Category Archives: Interfaith Movement

The #1 Tip for Engaging Evangelicals in Interfaith Work is…

As a Christian working at an interfaith organization, I am frequently asked how to engage evangelicals. Here at Faithline Protestants we’ve written a lot about the subject, but there’s one issue that I’ve seen that comes up again and again. If I were to pick one tip for communities interested in engaging evangelicals in interfaith work, if would be this: Define interfaith cooperation.

Here’s why. A few years ago, my IFYC colleagues visited a campus that was interested in how they could build and sustain interfaith initiatives in their community. During that visit, we met with several campus groups, students and staff. A few of our Christian colleagues met with a conservative evangelical group that heard we were coming to campus, and were skeptical about our intentions, so they requested a meeting. After hearing us out, the group said this: “We can’t do interfaith work. But, if you want organize an event, bringing together people of different faiths to do a service project, and afterwards we can talk about how Jesus inspires us to serve, we can definitely do that.” We were thrilled! People of different traditions coming together to serve and talk about their religious or secular values? That’s interfaith work! Our new friends just didn’t want to call it interfaith.

What struck me about that story is that the biggest barrier to getting this particular group on board to do interfaith work was the label “interfaith” – and common misconceptions about the word. Some that I hear most often in my work: “Interfaith is wanting everyone to be one religion” “Interfaith where you have to water down your faith to the least common denominator” “Interfaith work is only for folks on the liberal end of the political spectrum” “Interfaith is people of different traditions worshiping together” – none of these are true based on the way we define interfaith cooperation.

At IFYC, we define interfaith as respect for people’s diverse religious and nonreligious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds, and common action for the common good. Interfaith cooperation is not syncretistic or relativistic; that means that you don’t have to water down your identity to come to the table of interfaith cooperation – whether you’re an evangelical, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or an atheist, you don’t have to compromise what you believe (or what you don’t believe) to engage in interfaith work. We recognize there are shared values across different traditions, and there are very real differences – while we may not agree who goes to heaven, or even if there is a heaven, but we can agree that homelessness is a problem in our community, and we should do something about it. Our definition of interfaith is founded on a sociological – not theological – principle of pluralism that acknowledges the potential for diverse religious and nonreligious to build positive relationships and social cohesion. That means that when even when folks of different backgrounds disagree, there is still a sense of common ground between them.

Those of us that work in the interfaith field, or regularly engage in interfaith work can forget the importance of defining interfaith cooperation for folks new to this work. So, if you’re hoping to engage evangelical communities – or most other communities, for that matter – in interfaith work, define what interfaith is, and what it isn’t. Emphasize that folks across the theological and philosophical spectrum, whether liberal or conservative, are welcome.

The interfaith table is set, and you are welcome here.

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Involving Evangelicals in the Interfaith Movement

I am an evangelical Christian. If you’re a regular reader here, you already know that.

We can argue about what being an evangelical Christian means, or even if it means anything at all (a professor of religion recently told me that it doesn’t mean anything at all, as you can imagine I really loved that — insert eye roll here). The long and short of it for me is that I want everyone to be in relationship with Jesus, know the love and grace of God, and that I believe when it’s all said and done, some will enter the Kingdom of God, and some will not. It also means I take the scriptures to be the true Word of God (yes Word with a capital “W”) and I also really dig contemporary Christian worship.

It confounds Christians and non-Christians alike why I – an evangelical Christian – would even bother with interfaith cooperation. For those new to the interfaith conversation, one of the guidelines of interfaith events and dialogue is that we will not proselytize. In other words, to be a participant in a formal interfaith project or dialogue there is an agreement that those participating will not try to convert each other. It has to be a space for people to learn, gain insight, and build relationships. If you’re trying to convert someone, you’re usually not trying to hear their story, learn about their worldview and you’re definitely into promoting whatever truth you hold dear.

Proselytism (or to use Christian lingo – evangelism) is important to my spiritual practice. It’s important to a lot of other peoples’ practice as well (those who belong to ISKON, certain Muslim communities, heck – even to some atheists!). The Interfaith Movement is not about watering down identity or praxis. It is into “pluralism”positive engagement between people of different religious and non-religious identities. So difference is key here, and authenticity is important as well. So to agree to this guideline of no proselytism at an interfaith event, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily agreeing to it in every aspect of your life.

