Tag Archives: Pluralism

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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Principled Pluralism: The Challenge of Religious Diversity in 21st Century America

Eboo Patel, Jim Wallis and Meryl Chertoff discuss last week’s Aspen Ideas Festival and the challenge of religious diversity on HuffPost Religion.

Religious differences can be a potent source of social tension, as evidenced by bloody conflicts from Belfast to the Balkans to Baghdad. However, as with race and gender, religious diversity is a source of strength and richness when properly engaged.

Read it here.

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Creating a Culture of Unity Through Interfaith Cooperation

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/925147

There’s no question — our country is divided. Tension hangs in the air over every conversation about the budget, gay marriage, immigration, and gun control. Of course, difference of opinion is nothing new in the U.S. This is a democracy after all. With the celebrated First Amendment as the cornerstone to our rights as Americans, we can freely shout our differing views from the rooftops — though in this day in age, shouting exists rarely on rooftops, but on the 24-hour news cycle, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and Twitter. It seems to me that this pervasive exposure to differing opinions, partnered with increasingly more polarized party politics, has created a culture of division in our country.

Many Americans, particularly the younger generations, are disturbed by this culture of division and desire a more united, less polarized, America. The question becomes: how do we deconstruct our culture of division and build a culture of unity? Jim Wallis, in his piece, “On God’s Side: For the Common Good,” claims that much of the division felt in this country is because so many people audaciously claim that they are on God’s side with their politics, actions, and words, and that those who don’t think, act, and vote like them, are disobeying divine order. In an effort to move the country forward to unity, Rev. Wallis suggests that instead of making claims about being on God’s side, we should start asking “are we on God’s side?”

What would it mean to be on God’s side? Rev. Wallis’s answer is to focus on the common good:

Not just in politics, but in all the decisions we make in our personal, family, vocational, financial, communal, and public lives. That old but always new ethic simply says we must care for more than ourselves or our own group. We must care for our neighbor as well, and for the health of the life we share with one another. It echoes a very basic tenet of Christianity and other faiths — love your neighbor as yourself — still the most transformational ethic in history.

I agree with Rev. Wallis — focusing on the common good is a good step toward answering the question of how to be on God’s side, and solving many of our nation’s greatest points of division. In a country as diverse as ours, however, it can be challenging to know what the common good actually is. As individual participants in society, we all come to the table with different ideological structures for framing our understanding of what is commonly good. Those structures are often built around religion, philosophy, and our beliefs and understandings about existence, mortality, and the cosmos. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that we live in, arguably, the most religiously diverse nation of all time.
Yes, Jesus has called me to love my neighbor as myself, but what does that really mean when my neighbor is Mormon, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, secular humanist, or Hindu?

Religion is often blamed for the world’s greatest conflicts, and rightfully so. One doesn’t have to look far to see conflict or violence that is linked to religious motivations or sentiments in some way (think the tragedy at the Boston Marathon or the Sikh man that was murdered shortly after 9/11 because he was wearing a turban). In a country that becomes more religiously diverse every day, it is easy to allow conflict to arise between different religious and non-religious groups. It is true, difference in religious and philosophical ideology can be a cause of great division. But what if I told you it doesn’t have to be that way?

I believe that amidst all of our nation’s diversity, we must be able to find, or create, common ground among us in order to focus on the common good. This is exactly what the American interfaith movement aims to do. According to the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a non-profit organization whose mission is to make interfaith cooperation a social norm, the interfaith movement seeks to build religious pluralism in the U.S. IFYC understands religious pluralism to be respect for others’ religious and non-religious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds, and common action for the common good.

Religious pluralism, in its most ideal form, not only paves the way to common ground but also creates action for the common good through personal relationships. Pluralism is necessarily relational: it only manifests itself in the give and take of relationships between people of different religious and non-religious identities.

