Your support is needed to help ProgressiveChristianityorg. We need to reach our year-end fundraising goal that will determine what we can do for 2023. If you have already donated, thank you! If you have not donated yet, please do so today. There is so much more we can do and offer our readership with your support! DONATE NOW!

Many Voices, One God: Unity or Harmony?

The place I want to begin is on an evening in 1993, a November evening in Chicago, where I had been invited to the Muslim Community Center on the 4300 block of North Elston, to meet with local Islamic leaders to talk about the emerging interreligious movement in metropolitan Chicago. This came four months after the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, which was held in Chicago for eight days at the Palmer House Hilton. Eight thousand people from around the world, representing one hundred twenty-five different religious traditions, movements, denominations, and sects had gathered there. Growing out of that, the local religious communities of Chicago had said that they needed to continue to talk and work together. I had begun visiting these communities, and I was going to meet for the first time with the local Islamic leadership to talk about their participation.

I arrived at the prescribed hour of 8:00 p.m., parked in the parking lot across the street, and as I was walking across the street to the Islamic Cultural Center, it suddenly struck me that this used to be a movie theater. I’ve learned in Islam if the house of prayer was originally built for that purpose, it’s called a Mosque, but if it was built for some other purpose and then becomes the house of prayer, it’s called an Islamic Cultural Center. I walked into what must have been the lobby. No one was there, so I started to poke around. I found the room we were to meet in off to the right, kind of a long narrow room with a big table in it, probably where they kept the popcorn and candy. No one was in there. I kept wandering around and finally found what must have been the actual theater. I looked around the corner and saw rows and rows and rows of men prostrating and behind them a row of young boys sitting on their knees looking very bored, and I realized: this is one of the prescribed hours of prayer.

I had to go to the bathroom, so I thought, “Well, I’ll do that.” I found the bathroom, and in front of it was a sea of shoes. I must admit I was somewhat new in this work and I thought to myself, “Do I need to take my shoes off to go to the bathroom? I decided I didn’t, and eventually I found my way back to that room where we were to meet. In it now was one man. He was maybe fifty or sixty years old, in a Middle Eastern cassock, with long, straggly gray hair and a long, straggly gray beard. As I walked into the room, he stood up. He was a tall and imposing man. He pointed a finger at me and said, “Who are you and why are you here?” I told him who I was and why I was there. Then he asked me a question. He said, “Are you a Christian?” I said, “Yes.” In response to that, he launched into a long, long, long diatribe about what had been done to Muslims in the name of Christ over the centuries. Rape and pillage, war and murder, oppression. He knew dates. He knew countries. He knew cities. He knew numbers. As he got going, I tried to interrupt him to say that I was aware of this long and terrible bloody history, and that this isn’t what I understood Christianity to be. But he was going to finish, so I listened.

After about twenty minutes, he paused and took a breath. He looked confused, and he asked me again, “Now who are you and why are you here?”. I told him again, and he launched into another long speech, this one a little more helpful to me, about the Muslim community in metropolitan Chicago. In 1965, Lyndon Baines Johnson signed a liberal immigration bill which allowed equal immigration access from Africa and Asia that had formerly only been granted to Europe. Since that time, there had been a large influx of African and Asian Indo-Pakistani Muslim immigrants to the U.S. He told me that the first wave from those countries was the cream of the crop, who came over here for educational purposes and then ended up staying here, and then either bringing their families over or marrying here. He said the more recent waves of Muslim immigrants were from more developing countries. They weren’t as sophisticated. He said these are the people that are cleaning your streets and driving your cabs. “And by the way,” he said, “they’re a very paranoid group. They think the FBI and the CIA is around every corner and every bush, watching their every move.”

That was kind of helpful to me. Mercifully, at that point, evening prayers were over. Other people started filtering into the room for the meeting, and in came Dr. Irfan Ahmed Khan. Dr. Irfan Ahmed Khan is an immigrant from Pakistan. He’s about this tall with the sheepskin cap on. He always wears the Nehru jacket. He’s a noted Islamic scholar, philosopher, and activist. He and I had become good friends organizing the 1993 Parliament. He had set up the meeting for this evening. He was excited to see me, and we were going to have such a good meeting. He had brought two big silver bowls of Indian desserts. That was something that my interrogator and I could do without any tension between us. We could load up on the dessert. Other people started filtering in, and about twenty minutes later, the meeting was ready to begin.

Around one long table were maybe ten to twelve older Indo-Pakistani men, three younger men who looked like they were from the Middle East, and two women. One woman was an African-American convert to Islam, and the other was covered from head to toe in white. All I could see were her eyes, and she never said a word the entire meeting. Dr. Khan welcomed everyone, and then asked one of these younger middle-eastern young men to open with a chanting from the Koran. Everyone closed their eyes, and chanted something that I’ve learned is: “Leave the cares of the world behind, and listen attentively to the word of God.” He chanted from the Koran, in Arabic of course, and when he was done he translated for my sake. The passage had something to do with Allah siding on behalf of the poor and the oppressed and those who had suffered injustice in the world. This would set up his comments for me for later on.

