IN 2016 MCGREGOR PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA, SERVED AS A HOST COMMUNITY FOR A SYRIAN REFUGEE FAMILY. The family of six was Muslim, and it was scheduled to arrive during Ramadan, a month of fasting considered one of the central pillars of Islam.
McGregor Church sought guidance from Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, and was introduced to leaders of a neighboring mosque, the Masjid Noor Ul Huda. In preparation for the arrival of the Syrian family, members of both church and mosque came together to arrange accommodation, furnishing, employment, school enrollment and general orientation for the new family. Members of both faith communities greeted the family at the airport.
As its arrival coincided with Ramadan, members of McGregor Church arranged to pick up the family’s members each day and drive them to the Noor Ul Huda Masjid so they could participate in Ramadan prayers. At the end of Ramadan, members of McGregor shared Eid Al-Fitr, the festival celebrating the end of the fast.
This is one example of positive interfaith collaborations meeting important local needs. Indeed, it is these local collaborations that contribute to the broad mosaic of interfaith activities taking place across the United States.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) proclaims a bold interreligious stance, which encourages Presbyterian worshipping communities to build strong interfaith relationships as part of their core faith commitment, recognizing that Jesus crossed religious and cultural boundaries to create and nurture relationships of trust and love.
MOVING INTERFAITH OUTREACH TO CENTER STAGE
Despite this bold stance, however, the interfaith movement is often perceived merely as a peripheral interest for the church, relevant only on occasion for the seeker, for members of the small book group or during a particular event within the church calendar. What if the interfaith movement was much more important than that — even central to shaping our understanding of Christian discipleship? What might this look like?
Recently I was invited to Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, to address the question, “Where does the church need reformation today?” This question has been posed frequently in light of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and asked with some urgency at a time when Reformed churches face an identity crisis. My response was to call for a “language event” within our denomination, recognizing that so many of the common words within our worshipping communities are often used and understood in fragmented ways.
We frequently hear that Christians are becoming “woefully inarticulate” about our faith, but I wonder if this is less because we don’t have the right words than because we are confused in our understanding and application of these words. Words like grace, salvation, liberation, justice and mission that are common to us all may in fact mean different things to different worshippers. When your theological understanding of justice or salvation does not fit with mine, there is all too frequent cause for division. Common words of faith that should draw us together have become toxic, judgmental and divisive.
While fully acknowledging the limits of language when trying to comprehend the mysteries of faith, a language event would allow us to clarify words we use to understand and articulate our faith. For we must humbly and boldly respond to those who may ask of the hope that is within us in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). To do this, I suggest we expand our thoughts beyond mere reform to include the terms reorient and reconcile. These terms make the discussion far more dynamic: a trinity of R’s to help us in the process. For any significant reform begins with a prior reorientation, grounding us in our sources, enabling us to see things anew through the lens of faith. As we are challenged and enriched in our understanding of a particular word, we may rightly ask how this word is useful in the process of reconciliation, both to God and one another. Surely the Reformed church always being reformed is also the church being reoriented and being reconciled. If our reforming efforts prompt division and not reconciliation, perhaps we missed something fundamental in our initial reorientation.
CLARIFYING RELIGIOUS LANGUAGE
Where does this language event take place? Certainly, there is value to such an event within a particular worshipping community. But there is also value in having such a language event across denominational lines. Only then can we move beyond our present “ecumenical winter” towards a fertile spring where challenging, clarifying and enriching conversations can take place.
This will not be easy, particularly as Christians I talk with find it easier to communicate with people from other faith traditions than with Christians who interpret the gospel message in different ways — hence the need to talk to one another in order to understand each other with greater clarity. Without such a language event, I foresee further fragmentation across the Christian spectrum, as well as an increase in the “none” religious category as more people become disillusioned by the utter confusion of “religious” language. But I want to push the question further, and ask whether this language event would benefit from our interactions and conversation with people from other religious traditions.
Can our three R’s be helpful in our engagement with the interfaith community? I believe it can, for all language is essentially understood only when used in communication with another. The interfaith movement is by its nature a language event as we seek to learn more about one another and articulate our faith identities. Within this process, we also get to know more about own journey of discipleship. As Diana Eck argues, “we not only need to know the others; we also need to know the others to know ourselves.”
Encountering other religions was never a peripheral issue for the early evangelists. Indeed, there was a “bewildering array” of religious diversity within and beyond the Roman Empire. The first Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) finds the apostles urgently responding to questions raised through the encounters of people from multiple religious and cultural traditions. At the heart of the deliberations were the highly volatile questions surrounding religious identity — namely whether Gentile converts should be required to be circumcised and follow dietary regulations. Responding to these questions through prayer, the study of Scriptures and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostles essentially clarify and articulate how Christian identity is to be understood. The young Christian church is learning about itself not only through its remembrance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but through questions raised in the encounter with followers of other traditions.
Later in the book of Acts, during Paul’s missional journey to Ephesus, Luke locates the apostle in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, following his initial encounter within the synagogue (Acts 19:9). Paul is no stranger to crossing religious boundaries, having traveled to Athens, and has even had to respond to being worshipped as the Greek god Hermes (Acts 14:12). This inter-religious exposure continues in Ephesus, with Paul debating daily for two years with the residents of Asia. Paul was acutely aware of the Temple of Artemis/Diana, where Paul’s presence eventually led to “no little disturbance” breaking out “concerning the Way” (Acts 19:23).