I don’t mean to make this sound simple or easy. It is complex and challenging to be a person who understands evangelism to be important and who understands interfaith cooperation and dialogue to be important. But for me, nothing worth doing is easy – I love nuance and mystery and complexity – all of these things are ingredients to a great adventure, and interfaith cooperation and dialogue are nothing short of an adventure.

All of that being said – I think there are some things that the interfaith movement can do to be more open to those of us for whom evangelism (or proselytism) is central to our praxis – (Note: these don’t apply only to Christian evangelicals):

1 – Create a Safe Space: Most interfaith dialogue I have been a part of sets up a “safe space” before engaging in dialogue. I know we do at just about every event we do at the UNF Interfaith Center. As I mentioned before, there is a guideline within the movement that participants will not try to convert others. I think that’s great for these types of events, however when you are explaining this guideline to your group, be sure to use positive language when talking about proselytism. Evangelicals are not ignorant of the negative connotation evangelism has for many people. In order to keep the evangelicals (or other faith groups who might also proselytize) from feeling defensive be sure to affirm evangelism as something that is positive for many people and that you’re not asking them to give up evangelism altogether, but to simply suspend it for your time together.

2 – Make sure everyone in the room knows it’s okay to disagree. Often time outsiders think interfaith cooperation is all about how “we’re all the same.” While I do think talking about our similarities is important, particularly for creating common ground and building relationships, sometimes evangelicals can be made to feel like the “bad guy” because they’re not willing to say “all beliefs are created equal.” For evangelicals (and many other faith identities) it is important for them to feel okay about the fact that they believe Jesus is the one and only savior, and the only way to the Kingdom is through him. If pluralism really is about engaging people of different religious and non-religious identities – it has to be okay for us to disagree. I am not saying you should let people be disrespectful during your dialogue – this is why “I-statements” and other Safe Space Guidelines are important. (You can go here for more information on Safe Space guidelines.

 

3 – Give evangelicals opportunities to talk about their faith. If you haven’t noticed, evangelicals LOVE to talk about their faith and of course, about Jesus. Yes, it is very important for evangelicals to hear about the faith and beliefs of others. Arguably, evangelicals don’t do this enough (does anyone do it enough??). That being said, evangelicals are going to feel a lot better about what your interfaith group is doing if they’re being given equal opportunity to share. It seems like it should go without saying, but it doesn’t. Because evangelicals are viewed to be the “religious majority” in our country, in my experience, it is often the case that evangelicals are expected to take a backseat in interfaith dialogue. The truth is, just like any religious/non-religious identity, there is a lot of misunderstanding about evangelicals – particularly around their views of salvation. Evangelicalism is incredibly diverse, and it is becoming a more and more complicated identity every day. So why not give an evangelical Christian an opportunity to dissect some of those misunderstandings? At the interfaith center where I work we have an event called Coffee and Conversation where we give students, faculty, staff and community members an opportunity to talk about their identity. We set up Safe Space Guidelines, the speaker talks for about 15 minutes, and then we open up for questions for the remainder of the hour. I have found them to be an incredibly meaningful experience for the speakers and a great opportunity for the participants to deconstruct stereotypes and misunderstanding while building relationships with people of different religious and non-religious identities.

As the Interfaith Movement grows it will be increasingly important for us to find new ways to communicate with each other. As the movement becomes more diverse, we’ll also have to find new ways to be as inclusive as possible. If you’re struggling to get evangelicals involved in your interfaith programming – feel free to peruse our blog or contact us!

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Reframing our view of Religious Terrorism

Today’s Guest Post on Faithline Protestants is by Nick Price and a follow-up piece to a post Nick wrote last week. Nick is currently a student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and is a former staff member for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. As an Evangelical Christian, Nick feels called by his faith to encourage Evangelical Christian participation in the interfaith movement. Nick was profiled in a video by 30 Good Minutes, in which he discusses his faith as an Evangelical and his commitment to interfaith work. He was also invited to write series for RELEVANT Magazine, in which he shared his Christian convictions for doing interfaith work. Nick is also the author of Prodigal Preacher, a blog that explores his experiences in seminary, where he wrote a 3 part series outlining his own theology of interfaith cooperation.