Then Dr. Khan stood up to introduce me. As Dr. Khan is noted for, it was a long, long, long introduction, about the 1893 Parliament, the 1993 Parliament, Koranic reasons for interreligious dialog, and philosophical reasons. Finally, it’s my turn to speak, and in contrast to Dr. Khan, I was quite brief. I said to the Muslims assembled in the room, “Given the fact that Islam is now the fastest growing religion in the world (estimates are that one out of every five persons on the planet is Muslim), and given the fact that Islam is now the fastest growing religion in the U.S. (with estimates of eight to twelve million Muslims), and given the fact that Islam is now the fastest growing religion in metropolitan Chicago (with estimates of 500,000 Muslims praying in sixty Mosques and Islamic Centers), if we were going to do anything interreligiously in metropolitan Chicago, the Muslim community has to be included. This is just the beginning of our local metropolitan work.” I shared some of our initial ideas, and I sat down.

One minute passed. Three minutes passed. Seven minutes passed. No one said a word, which finally prompted Dr. Khan to rise again, and to begin to reiterate all that he had said before. I stopped him right there, and I said, “Dr. Khan, please, let’s hear what all of you think about this?” Finally one of the older Indo-Pakistani men said, “You know it says in the Koran that Allah, in Allah’s graciousness, sent Mohammed, not to Muslims, but to all of humanity. And if Allah is gracious in such a way to all of humanity, should not we Muslims also be gracious?” And then another older man said, “And you know it says in the Koran that no one can become Muslim by coercion, under the threat of the sword. Therefore if Allah, in Allah’s graciousness, allows other people to choose other paths to God, should we, as Muslims, also not respect those paths?” What were they doing? They were developing an Islamic rationale for interreligious dialog. So this was good, and it went on for about ten minutes.

Then one of the younger Muslim men looked at me, and he asked me a question. He said, “Are any members of the Hindu host committee for the 1993 Parliament also members of the VHP?” Now, what does that all mean? Why is that important? Well, let me give you just a moment of history.

In 1893, the whole world came to metropolitan Chicago for a World’s Fair — a World’s Exposition. You might know of it as the first time a Ferris Wheel was introduced. As a part of that, a historic religious event took place. The Reverend John Barrows, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, joined with local Jewish and Catholic leaders to send thousands of letters around the world, inviting religious leaders to come to a first ever World’s Parliament of Religions. About four hundred of them responded. For seventeen days in September 1893, in what is now the Art Institute (the building originally built to house this Parliament), from 8:00 a.m. till 10:00 p.m., religious leaders from around the world came to a podium to talk about their own religions and to talk about the role of religion in the world.

You go around the world and you say, “Chicago in 1893,” and they know about the World Parliament. Ask the person on the street in Chicago, and they have no idea. This event marked a number of firsts in American religious life. Scholars now recognize that this is really the first time Catholics and Jews began to be recognized as mainstream American religious people along with their protestant brothers and sisters. Ten percent of the presenters were women and African-American, which, in 1893, was quite risky. Many people trace the study of Comparative Religion, certainly in the academic centers, back to this Parliament.

By far the most historic thing was that this was the first time in human history East met West religiously on a formal platform in the Western Hemisphere. Many of those religious leaders that came to speak went on to become world-class religious leaders in their own traditions. Virchand Gandhi represented Indian Jains. When you go to the Jain Temple out in Bartlett, which is a suburb of Chicago, and you walk into the foyer, you see a big metal bust of Virchand Gandhi. Anagarika Dharmapala was a Theravadan Buddhist from Ceylon who was one of the forerunners of what is now known as “Socially Engaged Buddhism”, Buddhism that doesn’t just have to do with the inner life but has something to say to the structures and nature of society as well. Shaku Soyen was a Zen Buddhist from Japan who later became the teacher of D.T. Suzuki, the leading exponent of Zen Buddhism.

Many of these speakers at that Parliament went on to become notable around the world, but the star of the event was not invited. He came on his own. He was well known in India but unknown in the West: Swami Vivekananda. He was unknown and uninvited, but by the end of the end of the seventeen days, they were scheduling him last each evening to keep everyone in their seats. He a spellbinding and powerful speaker, and he spoke about the need to end bloodshed and violence in the name of religion. After the Parliament was over, Pastor Barrows compiled all these speeches into a two-volume compendium you’ll find in libraries around the world. Basically nothing else happened interreligiously for decades, mostly because only the religious leaders came to Chicago, not their communities.

Ninety-five years later in the summer of 1988, one night an important conversation took place in the basement of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society’s monastery. Vivekananda founded a monastery that is still there to this day in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. Some new-age and comparative religion types were sitting around a kitchen table with the two resident swamis thinking about the 1893 Parliament, and they decided that there should be a 100th anniversary in 1993. So that night they voted themselves members and officers of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions and started what was a largely five-year volunteer effort to hold what they thought was going to be a gathering of about fifteen hundred people.

