The Complexity of Our Interfaith Relationships
Last week Duke University decided and then rescinded the decision to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from its historic chapel tower… Muslim students have gathered for jummah prayers in the chapel’s basement for years, according to CNN reports. The chapel’s website describes it as “a Christian church of uniquely interdenominational character and purpose,” welcoming people of “all faiths and circumstances.” However, the dean of Duke Divinity School, Richard Hays, raised concerns about the use of the chapel for the Muslim call to prayer if it’s seen as a Christian church (given its history and iconography), rather than a neutral space on campus. “There are serious questions…about the wisdom and propriety of allowing Duke chapel to be used for this purpose,” he said in a statement. “Despite some common beliefs and traditions, Christianity and Islam stand in significant theological tension with one another.” In recent years, some American churches have considered whether they should share sacred spaces with Muslims or other non-Christian groups, weighing their desire to love their neighbors of other faiths and uphold religious liberty with a need to maintain the distinctiveness of Christian belief and worship.
A couple of years ago one of our “Faiths in Conversation” gatherings focused on the question of whether or not Jews, Christians and Muslims could or should pray together. I thought about that conversation this week as the controversy at Duke University played out on the evening news, and I thought that you might find it helpful to read my comments from that night.
“God Almighty doesn’t hear the prayer of a Jew.” That memorable declaration by a high profile Christian leader more than 30 years ago remains the perception of many in the interfaith community about what we who are Christians believe about prayer. And while it certainly defines the position of some Christians, you need to know that it still haunts others of us for whom he did not speak.
Prayer is not the sole province of Christianity. Christians are not the only people who pray. And despite what some Christian leaders might say, not all of us who are Christians believe that God only hears our prayers. In fact, there is a strand of New Testament teaching that bears strong witness to the universality of prayer among all human beings. In Acts chapter 17 the Apostle Paul was in Athens. Engaging the philosophers at the Areopagus on Mars Hill, Paul explained humanity’s inherent religiosity by saying that we were all created in such a way that we “would seek God,” and that by this “groping for Him” we might actually “find Him, (for) God He is not far from each one of us; … in Him we live and move and have our being” (17:26-28). We are created for relationship with God, prayer is one of the primary vehicles of that relational intimacy, and so people, all people, instinctively pray. Rather than trying to deny this spiritual fact, or denigrating the prayers that people of other faiths pray, I, as a Christian, believe that the prayers of all people should be honored.
E. Stanley Jones told the story of seeing some Christian students thoughtlessly throwing rocks into the Ganges River, the sacred river of Hinduism. A holy man told them in a grieved tone, “You throw stones into Mother Ganges, but I throw flowers” as he proceeded to strew flowers upon the sacred waters. “Give me some of the flowers,” E. Stanley Jones, a Christian missionary to India, asked, “(for) I too wish to throw them into the Ganges, not, of course, with your meaning, but still I’ll throw them in a symbol of my reverence (for you) and for India” (114). And it seems to me that this is such a better, not to mention, a much more Biblical way of thinking about the prayerful expressions and gestures of people of other faiths. Respect without getting sentimentally sloppy; being affirming without losing your own spiritual moorings.
Now, as a Christian, I have some particular convictions about prayer. In the first letter of Paul to Timothy in the New Testament there is a fragment of what many scholars believe was originally part of a primitive Christian creed. I Timothy 2:5-6 reads –
There is one God, and one mediator also between God and man,
the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for many…
Here are the twin convictions that provide Christian praying with its theological foundation. Christians have a particular understanding of the God to Whom we pray, and we have a particular understanding of the One through Whom we pray. These two convictions find their clearest expression in the traditional Christian vocabulary of prayer: how we pray to God as “Father” in “the name of Jesus Christ.” Let me take a moment with both of these ideas.
I often say to people, “Tell me about your God, and I’ll tell you how you pray.” If you believe that God is distant and disinterested, then prayer is going to be an attempt to get that God’s attention. If you believe that God is fastidious and stern, then prayer is going to be an attempt to win that God’s favor with precise forms and formulas. If you believe that God is impersonal and abstract, then prayer is going to be a reflection on an ideal’; it’s hard to bare your soul to an abstract noun. But if you believe that God is personal and affectionate, then prayer is going to be a conversation with an intimate partner. And this is what Christians believe, and so this is how Christians pray.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before Jesus was crucified, in a time of agonizing prayer, Jesus cried out to God as His “Abba” (Mark 14:36) – “Abba” is the Aramaic word for “Daddy,” or “Papa.” Not the formal designation “Father,” but the more intimate form of address that a child used when gathered up into his arms, while tugging at his beard, when being comforted after a spill, or being rocked to sleep at night, “Abba” is a relationship word, and twice in the letters of Paul (Galatians 4:5-7; Romans 8:15-16) Christians are told that it is the way that we ourselves are to address God when we pray. ”’Abba’ represents the essentials of the new relationship with God which (we as Christians believe that) Jesus Christ opened up for men and women who believe on his name” (W. Bingham Hunter).
