Author Archives: Cameron Nations

The Great Commission: A Barrier to Interfaith Cooperation, or a Catalyst for It?

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20 (taken from the New International Version, ©2010)

These verses, typically referred to as the “Great Commission,” are some of the most central to the Christian faith. They represent the theological motivation for evangelism, straight from Jesus himself, and have compelled the church to share the love of Christ with the world. Yet they have also produced great controversy, both within the church and outside of it. How we as Christians evangelize shapes our identity and affects how we interact with culture and society.

Traditionally, evangelism has, at its most basic, meant telling others about Christ, entreating them to join the fold. Yet, in interfaith cooperation, this approach can sometimes come across as insensitive to others who also hold strong beliefs about the sacred. Building mutual respect is crucial for forming strong relationships with other religious (or non-religious) persons. Because the point of interfaith cooperation (especially in community service projects) is not to convert those with whom you work, there seems an obvious and possibly difficult tension here if we as Christians are compelled by our faith to share our beliefs, but prevented from doing so in order to maintain a level of respect for the beliefs of others.

Some may even see this as a strong reason NOT to become involved in interfaith cooperation—why exert the effort if you can’t expect to lead non-Christians to a belief in Christ? While I could give you many reasons (and Greg and I will do just that in our next series of posts) why Christians should be involved anyway, I will refrain and instead point to the issue underlying the belief that interfaith cooperation thwarts any hope for evangelism: the question of what such an evangelism should look like in an interfaith environment.

Though disputed by historians, legend has it that St. Francis of Assisi said this pithy statement regarding evangelism: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary use words.” It is believed that he also said, “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” Whether these statements actually came from St. Francis’s mouth does not diminish their meaning—actions speak louder than words, and we as Christians should be conscious of that fact as we strive to represent Christ to others. Showing love and compassion and a deep care for the world would speak far louder to someone of another faith than would an awkward conversation about doctrinal difference and the threat of hell for those who do not convert.

However, one must remember that interfaith cooperation depends upon mutual respect of religious or non-religious identities, meaning that evangelism as a facet of Christian identity must also be respected. Once strong relationships have been established, we as Christians can have opportunities to discuss with those of other beliefs the faith that motivates us and drives us. We share our stories and our tradition’s teachings; we learn from one another. Taken in this way, evangelism does not have to oppose interfaith cooperation. Instead, we simply must ask ourselves what evangelism should look like, and what it would look like to the non-Christian. Jesus tells us in the verses above to “[teach] them to obey everything I have commanded you”—what better way to do this than by example? If we back up our lofty moral ideals with action, then others will take notice, and the Christian community will rise to distinction as one that seeks to promote justice, peace, and love in a world in need of such qualities.

Share Button

Remaining Singular While Making the Plural: Why “Pluralism” Can be a Barrier to Interfaith Cooperation and Why We Should Overcome It

During my time in the church (which is to say, my whole life), I have heard the word “tolerance” tossed around rather often, its usage peaking perhaps around the early-to-mid 2000s, probably in response to 9/11. I gathered it was a dirty word, but could never quite pin down its precise meaning, and thus place its threat to me as a Christian. Sometimes, tolerance seemed an agenda put forth by secular society in order to muddy the theological waters, while at other times it seemed a kind of commandment from God (i.e. “Love your neighbor as yourself”). And, near the end of its peak usage, there was a lot of talk about its impossibility as a social system: “You shouldn’t just tolerate one another, that’s not sufficient enough, it won’t solve anything.” To this end, I agreed. However, I still had little idea what “tolerance” was supposed to do or teach me.

As I became more self-aware and more media-savvy, I made a point to keep up with current events. This is when I saw the word “tolerance” morph into another word in the public discourse: pluralism. Admittedly, I distanced myself from the term because, this time, it was a perceived threat to my faith. I had heard “pluralism” used in order to refer to what seemed an “all roads lead to heaven” doctrine of inclusiveness that accepted all religious persons into the fold. We were all touching part of the same elephant, it seemed to say, and we were just too blind to notice.