It ended up with about eight thousand people. This is where I connect with the Council. I had been a parish pastor in a place called Benton Harbor, Michigan, for eleven years. After eleven very satisfying but exhausting years, I was looking for a little sabbatical and ended up working for the Council. My job was to get the local religious communities in metropolitan Chicago to host this event. My job was to form host committees – the Jewish host committee, the Bahá’í host committee, the Buddhist host committee, the Hindu host committee, etc. – to raise money for the event and to bring their head honchos and to get their people turned out for the event. If in 1893 the whole world came to metropolitan Chicago for that first forum, one hundred years later in 1993, the whole world now lived in metropolitan Chicago.

I told you about that immigration bill. Since 1965, one million new religious immigrants have moved to the metropolitan Chicago area. One out of every seven persons in metropolitan Chicago today is from somewhere else in the world and of a religion other than Christian or Jewish. As I told you there are 500,000 Muslims, as compared to: 261,000 Jews, 220,000 Buddhists practicing in thirty-two temples and meditation centers, 80,000 Hindus worshiping in eighteen temples, seventeen of which are in the suburbs. There are 5000 Sikhs, 5000 Jains, 5000 Unitarians, 2000 Bahá’ís , 500 Zoroastrians, and a whole array of new age and indigenous religious communities. We like to say that if it’s out there in the world, it’s also there in metropolitan Chicago.

My job was to go out and help organize these communities to host this big event. The first thing I did was that I did not read Huston Smith’s book. I got in my little Plymouth Colt, and I started driving to these actual religious communities. That’s where I got my education in the world’s religions – by meeting the men and women and children, the communities that live out their traditions each and every day.

Let’s go back to that question that the young man had asked me. It makes a little more sense now, does it not? Were any members of the Hindu host committee in the 1993 Parliament also members of the VHP? The VHP is a right-wing Hindu nationalist party in India. I didn’t know the answer to that. I had gotten to know the Hindus quite well. They were the most excited about the Parliament because of the Vivekananda. They had the biggest host committee. We had had meetings with one hundred people. They were also the most political. They were on the phone every day. They wanted this. They wanted that. We’d ask them for the names of three possible speakers, and they’d always give us one. They wanted to decide.

This young man then looked at me and said, “I do know that members of the Hindu host committee were members of the VHP and that they sent money to India to overrun the Babri Mosque.” You may remember in 1992 there was a huge religious riot in India at the Babri Mosque, and I believe hundreds of Muslims lost their lives. The debate, on a religious level, was that the mosque had been built over a Hindu temple. People knew this for centuries, and the Muslims had graciously let the Hindus walk through the mosque to get to the Hindu temple part, but in the political football between Hindus and Muslims, this became a symbol. The Muslims felt that when the riot broke out the Indian government, which was at that point predominantly Hindu, had not intervened, and hundreds of Muslims had lost their lives.

So that was his quarrel. He looked at me, and he said, “How can I sit at a table in metropolitan Chicago with Hindus who sent money to India to overrun the mosque?” Eleven years in the pastoral ministry had taught me that if you get asked a question like that, and you don’t have a good answer, you don’t say anything.

Then one of the other younger Muslim men looked at me, and with a genuine smile, he said, “You know, I like you. But I don’t buy a word of what you’ve said here tonight. We Muslims cannot be at peace in the world when we are suffering injustice. You in the West look at Muslims around the world and say, ‘Hey, why are you involved in these conflicts? Why can’t you live in peace?’ But we cannot live in peace when we suffer injustice.”

Right around 1993, of course, was the outbreak of genocide in Bosnia, which he mentioned, along with the West Bank of Gaza and Kashmir. What was I to say? I didn’t know what to say, but Dr. Kahn did. He stood up and said, “What a wonderful meeting we’ve had. This is tremendous. Oh, this has been such good discussion. I thank you all for coming. I’m sure you’ll all want to work with Reverend Ficca.” He asked my interrogator to close with a chanting from the Koran and the meeting was over.

Everyone in the room came up to shake my hand, to thank me for being there. Many of them have been part of the local leadership in the seven or eight years since. I ended up walking out to the parking lot with one of those younger Muslim men, and he said, “Is this thing you’re organizing going to be about being against abortion, and about pro-family values?” I said, “I don’t know. We’re just getting started. I’ll let you know when we figure that out. He said, ” I went to DePauw University, and my roommate there was Roman Catholic, and I found we shared a lot of those values. If that’s what you’re going to do, I’m in.” He shook my hand, and we got into our cars. This was one of those turning points in your life, one of those nights when something happens.

Driving home I had two very distinct feelings. The first feeling was: this is impossible work. In that small room, where I think they must have kept the candy and popcorn, were centuries of history and huge chasms of religion and culture. The other distinct feeling I had (and this is my readily admitted pathology) was that I was strangely energized because it’s not preaching to the choir like today, which is a wonderful thing. If we’re going to make any progress in this world, we’ve got to begin addressing the intractables, and there were a lot of intractables in that room.

