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Theological rationale for interfaith relations approved by Ecumenical and Interfaith Engagement Committee

“God loves all people and calls us to do the same.”

Prayer at the close of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Committee. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Louisville, Kentucky – The Ecumenical and Interfaith Engagement Committee today recommended that a “theological rationale for interreligious/interfaith relationships” be adopted by the 225th General Assembly. The vote, on item ECU-01, was 25-2.

The statement adds a robust theological framework to “The Interreligious Stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” which was approved by the 2014 General Assembly. The 2016 Assembly reaffirmed the importance of that document and asked the General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations (GACEIR) “to offer a concise theological rationale to help Presbyterians and our friends of other religious traditions better understand the value Presbyterians place on strong interfaith relations.”

“This statement doesn’t replace the Interreligious Stance,” said Gun Ho Lee of Greenville, South Carolina, a member of GACIER. “It augments and enhances it.”

The theological rationale begins by summarizing the “foundational statements” of the Interreligious Stance:

  1. We work with others because of our sure faith that the church, through the power of the Spirit, is a sign and means of God’s intention for the wholeness and healing of humankind and of all creation.
    2.   We seek to develop relationships with people of various faiths in ecumenical and interfaith contexts wherever possible.
    3.   We approach others in a spirit of openness and trust as we follow Jesus Christ in respecting and affirming the freedom of others.
    4.   We are called by God to work with those of other religions for peace, justice, and the sustainability of creation.
    5.   We strive for a humble modesty in witness that recognizes God’s Spirit is at work in unexpected ways.
    6.   We acknowledge the unfinished nature of our conclusions about relationships with people of different faiths, in recognition of the limits of our knowledge, our sinful nature, and the mystery of God’s workings in human lives.

The premise of the theological rationale, Lee said, “is that God loves all people and calls us to do the same.” Barry Ensign-George of the Office of Theology and Worship agreed. “This document emphasizes God’s sovereign love, which is always greater than we can know.”

Religious pluralism weighs heavily in the document. “Presbyterians in the United States recognize that we are woven into a web of multicultural and religiously diverse relationships. We understand our religiously pluralistic culture as a gift from God,” the theological rationale explains. “We recognize that the movement of the Spirit is deep and mysterious,” it continues. “Within our Christian family there have been multiple and varied experiences of the Holy.”

All of this growing religious pluralism means, the document says, that “the cultural dominance of traditional mainline Protestantism that we once took for granted is largely a thing of the past.” Far from lamenting this loss, the statement continues, “We in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) choose to embrace our current moment as a gift from God that has the potential to enrich and expand our ability to more fully understand the indescribable nature of God.”

And so, the document states, “We enter interfaith relationships on the basis of God’s universal love, affirmed throughout the Bible … Scriptural references to instances in which God’s people have been pushed beyond previously understood definitions of who belonged to the family of God are too numerous to fully exhaust.”

Prayer at the close of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Committee. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Presbyterians should not fear interfaith relationships, the theological rationale insists. “[A] central tenet of our Christian identity is the call we experience from God to reach across lines of religious difference to build loving, healthy and respectful relationships with those who understand their spiritual paths differently than we do.” It continues: “We do so fully confident that the God who calls us into these relationships will provide the opportunity both to bear witness – and to receive witness – to God’s love.”

The key to interfaith understanding, the theological rationale says, lies in doing mission together. “Much of our engagement with those of other traditions occurs where we find common cause to work together for justice and peace in our local communities and around the world,” the document states. “As we do so, both our ecumenical and our interfaith partners offer a remarkable gift to us as they help us to discern where our understanding of the gospel has been captive to cultural misconceptions and bias.”

The theme of the theological rationale, Lee said, can be expressed as “grace and gratitude.” The document frames it like this: “As we build stronger relationships with all of God’s people, many Presbyterians are discovering that God is far greater than we imagined. We are learning to be open to difference without understanding it as a threat, and to approach each interaction with the assumption that God is at work among us, offering an opportunity to draw closer to a more complete understanding of the unknowable face of God. These encounters are clearly a gift from God.”

There are certainly challenges to interfaith relations, the document admits. Among them are defensiveness, aggression, lack of understanding, and cultural factors such as racism and White supremacy. “The hardest part of building intentionally interfaith relationships is often to affirm those things we hold dear while reaching out to others with genuine openness,” the theological rationale states.

The statement concludes: “God’s mysteries are never wholly revealed to God’s people, who must rely on the leadings of the Holy Spirit for guidance. Presbyterians know that we can never fully comprehend the mind of God. This conviction prepares us to enter into relationships with others with an open heart, prepared to learn from them and to share our experience of the Holy Spirit, which guides us and holds us steady in this sacred work.”