The Rev. Karl Schaffenburg, the rector of Grace Church in Sheboygan, WI, published a short opinion piece in an early May issue of The Living Church, a popular publication among Episcopalians. The piece, entitled simply “Why Jesus Would Not Coexist,” takes aim at the popular blue and white “Co-Exist” bumper stickers one finds on automobiles, Facebook posts, and t-shirts all over the country to say that the Christian faith remains incompatible with the idea of pluralism.
Fr. Schaffenburg’s critique actually raises some common concerns about pluralism and the place of Christianity in a pluralistic society I hear rather often while doing interfaith work, and so I thought it might be helpful to engage with him to see if his assertion that “Jesus Would Not Coexist” reflects the most accurate reading of the Gospels or a positive definition of pluralism.
To begin, Fr. Schaffenburg introduces the concept of the law of non-contradiction found in classical logic (that two contradictory claims cannot be simultaneously true). He then briefly explains the differences in the ways that the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) view Jesus. He argues on the basis of John 14:6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life…”) that “Jesus cannot coexist with contradictory claims to truth made in other faiths. If Jesus had been content with coexistence he might have escaped crucifixion. We should live peaceably with all people (Rom. 12:18), but we ought not reduce this peace to a glib assertion that all paths lead to God. The assertion that all faiths are the same and there is no exclusive truth is itself a doctrine, and one that excludes all but the universalist. It represents an incoherent quest for tolerance.”
I would have to agree with Fr. Schaffenburg that such a view indeed “represents an incoherent quest for tolerance,” yet I’m not so sure that the crucifixion stands as the best example to support his claim, nor that “tolerance,” however conceived, necessitates universalism. If what Fr. Schaffenburg aims to do is point to the veracity of the Christian faith, I stand with him in this claim; I think it is the “true” faith (otherwise I wouldn’t be one). That said, to be a Christian does not mean I cannot exist alongside other faiths in a positive and productive way that includes cooperation and collaboration.
To his credit, Fr. Schaffenburg does grant that elements of truth can be found in other faiths (this, he notes, is a “classical Christian doctrine”). Yet ends his piece by labeling the “real danger of COEXIST” as “its underlying assumption that how we live is ultimately a matter of human agency,” arguing that the “lessons of history… make it clear that we will never achieve peace and harmony on our own.” He critiques the view held by some Christians that attaining piece on earth is equivalent to the kingdom of Heaven, and concludes by saying, “Coexistence that treats Jesus Christ merely as an important moral teacher disregards that he revealed himself as God and reduces the saving act of God to a set of rules. It claims that if we live in a certain way we will attain salvation, thus toying with Pelagianism. For this reason, COEXIST is unworthy of anything more than a bumper sticker.”
There’s a lot to tease out in Fr. Schaffenburg’s critique. In fact, I would argue that the biggest issue I have with his editorial is that it simply sets out to do too much—arguing against universalism, certain views about salvation, the Kingdom of God, and Pelagianism—all in a short piece about a bumper sticker.
But there’s something else here, too. Beneath Fr. Schaffenburg’s many aims lies the assumption that pluralism—to “coexist”—requires one to give up the tenets of their own faith or, in the case of the Christian, to relegate Jesus Christ to the margins for the sake of an ideal of world peace.
Yet I would argue that this is not the sentiment that lies behind the “Coexist” bumper-sticker, nor is it the understanding of pluralism that undergirds our work at FLP… or even of Fr. Schaffenburg himself.
We coexist every day—at work, at school, in airports, in the grocery store. My convictions as a Christian do not limit me to interact only with other Christians, but rather informs the way that I work in the world. Indeed, Jesus himself coexisted with those he encountered; it was they who could not coexist with him.
Perhaps a healthier view of pluralism and coexistence can be found on this very website, on the “Pluralism” tab at the top of the page. Permit me to conclude by quoting it.
When we say pluralism, what do we mean? Good question.
We follow a model of interfaith engagement developed by the Chicago-based non-profit named the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).
IFYC’s approach to interfaith engagement pulls heavily from the work of Harvard scholar Diana Eck and revolves around three components:
1.) Respect for individual religious or nonreligious identity.
Respect for identity means that everyone can bring their full identities to this work. There’s space for people to believe that they are right and others are wrong, and that their beliefs are true and others’ are not. Interfaithcooperation is not syncretistic or relativistic; no one has to concede exclusive truth claims to be part of it – whether you are an Orthodox Jew, a conservative Christian, or an atheist, you are welcome to the table of interfaith cooperation.
2.) Mutually inspiring relationships.
Interfaith cooperation builds relationships across religious and nonreligious boundaries, while creating space for real conversations about disagreements and difference and a sense that each person gains from the relationship.
3.) Common action for the common good.
Interfaith cooperation is based on the conviction that people of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds have shared values that call them to make the world a better place. By working together on local and global projects based on these shared values, individuals learn to connect to those who are different from them while strengthening their communities.
Their idea is simple: face-to-face interaction, as well as conversations with those with whom we disagree, can be a means for mitigating hate and increasing understanding. We think it’s a pretty good idea.
IFYC focuses on shared values and does not suppose or support shared theologies. So do we.
We believe that you don’t have to water-down your own religious tradition in order to participate in interfaith cooperation. Instead, you are encouraged to fully embrace your own tradition and share its distinctives with others. This is our idea of pluralism.
One day (God willing and the people consenting!) I hope to be a priest with as much experience as Fr. Schaffenburg, and I hope that I can carry a constructive definition of coexistence with me in my ministry that facilitates interactions with those of other traditions to work for the greater good while still retaining the potency and vitality of the Christian faith.