I then started thinking about a conversation I had with a good Hindu friend of mine after the Parliament met. I just asked her, “The Hindu host committee seemed so political, and they always wanted their way, and if we asked for three recommendations for a speaker they’d always give us one. What was that all about?” She said, “The divide and conquer approach of the British, of course.” Hindus had suffered for a number of centuries under harsh, colonial British rule, and Hindus felt that the technique the British used was divide and conquer, so when a white westerner asks you for three names, what do you hear? Divide and conquer. So you give one name in response.

What are we talking about here? We’re talking about Muslims who have felt oppressed by Hindus and Hindus who have felt oppressed by the West. I mean it just goes on and on. When I got home that night, I shared this all with my wife, and she just shook her head and said, “Why can’t people just get along?” As we were crawling into bed that night, I said, “I think it’s something like this – “

At that point our first child, Dillon, was about six months old. Those who have had children know that with your first child it’s like falling in love. It’s like a honeymoon, until they start walking. We were in that gaga, honeymoon phase with Dillon. I said, “Suppose someone killed our son Dillon and did it in the name of religion. And then we were asked to sit at a table and make peace with them.” Now I’m involved in a little controversy with my denomination, and I can’t say it hasn’t been painful at times, but it’s not a matter of life and death. But for many people around the world, religion is.

A couple of years later, I’m sitting in a drafty middle-eastern restaurant on the southwest side of Chicago with a friend of mine, Dr. Hussein Morsi, who had immigrated from Egypt about twenty years before. He is a veterinarian. We’re eating chicken shish kabob and falafel, and I ask him, “What is Islam about? What is the heartbeat of Islam?” That’s the kind of question he loves. His eyes light up, and he tells me this story.

He tells me the story about a very evil man, who, as he was getting on in years, realized that at some point that he would have to meet his maker and that his maker would not be very happy. So he inquired of a rabbi, how could he make amends for his life? How could he change his life so that he could satisfy Allah? He didn’t like the rabbi’s answer, so he killed him. Then he went to a Christian priest and asked the same question and didn’t like his answer and killed him. And then he inquired of one of his own, an imam, and he didn’t like his answer, and did away with him, too. So finally this very evil man prayed to Allah, “What should I do? How can I make amends for my life?” Through an angel Allah sent the message, “If you leave the evil city in which you now reside, all your evil associations, all your corrupt wealth, and journey on a far journey to a righteous city, and live there in a new way, I will forgive your sins and welcome you into paradise.” This is what the man decided to do.

Halfway on the journey from the evil city to the righteous city, however, he died. The angels approached Allah and said, “He’s going to hell. He didn’t reach the righteous city.” And Allah said, “But, he was on the way. He showed his intent.” But the angels said, “That’s not what you said. You said only if you reach the righteous city and begin to live a new righteous life.” So Allah said, “We will decide this controversy this way. If the man died but one foot closer to the righteous city than the evil city, then I will grant him paradise, and if he died one foot closer to the evil city than the righteous city, he will go to eternal damnation.” And Allah sent the angels down to ascertain where on the road the man died. Before the angels left, Allah arrived there first and moved the man from one foot closer to the evil city to one foot closer to the righteous city.

Dr. Morsi’s eyes light up again, and he says, “That is the heartbeat of Islam – the graciousness and the forgiveness of Allah.” That is what has Muslims praying five times a day. That is what has Muslims leading a moral, disciplined life. I must tell you my friends, if I were to deliver the peace of the world into the hands of any of the world’s religions, I would choose Buddhism and Islam.

We must start here when we think about the world’s religions. We must start with real live human beings, with real live people. I would much rather have you go and become a friend of somebody of another tradition than read all the books in the world. Once we do meet others, and we begin to interact with them, the first thing that happens is dialog, conversation.

I’d like to do a little conceptual work now, some of the things that I’ve learned, 99% through error, in terms of approaching interreligious dialog. Then I’d like to tell you a little bit about my theological struggle, the one that has gotten me into ecclesiastical hot water. And finally I want to give you some practical suggestions that come out of what we at the Council have learned as we’ve done this type of work.

I used to think the purpose of dialog was to come to some kind of agreement, that the purpose of dialog was some kind of consensus. Whenever I thought of agreement and consensus, that other ‘c’ word, compromise, also came to mind. But I’ve come to understand that although those might be by-products of dialog, the purpose of dialog is not agreement. It is understanding. There is a way in which we can understand each other and communicate that understanding whether or not we agree with each other. Quite frankly, in interreligious dialog, I don’t care a whit about commonalities and differences. What I care about is understanding.

