This is a re-post of my guest column from Faithline Protestants, a web forum that explores the intersection between Protestant Christianity and interfaith work.
It’s been hard for me to watch the news lately. Even going on Facebook has been difficult. Every time I go online I hear of more disturbing stories emerging from Iraq and Syria as the militant group ISIS continues to oppress minorities, rape women, and violently execute innocent men, women, and children. But what has made these horrific acts even more difficult to watch is the conversation swirling around them. Over and over again I have watched friends, colleagues, media personalities, and news outlets call ISIS the face of Islam. More and more people have begun to say things like, “This is what Islam is really about. They are finally showing their true colors to the world.” And as I have seen this picture of Islam painted over and over again I have actually begun to wonder, “Are they right? Is this truly what Islam is all about?”
Well friends, it has been way too long since I have posted here. Sorry, but I have been busy writing for RELEVANT Magazine‘s website on the intersection of interfaith work and evangelism, which is why things have been quiet here on the home front. I’ve also been transitioning into a new position at my church, so that has also kept me quite busy.
That being said, I wanted to finish this series by re-posting my latest contribution to RELEVANT‘s website, which I think ties together well my concluding thoughts on interfaith work from an evangelical perspective. I also want to say a big thank you to the editor of the “God” section of RELEVANT, Stephanie, for her hard work in editing and offering feedback on these pieces. You can read the post HERE or see it re-posted below.
After this, I will start posting regularly again, primarily with reflections on pastoral ministry, leadership, and missional living. That being said, here is the third and final installment of my section on “Thinking Theologically About Interfaith Work”.
“BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS”
(originally posted on RELEVANT Magazine’s website on Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012)
Over the past couple of months I have been privileged to write on the topic of interfaith cooperation from an evangelical perspective. During that time we have seen many examples and reasons why this topic is of the utmost importance in our increasingly interconnected world, especially in light of religious violence both here and abroad. It has been both a challenge and a privilege to address this topic.
For my last post in this series, I wanted to take some time to talk about the future of interfaith cooperation and list some of my hopes for this movement and, specifically, for the evangelical Christians who will take part in it.
Too often religion has been used as a weapon against those who are different. Interfaith work provides a corrective to this.
This past month we saw the outbreak of violent protests around the world after an anti-Islamic video went viral on YouTube. Shortly afterward, the familiar chorus was heard: “Islam is a violent religion,” “This is why religion is dangerous. It’s irrational,” and so forth. There was plenty of blame to go around.
Now, let’s be real: The attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya was a heinous crime and should be condemned. The violent demonstrations around the world are inexcusable and should be repudiated. And that is not the only story there is to tell.
The truth is that there is another side to the story that was not readily reported on. That story is the story of the countless Muslim leaders who condemned the violence, of the citizens of Benghazi who mourned the U.S. ambassador’s death and the scores of Libyans who protested against violence in their own country. The truth is that religious communities can serve the cause of peacemaking as well as violence. But too often we focus only on the latter.
In his Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). In a world 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. I am inspired by the religious leaders who have already begun building movements to serve the cause of peace—people like John Moreland of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and the leaders of Peace Catalyst International.
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.
Furthermore, my hope is governments and international peacekeeping organizations would increasingly employ and partner with religious leaders to bring peaceful resolutions to world conflicts, seeing faith as an opportunity and rather than a barrier.
As a seminarian, I am deeply saddened by overwhelming ignorance that my fellow seminary students have in regard to the beliefs and traditions of other faith communities. Too often we study other religions simply to pick apart their theological truth claims and establish a basis for our own. The result is that the average seminarian can graduate with a Masters degree in theology and still never have met, much less had a meaningful relationship with, a person of another faith tradition. World events have shown us just how dangerous it is to live in ignorance of one another.
Seminaries have been charged with forming and training Christian leaders for today’s increasingly interconnected and interrelated world. As such, they should be on the front lines of equipping Christian leaders to meaningfully and deeply engage with communities that are different from their own. Yes, for the sake of spreading the Gospel, but also for the sake of modeling what it means to be an ambassador for Christ in a world that seems to encourage inter-religious conflict. In doing so, they live out Paul’s exhortation in Romans: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
In order to do this, though, they must be trained in far more than apologetics and evangelism. They must be given an accurate picture of other faith communities in order to understand them and see connections between our religious traditions. Again, I am inspired by evangelical thinkers like Gerald McDermott, who is pioneering a way forward in this area.
