Monthly Archives: June 2012

Thinking Theologically About Interfaith Work (Part 1)

INTRODUCTION TO THE SERIES

Since college, my path has regularly crossed those of interfaith workers.  I’ve had a chance to work with leaders and pioneers like Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, as well as up-and-coming leaders like Gregory Damhorst, former president of Interfaith in Action and writer at “Faith Line Protestants”.  I’ve also written on the subject at a couple of points, primarily to talk about what interfaith work is and the role it can play in our increasingly inter-related world.

Over the past few years I’ve been immersed in working with InterVarsity, an evangelical Christian movement among college students, so my primary focus has been there.  However, in recent weeks the subject of interfaith work has come up again, specifically from evangelicals asking if they should be involved and, if so, at what level.  In the past I’ve written as an evangelical outsider looking into interfaith circles as well as addressed the practical reasons why evangelicals should be involved in interfaith work.  However, I’ve never really given interfaith work a theological treatment before.

What follows is a three-part series called, “Thinking Theologically About Interfaith Work”.  The first part will deal with some of the biblical passages that I believe provide a Christian framework for interfaith engagement.  The second part will address both the opportunities and the barriers to interfaith work from an evangelical perspective.  Finally, the third part will address my personal hopes for evangelical Christian involvement in interfaith work.

BASIC ASSUMPTIONS

But before I dive into the theological reasons for being involved in interfaith work, I want to briefly address some of my assumptions.  First, I am writing as an evangelical Christian.  That being said, I do not claim to speak for all evangelicals. Some of what I have to say will probably be uncomfortable for interfaith practitioners who are not evangelicals.  Likewise, other points will probably be challenging for my fellow evangelicals.  What I provide here are my own thoughts as a member of this faith tradition and my readers are free to disagree with me on these points.

Second, I am already assuming that evangelicals should be involved in interfaith work.  For my reasons for this, I would direct you to my CrossCurrents article from 2005 (republished on this blog).

Third, I draw my definition of interfaith work and practice from the definition and model articulated by the Interfaith Youth Core and it’s founder, Eboo Patel.  Along with Cassie Meyer, Dr. Patel says that interfaith work, “seeks to bring people of different faiths together in a way that respects different religious identities, builds mutually inspiring relationships, and engages in common action around issues of shared social concern” (Patel & Meyer, 2010).  At points I will both affirm and critique this definition, but it is one of the best that I have seen for positive inter-religious engagement.

My hope for this series is to contribute to the conversation about interfaith engagement.  It is not my desire to be the only word or the final word on the subject.  So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the biblical reasons for evangelicals to be involved in interfaith work.

BIBLICAL REASONS FOR INTERFAITH ENGAGEMENT

What follows is a brief survey of several biblical passages which I believe provide a helpful framework for evangelical engagement in interfaith work.  My reasons for doing this is because of the role the Bible plays in the life of the evangelical community.  We believe that it is God’s authoritative word and that it is trustworthy in its entirety.  As such, we look to it for guidance in every area of life and this includes how we relate to those of other faith traditions.  While there is no explicit passage that I believe encourages interfaith work in the way defined above, there are several passages which lay out principles which point to the need for positive engagement with other faith communities.  While this survey is not exhaustive, I hope it will be helpful for both my fellow evangelicals as well as for those from other faith communities who seek to understand the evangelical community.  For the sake of space, I will point out three texts which I think are instructive, though there are several others that I could cite.

Jeremiah 29:  Beyond Isolationism in Bablyon

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exiles, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7, see also vv.4-6).

This letter from the prophet Jeremiah was addressed to the nation of Israel during a time of great religious and cultural anxiety.  They have been exiled to the enemy nation of Babylon.     Surrounded by a foreign culture, facing incredible pressure to assimilate, and immersed in a religious environment that was very different from their own, the temptation for this community would have been to turn inward:  choosing isolationism as a way of protecting themselves as best they could.

Into these dark circumstances Jeremiah sends the exiles a powerful message:  engage.  God calls his people to engage the surrounding culture and to seek the good and the well-being of their new neighbors, with all of their cultural, political, and religious differences.