It’s possible to understand, for instance, how Jews feel they are the chosen people of God, how Christians believe they follow the very incarnation of God, and how Muslims believe there is one God, and Mohammed is the seal to the prophets. It’s possible to understand each other and even to acknowledge that we have common ancestors in faith, Abraham and Sarah, but even if we can’t agree on that, it’s possible to understand each other. Our experience of understanding is the basis of our relationship, not our agreement. It’s possible to understand how in the West, when we think of truth, we think of truth in exclusive terms. If ‘A’ is true, then ‘B’ cannot be true. Whereas in the East, they tend to think in inclusive terms. If the truth can’t cover both ‘A’ and ‘B’, how can it be the truth? It’s possible for East and West to understand each other. Whether we agree or not, that experience of understanding is the basis of our relationship. It’s possible to understand how in the West, shaped by four hundred years of science and technology and a sense of progress, we tend to think of decisions in the present in light of the future. We tend to decide what we’re going to do today in light of what it will mean tomorrow. But in Bosnia, and for most of the Middle East, people tend to think of the present and what you should do in light of the past. So we in the West look at the Middle East, and we say, “Hey, don’t you see where you’re going if you keep this up?” Often the answer is, “No. Don’t you understand what happened before?” So that’s the first thing to say about interreligious dialog, that we don’t have to come to the table trying to find commonalities and differences. We don’t have to agree. We can come to the table simply to understand each other. And that takes some of the pressure off.

Those engaged in interreligious dialog find this wonderful paradox. When you engage with those of other religions, your horizons are broadened. You think in new ways; but the strange thing is that your own sense of religious identity is deepened. Eight thousand people from one hundred twenty-five different religious traditions, denominations, movements, and sects attended the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, and we heard not one story of one person converting from one religion to another. That’s the wonderful paradox of interreligious dialog. Your horizons are broadened, and your sense of your own religious identity is deepened. It’s my encounter with Buddhism that has returned me to the Seven Deadly Sins. It’s my encounter with Islam that has driven me back into my scriptures to see the relationship of peace to justice. It’s my experience of the Jains and the Native Americans that has led me to read Genesis and our relationship to creation in new ways. But, as long as they’ll still have me, I am a Presbyterian. That hasn’t changed.

After dialog and understanding, however, we bump into something else, a thornier matter. That is the question of truth. Now we understand each other, but is it just “the way you see it is okay, and the way I see it is okay”? Or is there some larger rubric under which we must both answer? That is the question of truth. Truth is one of those words that gets bandied about quite a bit. People use that word, but I imagine if I handed out ninety note cards and asked you all to write down your definition of truth, I would get eighty-seven different versions.

I’m going to take the privilege of the podium for the moment, and just say as we speak about truth now, we’re going to use my definition. My definition of truth: what is worth staking your life on. The most important human truth is that which you stake your life on. Each of us every day wakes up in the morning, and whether we know it or not, whether we do it consciously or not, in every decision we make, we are somehow staking our life on a certain view of truth. One of the purposes of religion is to help us decide what is worth staking our life on. It’s to give us guidance in terms of how we should live our lives.

Nobody comes to their religious tradition, or the truth it proclaims, objectively. We all come wearing certain kinds of lenses. This, by the way, is what I think divides the religious world. Those who think they are seeing truth naked, objective, and those who understand that they’re seeing truth through a certain set of lenses. To help you get a fix on where your lenses are, I’m going to share with you, eight different views of truth. There are the exclusivists, who say they alone have the truth, and no one else does. Therefore there’s no reason for dialog, because there’s nothing they need to find out.

There are the inclusivists, who say that they have the biggest or most complete view of truth. They allow you peons to have a little piece of the truth, and they will include your smaller truth into their larger truth.

There are the reductionists, who want to boil down all the different views of truth to “be a good person” and “God loves you.” Comparative religion and philosophy of religion are reductionist.

There are the relativists, who say there is no Truth (with a capital ‘T’). It’s all small ‘t’. It’s all your own opinion. Which is a better flavor, chocolate or butterscotch? Which is a better movie, “Shakespeare in Love”, or “Good Will Hunting”? Is there any kind of ultimate truth that you can appeal to in those instances? No, that is a matter of personal taste, and the relativist’s say, that’s the same for religion. It’s just a matter of personal taste. There are the synchrotists that remind us that no religion comes to us in pure form, that every religion is always a mixture of religion and culture: the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church. What is Lutheranism but Christianity meeting Martin Luther in Germany? Or the Presbyterian tradition but meeting John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland? The synchrotists always remind us that there’s never any pure religious truth,

It’s the humanists and the culturalists who say it’s the predominant humanistic and cultural values and lenses that you’re going to tend to look at your religion through.

Then there are the pluralists who say that truth is such a big thing that nobody has a corner on it, that there are many avenues to truth.

And then there are the particularists who say that whatever your view of truth is, you’re coming from a particular point of view.

Where do you all find yourselves in that list? Maybe an amalgam of some of those things? While I think the first six – exclusivist, inclusivist, reductionist, relativist, synchrotist, and humanist – are important lenses in which to sift through your religion, ultimately I’m a particularist. I own up to the fact that I see the matter of truth through a particular lense and that I see it in a religiously pluralistic world. I think for the twenty-first century, for people living around the world but most certainly in North America, the dominating religious question of our time will be this: How do you hold on to the integrity of your own particular religious tradition while fully engaging in a religiously pluralistic world?