SETTING THE STAGE
There is a major world religion that very few of us have spent any time studying. Though it has made a profound impact on world history, it is often ignored or overlooked. Over 1500 years old, it has spread from the Middle East to such far-flung places as Africa, Asia, and Europe. And while its adherents can be found in almost every major country, many of them live below the poverty line, fighting to survive on day-to-day subsistence living.

A monotheistic faith, it has rich theological, philosophical, and artistic expressions. Sadly, most of its followers live in ignorance of this fact, believing God to be a harsh and angry judge who punishes unbelievers and sinners in the afterlife. This ignorance is further reinforced by the fact that both its Scriptures and its worship are read and carried out in a language that most of its own people cannot read or understand. As such, the majority of this religion’s followers rely on the interpretations and teaching from a few educated religious leaders.

In abuse of their position of influence, several of these leaders have preached a version of the faith that encourages violence against those of other faith traditions. They impose harsh taxes on those of other monotheistic faiths and crowd them into ghettos and restricted communities. They execute those deemed heretics and burn their writings in an effort to purify the faith.

But these power hungry clerics are not content. So they rally their followers to wage a holy war against another sovereign nation, one that is rich and whose citizens include people from a variety of religious traditions, cultures, and people groups. These violent clerics’ goal is, ultimately, to overthrow this country and impose their own harsh view of their religion upon its inhabitants, even upon their fellow believers who do not share their own narrow and violent views. Their rallying cry is, “Convert or die!”

Sadly, many of this religion’s followers have taken up the battle cry, having been told that dying in this holy war guarantees them eternal life in paradise and the blessings of God in heaven. And so they march off to battle—men from every socio-economic and cultural background—united by their zeal for holy war.

The religion is Christianity during the Middle Ages. The target is Jerusalem.

Why do I bring this up? Earlier this week I posted a column entitled ISIS & The War on Islam. Not surprisingly it caused a bit of stir. One of the common responses that I received was from fellow Christians who continued to argue that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that ISIS is nothing more than the latest expression of this ingrained hostility.

As such, I thought it would be worthwhile to respond to some of these criticisms by reminding us, as Christians, of our own background and noting some of the parallels between what we see in groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda and what happened during the Middle Ages with Christianity and the Crusades.

SIDENOTE: STOP COMPARING HOLY WARS

Now, before I get too far into this comparison, let me start by addressing a common objection that I have heard over and over again. It goes something like this: “The [medieval] Muslims struck first and conquered the vast majority of the Mediterranean. Besides, they attacked and conquered far more territory than the Christians ever did.” Yes, yes, I have seen your YouTube videos and I have heard this argument.

But let’s get down to brass tax; holy war is holy war, whether being waged by Christians or Muslims. It is all-around bad news. While some people may want to make the Muslims seem like the only bad guys, keep in mind that the Christians of medieval Europe were just as bent on destroying Muslims in the Middle Ages as the Muslims were on conquering the Christians. The only difference is that the Muslim armies were better trained, unified, and led than the ragtag Christian forces that marched off to the Middle East. So it wasn’t for a lack of zeal that the Crusades never ultimately succeeded.

So rather than arguing in circles about who started what and how much territory so-and-so conquered, let’s focus on the bigger picture. The truth is that most Christians (maybe with the exception of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson) think that the Crusades were a bad idea. We, as Christians, recognize that the Crusades were not reflective of what it means to be a follower of Christ, and we are right to repudiate and denounce this dark chapter in our history. We recognize that what spurred on the Crusader mentality was a lot of ignorance, fear, bad theology, economic distress, and the propaganda campaigns of some of the clergy.

ISIS IS NOT ISLAM

So what does this have to do with groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda? Well, quite a bit actually. Muslims number over 1.6 billion. That is roughly 23% of the world’s population. Yet the vast majority does not even live in the Middle East. In fact, the country with the largest number of Muslims is India and the nation with the largest Muslim majority, by percentage, is Indonesia. Islam’s central Scripture, the Qur’an, is written in Arabic. Yet, for most Muslims, Arabic is not their primary language. Finally, if figures are accurate, then the majority of Muslims live in underdeveloped or developing nations. They make ends meet on less that $1 a day, like much of the rest of the world.

