What I Hope to Get Out of Interfaith Conversations

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A on May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about interfaith issues.

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I’m a Christian. Let’s start there.

I affirm the Apostles Creed. I stand with traditional Christian orthodoxy. Engaging in interfaith dialogue is in no way a concession of my own set of beliefs.

However, when I talk to a Rabbi, there is so much I want to learn. How Rabbis have interpreted their Scriptures is of utmost importance to me. Of course, I’m going to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures through the lens of Jesus, but knowing how Jews view their Scriptures has made my understanding of Jesus richer.

I don’t think respecting Judaism is difficult for most Christians.

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But I can also say the same of Islam. Within the Quran, there is a high value put on the person of Jesus. Jesus is the penultimate prophet, and belief in Jesus as a prophet is required of a Muslim. Of course Muslims don’t believe that Jesus is God, but there is an engaging discussion among some Christians and Muslims about what it means to follow after Jesus. (Incidentally, the word muslim simply means “one who submits to God.” So Muslims, full of respect, consider Jesus to be muslim.)

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From Buddhists, I am learning important things about contemplative prayer and quieting the crazy in my head. From Native Religions, I can learn something about living in harmony with the creation — surely a Christian value. (A puzzling sidenote: I find it strange that Christians who hold most tightly to a literal understanding of the Creation accounts, where God commanded the first inhabitants to care for the creation, are often the least likely to embrace Christian environmentalism.)

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Yeah, I know. Sometimes interfaith stuff gets a little hokey. And sometimes not everyone is playing by the same rules and one group is trying to proselytize the others (The next post will be on “ground rules for interfaith engagement.”) But for me, interfaith conversation is about learning what I can learn from the other traditions that further strengthens my understanding of my own faith.

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Here’s an analogy that shows how I view interfaith conversation:  I love my friends. And I love how their marriages work. I talk deeply with my friends about how they love their wives, how they work through hard times, how they navigate the joys and sorrows. I learn a lot from my friends.

But at the same time, I have my own marriage. I’m my own person. Jennifer is her own person. And we have our own ways of navigating our life together that aren’t the same as our friends’. So, I learn from my friends, I’m enriched by our conversations together, but I also have my own way of “doing marriage.” I’m better for having the dialogue with my friends about their marriages – there’s definitely some overlap – but my marriage is mine and theirs is theirs.

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This is my hope for interfaith conversation (and interdenominational conversations as well) — that we will learn from others in the areas that overlap.

I’m richer for my dialogue with those of other faiths, but that doesn’t mean I’m exchanging mine for theirs.

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Jesus on Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A on May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about interfaith issues.

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Last week, I had the opportunity to sit on a panel for a class at Illinois State University on interfaith dialogue. I sat on the panel with an Imam and Rabbi from Peoria. The question we were each asked for our opening remarks was something like this: what in your religious tradition draws you to interfaith dialogue? Here’s what I said:

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I need to start by owning my story. I grew up in a very xenophobic religious context. For example, I remember religious tracts from my youth that depicted the pope burning in hell. While we didn’t strictly believe we were the ONLY faithful remnant, we sure were wary, even of those in other Protestant traditions. But as I grew up, went to a more broadly evangelical seminary, and got to know people in other faith traditions, my horizons expanded.

I’m just saying, I’ve grown in my understanding of things, and I’m sure I will continue to grow. So these thoughts are still being formed. But to answer the question, I think there are generally three theological camps when it comes to interfaith dialogue, and Jesus has something to say to each.

The first is that “they” are our enemies. A Presidential candidate who says, “I think Islam hates us,” is choosing to propagate a narrative that says “they” are our enemies. When I wrote a post about the open house at one of the mosques here in Peoria a couple of weeks ago, I had a couple different people contact me with questions out of this perspective. And one of the things I heard is a common Christian idea about Islam, that “Muslims may say they are peaceful, but they’re just saying it to get power, and once they do, they’ll implement Sharia law.”

Even if this is in fact reality, Jesus couldn’t be more clear in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to love and pray for our enemies. And if, for the sake of argument, I grant the premise, it just feels like an excuse not to love. And yes, what it means to love and pray for ISIS is super complicated. But it’s much less complicated to love and pray for our Muslim neighbors in the Midwest.

So, even if you believe that Muslims are your enemy, if you identify as a follower of Jesus, then you are compelled to find ways to show love to Muslims in our community.

A second theological idea is that those of other faiths are not enemies but, rather, are just misguided. For example, many people I know are able to look past the rhetoric of conservative media and understand that Muslims and ISIS are not one and the same (just like Christians and the KKK are not one and the same). Many Christians believes Muslims (and those of other traditions/religions) are wonderful people who are simply on the wrong path.

I would suggest then, that our theological compulsion in such cases should be driven by Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. If we believe someone is misguided, don’t we have a Christian responsibility to reach out and care for them, even at personal cost?

FInally, I believe there’s yet another way to view interfaith dialogue and cooperation. I was thinking the other day about these verses in the Gospel of Luke:

“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”

-Luke 10:49-50

Whatever you may think about demons, can we all at least agree that in the context Luke is written, driving out demons is a good thing? So, Jesus seems to be saying that anyone doing good things is “for you.”

I was thinking about the blog post I wrote a couple weeks ago. If the local Imam is doing something to promote peace, isn’t he then my co-laborer as a peacemaker? If the Rabbi is doing something good in the community, isn’t he “with us”? It seems Jesus is pushing his disciples to think of “us” as a much bigger concept than “those with whom we agree.”

I know it’s challenging for those of us who grew up with a strong sense of “our group is right” to think this way. But I’m challenged by Jesus’ words. I think our mentality most of the time is “If you’re not with us somewhere close to 100%, then you’re against us.” But Jesus said almost exactly the opposite.

Hmmmmmm.

So what do you think? Does your theology drive you toward interfaith dialogue and cooperation? Why or why not?

 

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