I want to say a couple of good things about pluralism and then talk about what I believe is the biggest weakness of pluralism. Dr. Diana Eck makes this statement, quoting somebody else who made it first: “If you know only one religion, you know no religion.” Did all of us here in this room come to our particular religious persuasions simply because of our births? because of the family, the nation, the community that we grew up in? And does that mean if we were born in Indonesia we would be Muslim? born in Punjab we would be Sikh? Until we truly have a choice, we haven’t chosen our religion. Dr. Diana Eck encourages every adult, mature person to study at least one other religion well enough that you could make an informed decision for it. Then if you choose that religion or your own religion, it really is a choice. If you’re not free to say no, you’re not free to say yes.

I don’t think this means that we don’t raise our children in a particular religious tradition, or that we wait until they’re eighteen for them to decide any more than we’d wait until they were eighteen for them to decide what language they might speak. We’ll raise our two sons Presbyterian. I hope when they become adults that they won’t stay Presbyterian simply because that’s what Mommy and Daddy are, but that they’ll go through a process of examination. This is one of the values of pluralism. It causes us to examine our choices and to look at them over against a broader horizon.

There’s a wonderful pluralist analogy that I use all the time about a cathedral ringed with many stained glass windows. You can imagine light shining from outside the cathedral through the stained glass windows into the cathedral. Now in this analogy the light is the truth, the windows are religion, and the cathedrals are the world. In the same way that light shines through stained glass windows into a cathedral, religions are vehicles for truth coming into the world. If you take anything from what I say today, take this next thing. The window is not the light. In the same way, we should not confuse the truth that comes through our religious traditions with the vehicle or the medium of our religions. I think 99.9% of all religious conflict comes from mistaking the window for the light. This is the beauty of pluralism. Pluralism gives us a wider perspective. It calls us to own up to our choices.

The one weakness of pluralism is that it can lead us to water but it can’t make us drink. Which window do we choose? Which tradition, after we’ve studied them, do we choose? We have to make that decision. We have to stake our life on something, and pluralism can’t answer that question for us. That’s also why I’m a particularist. We all come down somewhere. We all put our trust somewhere. I put my trust in the Christian faith.

So, here I am an ordained Presbyterian minister doing interreligious work. How do I justify that work in light of the Christian religion? Do I wear a pluralist hat during the week when I work at the Parliament, and then on the weekends and in my private life am I a Christian? I went on quite a personal theological journey for a number of years trying to work this out, so that I wouldn’t be religiously schizophrenic. To my great relief and gratitude, I found there was a way in which to be an authentic Christian with biblical and theological integrity and to do this kind of work amongst people of other religions saying that they should be who they are as well.

If you ask a roomful of Christians, “Who here converted to Christianity? Who here at some point would not have considered yourself a Christian and would now say that either over a period of time or with a bolt of lightening you became one?” some people would raise their hands. And if you asked them, “After you became a Christian, did you not look back into your life and see that God had been working in your life prior to your becoming a Christian?” One hundred percent of the time they will say yes. For how could one become a Christian unless God had already been at work in one’s life? Then if you ask everyone else in the room, those who would say they’ve always considered themselves to be a Christian, “When you realized that Christianity was your religious identity, did you not look back in your life and see that God – through your family, through your church, through your community, through significant people – always had been at work in your life?” One hundred percent of the time, they will say yes.

Now why is that so important? What it establishes is that God’s ability to work in our lives is not determined by our being Christian, that God’s working in our lives is always prior. As a good Presbyterian reformed Christian, I understand that to be the sovereignty of God. God’s ability to work in the lives of human beings is not dependent on those human beings but is always prior. If that’s the case, what’s the big deal about Jesus? Did that question sound dismissive to you? Did that sound rhetorical to you? I’m going to generalize here and say there have been two ways of looking at Jesus over the past two thousand years. One I’m going to call instrumental, and one I’m going to call revelatory.

The instrumental view says that Jesus, alone, is the instrument of God’s salvation. Through this one person, at one place in history, in this particular way, Jesus alone ushered salvation into the world. It is only through Jesus that one can be saved. Have you heard that point-of-view? Are you familiar with that one? Here the focus is christological. It is Jesus who saves us. Therefore if the only way to be saved is through being a Christian, what is the goal of the Christian church? It must be Christendom. Make the whole world Christian.

There’s another view of Jesus, which I call revelatory, that says what Jesus reveals is how God has been at work at all times, in all places, in all people’s lives, for salvation. Here the emphasis is theological. It is God who saves us. And if that’s the case, then what is the goal of the Christian faith? It is to help God establish the kingdom of God on our earth.

These are two broad readings of the Christian faith. These are two sets of lenses that we bring. Because you’ve probably heard the instrumental view more often than the other, I’m just going to think through the revelatory view. First of all, I believe this fits better with the biblical material. Why, for instance, do we have what we call an Old Testament? Why do we include the Hebrew scriptures in our scriptures if God was not at work in the world until Jesus? We include them because we say God has been at work from the very beginning.

But somebody will say, what about, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the father but by me”? That sounds pretty airtight. There’s a sense in which I agree with that. No one comes to an understanding of God as a Father, as a loving parent, except through the likeness of a person. If the central symbol of your religion is a rock, there is nothing about “rockness” that communicates love. If the central symbol of your religion is a tree, it communicates living, but it doesn’t communicate love, either. Only through a symbol like a human being, who showed us love, could we use that revelation to think about God in a loving way.