So what happens when you have well-funded clerics from more extremist countries telling the rest of the Muslim world that what it means to be faithful to the teachings of Islam is to participate in open war against the West? You get groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda: organizations that actively recruit young people who are disgruntled, often economically poor, or just looking for purpose in an increasingly complex and confusing world.

But this does not mean that this is the truest expression of Islam. Islam is a faith tradition that is rich and complex. It has made a profound impact on world history, enriching the arts and the sciences, even during the medieval period. As such, we must become conversant with the rich history and legacy of this faith tradition. It is worth it to spend some time studying books about Islamic history and theology. It is important to learn from and read well-educated Muslim leaders and scholars as they articulate their faith to the world in ways that are reflective of their religious tradition.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that the majority of Muslims are not violent. They are doctors, business owners, policemen, professors, peace activists, and politicians. They are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters who love their families and who serve their neighborhoods. They are our neighbors and our friends, our co-workers, clients, and service providers.

So let’s not lump them in with the psychopaths that we see on television. Let’s not step on their faith tradition by equating it with those terrorists who would seek to hijack the name “Islam” for their own sordid ends. Rather, let us let them define what Islam truly looks like. Let’s listen to their stories and seek to understand their faith tradition through their own eyes.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from a theology professor who said, “One of the greatest disciplines you can pursue is learning to see the world from someone else’s perspective.” I would encourage us to do likewise with our Muslim neighbors by honestly asking ourselves the question, “What is it about Islam that makes it so attractive that it would make people like my friends and neighbors want to follow it?”

SHIFTING THE PARADIGM: CALLING TERRORISM WHAT IT IS

One of the common objections that I have heard from people goes something like this: “Well yeah, there are nonviolent Muslims, but these people aren’t really being true to the religion of Muhammad. They are the liberals.”

First of all, not only is this insulting to the majority of Muslims around the world, but it is also not true. I’m hesitant to label the temperate movements within Islam “liberal” because there are many conservative Muslims who are non-violent as well. I think a wonderful example of this is the work that Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is doing through Zaytuna College in Berkley, California.

Zaytuna was founded “to help revive Islam’s educational and intellectual legacy and to popularize traditional learning among Western Muslims.” Its goal is to develop Muslim leaders “with the cultural literacy to tend to the spiritual and pastoral needs of American Muslims.” They do this by teaching the traditional Islamic sciences. It is a conservative institution through and through. Yet its founder, Sheikh Hamza, has also been an outspoken critic against groups like ISIS and has actively worked for peace and nonviolence over the course of his distinguished career. What this shows us is that just as there are liberal and conservative Christians who are nonviolent, there are also liberal and conservative Muslims who are nonviolent.

A better distinction would be to learn the common threads that all violent religious groups share in common and label them for what they are: terrorists. There is a huge body of literature out there that highlights the fact that religious extremists of every stripe—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.—share many of the same characteristics in terms of their values and aims. Someone who has done some great research on this is Jessica Stern in her book Terror in the Name of God. Likewise, it is worth it to read Landscapes of Jihad by Faisal Devji, as he paints a powerful picture of what actually drives extremists like Al-Qaeda and how they actively recruit people into their movement.

Again, my hope is that we can redefine this struggle as one that is not between Islam and everyone else, but rather as that between terrorists and the rest of the world. This is not about Islam. This is not about Muslims. This is about a group of violent psychopaths who want to destroy anyone—including Muslims—who does not agree with their own narrow brand of pseudo-religion.

My hope and prayer is that we, as Christians, would begin to stand with our Muslim neighbors in denouncing these violent fanatics and do so in a way that does not demonize and ostracize our friends.

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6 Chaplains Walk Into a Hospital…

What do you get when you put two Reform Jews, three Episcopalians, and a Presbyterian together in a hospital to minister to the sick and grieving for ten weeks?

