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”

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.

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.

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!

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

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.

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.