I do not mean that other religions also don’t have access to God in a salvific way. “Go unto all the world, preaching the gospel in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and make disciples of all nations.” That sounds like Christendom, doesn’t it? But is Matthew saying that every single person in every nation should be a disciple? Or is Matthew saying that there should be some disciples in every nation? And in the Gospel of Matthew, how does Jesus describe disciples? The light of the world, the salt of the earth, leaven. So there’s a way in which to fulfill the Great Commission, to go out and to witness to the kingdom of God, without making everyone a Christian.

What was Jesus preaching about the kingdom of God? What were his parables about? Here’s what the kingdom of God looks like. The kingdom does not look like God showing up when the missionaries get there. By the way, I am prepared for each and every passage of scripture. We could get into a scripture war for six or eight hours. I am prepared to reconceptualize every portion of scripture from a revelatory point of view.

If our approach to our biblical and theological heritage is revelatory, it leads to a number of shifts. It allows us to operate in a religiously diverse way while maintaining the integrity of our own tradition. It leads us to think about the notion of universality in a new way. We in the West tend to think of universality in completeness: if something is universal, everyone has to ascribe to it. I’ve come to think of universality as meaning “capable of going anywhere”. The Christian faith has shown itself to be capable of going into any nation, into any language, and into any culture. We don’t need to give up the universality of Christianity when we say that not everyone has to ascribe to it.

I think we need a shift from thinking about salvation in terms of the mechanism of salvation. We’ve spent so much time thinking about the mechanism of how we’re saved, and we haven’t spent much time on what does it look like when you live a saved life. What does salvific life look like? I look at Jesus of Nazareth and I say, “This is what it looks like.” And the same kind of salvific life I see in Jesus, I also see in Sikhs, I see in Muslims, I see in Buddhists. It would mean a shift in the way the church thinks of itself.

For two thousand years, the church primarily has thought of itself in this way, and the order is very important here: The church has God’s mission in the world. A wonderful, wacky nun I used to work with in Benton Harbor said, “No, no, no. We’ve got the order all wrong. God’s mission in the world has a church.” The notion that the church has been in sole possession of God’s mission again flies in the face of the sovereignty of God. It’s God who is at work in the world, and in God’s work in the world, God has a church.

That says two things about the church. (1) God won’t be able to accomplish the work without the church, and (2) maybe God can be at work beyond the church. We would be helped by thinking about mission in different ways. Here are some different ways Christians have gone about mission in the world.

Proclaiming the Gospel (which is different from proselytizing, different from trying to convert someone to Christianity). Entering into dialog with others of different religious convictions. Living incarnationally with others; Taking the cue from Abraham and being a blessing to the nations. Extending hospitality in the name of Christ. Living in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized.

These are ways in which Christians have undertaken mission over the last two thousand years. If you have an instrumental point of view, the reason why you would live that way and do those things is to convert people to Christianity. From a revelatory point of view, the reason why you do those things is because that’s how God would have us live. When we live in solidarity with the poor and marginalized, when we proclaim the good news, when we extend the hospitality of Christ, when we are a blessing to the nations – that is what it means to belong to the kingdom of God.

I know many of us, as Christians, imagine heaven to be a place in which all our needs finally will be met. In heaven, God will provide for all our needs in abundance so we couldn’t want for anything. We have those images of streets of gold, of a land flowing with milk and honey. I’m here to tell you today, that’s not the way it’s going to be. Heaven is going to be heaven because of who is there. Heaven is going to be heaven because of how they lived. God has already given us all that we need right now. If we are missing anything, it’s because we don’t live the right way. And my friends, if we don’t want to start living the right way now, what makes us think we’re going to want to live that way for eternity?

I believe this is a view of the Christian faith that has integrity, that is faithful to the biblical witness and faithful to our theological heritage. It does that wonderful thing that Vatican II tried to do: shifting from the idea of making the whole world Christian to focusing on what does it mean to be a Christian in the world, trusting that it is God who is saving the world. Then we seek to be faithful to what God has called us to do.

Let me conclude with some practical suggestions as you think about interacting with people of other religions, about being a Christian in a religiously diverse world.

The first suggestion is that we have to move beyond tolerance to understanding. I used to use that word “tolerance” in the same sentence with peace, love, justice – all those lofty words – until one day someone said to me, “You know, Dirk, I tolerate you.” Suddenly that word, tolerance, lost its loftiness. I started thinking of the things that I tolerated: worms, Jessie Helms. The problem with tolerance is it keeps the situation “us and them”. It keeps the other dehumanized, and tolerance can quickly degenerate into prejudice, hatred, and violence.

Understanding humanizes the other so we shouldn’t just tolerate those who are different from us. We actively have to seek to understand. In order to seek understanding, we have to be comfortable in our own religious identity. I believe much of the intra-religious discourse and discontent that every religious community goes through is a struggle with its own religious identity. It’s only when we feel fully comfortable as Christians that we are going to be able to engage with people of other traditions.