In this passage I find a word of encouragment for the evangelical community.  Historically the posture of the evangelical world has been to reject and retreat from the surrounding culture.  While this trend has been changing in the past 20 years, evangelicals have still been reluctant to engage in dialogue and positive social engagement with other faith communities.  However, what we see in Scripture is the call to be involved in the surrounding culture for its benefit, living with and among those we are called to serve.  In fact, the religiously plural environment of ancient Babylon, as well as that of the Roman Empire during the years of the early church, was just as religiously diverse as our present-day American society, if not more so.  And in both the Old and New Testaments, we find the people of God engaging and interacting with their surrounding culture.

During the Babylonian exile alone we encounter examples like that of the prophet Daniel, who actually worked for and served the dictatorship which carried his people off into captivity.  While it is obvious that Daniel did not support every policy, belief, or directive that he was given, he nonetheless worked alongside the Babylonian government, serving it where he felt he could, as a faithful believer in God (you can read his story in the book of Daniel).  His goal was to use his influence for the betterment of the society in which he lived.

We live in an increasingly diverse world and, more and more, our culture is defined by the interactions between various communities and subgroups, not least of which include those of faith.  While there is much difference between these communities, there is also much we hold in common, especially as regards our calling to share and care for the common spaces which we share (communities, schools, political systems, businesses, parks, etc).  Evangelicals should adopt an attitude of creative engagement with these spheres and learn ways to work with their neighbors of various backgrounds for the common good.  For example, if Muslims, Jews, Christians and Hindus all send their children to the same schools, it would be in their interest to work together for the improvement and betterment of that common space.  Creative engagement, not isolation, should characterize our approach when it comes to interacting with various religious communities and people groups.

Matthew 5:  Living as Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
(Matthew 5:9)

In a world that is characterized by the “clash of civilizations”, religious conflict seems to be a disturbingly common occurrence.  Too often religion has been used as a weapon against those who are different.

Interfaith work provides a corrective to this.  With its emphasis on growing in relationships with people of other faith traditions, sharing stories, and working together for the common good, interfaith work provides an alternative story to that put forth by religious extremists and builds relationships across faith lines that can serve as avenues of trust and dialogue when inter-religious conflict rears its head.

As people called to be peacemakers in a violent world, evangelical Christians should be on the front lines of this movement.  Building relationships and working together for peace does not mean we have to sacrifice our religious convictions.  As such, our posture in interfaith work should be one of building bridges and advocating for peace where there is religious conflict.  In doing so, we are able to stay true to our own religious beliefs while also living out this beatitude in regard to our neighbors of other faith backgrounds.

Acts 17:  Religious Literacy in Athens

“People of Athens!  I see that in every way you are very religious…”
(Acts 17:22, see vv.16-34)

Another instructive text for evangelical engagement in interfaith work is found in Acts 17.  In verses 16-34, the apostle Paul is spending time in the Greek city of Athens, a place with a wide variety of religious beliefs and worldviews present.  During his stay there he is invited to share about his own faith with one of the leading intellectual bodies of the city:  the Areopagus.  What follows is an incredible exchange in which Paul demonstrates his own literacy in the religious traditions of the Athenians while also remaining true to his convictions as a Christian evangelist.

While this encounter is a brillant example of humble apologetics and evangelism, it also teaches us something about how we are to approach other religious traditions.  During his defense of the Gospel, Paul quotes two Greek philosophers in his argument:  Epimenides and Aratus.  What is surprising is that he not only quotes them, but affirms the viewpoints that they espoused, using them as a way to build his own case for the Gospel.  While Paul did not agree wholesale with the worldviews of either of these philosophers, he acknowledged that there was some truth to what they taught and he wanted to affirm that.

In Paul, we see that it is possible for evangelicals to affirm some of the truth claims of other faith traditions where those claims align with our own.  This can be a building block toward mutual understanding and respect, as well as a platform from which to begin working together.  Again, it is important not to compromise the Gospel message, but it is also possible to affirm areas of commonality.

As such, evangelicals should have a curiosity about and a desire to grow in their understanding of other world religions.  Interfaith dialogue is a brillant place to start because it begins with a place of sharing and is born out of a desire to increase understanding across faith lines.  As such, evangelicals should not fear entering into such spaces, but can do so with a desire to learn.

CONCLUSION

Again, these were only a few passages among several that I believe can given evangelicals a basis for positive interfaith engagement.  What we see here is that it is possible to remain true to one’s religious convictions while also seeking understanding and building relationships with people from other faith backgrounds.  Furthermore, it is a part of our calling to work together for the betterment of society around us.  Again, doing so does not compromise our core obedience to the Gospel, but can actually serve as a springboard for living it out more faithfully (more on this in coming posts).

