Yesterday I arrived at NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas, to attend the Global Faith Forum, which has gathered together leaders of conservative Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities that want to learn how to build relationships with one another and work together for the healing and redemption of the world. Here is an image (h/t) from the first night, of a panel of Christians, Jews and Muslims discussing both their commonalities and their differences.
Right now, as I write, pastor Bob Roberts is sitting on the stage with His Royal Highness Prince Turki al Faisal of Saudi Arabia, and His Excellency Le Cong Phung, Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States.
It’s a fascinating event, and brings a host of complex thoughts and emotions to my mind and heart. Some may wish it otherwise, but the world is no longer such that Christians can live in religiously gated communities where they need never encounter, and need never worry over their children encountering, people who are absolutely and passionately committed to other faiths. Interreligious tensions stand at the heart of so many wars and conflicts and social problems around the world and throughout the cities and suburbs of the United States.
Religious isolation is no longer an option. Parents might wish for their children never to receive a deep and winsome image of another kind of religious life — but for most parents in the United States, it will be an idle wish. All religions are in all places. The global village has arrived. The Christian lives beside the Jew lives beside the Muslim lives beside the Buddhist lives beside the atheist. The variety of religious options are on constant display.
The question addressed in this event, from the Christian side, is: How can we continue to affirm the teachings of the scripture and the orthodox proclamation of the church throughout the ages, that Jesus Christ is the Way and the Truth and the Life and no person comes to the Father but through he — and also live in peace with the Muslim across the globe and down the street, and also work together with the Jew to serve the needs of the community they hold in common?
The way of “interfaith” dialogue is no good option. I remember, as an undergraduate, attending an ecumenical worship service at the majestic Memorial Church at Stanford University. One of the associate deans of religious life came to the pulpit, wearing the uniform of female associate deans of religious life, which involves a long flowing dress, multiple colorful scarves and a necklace with a large power crystal. When she began her invocation with, “O divine Spirit, you essence of Love that brings healing to our hearts and wholeness to the world, you divine Parent who is both Father and Mother to us all,” I saw my fellow evangelicals stealing glances at one another and rolling their eyes.
I shared their skepticism. It seemed like an exercise in extravagant self-indulgence. The service was stately and aesthetically pleasing in its own way, but also felt, to us, passionless and anodyne, so sincerely inoffensive that it was offensively insincere. It must have required, we imagined, an enormous amount of energy and will-power to pretend as though we all believed the same things, and to exclude from mind constantly the veritable herd of elephants in the room. It was intellectually unsatisfying and comically averse to religious particularity. One might have built a drinking game around all the ways in which the cultured speakers avoided saying words like “Father” and “Lord,” even “God,” not to mention “Jesus” or “Christ.” But removing Christ from the service was removing Christianity from the service. Removing particularity was removing what made God personal, concrete, dynamic, and ultimately important, worth living and dying for. I could not wish to live and die for a divine essence of love. I could only wish to live and die for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who Created the world and also took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and gave himself upon the cross for me.
It fit with the official religious ethos on campus. Too many of my religious studies classes seemed to devolve into races to play the victim. The first person to take offense won the argument. The strength or weakness of your argument did not matter at all. If another person took offense at your words, this was immediately your fault, and it showed that your point of view was oppressive and therefore to be discouraged. Was your view truthful? That question had been rejected a long time ago. And if there are no statements or metaphors of images for God that are more or less truthful than others, then you may as well shave off the differences between our gods and worship the least common denominator.
The Global Faith Forum is about finding ways to relate respectfully and profitably across religious communities with an absolute commitment to speaking the truth, to affirming what you believe, and respecting the integrity of your respective religions with all their differences and disagreements. They are calling it “multifaith” instead of “interfaith.” It’s a simple linguistic device, but the point it makes is very important. This is not about watering down our differences and joining one another in a tepid bathwater of precious thoughts, harmless truisms and lukewarm faith.
Can it work? Evangelicals traditionally have stood for orthodoxy. We will not abandon our beliefs, we will not change them, in order to avoid offending another person. Perhaps offense is important. Perhaps it is necessary. Offense is better than ignorance, and I would much rather offend a friend than sit idly by while that friend endures a life and potentially an afterlife without God. If the truth is the truth, is must be spoken. It must be proclaimed. For we believe that the truth will set you free. But can we proclaim the truth, can we remain fully committed to our beliefs, and yet build relationships of respect, of friendship, even of love, and work together to serve the needy? Perhaps we can. Time will tell.
Evangelicals have long been regarded as a part of the problem of religion dissension, partly because they refuse to compromise their beliefs in order to please others, and partly because they have rejected and reviled and refused to engage with people of other faiths. We still make no apologies for the former. We are not free to abandon or amend or abridge our beliefs in order to ease the consciences or satisfy the sensibilities of others. But we should apologize for the latter. And we should make amends. We should no longer be regarded as the bigoted masses who will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into peace between religions. We should lead the way. We should lead the way through forming communities of multiple faiths where each individual is free to be completely and utterly committed to his or her religion and where nonetheless each one loves each and every other one and all are willing to work together for the redemption of creation.