As I said before, we must seek out personal encounters with those of other traditions. If you think of the face of Islam today in the Western press, think of how many people hear the word, Muslim, and immediately get a look of fear on their faces. “Islamic terrorist” is the phrase in the lexicon that comes to mind most quickly. How many movies have you gone to recently where the van pulls up, the doors fly open, and it’s middle easterners coming out shooting Uzzies? You spend twenty minutes with Dr. Hahmid Abdul Hieh, an immigrant from India who is now a respected professor and cardiologist at Northwestern University, you hear of his pride in his heritage, of his gratefulness to be an American, of his deep and abiding faith in Islam, and of the twenty years he’s spent working for peace interreligiously, and you can never think about Islam in the same way ever again.

That’s the only way that we and others are really going to come to know and to understand other religions. We have to do face-to-face encounters. As we do that, we need to be cultivating an image of humanity that is more diverse. When we think of the human race, all of us have kind of an image of what that is. When a hymn talks about the kingdom of God, I always used to think in terms of Christians. Now when I sing those hymns, there’s a different image of the people of God that I carry in my head.

I don’t know if any of you have noticed the most recent Denny’s commercials. You know the problem Denny’s had: they weren’t very welcoming to people of color. In the latest Denny’s commercials, it’s the African American hostess who greets you at the door, and it’s the Asian who’s flipping the pancakes in the back, and it’s the Korean and the Latino who are sitting there sharing the “grand slam” breakfast. In other words, Denny’s said, “You have the wrong image of us. No, we are much, much more diverse.” It’s kind of a crude analogy, but all of us have to begin working on that.

My two sons, Dillon and Connor, have a favorite computer game called, “Backyard Baseball”. It’s one of those games where you get to pick your teams, and then you play on the computer. When you pick your team’s roster, the young people sitting on the bleachers that you get to pick from is a who’s who of the world. There are Amir and Ahmed Kahn, the shortstop and second base combination. There’s Josenda Smith. There’s Tommy Yamaguichi. In other words, the whole world is there for them to pick for their baseball teams. In a very subtle way, my sons are creating a much more diverse image of the human race by playing that game.

I think we have to appreciate that learning to live with diversity is an acquired art. It’s not easy. We don’t pop out of the womb and do it naturally. It’s every bit as hard as learning to paint, or to throw a baseball, or to write a novel. It takes discipline and skill. It takes commitment and training. It takes learning that the point of dialog is not agreement but understanding. So let’s own up to how hard it is, and then let’s start devoting ourselves to this acquired art of learning to live with diversity.

Finally, we need to develop within our own traditions the resources for hospitality to others. One of the principles of the Parliament of the World’s Religions is harmony, not unity. We encourage each religious tradition to develop its own rationale for why it comes to the interreligious table, and why as a Sikh or a Jew or a Buddhist one should be hospitable to others.

Let me just close by telling you a story that I think is an example of a resource within the Christian tradition. This is a story I tell over and over again to many different audiences, most often to hostile Christian groups. It’s a story about a missionary who was sent to India to preach the gospel.

After he had been there a number of years, it was time to come back to the States for a little R & R, a little vacation. So he wired to the Missionary Society who had sent him to send money for booking passage on a boat back to the States. When he got to the port city he was supposed to sail from, he found it filled with Jewish refugees, boatloads and boatloads of Jewish refugees who were living in basements and warehouses and attics all over that port city. This was at the end of World War II when Jews were literally sailing around the world trying to find somewhere to live, and port after port was turning them away. But India, which has had a long, rich tradition of welcoming religious diversity, welcomed them in.

On Christmas day, this missionary went to a warehouse filled with Jews and said, “Merry Christmas!” That didn’t go over too well. “What do you mean ‘Merry Christmas’? We’re Jews. How dare you come and say, ‘Merry Christmas’ to us!” He said, “Well I’m a Christian. It’s Christmas day. Merry Christmas!” He said, “You know Christians have a tradition at Christmas. In the spirit of the great gift we believe God gave us on Christmas day, we give gifts to each other. What gift could I give to you?” I think mostly just to get rid of this annoyance, they said, “Pastries. Do you know what we miss the most from our homeland, sailing around the world in these Godforsaken boats all these months? Those wonderful pastries. If you want to give us a gift, go buy us pastries.” They were thinking, “That’s the end of it.”

What this missionary did is he went and spent every last dime, which he was going to spend on his ticket home, on pastries, and he gave pastries to Jews all over that port city. Then he wired back to the Missionary Society for more money. They wired back, “What did you do with the money we sent you in the first place?” And he wired, “I spent it on pastries for Jews.” They wired back, “Why would you do that? They don’t even believe in Christ.” And he wired, “Yes, but I do.”

Do we treat others based on who they are or on who we are? Do I treat you a certain way because you’re a Christian, or do I treat you another way because you’re not? Do we do this in the name of a God who sends the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, who sends the sun to shine on the good and the evil? When we reach out our hands in hospitality and respect to those who are different from us, we are being faithful disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.

Resource Types: Articles.

Review & Commentary