Last week we had our third 2013 “Faiths in Conversation” gathering at Temple Shalom. The topic was “Why Interfaith Dialogue?” from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim point of view. As usual, Northway was well represented, and our conversation partners – Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Sheikh Omar Suleiman – were engaging and informative. We have made a significant commitment to this process. To use the language of Kennon Callahan, it is one of the things that we are getting something of a reputation for on the church grape vine, and because we are, it’s important to know why? This is my attempt to explain my participation in the process –
At the end of my junior year in high school, one of my teachers wrote in my annual – “Stand firm in your faith, and keep searching for truth, I think that you will find that the two are not ultimately in conflict.” Little did I know then that this advice would become something of the motto for the journey of my life. It was said of Thomas Merton that his “openness to man’s spiritual horizons” came from his own “rootedness of faith.” He regarded the Christ Event to be “the supreme historical fact” and “the perfect revelation.” So do I. And it was from the inner security of that commitment that he could “explore, experience and interpret the affinities and differences between religions.” And so can I.
I am a Christian, and while that tells you everything that matters about me, at the same time, it tells you virtually nothing. And that’s because there’s more than one way of being a Christian. Alister McGrath, the Oxford Theologian, in his 2002 book on The Future of Christianity (Wiley and Blackwell), identified five categories of Christians: Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals and Pentecostals. Ask a question of Christianity, any question, and the answer that you’ll get depends entirely on the kind of Christian of whom it has been asked. Tonight our question is: “Why Interfaith Dialogue?” And the way that I will be answering it comes from my own identity as an Evangelical Christian who serves in a Mainline Protestant Denomination.
That designation “Evangelical” comes from the root word “Evangel,” Greek for “Gospel” or “Good News.” I am a “Gospel” Christian. This tells you about what I believe, this tells you about what I believe matters most, and this tells you about my own personal experience of those beliefs. As an “Evangelical” Christian, my Christianity puts the primary emphasis on what God is doing to save us; on what God has done and is doing to bring us into a “right relationship” with Himself. And it is this salvation project, both as it has unfolded in the history that is narrated by the Bible, Old Testament and New, and as it has played out in my very own life, that is defining for how I think, feel and act.
The “God behind the Gospel” (Fred Sanders) that I read about in the Bible and encounter in my heart is a God who created me, who redeemed me and who sustains me. The God I know as a Christian is a God whose eternal purpose has always been to save us, all of us, and who then proceeded to accomplish the things that such a salvation requires before individually applying it to our hearts. When thinking about this Divine work of salvation, we who are Christians see “something trinitarian” going on (Sanders). You see, long before the Trinity – One God in Three Persons – was a Christian doctrine, it was the Christian’s experience. My life is the story of how God made me for a relationship with Himself, and how God then broke down the walls of separation that my rejection of Him and His ways erected, and finally how God pursued me in love with His offer of reconciliation and restoration.
This is the God I know as an “Evangelical” – as a “Gospel” Christian. He is the God who has purposed my salvation as the Father, and then accomplished my salvation through the Son, and finally applied that salvation individually to my heart by the Holy Spirit. This is my spiritual reality as an Evangelical Christian, it is the grid through which I consider all things, and so it is where I turn to answer the question “Why Interfaith Dialogue?” It is from the inner confidence of my belief in and experience of this God who has behaved in history and operated in my heart as a Father, Son and Holy Spirit that I enthusiastically participate in interfaith dialogue.
- I am here because, as an Evangelical Christian, I believe that you are someone who bears the image of God from Creation. The church’s historic creeds both begin with the affirmation that God is “the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” And the crown of God’s creation is humanity, made just a little lower than Himself, filled with glory and majesty (Psalm 8). You and me, we alone bear the image of God in creation (Genesis 1:27). And that fact affixes a dignity to you that I cannot ignore and that I dare not violate.