I haven’t been able to come up with a punchy one-line answer yet—but let me know if you can think of any.  This has been my summer so far. In early June, six of us from Jewish and Christian seminaries around New York City embarked on our first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE)—a requirement for most clergy-in-training that involves offering pastoral care to people in need, in a clinical setting. Our hospital ID badges say “Chaplain Intern,” but what it means to be a chaplain—as I have learned over and over again—is ambiguous, and often has more to do with what the person we happen to be serving wants (or needs) us to be, than what we believe we are.

When someone asks us about our faith traditions—even though we are all deeply connected to specific traditions—we are instructed to say something along these lines: I am an interfaith chaplain and I’m here to serve the spiritual and emotional needs of patients in the hospital, no matter what their faith or philosophical tradition may be. Still,patients often project their own faiths onto us—there was the Episcopalian chaplain who has been repeatedly called Rabbi, the Jewish chaplain who was thanked for her work and her inspiring faith in Jesus; I have had multiple patients assume I am Catholic. For the most part, we don’t correct these assumptions, not because we don’t care, but because our job in the hospital is not to share our identities with others, but to listen, to pray, and to walk with those who are suffering. Why should a patient who is just coming out of a four-week coma after a stroke care if I’m an Episcopalian, or even a Christian for that matter? Much more important is that the patient can express her feelings and know that God is with her and is listening to her prayers.

That’s not to say that it has been easy to “set aside” our faith traditions. There are times that I have wanted to talk about Jesus or quote New Testament scripture and have had to hold back. But being able to talk about Jesus isn’t what makes me a Christian. I am a Christian because my beliefs and my relationship to Jesus inform the way I live my life and interact with others. Even if I don’t tell a patient that I am Christian, my Christian beliefs are what “get me in the door,” so to speak. My personal faith is the ground I stand on when I meet with patients. It is what helps me to understand the suffering I witness; it is what allows me to love each patient I encounter, regardless of our differences; it is what challenges me to keep coming back. In that way, I haven’t had to set aside my faith at all.

Throughout our first four weeks, each of us has been challenged to define our own theologies of pastoral care, of suffering, and of grief. Many of us have been with family members at the time of a loved one’s death; we have listened to patients who are experiencing excruciating pain, who have been diagnosed with incurable diseases, who feel hopeless about the possibility of healing—and we have to figure out how we can find the tools within our personal faith traditions to be a presence of God’s love to those we encounter. So, what do you get when you put two Reform Jews, three Episcopalians, and a Presbyterian together in a hospital to minister to the sick and grieving for ten weeks? You probably have to be there for yourself to know for sure—and even then, it’s hard to articulate. But I can say that, in my own experience, not being able to talk directly about my faith has forced me to figure out how to live my faith in a way that speaks louder than words. I can’t say that I always do it well, but I am committed to trying as hard as I can. Perhaps what you get is a group of people who can’t hide behind their intellects and religious platitudes—perhaps you get raw, real religion.

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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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“I will, with God’s help”

As a member of The Episcopal Church and someone involved in their ecumenical and interreligious work on a national and global level, I have begun to delve deeper into my own tradition for sources that nurture our work to foster mutual understanding amongst our brothers and sisters of other faiths.

While The Episcopal Church has an important historical legacy for building interfaith understanding and relationships – one that I cannot fully go into here – I have found that one of the best places for Episcopalians to begin interfaith work is, you guessed it, our liturgy.

In the Anglican tradition we hold fervently to the motto “praying shapes believing”. It comes from the Latin: lex orandi lex credendi, which translates to “the law of praying is the law of believing.” It means that the words we utter together to God hold profound weight in our life. Verbal and communal markers, they carve deeper into the bedrock of our belief through repetition until our hands and feet respond to the flood.

Just as a stream wends its way through rock and soil to carve a path, gradually building its momentum and depth into a river, so also I believe our liturgy can embed itself in us, molding and moving us into action, directing and expanding our imaginations, hearts and wills towards a greater collective theological and social consciousness.

So if our prayers, beliefs and actions are so closely knit together, then what are we praying?

This is exactly where I, and many others past and present, have found the words of the Baptismal Covenant to be a deep well and foundation for enabling, fashioning, and sustaining our work to build bridges and mutual understanding amongst those of other faiths.

