Author Archives: Cameron Nations

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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UK City’s Synagogue Saved by Local Muslim Community

Check out this awesome story via The Guardian of how the Muslim community in Bradford, a city just outside of Leeds in north England, saved a local synagogue from closure due to costly building repairs. Tangible signs of interfaith cooperation.

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Hearing Stories and Telling Stories: How Polarization Erases Personhood

Unsure of the public’s reaction in the days immediately following 9/11, Dr. Saleh Sbanaty and his family refused to go outside for fear of violence, heckling, or worse. One day, however, necessity got the better of them and they traveled to the grocery store to pick up a few things. While walking the aisles toward the cash registers,  Dr. Sbanaty felt a hand on his shoulder.

He froze.

He turned around to see a woman he had never seen before. She looked him in the eyes.

Though for a moment time seemed to slow to a halt, Dr. Sbanaty’s pulse quickened. Would she yell? Would she spit? Dr. Sbanaty did not know.

“You are welcome in this community,” she said.

Instead of insults and hate, she spoke words of encouragement and acceptance, even though she knew nothing of the man before her– a professor of engineering at Middle Tennessee State University and a devout Muslim. She was able to see him as a person, not a talking point.

Picture can be found at [http://www.islamophobiatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Islamic_Center_Murfreesboro2.jpg].

During FLP’s hiatus, we’ve seen religiously-motivated violence, political unrest, anti-American protests, massacres, shootings, the bizarre national argument over same-sex marriage fought over a fast-food chicken sandwich, debates over foreign and domestic policy, bombings, landmark Supreme Court decisions and more– and all the while we argue and denigrate one another as we disagree. Much of it has left me confused and disappointed; everything seems so broken, so irreparable.

This feeling of disappointment at humanity’s ability to talk about tough issues hits home for me. Many of you will have heard of the controversy that began some time ago surrounding the construction and opening of the mosque and Islamic community center in Murfressboro, TN. I’ve even written about it a couple of times on Faith Line Protestants.

During my orientation at Sewanee last August, we heard from Dr. Saleh M. Sbenaty, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro who has advocated for the building of the mosque and spoken on its behalf to the media on numerous occasions. The story at the beginning of this post comes (albeit slightly paraphrased) from the talk he gave that day a couple of months ago.

His daughter, Lema, a strong, proud, hijab-wearing young woman, joined him at our orientation and delivered the powerful story of her experience in the Murfreesboro community as both a student at the university and as a worker at a local pharmacy. She too has spoken publicly on behalf of the Murfreesboro Islamic Center, and has even appeared on CNN and other prominent news outlets to share her story and fight common misconceptions that follow Muslims in this country.

It brought tears to my eyes to hear how she had been treated– how customers had refused her service at the pharmacy, and how people stared and jeered and taunted. The Sbanatys aren’t strangers to the Murfreesboro community; indeed, Dr. Sbanaty has lived in Middle Tennessee for around a quarter of a century, and the area is the only home his children have ever known. Lema spoke with as much of a drawl as any good country girl I know, seeming just as at home in her cowboy boots and fashionable jeans as she did in her head scarf. Yet she and her fellow Muslims have found themselves treated in recent years as outsiders rather than neighbors.

In addition to his identity as a Muslim and a university professor, Dr. Sbanaty is also from Syria, having obtained his undergraduate education at Damascus University. You could see the pain in his eyes when he talked about the current struggle plaguing his home country. I felt ashamed that here in America we couldn’t offer him something more than just less persecution, less danger, than what he would now face in his home country.

Despite their recent struggle with parts of the community and country-at-large, Lema and her father had positive stories to tell in addition to their sad ones– stories of the mountains of support they have seen from local churches and other groups that have come in to advocate on their behalf.

Yet this support seemed betrayed when the construction of the mosque hit so many snags. Arson, vandalism, and legal obstructionism have all taken their toll on the Muslim community in Murfreesboro, despite the opening of the mosque last summer. It makes me think: with all the arguing, name-calling, and ill-informed discussion, what do we lose in the background? What stories go untold, unheard? Surely something gets lost among our soundbites and rapid-fire commentaries.

Something Dr. Sbanaty said about the situation in Syria struck me rather deeply. He urged us to consider that, despite the simplistic narratives fed to us in the drone of endless news cycles, the actual environment in many of these countries that produces such violence comes not simply from the Muslim faith, but from the years of oppression, mis-management of funds, militarism, and complex socio-political and even tribal contexts that produce what we have seen in everything from the Arab Spring to the anti-American sentiment prevalent in some of the region. (Our own military intervention in these countries might also have something to do with it, I’d wager.)