In my next entry, I will highlight some of the opportunities and barriers that I see, as an evangelical, to interfaith work.  So stay tuned.

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There’s Nothing Sexy About “Doulos”

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:  Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!”

~Philippians 2:5-8

“Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee”

~Augustine

As I’ve been preparing to start my new job as a pastor, I’ve been spending some time slowing down and reflecting on what it means to be in Christian leadership.  While perusing various Christian websites and publications, I found lots of suggestions for how to grow as a church leader.  Some start with identifying your spiritual gifts.  Others encourage you to find and develop your strengths in ministry.  Still others use “biblical” images of leadership to help you identify what type of leader you are.

In fact, one of the more popular ones making the rounds is Mark Driscoll’s  “Prophet, Priest, King” paradigm.  In introducing this paradigm, Mark says that it is drawn from the example of Jesus, who was Prophet, Priest, and King.  Because Jesus is our ultimate example of leadership, we should look to this threefold model for our own understanding of leadership and identify which of these three functions describes us.

Having used some of these paradigms myself, I want to make clear that I’m not opposed to identifying your strengths or finding out the ways in which you are gifted in ministry.  But the problem I have with many of these paradigms is that they start from a place of strength, using terms of power and authority to describe what it means to lead in the church.  Yet, when I look at the life of Christ the most compelling feature of his ministry was his weakness and humility.  Furthermore, of all the aspects of Christ’s life, it was his humble nature that the writers of Scripture most often point to as the example that Christians are to emulate.

In Philippians 2:5-8, Paul encourages us to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (v.5).  He then goes on to state exactly what that mindset was:  “he made himself nothing by take the very nature of a servant” (v.7, emphasis mine).  That word, “servant”, is the Greek word doulos, which literally means “slave”.  Jesus attitude toward his own leadership was to act as a slave to others.  In fact, Paul goes on to highlight how it was because Jesus took on the nature of a slave that “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name…” (vv.9-11).  Jesus’ authority flowed out of his humility.  Humility came first.  This is the identity that we are to have:  that of a slave.

Jesus also affirmed this during his own ministry.  On the night he was betrayed, Jesus “got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.  After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet…” (John 13:4-5).  After this incredible act of humility and servant-like behavior, Jesus tells his disciples, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  Very truly I tell you, no servant [doulos] is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:15-16).  The shocking implications of this scene are overwhelming.  Here we see Jesus with the men whom he expects to lead the church, telling them that, as leaders, they are to be first and foremost slaves to one another.

So, if this was the primary identity, the primary role, the primary mode of leadership that Jesus himself advocated, why is this not the starting point of the leadership paradigms that are presented to us?  In fact, in his very first video in the Leadership Coaching series, Mark Driscoll does not start with doulos, but with prophet, priest, and king.  Too many of our leadership models begin with images of power and authority, rather than with the primary image of slave-like service and humility.  And too often, we buy into these wholesale, pointing to them to justify our own will to power.  Very little attention is paid to doulos, to the call to slave-like service and servanthood.

Why?  Well, because doulos isn’t sexy.  After all, who wouldn’t want to be a prophet, priest or king?  Who wouldn’t want to be an apostle, evangelist, preacher or teacher to the masses?  But slave?!  Suffering servant?!  I fear that those who read this post will say, “Well of course we are supposed to be humble.  We can be servant prophets and servant kings…”  But if that is true, then why is so little time and energy dedicated to this virtue as opposed to others?  It is too easy to write it off and the failure to truly explore it and its implications can have disastrous consequences for our own lives and the lives of those that we lead.  Furthermore, if humility is such a given, why don’t we see it more in the lives of those who call themselves followers of Christ?

In his book Elusive, Brian Sanders of The Underground writes,

“The dangerous and insidious combination of our North American celebrity culture, along with our innate pride, intermingles to damage the souls of our leaders.  In some cases even destroy them.  Where is the shyness of Jesus in our leaders, as they telecast themselves into satellite services around the city or even the world?  This kind of breakdown in humility should shock and concern us, but it does not because we have conspired with our leaders to prefer their false self to the real one…Humility cannot survive the scrutiny of stage lights.  Humility has to be cultivated in private” (pg. 16).

Humility is the most challenging and most attractive quality of Jesus.  Yet, I have found very few examples of what it means to pursue humility.  And if I’m honest, when I look at my own life, I see too much of the desire for celebrity and too little of the passion to humbly serve.  We all have been infected by the will to power that can so quickly choke out this foundational paradigm of Christian leadership.