I was baptized as an infant so I do not recall the memory well (or at all). But I hold this liturgy dear today, knowing that my family and community prayed it over me all those years ago so that I can now claim it as my own, confirm the faith of my baptism, and strive to live out these promises moving forward.

The Baptismal Covenant is found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the hallmark resource which embodies the corporate, liturgical, sacramental and ordered Anglican moral vision (the 1979 version is distinctly Episcopal). It is comprised in true catechetical form: it begins with an affirmation of belief in the classical Christian doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed and then includes a question-and-answer format with five ethically-driven questions at the end.

It is this question-and-answer portion which I find particularly compelling, and offer it here as a guiding prayer, resource and resolve for crossing the borders of difference and ministering in interfaith contexts.

Celebrant    Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the
prayers?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant    Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant   Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?

People       I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?

People       I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant  Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
being?

People       I will, with God’s help.

(Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305)

As we continue to renew our faith this Easter season, it is my hope that Christians of all backgrounds would find the boldness to make these promises over and over again – only and always with God’s help – and let the praying shape the believing as we seek and serve Christ in all persons, even those most different from us.

Carrie Diaz-Littauer is a member of The Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. She is currently an editorial consultant for various international and ecumenical NGOs in Geneva, Switzerland. She holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary.

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A Common Table?

One of my best friends from high school is Jewish. He’s not very religious at all, but being Jewish is an important part of his identity. As we’ve gotten older, our lives have taken us in different directions, but we’ve stayed close, in part (I think) because we share our traditions with one another—he celebrates Christmas with my family and I have celebrated Passover and Hanukkah with his. A few weeks ago, I invited Peter to come to a church service at which I would be preaching. I invited him as a friend—not as part of a missionary enterprise—and I was very touched when he agreed to come.

I meant to warn Peter before the service that there would be Communion. I wanted to tell him that Communion is for Christians who feel prepared in their hearts to receive the body and blood of Christ as holy sacrament. “No pressure,” I wanted to tell him—“you are still welcome here, even if you don’t take Communion.” But I was busy preparing for the service and we weren’t able to connect beforehand and so I never got to relay the message.

When it came time to celebrate the Eucharist I looked over at Peter. I had knots in my stomach. I hope he doesn’t feel uncomfortable; I hope he doesn’t feel pressure; I hope he understands what is going on.  As the thoughts ran through my head, I actually considered running over to him; but before I knew it, I saw that he was in line to receive Communion. And a moment later, he had received and returned to his seat.

Afterward, I asked him how it had felt to receive Communion in a Christian church. “I enjoyed it,” he said. “It felt personal.”

“You know you didn’t have to take it, right?”

“Yeah, I know” he said. “But I wanted to.”

At home that night I thought about what it meant that my Jewish friend had taken Eucharist. Was he a Christian now? No—not even close. He remains strongly rooted in his Jewish heritage and tradition. But I felt that this friend—someone who has known me for over 10 years and has seen significant changes take place in my life—knew me in a different way. I felt that even though we would not continue to worship together, we were more deeply connected. Receiving Communion is very important to me as a Christian; it is a major way that I connect with God and strengthen my faith. Being able to share Communion with Peter—even if it didn’t have any spiritual significance for him—allowed me to convey this very important part of my faith in a way that was deeper than words. I felt honored to have been able to invite Peter into a Christian worship service that welcomed him and included him, despite his differences from other congregants.

Still, I wondered: Was it okay that he received? What if the celebrant had known that he wasn’t Christian—would he have been refused? I know that some churches have very strict rules about who can and cannot receive Communion—these are serious and contentious issues. In fact, disagreements about the Eucharist have led to major disputes and splits throughout Christian history. I myself have been kept from Communion in certain worship settings and I know others who have had to look on because they didn’t fit fellow Christians’ criteria. I don’t hope to build a compelling theological argument for the necessity of inclusive Eucharist in this blog post, but I do want to say that there is something very powerful about extending our tables, even to those who are not prepared to receive Christ into their hearts. After all, the gifts themselves have the power to transform each of us. What would happen if we didn’t require each person to be our ideal of a Christian before sharing in the bread and cup? If we didn’t hold onto these gifts so tightly, would we find both ourselves and others transformed?