What gets lost among the rubble of our terrible discussions, I think, is personhood. Polarization erases personhood. Whether it be in Murfreesboro, TN or Damascus, Syria– polarization pushes stories and individual experience out of the way for an easy stereotype or an easier cliche. What this presupposes about human dignity should give us pause.

As a Christian, I believe in the inherent worth of all God’s children.Therefore I also believe in the inherent worth of all these children’s stories, their lives. Just as Frank Fredericks’ wonderful post earlier this week about the parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us, I too want to challenge us to think: what goes unnoticed when we are unwilling to listen? What stories go untold?

Interfaith work can be a way of telling those stories. Tell them. Hear them. Share them.

Amen.

 

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What My Southern Baptist Past Says About My Episcopal Present

cameron_cropI’ll confess: If I listed my relationship with Evangelicalism on my Facebook page, it would probably read “It’s Complicated.”

I grew up a Southern Baptist just outside Nashville, TN—the de facto headquarters for evangelical culture. In addition to being the home of country music, Nashville also lays claim to the Christian music industry, as well as other forms of Christian media such as Christian publishing houses Thomas Nelson, Abingdon Press, and LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Both the Southern Baptist Convention and most of the administrative offices of the United Methodist Church call Nashville home, as do the National Association of Free Will Baptists. The Gideons International—those guys who put Bibles in every hotel room—is also headquartered there. All this has earned it the nicknames “the Protestant Vatican” and the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

It’s not surprising, then, that I grew up enmeshed in the evangelical Christian subculture. I played in a band, and we toured around various churches leading “worship nights,” interspersing our own material in between the Chris Tomlin and Hillsong United covers. I’ve even worked at the Dove Awards—the contemporary Christian music version of the Grammys— multiple times and have met a good many artists in the Christian music industry.

If anyone was (by appearances, at least) a thoroughgoing evangelical, I was. Yet from a young age I wasn’t sure I completely owned the identity I had spent so much time embodying.

Just as college came knocking, I felt a call to ordained ministry. Naturally I assumed that this call included a trip to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lousiville, KY before heading into a life as an aspiring megachurch pastor—a prospect I did not find altogether inspiring. Disenchanted with the Southern Baptist church and the evangelical subculture itself, I stepped back from a possible vocation as a minister and instead focused my energies on my writing and my studies.

I then began to wander. I devoured as much as I could about other denominations and even other religious traditions. At the University of Illinois I floated from church to church, but nowhere really felt like home. I became involved in interfaith work and encountered for the first time a cross-section of the world’s diverse religious traditions.

It was in the midst of this tumultuous time in my life that I fell in love with the liturgy (and I’ll admit even some of the theology) of the Roman Catholic Church. But this was during the thick of the sex abuse scandals, and in addition to some other misgivings regarding Roman Catholic belief I could not so easily jettison my Protestant convictions.

The Episcopal Church filled this void for me, providing the richness of the liturgy with theology of the Reformation. It seemed like a “big tent” where evangelicals (such as the newly-consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby) could exist alongside progressives and where “high church” worship styles could intermingle with guitars and pianos. Though still informed and influenced by my evangelical roots, my faith has also been strengthened and enriched by the incorporation of Anglo-Catholic theology and practice propagated by the 19th century Oxford Movement.

This interesting combination is a part of my story—my own journey and perspective—that I hope to bring to the pages of FLP.

Perhaps because of my own meandering journey I possess a passion for building bridges of understanding between different communities, and jumped at the chance to found FLP with Greg back in 2010 to encourage the evangelical community to participate in interfaith engagement. How we share the gospel with others, how we live out the gospel in our lives—these are central to part of the Christian faith, whatever your stripe. I’m excited about FLP’s re-launch and the new conversations we hope to foster!

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New Posts on the “Nones.”

Hello all!

I’ve got a piece or two in the queue, waiting until after I finish up a ten page Church History paper to find their way onto FLP. In the meantime, check out this reflection I wrote for The Huffington Post, “A Call to Confession: A Reflection on the Rise of the ‘Nones’ From Someone Who Should Probably Be One.” 

ALSO

Check out this companion piece I wrote on my personal blog. It elucidates the thrust of my HuffPost piece, while also posing some more direct questions regarding church leadership.