The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus in Asia Minor said the he bowed his knees before the Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (3:14-15). We are God’s “offspring” (Acts 17:28), all of us, and not just Christians. And this means that I need to know who you are, and what you believe, and both what hurts you and what fills you with hope because we are kin. The desire of the God I know is for you, and His designs have always included you. In Creation God made you for Himself, and it’s because I know this to be true of both you and God that I must take you seriously as a matter of my faith, and that’s why I’m here in this interfaith dialogue.
- I am also here because, as an Evangelical Christian, I believe that you are someone for whom Christ died. In the first letter of John, Christ’s “beloved disciple” explained what I as an “Evangelical” Christian believe the cross of Christ was all about – doing what was necessary to make the forgiveness of sins possible (1:9). John told his readers that when they sinned, they had “an advocate” or “a mediator” the Father – a Holy God (1:5-6); Jesus Christ, “the Righteous One” (2:1). That’s the “Good News” that makes me an “Evangelical” Christian, and at its core is the message that “Christ died for our sins” (I Corinthians 15:3). And then, just so that there would be no confusion about it, after telling Christians that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was for them, John added that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was not just for them, but for “the whole world” (2:2).
The very first Bible verse we memorize as Christians, John 3:16, doesn’t say “For God so loved Christians that He gave His only begotten Son,” but rather, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” And I can’t say that I believe this while distancing myself from you, acting as if I’m chosen and special to God, and you’re not. “God proves His great love for us,” Paul told the Romans, by “Christ’s death for us” (5:8), and Biblically, I understand that “us” includes you, and that’s why I’m here in this interfaith dialogue.
- And finally, I am here because, as an Evangelical Christian, I believe that you are someone over whom the Holy Spirit ceaselessly “broods.” “Brooding” is what a mother bird does over her nest, stirring her chicks to life, and in Genesis 1:2 we are told that this is what the Spirit of God did in creation – “brooding over the face of the deep.” As an “Evangelical” Christian I believe that the Holy Spirit is “the Giver of Life” in both creation and the new creation. Jesus said that just like the wind that blows where it wishes, so it is with the Holy Spirit. We don’t know where the Spirit comes from or where the Spirit is going to next, but we can know when the Spirit is present by the impressions that are being made (John 3:8).
So, what are the signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence? What are the impressions that are made when the Holy Spirit is around? Well, Paul named nine of them: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). And it’s because I see these things in you that I must conclude that Holy Spirit is doing something in you and with you. Thirty years ago a Hospice Social Worker told me that the very first thing she did with every visit she made was to try to figure where God was and what God was doing at that moment in that situation so that she could cooperate with Him rather than get in His way! And I participate in interfaith dialogue for the very same reason. I want to cooperate with rather than hinder what God is doing in the world today.
Historically, “Evangelicals” like myself have been the least likely Christians to participate in interfaith dialogue. Fearing that the Gospel would somehow be put at risk by relating lovingly and respectfully to believers of other religions, Evangelical Christians like myself have tended to “circle the wagons” instead where we could talk about you without having to actually talk to you. A generation ago, E. Stanley Jones, the pioneer of Evangelical interfaith dialogue and my own personal role model in this process, said that our preference has been “the method of long-distance dueling… shelling your positions, or (at least) what we thought were your positions,” trying to secure a victory. But, E. Stanley Jones pointed out, “The crusaders conquered Jerusalem and found in the end that Christ was not there… They had lost Him through the very spirit and methods by which they sought to serve Him.”
It is the Gospel – the “Evangel” – that makes me an “Evangelical” Christian. And it is the God who is behind that Gospel – a God who made us for Himself; a God who sacrificed Himself in love in order that we might be reconciled with Him; and a God who strives with us to bring us back to Himself – who compels me to participate in interfaith dialogue. I can’t know Him, and not be here doing this.
Our next “Faiths in Conversation” event will be back at Northway on Wednesday, May 29, at 7 pm. Our topic that evening will be “The World and the Next World.”
This will be a conversation about eternal destiny – what we believe happens to us, and to others, when we die. What becomes of Jews and Muslims who don’t believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior? That sensitive question is my next assignment. It should be an interesting evening. DBS+