scripture literally, which you would probably admit.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is very specific. It is not, "God is love," or "God wants you to be happy," or "God wants to make the world a beter place," though these may alll be by-products of being faithful to the Gospel.

The Gospel is that the self-existent Christ, the second person of the Godhead who is eternally begotten of the Father, became incarnate through the virgin Mary by the Spirit of God, lived a sinless life which culminated in his voluntary crucifixion on a cross as the propitiation for the sins of all who would believe on His Name, followed by His bodily resurrection three days later, his subsequent ascension into heaven where he now makes intercession on behalf of His children as the great high priest, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

It is very specific and exclusive.

Consider Galatians 1:

Paul tells the Galatians "But even if we, or an Angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we preached to you, he is to be accursed!"

Sola Scriptura.

Anonymous said...

Gavin,

Since I would deny that I hold any of the three assumptions you attribute to me, I am tempted to think of you as a poor exegete. So I certainly have good grounds to doubt your interpretation of Scripture. But I looked carefully at your statement of what the Gospel is not, and I agreed. I was surprised, and moved on to what you think the Gospel is, and I didn't see much to complain about there, either.

But then your conclusion is that what you think is the Gospel is "very specific and exclusive". And that's a leap, an unsupported leap, at odds with the Jesus I see presented throughout the Gospels.

My statement is that we, finite human beings, can have no more than an inkling of what it means when Jesus said "no one will come... but by me." I argue that anyone who is confident that they know what Jesus will do with those who have not "prayed the sinner's prayer" or "confessed with their mouth and believed in their hearts that Jesus Christ is Lord" is claiming to know something which is entirely within Divine perogative, and about which it is not appropriate for us to make strong claims. What we DO know (and we DO know things) is that God was in Christ reconciling the whole world, and no one will face some OTHER god. No one will face a god who IS willing that some should perish.

Perhaps Jesus will sit with those who have died, and who were turned away from Jesus by zealous and arrogant interpreters. Perhaps Jesus will chat with them and present the Gospel as Jesus understands it, rather than as many fundamentalists understand it, and after sitting with Jesus, those "will come," when in life they ran (as I would have, had it been presented to me in the fundamentalist way).

I take it as axiomatic that everything I think about Christianity will undergo a radical change when I pass from this life to the next. I'd be stunned to discover that on that day, when I know as I am currently known, it'll pretty much be exactly as I thought. I'm sure it won't all vanish, but I'm willing to grant that it'll be at least as major a shift as the jump from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics. Things that seem to me to be incompatible now will be put in a new context that explains all. Jesus had a history of not being understood until much later, and I'm thankful that a gracious God does not seem to demand assent to a multiple choice doctrine, but rather interacts with an essay-question faith (my favorite notion from The Wittenberg Door).

God bless you, Gavin.