That may be what “pluralism” means to some, but that’s not what it means to us. And furthermore, that’s not what it has to mean. It’s not as if, just by proximity or association, deeply held religious tenets melt away. (Although, for quite some time, I felt that this was the case. Later, I realized that the impetus behind this feeling actually came from other insecurities discussed in another “Barriers” post: a feeling of inadequacy regarding my religious literacy.) Religions are not walled-off edifices where, on one side, you have faith A, and then everyone outside the wall is faith B or C or D—religions are groups of people disseminated throughout various cultures and locations. They are moral imperatives and codes, beliefs about the way one should live wrapped in sacraments and sacred words and practiced in community.

In Christianity, this notion of the individual believer forms one of the most crucial doctrines to our identity in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 6:19, while writing about the significance of the body’s implication in sin, St. Paul says that our bodies are “temple[s] of the Holy Spirit within [us]” and are thus “not [our] own.” We must care for these “temples” in order to maintain a strong personal relationship with God. If we work to strengthen our “temples,” then a believer’s proximity to other faiths should not compromise the integrity of their own. (For more information on Paul, please click here.)

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to say that the believer should construct the edifice’s walls instead of the church, or that the individual is more important that the whole; on the contrary, it is St. Paul himself who describes the church as the “body of Christ.” What I mean to say is that though there is much to say for the “body of Christ” in the writings of Paul, there is no “fortress of the Church” or “walled off Christians.” Instead, we see the opposite. Paul always wrote to Christians rooted in a culture that oftentimes opposed them or ran counter to their identity as followers of Jesus Christ. They were firmly within the culture, not without it. And, as our culture becomes increasingly diverse, we must learn, just like the early church, how to manage our faith alongside other faiths.

The Interfaith Youth Core (you can find the link in our “Friends” at the top of the page) works as a service organization for a reason: as a Christian, I can serve alongside a Muslim packing meals for the hungry or helping build a Habitat home without either of our faith identities being compromised. Feeding the hungry and housing the needy are simple examples, and yet they illustrate how “pluralism” does not mean smearing theologies. Instead, it shows how two disparate people can come together to develop a meaningful relationship with one another while also improving the lives of others.

What motivates us to serve does not have to be the same theological backing, but simply a desire to help, a desire to see love and compassion overcome strife and dissidence. At its essence, pluralism of the sociological sort is a good thing, and one we must work to rid of its negative connotations within the religious community. The apprehensive Christian must realize that interfaith cooperation does not compromise our faith. It does not have to be a theological pluralism.

Furthermore, the model that Greg and I follow here at FLP—the one put forth by IFYC—for interfaith cooperation protects against theological blurring by its very design. As stated in our “Pluralism” page in the navigation bar (a concise statement of our views regarding pluralism), the IFYC advocates a dialogue that is affirming of different traditions’ identities. From the IFYC site:

“Religious pluralism is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus, but the conviction that people who believe in different creeds can learn to live together with, in the words of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, ‘mutual trust and mutual loyalty.’ It surpasses mere tolerance of diversity and requires that people of different religions affirm their distinct beliefs while making commitments to one another and the world we share. Three components which hold true for a pluralist society are respect for religious identity, mutually inspiring relationships, and common action for the common good.” (“About the Movement” ifyc.org)

The notions contained in the statement above is why I personally became involved with Interfaith in Action at the University of Illinois, and then engaged in interfaith cooperation on a larger scale. I believe that these tenets are important, that this movement is important, and that Christians have a crucial role to play within it. Built into our core beliefs as a religious community stand the values necessary to see a world of peace and mutual respect flourish. We do not compromise ourselves in these endeavors, nor do we merely “tolerate” others; instead, we engage with people of other faiths to improve the world that all of us call home. This is the IFYC’s hope, this is Greg’s hope, and this is my hope. May it be yours as well.

Share Button

Opening the Doors: Barriers to Interfaith Involvement (Intro)

Many of you will remember it. The New York Times headline read: “Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans.” (For those who don’t remember it, you can read the article here.) Hitting the news in late September of this past year, the Pew Forum’s survey of Americans’ religious literacy yielded some surprising—and rather sobering—results. It turns out that the least religious people in the country, with an average score of about 63 percent, are the most informed on the world’s main religious traditions, while the white mainline and evangelical Protestants averaged only about 50 percent.

