Empty Bucket Theory

Let’s pretend for a second you’ve never met me. You know nothing about me except my name. In your mind, the category of Charles Dean is an empty bucket in your mind.

Now let’s pretend you meet someone and they say to you, “Charles Dean is a HUGE Cardinals fan. He loves watered-down light beer and his idea of a good time is a tractor pull.”

If there’s nothing in your “Charles Dean bucket,” you will probably just accept everything that was said about me without question. Why would you question anything you heard? If there’s no filter, there’s nothing in the bucket that would cause you to be skeptical. Those statements — I like the St. Louis Cardinals, I love watered-down light beer and my idea of a good time is a tractor pull — are not beyond the imagination. In fact, you just might assume that all Cardinals fans love watered-down light beer and tractor pulls. (HA!)

But if you know me, if there’s knowledge about me already piled in the bucket, there are filters for new information. If your “Charles Dean Bucket” has sufficient information piled up in it, you know that I hate the Cardinals with a righteous fury, I prefer craft beers (bring on the IPAs and dark beers!) and I have almost no interest in going to a tractor pull.

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Take the same idea and apply it to interfaith dialogue for a minute.

For example, if I know nothing about Muslims, if the “Muslim bucket” in my head is completely empty, and I see something on Facebook declaring that all Muslims are secretly trying to take over America and impose Sharia law on the rest of us, I might tend to believe it. (Especially if it aligns with my own religious impulses. Moral Majority anyone? Which is, I think, one of the reasons conservative Christians seem to be the ones most fearful about Muslims. But that’s a conversation for another time.)

If we are going to engage in meaningful dialogue with or about other religions, we have a responsibility to fill up our buckets first.

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But how we fill up the bucket matters. If you want to fill up your “Charles Dean Bucket,” you won’t get a very objective sense of who I am if you only talk to my biggest critics, or even if you talk only to my closest friends. You’ll get the most quality information in your bucket when you allow me to fill the bucket.

If you want to understand Muslims, let them tell you what they believe. Read the Qu’ran, talk to a Muslim, ask questions. Listen.

If you want to understand Democrats let them tell you why they see the world the way they do. Read liberal editorials with an open mind, talk to your friends about their views instead of just assuming you know why they think what they think. Listen.

If you want to understand why transgender people are conflicted about which bathroom to use, ask them. Let them fill up the empty bucket called “what transgender people think/feel” in your head. Listen.

This is one of the problems, I think, with Christian education. To the limited degree that we studied other religions in my formal education, it was always Christians telling you what Muslims/Buddhists/Jews believe. And there’s no way to do that without skewing the information. (I’ll admit that may be an over sweeping generalization of Christian education, but it was surely my experience. For example, the books I read in my formal education about Islam were predominantly by Christians writing about how Islam is wrong.)

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But all of this requires us to do the work. It requires us to get close enough to the people we consider other so we can ask them questions and allow them to fill the empty buckets in our head. It requires us to listen to other people with an open mind.

I’ll quote my friend, Stephen McKinney-Whitaker (I also quoted him in my last post, but it’s good, so you’re getting it again.):

“Listening is so close to loving  that you can hardly tell the difference.”

So, who do you need to listen to today?

Maybe it’s an interfaith thing. Maybe you need to listen to a flesh and blood Muslim tell you what he or she believes rather than just believing the rhetoric you read on your Facebook feed.

Maybe it’s an intrafaith thing. Maybe there’s someone of your own faith who holds their belief in a different way than you do and you need to listen to why instead of just simply condeming or critiquing.

Maybe it’s a relationship thing. Maybe you need listen to a spouse, friend or family member and hear what they’re thinking or feeling.

So, go love well and listen to someone today.

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Peace for Peoria

On Monday night, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in Peace for Peoria, a town hall Q & A event at the Peoria Civic Center Theater. I got to sit on a panel that included a Catholic, an Imam, a Rabbi and two Protestant pastors in front of a crowd at least 700 strong.

