Author Archives: Greg Damhorst

Religious Illiteracy and the Mistake of Fearing Interfaith Engagement

My friend Jeff, who is Asian American, is a gifted vocalist and was an enthusiastic member of the University of Illinois Black Chorus during his undergraduate studies.  As I started thinking about literacy and interfaith work, a specific incident from his experience came to mind.

I remember Jeff talking about an upcoming Black Chorus concert one day when one of our friends asked him: “are you the only white person in Black chorus?”

These were poorly chosen words – Jeff is unmistakably Asian American. In this situation, our friend was unaware of the disrespect that was inadvertently embedded in her language. However, my point is not to broach a discussion on racial microaggressions, but to illustrate what I mean by illiteracy.

Naturally, any setting outside of our comfort or experience is going to produce literacy-related apprehension.  Do I know the proper way to act, dress, talk, or eat?  Will I unintentionally offend someone with what I say?  Will my naivety show?

Engaging people of other faiths is a similar situation.  I imagine it is common that many Christians fear being embarrassed by an insufficient understanding of other faith traditions.  In fact, after four years of organizing interfaith programs with Interfaith in Action, a student organization at the University of Illinois, I still occasionally worry that I will make a remark that reflects my incomplete understanding of my friends’ faith traditions.

But we cannot let this fear keep us from pursuing interfaith cooperation. Religious literacy is a goal of interfaith work, not a prerequisite.  And while we must make it our desire to understand other faiths with respect as our goal, the interfaith relationship is the mechanism through which we learn about our neighbor.

Cameron and I mention frequently that we follow a model for interfaith cooperation that has been developed by the Interfaith Youth Core (see Pluralism), which stresses respect for religious identity, mutually inspiring relationships, and common action for the common good.  There is no requirement for an expert understanding of other faith traditions in order to participate; respect is established by asking questions instead of making assumptions.

As a Christian, I feel that this is just another component of “love your neighbor”.  I desire to understand my friends’ faith traditions better because I hope to better understand my friends.  It’s that simple.

Here at Faith Line Protestants, part of our vision is to be a resource for Christians who are struggling to understand how to live in a religiously diverse world.  As a part of that vision, we hope to feature guest bloggers from other faith traditions who can provide some insight into their traditions.  So stay tuned as we continue the conversation, and look for opportunities to learn along the way!

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Struggling with Limited Capacity: Why Increasing Interfaith Cooperation Requires Changes to the Schedule

I was involved with a Christian fellowship group for the better part of my undergraduate career – leading Bible studies, going to meetings, and attending leadership training sessions.  I learned the organization’s ministry strategies, the Bible study methodology, and the accompanying social schedule.

I also grew in my faith.  Certain themes began to surface through my experience there that struck me.  Perhaps the strongest were the calls to help people who are in need and to pursue justice in a world where so many are oppressed.  Quickly, I started to ask how I could apply these lessons in my life as a college student.

I was among a group of students who suggested ideas for getting our campus fellowship involved in the community.  We lived in one of the poorest counties in the state of Illinois, which exhibited significant homelessness, unemployment, and healthcare accessibility issues.  But each time the suggestion to go serve in our community came up, we were told that the organization’s focus was on other forms of ministry.  In other words, our campus fellowship didn’t have the capacity for sustained service activities.

I feel that a similar lack of capacity prevents Christian organizations from forming interfaith relationships within their communities and on their campuses.  While most churches I’ve attended have a weekly calendar packed with activities, none of those activities attempt to interact with other faith communities.  Yet if our Christian organizations and their leaders don’t lead the way in building interfaith cooperation, who are we going to follow?

I once heard advice about evangelism suggesting that Christians should do fewer religious activities in order to free-up time to participate in the non-religious activities we enjoy.  Doing so gives us the chance to interact and build relationships with people of different backgrounds, which is part of our obligation to share Jesus Christ with the world.

But I wonder what would happen if we tried to be more creative in planning our agendas.  What about planning that campus fellowship Frisbee tournament with student organizations of other faith traditions?  Or inviting members of the nearby mosque or temple to participate in your church’s weekly soup kitchen?  Or going on a mission trip with the secular humanist organization in your area? (It’s been done!)

Like all Christians, I value time in fellowship, prayer, and worship with other Christians and believe that it is essential to my faith.  But I don’t believe that Christians are called to make themselves busy with the sort of Christians-only activities that keep us from building meaningful relationships with our neighbors – especially our neighbors from other faith traditions.  And my guess is that the Christians-only busyness won’t stop happening until we start making changes to the schedule.

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Apathetic Excuses: How Disinterest is a Barrier to Interfaith Work

As we discuss the barriers that keep Evangelical Christians out of interfaith work, we must address the simplest barrier of all: why should we care?

To many of our readers, there are obvious answers to this question.  But in my experience, my religious upbringing didn’t prepare me much for a world of religious diversity.  To be honest, I knew more about the mythology of the ancient cultures I studied in school than I knew about the faith traditions of my peers, even though one in five Americans identifies as something other than Christian and I undoubtedly had friends who found their identities in other faiths.

Yet I didn’t grow up in a place where I was exposed to different religious traditions.  My Muslim and Buddhist classmates didn’t talk about faith.  And for most of my childhood, the society in which I grew up didn’t present any tension between my faith and the world around me.  I got the day off of school on Good Friday, I gave my teachers nativity scenes as holiday gifts, and I received compliments on the cross ring I wore throughout high school.  As an adolescent, my world was free of exposure to religious difference and I was oblivious to the need to talk about cooperation across faith lines.