I remember well my undergraduate years at the University of Illinois, sitting in class and hearing professors address topics of faith and religion. Yet the response I often heard from my classmates, both Christian and those from other faith backgrounds, was, “Wow … they totally missed the mark. That is not at all what I believe!”
Again, too often the secular university treats the study of religion as merely an academic exercise, rather than seeing religion as a vital part of many students’ identity. If colleges are truly going to prepare students to engage with our diverse world, they need to recognize this gap and evangelicals need to work together with universities to build spaces of dialogue and cooperation that serve both the campus and the surrounding communities.
I think of organizations like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which hosted a interfaith panel discussion in order to encourage greater dialogue among the student body around issues of religious identity. Or, I think of young leaders like Greg Damhorst, who has worked with the faculty and administration of the University of Illinois to host campus-wide days of interfaith service, often bringing together professors in the Religious Studies department, faith leaders from the surrounding community, and students to serve the common good in Urbana-Champaign.
In conclusion, my hope is that evangelical Christians would becoming “culture makers” rather than “culture warriors,” and I see interfaith cooperation as one way in which this can happen. As an evangelical, I see a lot of hope in the interfaith movement because it provides a space where people can be fully faithful to their religious traditions while also working together for the common good.
By engaging in interfaith dialogue and cooperation, I believe I am living out Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). Peace comes when we actually spend time developing meaningful relationships with those with whom we disagree. In doing so we begin to understand what it means to live side by side in our diverse world.
I believe this is why Jesus said that the second great commandment is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). Increasingly our neighbors are people of other faith traditions and worldviews. Interfaith work provides us with an opportunity to learn how to live this commandment out in practical ways. Interfaith work invites us to be faithful to God and loving to others. May we, as evangelicals, enter into this conversation and come to be known as true ambassadors for Christ. Amen.
What follows is Part 2 of my series “Thinking Theologically about Interfaith Work”, which looks at interfaith engagement from an evangelical Christian perspective. In this installment I wanted to tackle some of the barriers and opportunities that I see to evangelicals getting involved in interfaith work. As I was trying to write this section I realize that I can’t simply separate out the barriers and opportunities, because so many of them are intertwined. So, I thought I would just tackle a couple of the issues head-on and discuss how some of these things could be barriers, if handled poorly, and yet serve as ways forward if handled with care and respect.
While my last post was a little bit more thought out, this one is going to be pretty rough. So, I hope you all will read it as an attempt at dialogue as opposed to a well-developed explanation of these issues. So, without further ado, here are a couple of the key issues that could either block or encourage evangelical participation in interfaith work.
Treating the Allergy of Exclusivity
In my experience, there are two groups of people who find themselves quarantined in any interfaith gathering: atheists and evangelicals. Though it sounds like the beginning of a bad bar joke, the reality is that both atheists and evangelicals find themselves on the receiving end of suspicious questions and nervous glances at interfaith gatherings. I think the assumption is that, because of our particular beliefs, we are not very open to meeting with, befriending, or learning from people of other backgrounds. Atheists because they don’t have any religious beliefs. Evangelicals because we only accept one religious belief as valid: namely, ours.
While both of these statements are true, that does not mean that we are not interested in interfaith work. Furthermore, it does not mean that we are openly hostile to interreligious dialogue. Just because I might not agree with or accept another person’s religious belief does not mean that I hate the person or that I’m out to destroy positive interfaith work. I admit that there have been evangelicals who have operated this way, and for those people I apologize and say that I am sorry for the ways in which members of my own community have hurt those of other communities. But just because someone may hold an exclusive truth claim about their religious tradition does not mean that they cannot or would not want to be involved in interfaith dialogue.
In fact, my suspicion is that there are a lot more exclusivists in interfaith circles than we might immediately think. The reality is that none of us would hold the religious or philosophical position that we hold if we did not think that what we believed was more right than what someone else believes. This goes for even the most open-minded universalist. In fact, it has often been the open-minded universalists who are the most persistant in trying to get me to stop believing what I believe and adopt their own religious or philosophical position. I dunno….that sounds an awful lot like evangelism to me:p
You see my point. We all come into interfaith spheres holding beliefs and positions that are incompatible with those held by others. Yet, when it comes to evangelicals, there seems to be a double standard when it comes to voicing our particular positions. As long as this double standard exists, evangelicals will shy away from interfaith discussions and common action, not because they don’t believe it is valuable, but because they have been led to believe that they will not be valued. I would hope that when we enter these kinds of discussions with one another we would find commonalities, but we should not be afraid of encountering differences as well.