Behind the word “Abba” there is a wonderful picture: God “walking in the garden (of Eden) in the cool of the day” with Adam and Eve as His companions (Genesis 3:8). This is what I believe being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) looks like in actual practice. We were created to correspond to God like His reflection in a mirror, to walk and talk with God as friend with friend, and when we as Christians call God “Abba,” we are reclaiming this relationship of intimacy and affection, but it doesn’t just happen.
You see, the intimacy between God and humanity that we see pictured so powerfully in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 got shattered by the rebellion of sin in Genesis chapter 3. We now live “east of Eden” (Genesis 3:24) with no way back into intimacy with God from our side. There is now this enormous gap between God and ourselves that must be overcome if we are to know that intimacy with God for which we were created, and as Christians we believe that this is what God does in Jesus Christ. He is the “mediator,” the one who stands in-between God and humanity, bringing them back together into intimate relationship with each other again. In Latin the word for “mediator” is “pontifex,” and “pontifex” means a bridge builder, and this is a powerful picture of what we are saying as Christians when we conclude our prayers with that phrase: “in Jesus’ name.” It’s our recognition that the gulf that our disobedience has created between God and ourselves has been bridged by God’s work in Jesus Christ. As Paul put it in his second letter to the Corinthians: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
When I pray as a Christian it is always to God as “Abba” through Jesus Christ who is the “mediator.” So, can I pray with you? “Can and Should Jews, Christians and Muslims Ever Pray Together?” Well, I can’t if the price of admission is the suspension of either of these two convictions. If, to pray with you, I have to suspend my understanding of God as “Abba,” or jettison my own profound reliance on Jesus Christ as the mediator between God and man, then we have a “no-starter” from my side. I simply can’t pray without these two convictions being fully in play: that the God to whom I pray is my “Abba,” and that my access to Him has been made possible because of the saving work of Jesus Christ.
But, do you have to share these two convictions with me before I’ll pray with you? And my answer to this question takes me back to where I started, back to my humble recognition that prayer is not the sole province of Christianity and that Christians are not the only people of faith who pray. My answer to our question tonight – “Can I pray with you?” – is deeply embedded in two convictions, the first having to do with the God who is there, and the other having to do with you.
Going back to that text from I Timothy chapter 2 about the One God to whom we pray as Christians, Paul amplified his reference to that God by telling us that He is “our Savior” (v. 3), the One “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (v. 4). This tells us something about God’s basic disposition towards us. We don’t have to somehow get a disinterested God’s attention and then convince that disengaged God to care about us, begging Him to hear our prayers and respond to our fervent cries. Christian prayer begins with the presupposition that God is always so much more interested in our prayers than we are in actually praying. That’s the first conviction at work in my answer to tonight’s question, “Can I pray with you?” God wants a relationship with us. Like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son that Jesus told (Luke 15), God is constantly scanning the horizon for any sign of the return of one of His children, and when He catches so much as a glimpse of us, He takes off in a dead run in our direction to gather us up in a welcoming embrace. As a Christian, I believe that the God who is there is listening to every stammering prayer.
The second conviction in my answer is my humble acknowledgement that you too are people of deep and genuine faith. In the book of Hebrews, in the New Testament’s great chapter on faith, the author observed: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, for anyone who comes to God must believe that God is, and that God is a rewarder of those who seek him” (11:6). I believe that the God to Whom we pray is our “Abba,” and that our way into His presence through prayer has been opened for us through the saving work of Jesus Christ. But I also believe that anyone who cries out to God, who gropes for God, who seeks God in genuine faith will find themselves in God’s presence. I have to believe this because the God I believe is there is a God who loves all of us just as a Father loves His children, and who has sacrificed Himself in love for us in order to make such a relationship possible for us in the first place.
Just as it is possible for a motorist to cross over a bridge on a highway without knowing who built it or how it was built, so I believe that people of other faiths can come into God’s presence without believing what I do about the bridge over which they are crossing (Watson 166). And since my praying as a Christian puts me on that very same bridge, the question “Can I pray with you?” is moot, because, in fact, I already am praying with you, and with everyone who believes that God is there and is the rewarder of those who seek Him (Hebrews 11:6).
Hunter, W. Bingham. The God Who Hears. IVP. 1986.
Jones, E. Stanley. The Christ of the Mount. Abingdon/Cokesbury. 1931.
Watson, David. Fear No Evil. Shaw. 1984.