That perspective changed, of course, when I went to college and began to meet people of other faiths.  Even so, I could have found my niche in the Christian sub-culture on campus and tried to live a life ignoring the religious diversity around me.  But as Christians, we must not succumb to the illusion that living without relationships with people of other faiths is an acceptable way to live.

There is both benefit and necessity in building relationships across faith boundaries.  And while I’ve met many Christians who find value in religious literacy (one aspect of interfaith work) because it equips them for apologetics – the practice of defending the Bible using reason – I think there’s a richer reward to making an effort to build understanding across faith lines.

Part of that reward is being equipped with the ability to respect the individuals with whom we interact on a daily basis: at school, work, the store, or the gym.  Whether it means ensuring there are halal and kosher options at your community picnic or respecting your classmate or co-worker’s daily prayer observances.  Christians have a responsibility to understand how to respect others, and it is rooted in the Biblical mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

But treating our neighbors respectfully is just scratching the surface of why interfaith work is important.  Achieving pluralism is about more than just respect and religious literacy – it’s about relationships.  My hope is that the reasons why these relationships are valuable will expound themselves in the posts to come as we follow the current series on the barriers keeping Christians out of interfaith work with a series on the reasons why interfaith work is important (particularly for Evangelicals).

So I’ll leave you with the suspense that deeper discussion is coming.  For now, however, take a look at the conversation about religion in our world today: what do you see?  How is religion – and religious diversity – influencing our world?  What are you doing to ensure that tomorrow’s headlines will be about people working together to do good instead of letting conflict tear us apart?

I hope that we all will see in our world the need for cooperation and the need for friendship.  And as representatives of Jesus, it’s my prayer that Christians are at the forefront of making those relationships happen.

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Living Christian in a Diverse World

Take a look at the New York Times today*.  I’m willing to bet you can find something in the front section about religion.  A bombing at a church in Egypt.  Violence in the West Bank.  Members of a new Gay-Straight Alliance being called “satanists” and “diseased” in a largely religious Utah.

As a Christian, reading the headlines almost always proves disheartening.  Religion appears in the public discourse most often as the subject of bickering, the negative side of a controversial social issue, the motivation for violence and destruction.  Yet my faith emphasizes peace, compassion, and mercy.

Faith Line Protestants is meant to be a discussion of Christianity in the real world.  And the reality of the real world is that it’s a place of religious diversity.  As Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core says: religious diversity can tend one of two ways – cooperation or conflict.  As a Christian coming of age in the 21st century, my religious upbringing certainly did not teach me to resolve difference with conflict – but did it really teach me how to do cooperation across boundaries of religious difference?

Patel speculated that the problem of the 21st century was going to be the “Faith Line” (for more, read The Faith Line) – the line that divides our country and highlights our conflict.  So what does it mean to be a Christian in a religiously diverse world?  What relevancy does the Faith Line represent to a follower of Jesus?  How does an exclusivist theological tradition and a call to evangelism reconcile with a charge to love your neighbor and be a peacemaker?  To use a cliche of my childhood: what would Jesus do in a world where people are being killed and killing because of faith?

My friend Adam, an atheist, once said something to the effect of: I’m getting so sick of reading the headlines about violence, economic turmoil, and political bickering.  It’s time we do something.  It’s time we create headlines that are about peace, cooperation, and action for the common good.

I’m with Adam on this one.  And I believe that, as a Christian, I have a role to play.  Faith Line Protestants is a discussion as we journey to understand what that role looks like – and I invite you to join in along the way.

* – This post was originally written in early January, 2011

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Faith Line Protestants 101

Welcome to Faith Line Protestants 101!  This is a short overview of everything you need to know about navigating and following Faith Line Protestants.  We launched on January 13, 2011 and were featured on the Washington Post’s On Faith blog the same day, broaching this conversation on the involvement of Evangelical Christians in interfaith work.

But before you dive in to the conversation, familiarize yourself with the vocabulary and background on which our blog relies.  See our “pages” (a menu of pages is at the top of each page and in a list on our homepage) for background on topics like:

The Faith Line – a term coined by Eboo Patel, founder and President of the Interfaith Youth Core.  In the spirit of W.E.B. DuBois and with insight on one of the difficult social issues of our time, Patel writes in his book, Acts of Faith, that the faith line divides out society between those who believe in the possibility of cooperation and those who feel that difference must be settled with ignorance and violence.

Pluralism – we recognize the danger of theological pluralism, a concept inconsistent with the Christian tradition and the teachings of the Bible.  When we discuss pluralism, we refer to sociological pluralism: the vision for positive cooperation in the midst of religious difference.

Evangelism – a central and irremovable concept in most Christian traditions that calls for telling others about the core concepts of the Christian faith, which presents every individual with a choice to accept them as truth or reject them as fiction.  There often seems a tension between evangelism and interfaith cooperation, which keeps many Evangelicals out of interfaith activities.

The Faith Line Protestant – A new term that describes the authors: Evangelical Christians who have found their faith impacted by interaction with people of other faiths and seek to live out their faith with awareness of the religious diversity that exists in our world and how that relates to evangelism.

What We Believe – in a religiously diverse world, it is essential to clarify theological assumptions.  Christianity both relies on immovable theological principles and exhibits disagreement, diversity, and even controversy in the concepts that expand upon these principles.  Our theology page elucidates the theology that is considered essential to Christian beliefs.  If you are a reader from another faith or philosophical tradition, use this page as a resource for understanding Christianity better.

Authors – Cameron Nations and Gregory Damhorst are students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  They are Evangelical Christians and interfaith leaders.  Faith Line Protestants is both a description of these authors and the title of this blog, which is motived by their experiences in interfaith work.

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