Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there.
By Mick Burns
An Imam, a Rabbi, a Baptist pastor and a Presbyterian Minister crossed the road…
…to the first tee.
They were teamed up to play golf at an interfaith fundraising event. After introductions were made at the first tee, these religious leaders were informed that it was going to be a “skins” match. They were all a bit nervous and afraid to ask for a definition of a “skins” match. Was it even proper for a spiritual leader to ask about skins?
No, it is not a joke. This really happened!
It was my first real interfaith experience years ago when I became involved with the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion in the Detroit Metro Area. It was an enjoyable fundraising event. Hanging out with the Rabbi, the Imam and another pastor was a delight. Introductions and friendships were being made as religious leaders made room in their schedules to reach out to one another and make a difference by modeling a way forward.
Leaving Michigan I moved to the Fairfax area in 2009. Not long after my move I was befriended by a local Imam who showed up at my office door. Since then we have shared meals, and on two occasions, members of our congregation have joined members of his mosque for dinner as we broke fast during Ramadan. Naturally, I was excited to hear that noted Christian pastor, author, speaker, and activist Brian McLaren was coming to speak at George Mason University in October. The topic was related to his recent book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi‐Faith World. It was a pleasure to hang out with some like-minded leaders at the event at GMU sponsored by “Arise Campus Ministry.”
As I learned back in Michigan, when four religious leaders cross the road together, even to play golf, good things can happen and good things do happen. It was not different this time. Several members and friends from local Presbyterian congregations are meeting and discussing McLaren’s book. They formed their own group called, “Presbyterians Crossing the Road,” and are thinking about ways to continue interfaith dialogue in our community. Soon Interfaith services will take place on Thanksgiving Eve; one continuing a long tradition, another beginning a new one.
Two main questions were posed in the promotional material for the McLaren event. Can you be a committed Christian without having to condemn or convert people of other faiths? Is it possible to affirm other religions traditions without watering down your own?
Why do Presbyterians cross the road? Answer: To get to the other side of interfaith dialogue.
As very busy religious leaders, it is becoming more and more difficult to find time for things outside the life of the church, even though we have all heard the mantra to be “missional.” The fact is, running our churches takes a lot of time. However, interfaith work is worth our investment.
Brian McLaren’s work about interfaith relations is extremely helpful in that he reframes the conversation for us today. He reminds me of Walter Brueggemann. To me, part of Brueggemann’s genius is about how he uses language to reshape our thought. He is not satisfied with all the “theological jargon” of past Old Testament scholarship and he continues to come up with fresh new ways of re-framing our theological explorations. In a similar way McLaren’s genius is in reshaping our conversation for today.
As you know, McLaren and those in the emergent church movement have not been thrilled about the limitations of familiar clichés and pat answers to handle the tough problems in our world. In his book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, he outlines a path for Christians that helps us engage the contemporary world. He believes in the concepts that “hope happens.” When we cross the road with people of other faiths, hope happens. Brian McLaren reframes a host of theological doctrines as a way of engaging persons of other faiths without sacrificing our own beliefs In Jesus Christ.
When I served a church in Moorhead, MN my wife and I played in both indoor and outdoor co-ed soccer leagues for over thirteen years. Our team captain was a professor of plant sciences and people would come from all over the world to do a Ph.D. in advanced durum wheat genetics, etc. under his tutelage. As a result, we also happened to get some of the best soccer players from all over the world to play on our team. After thirteen years I counted that we had played with players from over 45 different countries. The best times were not just on the soccer fields. Once a month we gathered for potluck; a good Minnesota tradition. Everyone brought a dish to share from their home country. Our captain, a Christian from Syria, made the best hummus and baba ghanoush I have ever tasted. A Muslim teammate from Pakistan brought some amazing curry chicken, another Muslim friend from Iran would make Persian Fesenjun. Our Latin American friends from Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Paraguay would not only share their wonderful food, they would share their passion for dancing, and those who wanted to learned a few more steps.
We played side by side with Bosnians who fled to this country to avoid ethnic cleansing. Over Turkish coffee we heard stories of religious hatred and malice from one gifted Bosnian player who lost most of his family to the war. It is amazing what happens when people break bread and hang out together. We learn, we grow and we prosper.
Most of us have already crossed the road of interfaith relationships or we probably would not be reading a blog on NextChurch. Part of the way ahead is to continue on this path as a model for the society in which we live. With the rise of Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, Christians need to step up and help others that are trying to cross the road, but are afraid of what might be on the other side.
The Rev. Dr. Michael (Mick) Burns as served as the Senior Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, VA since July of 2009. He served Presbyterian churches in Beverly Hills, MI, Moorhead, MN, Grand Haven, MI and Willmar, MN before coming to Northern Virginia.