We were there to talk about how we can all work for peace, how all of us can have strong beliefs and still make space for each other, how we can have meaningful friendships with people of different faith and cultural traditions.  We also wanted to specifically address the irrational fear of Islam that seems to pervade our culture right now.

It was a breathtaking event. From what I could tell, there was great energy in the room. People seemed to be leaning into the conversation and many people were still hanging around the theater lobby talking nearly an hour and a half after the panel discussion was over.

This post is a collection of thoughts and impressions, two days after the event. I’ll be writing one more post in this series on interfaith conversations about an idea that emerged to me during the panel discussion. It’s written. I hope to have it edited and posted by Friday.

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The thought that occurred to me over and over again on Monday night was that this event was pretty unique. I don’t know of other conversations quite like this one, happening on a town-wide basis, anywhere else in the country. Part of it is because of Peoria’s size. Before the panel discussion we had several of the CEOs of the largest companies in Peoria talking about religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity in their workplaces, and the Mayor ended the night with a few comments. (I was also told that most of the city council was in attendance as well, although I haven’t confirmed that.)

Key civic leaders, business leaders gathering to listen to clergy talk about faith? In 2016 America? That just doesn’t happen!

I don’t know that I’ve ever been so proud of our city.

The other reason for the uniqueness of this event is that, behind the scenes, there are actual friendships between those of us who were on the stage Monday night. We’re blessed in this community to have an Imam like Imam Mufti and a Rabbi like Rabbi Bogard who are so open to conversation.

And special props to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Stephen McKinney-Whitaker of United Presbyterian for being the catalyst for making Monday’s event happen.

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If I had any disappointment, it was that events like the one on Monday are largely an exercise in preaching to the choir. People who affirm interfaith conversation and cooperation are more likely to attend an event like this one. The people who are most ignorant of Islam, the people who have the most fear, the people who most need to witness peaceful conversation between religions aren’t likely to attend this kind of event. Which is really too bad. We talked fairly in depth about important questions people have: Do we worship the same God? What about the violence of Islam? Don’t Muslims just want to convert us all and institute Sharia law?

But at the same time, even preaching to the choir, it was affirming to me.

My background, my roots are in an evangelical Christianity that would most likely NOT attend. The religious context I grew up in would largely see Monday’s event as some kind of selling out of the gospel. So it was personally affirming to me to be engaged in the conversation and to receive affirmation from people who attended that this conversation is the good work.

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And finally, I want to recap one thing that was said during the discussion. The first question was, “Do we all worship the same God?” and I want to recap highlights of that discussion, because I think, at least to some people, it’s the most important question.

When people ask that, it’s often a red herring. Regardless of how I answer, as a Christian I’m compelled to love. And to quote Pastor Stephen in his concluding remarks, “Listening is so close to loving  that you can hardly tell the difference.” (One of my favorite quotes of the night, even though I’ve heard him say it before!) And so while I said that to some people it’s the most important question, personally, it’s just not that important to me.

But, to answer the question you have to first answer the question “what do you mean by same?” So it quickly descends into a matter of linguistics. Of course, all of us on the stage have different ideas about the God we worship. None of us prescribe to a lowest common denominator expression of our faith. I think we would all be insulted if someone said that inane thing that people sometimes say, “All the religions pretty much teach the same thing.”

We don’t.

Same doesn’t mean identical.

But at least among the Abrahamic faiths, we have what Yale Professor Miroslav Volf calls “sufficiently similar” understandings of God that enable us to have meaningful conversations. (Here’s a link to a discussion about his book Allah: A Christian Response.) And in a Twitter exchange with Northern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Scot McKnight, Volf says that if Evangelical Christians insist that they don’t worship a “sufficiently similar” God to Muslims, then they also need to apply the same logic to their understand of Jews. This is a trade-off that I think very few Evangelicals want to take.

But, in the conversation that we’re having in our community with Christians, Muslims and Jews, “sufficiently similar,” is enough at least to get the conversation going. “The God of Abraham,” is enough common ground that we can at least talk together. And, surely we can work together for peace in our community!

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So, anyway, these are my impressions. So proud of my city. So proud to be a part of this event.

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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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