So what can be done?  I think the honest answer is that humility can only begin with an honest assessment of ourselves and an honest assessment of God.  When we take a deeper look at who we really are we begin to see the depth of our need for God.  As Paul writes in Romans, “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me…What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7:21 & 24).  The reality is that even when we think we are humble, we need only scratch the surface to see how truly self-serving and self-indulgent we are.  We find ourselves trapped in the cycle of desiring good, but continuing to self-protect and self-serve instead.

However, the answer to breaking this cycle comes in the very next verse:  “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25).  Paul’s answer is worship.  Again, Brian Sanders summarizes this well:  “Awe is a kind of self-forgetting.  It is perfect awareness of another.  Humility begins with awe…I believe that this journey begins at the same place it ends, in the awe that comes from an encounter with the glory of God” (pgs. 24-25).   When we understand the Gospel, we come to see how we do not deserve the grace of God, but we also see how truly loving and generous God is, in that he gives it to us anyways.  Our humble estimation of ourselves begins with with glorious realization of the grace and beauty of Jesus Christ.

My hope, as I prepare for this new chapter in ministry, is to regain that sense of awe and passion for Jesus which once characterized my life as a young Christian.  My prayer is that, along with the community I serve, we would understand, in ever deeper ways, what it means to worship the God who is gracious and loving.  And my hope is that my leadership would be characterized more and more by the kind of humble service which Jesus so wonderfully models.  Doulos might not be sexy…but it is beautiful.

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A Lesson Learned…

“Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well”

~1 Thessalonians 2:8

As I’ve been preparing for my transition to pastoral ministry, I’ve been trying to take time to reflect on this past season of ministry with InterVarsity, noting especially the lessons that I have learned.  One of these lessons really hit home toward the end of Chapter Focus Week.  On our last night together, my students surprised me with a cake and we sat around as they shared stories and expressed their thanks for the time that I have served as their staff worker.  I was deeply touched and moved by what was shared.

However, there was one phrase that kept coming up as these leaders shared:  “I wish I got to know you more.”  This really stood out to me because it forced me to reflect on the kind of ministry I have had there, and to look ahead to the kind of ministry I hope to have at the church where I will be serving.    This phrase was a telling reminder of the importance of being open and vulnerable in ministry.  Too often it is easy for those of us who serve in professional ministry to erect walls between ourselves and those that we are serving alongside or ministering to.  Sadly, I fear that this was a trap that I fell into during my years at UIC.  No doubt there were certain students that I confided in and got close to, but the reality is that I created very few avenues through which the students could have spoken into my life.  It was rare to have them interact with me outside of “official” ministry times.  Life together was minimal.

Now, there are a variety of things that I could say contributed to this:

  • Life stage
  • Distance (I commuted into the city)
  • Family responsibilities

But it is too easy to blame these things.  We are called to far more when we serve in ministry.  I think Paul summarizes it best when he writes to the Thessalonians:  “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thess. 1:8, emphasis mine).  Paul highlights the importance of shared life in the course of ministry.  It is far easier to create programs, develop training conferences, and give talks than it is to allow life-on-life discipleship to take place.  The reason:  because this kind of discipleship is costly, messy, and risky.

However, Jesus would have it no other way.  In fact, it was this very kind of discipleship that he modeled so well.  Well before sending out the Twelve to do the work of the ministry, we read that, “He appointed twelve that they might be with him…” (Mark 3:14, emphasis mine).  Jesus’ own M.O. was to share his life with his disciples first.  It was out of this kind of discipleship that they learned how to be ministers of the gospel.  It was Jesus’ hope that his own life and model would rub off on these few men, with whom he spent so much time.  Jesus put it best when he said, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business.  Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15, emphasis mine).  Ultimately, he would pay the ultimate price for his friends, dying on the Cross for them, even when they all abandoned him.  Jesus was willing to take the risk, enter the mess, and pay the cost for the sake of the ones that he ministered to and ministered with.  We are called to do likewise.

So as I step into a new stage of life and a new form of ministry, I want this lesson to remain front and center.  I need to develop deep friendships with those around me because this is the model we are called to implement.  It is the way that Jesus taught us by his life and example.  It is how disciples and disciple-makers are formed.  Please hold me accountable to this.  May that be the first step on the next stage of this journey together.

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