Jesus CAN Co-Exist: A Response to the Rev. Karl Schaffenburg

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.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Jesus CAN Co-Exist: A Response to the Rev. Karl Schaffenburg

  1. Samuel Stuart Maynes

    If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca. It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao; involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas identified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great Way” or Tao of All That Is.

    If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other, but the Glorified Spirit proceeding from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from him, as well as mingle and meld in him.

    For more details, please see: http://www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

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  2. John W. Morehead

    Thank you for this interesting piece and the response you provide. You are correct to note several areas where Rev. Schaffenburg is right, but also where by and large he is off the mark. I think part of the problem is that certain terms and concepts set conservative Christians off, including “co-exist” as well as “dialogue.” But then again, so do “justice” and “peacemaking,” so much so that conservatives have largely abandoned these very Christian ideas to progressives and liberals. Perhaps by taking the approach you do, and acknowledging the concerns and yet pointing out disagreements and alternative perspectives, is a way forward with Christian conservatives. For my part, at the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, we take an approach similar to yours, while also noting how religious diplomacy that discusses irreconcilable differences and develops relationships and turns enemies into trusted rivals, can be a promising way forward beyond the problematic elements of co-exist, dialogue, and many interfaith approaches. Thanks again for this.

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