We may ask with some interest if the Paul who left Ephesus was the same Paul who arrived two years earlier? Surely Paul had his good days and his bad days debating in the lecture hall; some days clear and articulate, other days clumsy and unsure, as he faced a range of questions about his newfound faith in Christ. Over these years in discourse, I can only imagine that Paul’s understanding of his identity as a follower of Jesus was deeply enriched. Paul’s daily encounters with people of other religious faith was ultimately a significant language event.
Debating halls may have changed from the first century, but the reality of religious diversity has not. The United States, argues Eck, is the most religiously diverse nation in the world. Though Christianity is still the most prevalent and diverse religion in the U.S., the religious landscape is rapidly changing given shifting demographics and the emergence of interfaith councils, networks and initiatives. The opportunities for getting to know neighbors from different religious traditions are plentiful.
THE VALUE OF DIVERSE VOICES
Undoubtedly, important local issues can better be addressed when voices from different traditions come together. Undoubtedly also, we have the opportunity to confront naïve stereotypes through genuine encounters, overcoming a “tolerance” that is often little more than a “thin veneer over a self-reinforcing ignorance” (a phrase used by Kate McCarthy in “Interfaith Encounters in America”). These may be reasons enough for our churches to become more involved in local interfaith partnerships. But there is something more to our interfaith engagement, for it challenges us to ask fundamental questions of our own faith. Here lies the opportunity for clarification and enrichment in our journey of discipleship.
Theologian Simon Oliver claims modern society is structured to satisfy the human need to be “protected from one another.” Framed this way, we both consciously and subconsciously ask “from whom do I need protecting?” — a question which leads to sharply drawn (at times destructive) lines of demarcation both within and between religions. It is easy to see how an understanding of God, and thus of our identity as disciples, can be driven by the need to be protected from the other that we fear.
Oliver challenges this notion, arguing that the human need is rather to be reconciled to one another. This shift does not diminish the reality of injustice, prejudice and hate, or minimize the need for protection from hegemonic forces, but it does encourage us to find new ways of dealing with such realities because we see the world differently. We must build bridges of reconciliation as opposed to walls of division. This is not a utopian dream, but a vision rooted in an understanding of God’s being and acts of reconciliation within the world. Christians view this essential work of reconciliation most fully through the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, our engagement in the interfaith world is driven because of the Christian understanding of God’s reconciling work in Christ.
The PC(USA) at all levels will seek opportunities for respectful dialogue and mutual relationships with entities and persons from other religious traditions. It does this in the faith that the church of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is a sign and means of God’s intention for the wholeness of all humankind and all creation (Book of Order, G-5.0102).
What does the world look like from the perspective of reconciliation? Does our Christian story have anything to contribute to the conversation? How would our participation in the sacrament of communion be enriched if we received the bread and cup not merely as a mark of identity, but also as nourishment to the enduring work of reconciliation? How would our prayer life, our worship, our study of Scriptures be enriched?
BRAVING THE INHERENT RISKS
There is a risk in all this, of course. When Christians engage with people from other religious traditions, we do so knowing that they will draw from fundamentally different sources of faith. They will contribute to an understanding of reconciliation in new and surprising ways. As we seek to clarify and articulate Christian terms through the paradigm of “reorient, reform and reconcile,” what could be discovered by inviting others into the conversation? How could this language event be enriched by hearing from our Sikh neighbors about their deep understanding of grace or hospitality? From our Buddhist neighbors about compassion? From our Jewish neighbors about covenant? From our Muslim neighbors about prayer or fasting? From our Hindu neighbors about immanence? From our Baha’i neighbors about revelation? And what would our neighbors learn from a deeper discourse into Christian reflections of Jesus? An interfaith language event will not eradicate points of distinction or possible tension. Yet, as Hindu mystic Ramakrishna reminds us, while the cow may kick, it also produces milk.
What would a language event look like in your worshipping community or presbytery? How would the common words we use be enriched by applying them through the lens of “reorient, reform and reconcile”? And how might this language event be enriched if it was not merely a Christian event, but an interfaith event?
Such a language event calls for intentional movement from our distinctive churches into the world, and back again. There is important common ground to be found among our neighbors from different traditions. Movement back and forth allows us to bring our unique religious perspectives to the common ground, and in return bring important elements learned in common ground back to our distinct worshipping communities. If we are not on the move, then we stand still and become stale and staid. If we remain still, we miss the opportunity to participate in God’s work of reconciliation. As Christians, we surely trust in the dynamic and transformative movement of the Holy Spirit, at work and on the move within the world, both inside and beyond the gates of the church.
Members of McGregor Presbyterian Church and Masjid Noor Ul Huda have been enriched over the last months, working in partnership and building new friendships across religious boundaries. We participate in a shared language event as we work together on behalf of the local community. It’s one story that contributes in a small way to the to the broad mosaic of interfaith engagement sweeping the country. Thanks be to God.
ADRIAN BIRD is an affiliate faculty member at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. (He thanks Union Presbyterian Seminarians Mary Kate McAlister and Gregg Walker for their helpful suggestions in writing this piece.)