Though one could see this information as reason for interfaith work to improve religious literacy within the church (which we address later on), Greg and I also see something else—a barrier of ignorance between people of various faiths. It’s difficult to interact with someone whose life seems so very different from your own, and for which you have no frame of reference. This is an old trope, often spoofed for comedic effect in movies and books: the wealthy city-slicker thrust into the lifestyle of a hard-working ranch hand, for example. These stories show the importance of understanding, and its power for affecting empathy; the wealthy city-slicker never leaves the ranch with the same perception of the job as he had when he arrived.

For the next five entries, we will be discussing what we feel are the commonest barriers between the Evangelical Christian community and interfaith work. These are the things that Greg and I have encountered in our personal journeys toward involvement with those of other faith communities; thus, it is certainly not an exhaustive list, but an anecdotal one. We would love these pieces to spark discussion and suggestions of other possible barriers (or “difficulties,” if you’d rather) commonly faced when engaging with people of other faiths. In these posts, we will address five topics:

Theological Pluralism: An exploration of retaining religious identity while still respecting and valuing other religious traditions.

Religious Illiteracy: Answering the question “Do you have to know everything about another faith in order to engage with them?”

Apathy: Why be involved in interfaith work when the status quo seems to be just fine?

Limited Capacity: Our churches and organizations are already doing so many activities and programs, does it really make sense to begin something new like interfaith outreach/involvement?

Tensions in Evangelism: Probing the question “Shouldn’t we be more concerned with evangelizing people of other faith traditions that learning to work together with them?”

Once this series on “Barriers” has ended, we will discuss reasons for overcoming them—why interfaith engagement is important for the Christian community. These initial series are meant to form a solid foundation of our mission and ideas, serving as a reference point for those who discover this blog later on. Greg and I look forward to sharing our ideas with you in the upcoming weeks!

Share Button

Between the Lines: A Personal Reflection on Interfaith Work

 

“…you know, since he’s black.”

Some variation of these words, the last one spoken usually in a whisper, came to define some of the more awkward and perplexing moments of my childhood. Born and raised in the South, I wondered at statements like the one above, spoken by adults or older folks—sometimes as an excuse, sometimes as an accusation, often as a proof—but never did I understand why one’s race meant anything. Why did it matter that someone was black? To me, the Civil War had ended a long time ago, and we should have moved on by now. Yet there were still moments overheard in conversation where someone would define an area of town because, well, you know, that’s where the black people live. It infuriated me, the way that “black” meant “other,” reduced sometimes simply to “they” or “them,” as if “black” and “crime” were almost synonyms, as if no white man ever committed a felony.

Because of my identity as a devout Christian, I felt especially awkward at these occurrences. Many in the South are Bible-believing, avid church-going people, yet, despite this fact, I sometimes felt that the Jesus I followed wasn’t the same one that the speakers of the above quotation followed. I had been taught that all people were God’s children—and that included those that humanity considered “other.” Indeed, it was with those on the margins of society that Jesus spent the most time. He had little good to say of the Pharisees and Sadducees or the rulers of the day, but plenty to say about the poor prostitute with an honest heart or the ostracized leper who longed for community again. I had thought at length about the significance of Jesus himself having been a Jewish man, a member of a people who had found, and would continue to find, their identity best defined by the word “other” for many hundreds of years.

Make no mistake, I don’t mean to mischaracterize the South—I’ve encountered enough of that during my time in the Midwest—as some of the kindest and most accepting people I have ever met are Southerners, and I absolutely loved growing up there. Generalizations in any form are dangerous. However, whether between races or religions, the underlying principle in what I have said is the same: ignorance and insularity only bring about strife and misunderstanding, never peace. We must be intentional in order not to label a certain group as “other,” reducing and disrespecting them as fellow inhabitants of this earth. My experiences with racial tension are why I am passionate about interfaith work, and why I look especially forward to working with Greg on Faith Line Protestants. To me, Patel’s “faith line” holds such personal significance because du Bois’s “color line” holds such personal significance.

Greg and I make no claim of expertise on the things we write about—we’re just trying to facilitate the discussion. We want Faith Line Protestants to be a forum of openness and honesty, where all of us can join together and shape the place of the evangelical Christian in a world of interfaith cooperation. In this spirit, I hope that each visitor to this blog can take something positive away from it (and add something positive to it!) as we embark on this journey together.

Share Button