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The One Where I Wear a Turban

A couple of weeks ago, through a collaborative effort between the University of North Florida’s Interfaith Center (where I work) and the Sikh Society of Northeast Florida, I was given the opportunity to wear a Turban. Wear a Turban Day @ UNF was planned for Wednesday, February 26 and in an effort to promote the event the Tuesday before, a reporter from our local news station came to the Interfaith Center for a turban tying demo. Two gentlemen from the Sikh community came with a bag full of turbans, ready and excited to share an important piece of their identity with the Jacksonville, FL community.

I arrived at my office that Tuesday morning groggy as usual when I was informed by my boss, “The Sikhs are going to tie a turban on your head for TV!” Having not yet caffeinated myself for the morning, I was too comatose to protest. Thankfully, the two Sikh men brightened the room with their brightly colored turbans and beard-clad smiles; their enthusiasm contagious enough for me to even feel excited to be the model for a turban tying demo. They picked a lovely salmon color for me to wear, and once the camera was rolling – got to work.

turban guys

I listened to them talk about the significance of the turban to Sikhs as they wrapped the 18 foot cloth around my head. While the colors and patterns of turbans are usually chosen based on fashion preference, the turban itself serves as an identifier for Sikhs. It is a way to set themselves apart and to remember that they are always representing Sikhism and the truths and ideals it promotes – peace, justice, mercy. “I know when I am in a public place that I stand out, I’m hard to miss because of my turban. So I must do my best to promote justice, and do good, wherever I go. The turban keeps me accountable to my values,” one of the Sikh men said.

I couldn’t help but feel a little convicted upon hearing this.

For years I have refused to put a Jesus fish on my car. Within Christianity, there aren’t a lot of visible makers of our faith. Some Catholics wear rosary beads, some Christians wear cross necklaces, some priests wear a white color, etc. It seems to me, in American Christian culture, the closest thing we have to a visible sign of our Christian faith is the Jesus fish. Some wear it on jewelry, some put them on their cars, and some even tattoo it permanently on their bodies. I’ve contemplated putting a Jesus fish on my car from time to time (when I was a young college student I even considered a Jesus fish tattoo), but I could never quite bring myself to get one. I was always afraid that I would misrepresent Christianity, or worse, Jesus himself. What if I stuck a Jesus fish on my car then rudely cut someone off on the intestate? What if I “let the bird fly’ when some irritating motorcycle sped by at 100 miles per hour (not that I would ever do such a thing)? I haven’t worn a cross necklace in years – I’ve been afraid that I would not live up to the standards of the truths that the cross represents for me.

What these Sikh men were telling me is that they feel just the opposite. Clad with a symbol of their faith, they are held accountable. If they fall short, it’s on them, and they understand they aren’t perfect. If they don’t act in love, or peace, or justice, they have to answer for their actions not only to themselves, or to God, but to all people. More than boldness, wearing the turban seems to take deep devotion and commitment to one’s faith.

As Christians we are called to live holy lives. To be holy means to be set apart. We are to set ourselves apart through our faith, and through our faith put into action. It seems Sikhs similarly feel called. As I wore the turban the rest of the day I wondered what I do on other days to set myself apart as a Christian. Of course wearing a cross around my neck, or sticking a Jesus fish on my car would serve as a visible sign to others that I am indeed a Christian – but I want to know how my actions, my words, my life serve as signs of my faith. Would I be able to don the physical visible signs of my faith (a cross, a fish, etc) in humility – as a way of humbly setting myself apart? Would I be able to wear these markers and live into the ideals they promise?

I suppose the question isn’t if I’m able, because perhaps I am not – maybe no one is – but perhaps the question is, am I willing to try?

I think that’s what I most admired about these Sikh men who were so excited for me to experience turban wearing – they seemed to understand what a great responsibility it was for them to tie their turbans every morning. They seemed to understand that they won’t always live up to the ideals the turban symbolizes – but they were so humbly proud to try. It seems to me that every day, as the tie their turban, they’re making a choice to, at least for one more day, to be a Sikh.

This reminds me that every morning it is up to me to make a choice when I wake up in the morning to spend another day serving God, and serving others.

Then he said to them all, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily, and follow me.”

Luke 9:23

me in turban

 

 

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