And this brings me to my second point…
Similarities AND Differences
If interfaith work is going to be truly substantive, it needs to address both similarities and differences. Oftentimes the starting point for interfaith dialogue and service is the similarities that span across various faith traditions. In fact, when I first started working with the Interfaith Youth Core, this was their modus operandi. At every IFYC event we would talk about what, from our faith traditions, inspired us to serve others. The underlying assumption: we would find that we had service in common and should start there. This was very effective for motivating us toward cooperative action and, honestly, there is nothing wrong with that.
However, too often interfaith work stops there. We circle around similarities, but do very little to talk about or address our differences. The result is that our interactions with one another remain superficial and do not move into deeper territory, where we are learning to form relationships in which we understand each other in ways that value the who we are in all of our commonalities and distinctives. The evangelical community takes its theological distinctives very seriously and, when we find ourselves in an environment where we are not allowed to talk about them or learn about others, we get turned off and don’t feel like we can be truly authentic to our faith commitments. This is why interfaith workers need to build spaces where we can talk about both our similarities and differences in constructive ways.
If interfaith work is to truly become a force for positive change and interaction between religious communities it needs to equip and train people to learn to talk with one another in a way that build bridges even as we talk about our differences. In fact, I think that demonstrating that we can disagree and still work together for the common good will be the greatest apologetic for interfaith work’s effectiveness.
This is why I am happy that, as the IFYC has matured, it has adopted a more robust understanding of interfaith engagement that both addresses commonalities and differences. In fact, one of the best interfaith discussions that I ever saw took place at one of their conferences on interfaith youth work. One of their panel discussions featured a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim activist, an Evangelical Christian writer, and a Humanist chaplain each talk about why they believe what they believe and what they feel makes their faith tradition/worldview unique. They then went on to talk about why, even in the face of these differences, they believe interfaith work and engagement is valuable. It was one of the most robust and exciting discussions I have ever seen, because it meaningfully engaged both similarities and differences in a way that was constructive and enlightening. I would hope that more and more interfaith events and programs would do likewise.
The Worship Question
Another area that can be a barrier for evangelicals in interfaith work is the idea of “worshipping” together. While I’ve seen this come up less and less over the years, every once in a while a well meaning interfaith organizer will suggest an interfaith worship service as a way of bringing people of different religious backgrounds together. As an evangelical, this is just not something that I subscribe to. When we, as Christians, gather together to worship, we believe that it is incumbent upon us to worship the triune God in Spirit and truth (John 4:23). As such we believe that worship is a sacred space in which we honor God for who He has revealed Himself to be: as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with His ultimate self-revelation coming to us in the person of Jesus Christ. To water that down by openly saying or even appearing to imply that the God we worship is the same as that of any other faith tradition would be to betray this relationship in our eyes. As such, we cannot join in this kind of “worship” experience with other communities.
Furthermore, I suspect that evangelicals are not the only ones who feel uncomfortable in such instances. I’ve had many conversations over the years with devout Muslims and Jews who have also felt some trepidation at participating in these kinds of events because they believe that doing so would be disrespectful to God. As such, interfaith organizers would do well to be aware of those who would be uncomfortable with such an event and reconsider how best to move forward.
That being said, I think there are other helpful alternatives that can be used in interfaith interactions. The first is being willing to visit each others’ places of worship in order to learn and understand one another’s faith traditions more fully. In fact, one of my favorite experiences in college was going to the local mosque every Ramadan with some of my Muslim friends to learn about this important Islamic holiday. Inevitably, during the fast-breaking meal at the end of the day, we would get into theological discussions and debates about our faith traditions, God, and Jesus. Yet, these we done so in a spirit of generosity, around a shared meal, and with trusted friends. And every year I was honored to be invited back. Again, I had a chance to learn about the significance of prayer and worship in the Muslim community, in a place and time that allowed them to be fully who they were as religious people. Likewise, I have, on many occasions, invited friends of mine who are not Christians to come to church with me and learn about what it is we believe as Christians and see how we worship God. In both of these examples, these encounters have prompted great discussions and exchanges about both similarities and differences, and can serve as a model for other interfaith interactions.
Another alternative would be hosting an event in which various faith communities were invited to artistically express what they believe. This could be done through visual arts, dance, song, poetry, and so forth. Oftentimes many of these artistic forms are used in worship within our own communities and it is often as an act of worship that some of the world’s most beautiful religious art is produced. By doing so we would get a glimpse into what it means to worship God, the divine, etc within each other’s faith communities in an way that allows for learning and engagement, but also does not put us in a position in which we are compromising our deeply held religious beliefs.
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.
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.”
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.
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.