While we as Evangelical Christians discuss frequently on our site the importance of interfaith relationships – including relationships with those of a secular tradition – we are reminded that not everyone sees things the way we do.
Earlier this week, our friend Chris Stedman, a secular humanist and a leading voice for the involvement of the nonreligious in interfaith cooperation, was the target of an open letter written by Frank Turk, contributor to a Christian blog “PyroManiacs” (tagline: “Setting the world on fire…”). We wanted to respond – not because a response was invited, but because we are Evangelical Christians, we disagree with the approach to religious difference that particular Christians (“PyroManiacs” included) have taken, and because we are offended by the idea that someone representing Jesus Christ would make some of the statements that were made toward Chris.
Turk’s “Open letter” centers on a tweet posted earlier this month that read: “Exciting to hear about how @ChrisDStedman is reshaping the conversation between religious and nonreligious.” While Turk seemingly attempts to belittle Chris’s work by calling out his sexuality and tattoos, we are reminded of the very need for reshaping just such a conversation. Turk asks “Is that really ‘reshaping’ anything?”—in other words, is Chris really making a difference? And later implies that dialogue won’t change humanity’s propensity to, as he calls it, “err,” calling into question the very efficacy of the interfaith endeavor. We contend that Chris Stedman is in fact reshaping the conversation, and that constructive dialogue is playing a great part in this.
The conversation “between religious and nonreligious” as mentioned in the tweet is not a two-way discussion between Christians and atheists; rather, Christians and atheists are simply two pieces of a much broader discourse among peoples of all different faith traditions, worldviews, philosophies, and perspectives. Whether it is a church being bombed in Egypt, a pastor threatening to burn the Qur’an, or the recent protests of a Muslim community fundraiser in California, we would say that conversations around religious differences still need some major remodeling. And in the arena of atheists’ relationship to religion in particular, Chris is doing phenomenal work to show that being a non-religious person does not mean one has to be aggressively anti-religious. As a religious man himself, Turk should at least grant this much in Stedman’s favor.
We believe that interfaith cooperation efforts—and atheists/humanists’ involvement in them— are relevant, timely, and crucial in today’s global society, and that they stand in line with the values espoused by Christ to love one’s neighbor and bring peace to the world. Chris Stedman has contributed greatly to the cause of interfaith cooperation, making it a visible and vibrant part of the discussion happening on university campuses all across the country.
Because the model for interfaith cooperation to which we adhere depends upon mutual respect, value judgments on the morality of human sexuality or concern with one’s personal choices lie largely beyond the purview of the discussion. We, like Chris, simply advance the message of peace and sociological pluralism. Our concern is not with individual religious practice or belief or widespread social concerns except where they intersect with violence, strife, and bigotry. Our own Christian religious identity informs our desire to build bridges of cooperation with those of other traditions and worldviews, but does not in any way muddy our own values or compel us to entreat them on others.
Dialogue, though discounted in Turk’s letter, has the power to produce empathy through understanding. Part of the goal of interfaith cooperation is not simply an end to something (i.e. violence), but is actually a positive, proactive movement built around service that aims to improve our world and address the problems we face. (See Greg’s post on the Million Meals for Haiti even at UIUC for an example of this.)
As devout Christians, we understand the desire and imperative to point to Christ as the answer to any perceived iniquity; we want our friends to know Christ and his saving grace. Yet we often struggle with the way the church presents these messages of salvation to the world, having been frustrated by our own past experiences.
Chris Stedman, once a church-going Christian himself, doesn’t need a lesson on the teachings of Christ or what the Christian church believes about salvation; doubtless he has picked up on these things through his years as a member of the church and as a student in religious studies programs both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. We, like Turk, desire for Chris to know Jesus as his savior—Chris knows that full well. But to see the gospel tacked on the end of a Bible-brandishing diatribe in which the author takes jabs at both Chris’s sexuality and his body art comes across as condescending.
The Bible states in 1 Peter 3:15:
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”
We’d like to suggest that the conversation of interfaith cooperation – the precise conversation that Chris Stedman indeed does work to shape – presents a better opportunity for giving that answer mentioned in 1 Peter than the method observed in Turk’s “open letter.” Ironically, this verse can be found on one of the “Pyromaniacs” logos plastered all over their site. Yet it seems they’ve forgotten this respect in their determination to criticize our friend and wave the gospel in his face.
Jesus’ ministry placed a heavy emphasis on relationships. He beckoned Zacchaeus down from the tree in order to have dinner with him. When at Mary and Martha’s house, he praised Mary for sitting and talking to him. One of the central sacraments of the church—the Eucharist—is in celebration and remembrance of a meal he had with his disciples. Indeed, relationships undergird the very reason Jesus had disciples, and God’s desire for relationships with all of us is in some sense the reason Jesus died for our sins.
Dialogue—or conversation— is implicit in relationships. In some sense conversing with God is what we do when we pray. What then does Turk mean when he asserts in his closing paragraph that Jesus isn’t “looking for a dialog?” Such a claim seems rather spurious. Also spurious is when Turk posits that leading an ethical life without God is not possible. Though a difficult, complex issue in its own right—one that we could write about at great length—looking at Chris’ work and Turk’s letter makes it seem clear that a belief in God, or lack thereof, doesn’t necessarily correlate with ethical behavior.
When reading Turk’s letter, we would ask: Does it work to build a strong relationship with Chris (or anyone, for that matter), or does it operate sans any personal ties? Does it do anything constructive, or does it attempt to deconstruct? Does it display a level of respect, or does it assume a moral high ground? Most importantly, for a Christian: does it seem to emulate Jesus?
Which of these approaches to dialogue—Chris’ or Turk’s—seems to embody Jesus’ compassion, vision for service, and emphasis on personal relationships? To us, it’s obvious.