LOUISVILLE — Diversity is one of the daily themes of Presbyterian Women’s 2006 Gathering, meeting July 7 to 11 in Kentucky. But how Christians — who teach that faith in Jesus Christ is central to salvation — should interact with those of other religious traditions is not something on which all Presbyterians agree.
Kikanza Nuri Robins, a Presbyterian minister from California, http://www.kikanzanurirobins.com spoke from her own personal experience during the morning plenary session on July 8 — and she encouraged the 3,000 women at this gathering to bring to the table those from other religious traditions and to value diverse spiritualities.
Robins, an organizational development consultant, is the author of the 2007-2008 Bible Study for Horizons on the gospel of Luke. She also has been a consultant to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s national staff on issues of cultural proficiency.
Robins spoke of her own upbringing — her childhood in the Methodist church and her great-grandmother, Nana, who always wore a white dress to church, who played with the children and sang to them, who communicated to Robins that she was loved and taught her about “the Mystery that we call God.”
As she grew older, Robins moved in other directions — going to a Baptist church on her block (until she was kicked out of Sunday school for asking disturbing questions), exploring the Baha’i faith and Taoism.
“From the time I was a child, I had an intuitive understanding and ecstatic experiences of this Mystery that we call God,” Robins said. “That freed me from attachment to any particular dogma.”
She said: “I just have no internal conflict with being a Christian by birth, a Baha’i by reason, a Taoist in spirit, and a pastor in faith and vocation. Because I am comfortable with Mystery. I am certain that I am a child of God. I am clear about the ambiguities of life. And I rest in the knowledge that I will never, never, never, ever understand it all.”
Robins said that people have told her that “God is no mystery, you just don’t have any faith” and “your God can’t be the same God that I worship” and have asked, “Who ordained you?”
But Robins said she is working on making room at the table.
“Making room at the table is easy when the people you invite to the table don’t challenge your boundaries, don’t challenge your values, don’t question your practices or your authority,” she said.
But she encouraged the women to talk with those of other faith traditions, to try to understand the views of agnostics or atheists or “someone who calls themselves a Presbyterian but whose understanding of God is totally different from yours.”
Robins said people tend to “simplify the world,” to say “this is right and this is wrong.”
But “we don’t live in a world where we are surrounded by people who are just like us,” she said.
Robins advised the women to know their own beliefs and practices, to challenge their own views, “and then, with wonder and curiosity, ask people about their spiritual beliefs and practices.”
She encouraged them to “value diverse spiritualities,” acknowledging that might be difficult for some people “because it requires that you accept that someone else’s path is as valid for them as yours is for you.” And one would need to “assume that God did not reveal all that there is to reveal to Christians,” and that “there may be more to know than we will ever know.”
Robins also said that “Christianity is not neat” and “it does not answer all questions.” For example, she said that throughout the history of the church, Christians have puzzled about the meaning of the Trinity, and about why bad things happen to good people.
She asked them to “make space at the table for other paths, not just as interesting and curious, but as plausible and wise” and to “acknowledge other spiritual practices as good for those who hold them.”
Robins closed by saying that the responsibility for making space at the table rests with each person, to “make space, a little more space, at your table for one more person, one more idea, one more perception of The Wondrous Mystery that we call God.”
After her presentation, the audience applauded — but not everyone was pleased.
“I didn’t agree with what she said,” Sylvia Dooling of Voices of Orthodox Women said in an interview. “The church historically has placed Scripture before us as the authority. God has revealed to us how we can be reconciled to God, and that is through Jesus Christ. So to place contradictory ideas such as Baha’i and Taoism on the table,” and to present them as equal, “is to commit intellectual suicide and secondly to deny the Christian faith.”
Dooling said she supports conversation with those of differing views — but in a way that presents a clear gospel message.
“I am all for talking together, listening to each other,” she said. “Be we as Christians have good news to share with others. If we don’t do that, there is no mission of the church.”
There is a difference, Dooling said, “between learning about other people’s religion and values and things about their culture . . . and being accepting of them as if they were on an equal par with other faiths. Jesus is really the only way. He is the Truth, with a capital T . . . There is no other way.”
Kristen York Gerling, Presbyterian Women’s moderator for 2003-2006, said in an interview that Presbyterian Women intentionally tries to present multiple points of view at its gatherings and to stretch people’s thinking — and leaves it up to the listeners to accept or reject what a particular speaker says.
“I am capable of working through `Is this something I should adopt into my own personal understanding of who God is’ “ or “is this something I should stay away from,” Gerling said.
“I think there are different ways to interpret Scripture, the main truth being Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”
Gerling said that “diversity is important” to Presbyterian Women. “But all the things she (Robins) said in her speech are not to be considered gospel for Presbyterian Women,” Gerling said. “We present `out there’ stuff so people have to think and be challenged. That doesn’t mean everything a presenter says, Presbyterian Women are behind them waving a flag. We purposely stretch people.”
Susan Andrews, a former moderator of the General Assembly, said during a question and answer session later in the day — during a small gathering in the exhibition area — that she understands that some Presbyterians would disagree strongly with Robins.
“At this gathering, Presbyterian women disagree with how to interpret Scripture and what is absolute truth,” Andrews said. “For me, to be tolerant in a positive sense is to be willing to sit down with perhaps a Muslim or an evangelical Christian or a Roman Catholic or a Hindu, a world view that is different from mine,” and to try to understand “what is this person’s story?”
But part of being tolerant, Andrews said, also “is to be able to say, `That is your truth. Now let me share my truth with you.’ “