A question to ponder: How does the rise of the “Nones” impact interfaith cooperation? Does it matter?

I’m still puzzling it out.

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More on the Murfreesboro Mosque

Well, more has transpired in the ongoing ordeal for a Muslim community in Murfreesboro, TN to build a mosque. I wrote on this story last year when it first began to get widespread news coverage in the wake of the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy and comments made by then (then) Republican presidential nominee Herman Cain. Sadly, it seems things have not improved for Murfreesboro Muslims.

Being a Tennessean myself, I find this whole thing very disappointing. I’m on the lookout for any stories of positive involvement by local church groups– the Tennessee I know is better than this, and I’m sure stories of compassion and advocacy have to be out there. But, you know, the media being what it is means we might never hear those stories.

The trouble faced by Islamic community in Murfreesboro strikes me as terribly un-American. If Christians wish to continue trumpeting religious freedom as something worth preserving, they should also stand up for the religious liberties of those of other faiths as well.

If you guys know of any stories where local churches/the local Christian community has rallied to aid their Muslim neighbors, please shoot me an email at cameron@faithlineprotestants.org! I’d love to hear them!

-C.

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Feeding the Trolls, or Feeding Ourselves?: Thoughts on Disagreement.

The trolls. (Har-har.)

While the internet is a wonderful thing, I’ve realized that it often brings me much more grief than it does pleasant experiences. Much of the grief comes from the absolute cacophony that such an open forum as the internet invites. Sometimes, even seemingly innocuous things provoke endless comment streams that run on and on and quickly devolve into topics that don’t have anything to do with the original post (which could be anything from a news story to a Facebook status lauding one’s favorite sports team).

It all feels like lots of yelling and talking past one another.

This kind of interaction has given rise to an entirely new ignoble class of person: the troll. And sometimes, we can become unintentional trolls, simply because, I think, we aren’t all that skilled at disagreeing with one another, but we are taught from an early age how to criticize.

Moreover, disagreement has the interesting ability to imply aggression, which can lead to barbed responses. Example: “I’m a vegetarian” does not have to imply that “I judge you for eating meat and want to make sure you never eat meat again.” It simply stands on its own. Yet so often I think we tend to see disagreement as carrying with it some sort of nefarious intention to undermine our own stance, when this isn’t always the case.

Thus whenever engaging in any debate or discussion, online or otherwise, I try to remember these three things about those with whom I may disagree:

  1. Be generous. Always give others the benefit of the doubt. Assume they have the best intentions in mind, and remember that they are a fellow human being with real convictions, emotions, and ideas.
  2. Be gracious. Don’t immediately dismiss another’s claims as unreasonable; assume they have reason for believing what they do (even if it is misguided). Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to understand where they are coming from. This allows one to be kind and understanding, and, hopefully, to come away from the conversation having learned something new. Forgive others if they accidentally step on your toes.
  3. Be humble. Surprisingly, you might not know everything. Always keep this in mind when talking with someone else. Remain aware of your own potential faults and whether or not you may be letting a perceived aggression sour your ability to engage with the other person.

Sometimes disagreements are had where none initially exist, and all because either party was not willing to slow down and engage with the other side with empathy and patience. Don’t get me wrong– it is certainly permissible (and even right) to disagree at times. But if we (myself included) don’t keep these three things in mind, then we won’t be disagreeing about the right issues.

My experiences in formal (and informal) interfaith discussions have helped show me not only that adopting these three precepts can benefit both sides, but that they also simply work. Have any other things to add to this list? I’d love to hear them. Want to expound on one of the three points already listed? Take issue with one (or more)? I’d love to hear that, too!

Weigh in below!

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Finally! I’m out of the thesis-cave.

For the past few months, my time has been engulfed by work, wedding planning, and thesis writing. But I am quite pleased to say that, though the wedding planning is still ongoing, the thesis is NOT. I have submitted it to the department for review, and can now breathe easy(er) and maybe–just maybe–get a bit of sleep.

What will I do with this new free time, you might ask? Do the things I love, of course. And that means more writing about the church, and developing new media content with Greg to provide even more resources on the intersection of evangelism and interfaith cooperation.

With the ICIC just behind us, there’s plenty to talk about! I look forward to getting back on top of things and stepping up to help poor Greg out, who has diligently maintained this site in my absence despite his own remarkably full schedule. (Sorry Greg!)

You will hear from me again soon…

-C.

 

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