Interfaith cooperation is the path to religious pluralism and a path toward ending the hostile ideological environment in which our country finds itself. It can be scary or intimidating for people of different religions to meet each other half way and to have a conversation. IFYC suggests creating interfaith service projects where Atheists, Christians, and Muslims can work alongside each other in the context of a service project that benefits their mutual communities (a soup kitchen, for example). The service becomes the common ground on which personal relationships across difference are built. In the safety of their common ground, they can then begin to have dialogue and discover each other’s true selves; thus paving the way to developing mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds and respect for others’ religious and non-religious identities, backgrounds, and beliefs.

Don’t be fooled. You don’t have to leave your own unique religious (or non-religious) identity at the door to engage in interfaith cooperation. In fact, it requires you to be authentically yourself, religious identity and all. You can fully and genuinely respect another’s identity while simultaneously holding your own differing religious identity. I, an evangelical Christian, can appreciate, and even be inspired, by the dedication of my Muslim neighbor to pray five times a day, while at the same time wanting them to know Jesus. What interfaith cooperation does require is to listen openly, check presumption at the door, and suspend pointing fingers and placing blame on your interfaith cohorts for the ills of the world.

Interfaith cooperation is evolving all the time. With the daily growth of religious diversity in the country, and the growing awareness around the interfaith movement, new voices are being added every day to the conversation about religious pluralism, interfaith cooperation, and their roles in creating common action for the common good. In light of this evolution, what remains consistent and clear is that having personal relationships across religious difference creates religious literacy and interpersonal understanding; such understanding fosters compassion while cultivating a more peaceful and united society. These relationships become our common ground.

I challenge you to help create common ground by building relationships across religious and ideological difference, and to help lay the foundation on which we can build our understanding of the common good and begin to build a stronger more united America.

“This blog post is part of The Huffington Post’s ‘Common Good’ series and Sojourners’ Common Good Forum, inspired by Jim Wallis’ latest book, “On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good.” Click here to read the rest of the blog posts in the series.”

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Reflections on a Snapshot of Religious Cooperation in Egypt

originally posted by @NevineZaki on Twitter

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t pay enough attention to what is going on in the world around me.  Typically, my eyes are fixed on a pair of computer screens: coding a problem for class on one, a half-composed e-mail sitting open on the other.  Or I’m wrapped up in a textbook, trying to stay awake, note cards scattered around me, studying for that next exam.  I’m an MD/PhD student, so perhaps I have an excuse.  But then again, maybe I don’t.

I do what I can to catch glimpses of the reality beyond my routine.  Which, at best, means grabbing my phone during a free minute or a boring lecture to skim a series of RSS feeds, tweets, and headlines.  This week, one tweet in particular caught my eye and caused me to sit back for a moment to reflect.

At the church where I grew up, there were a few older gentleman who consistently reminded us to be praying for our troops.  It gave me the impression that these fellas sat around all day with nothing else to do, so they made a hobby of following the men and women serving our country and risking their lives outside the States, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But I think that they were actually on to something.  There are bigger things going on in the world – things that, at the very least, deserve our prayerful attention.

Amidst the unrest in Egypt, a picture was tweeted across the globe this week, often with an #interfaith hash tag, showing Christians joining arms to protect Muslims during prayer.  This almost seemed to reciprocate the human shield formed around a Coptic Christmas mass just a few weeks ago by Egyptian Muslims as a protest against Islamic militants.

As I paused for another “what would Jesus do?” reflection, I began to realize what this act represented.  In a society where order is crumbling to the ground and protests are escalating to violence, what is more profound than a bold reminder that many Egyptians dream of a country where people of diverse backgrounds work together to preserve freedom?

As we’ve started to build Faith Line Protestants over the past few weeks, one theme has remained persistent in my thoughts: love your neighbor.  To me, defending another’s freedom to practice their faith – even when that faith is not your own – is an act of love.  As a citizen of a nation built on ideas like religious freedom, I realize the significance of this notion which, depicted in the picture above, inspires me as I pray for safety and peace in Egypt during the days ahead.

How does this inspire you?  Let us know by commenting here or sharing with us on our Facebook page.

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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.

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