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Committed to Faith in a Multifaith World

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 Mobeen Vaid

Few things have found themselves subject to scrutiny more than faith in the modern era.  Faith is often viewed as the cause of civil strife around the globe, and the prescriptions of faith are routinely portrayed as primitive or otherwise incompatible with the dictates of contemporary civil society.  Such portrayals are exacerbated at times by media portrayals that disproportionately cover fringe adherents of faith espousing puritanical fanaticism rather than normative religious practitioners, though I suspect the latter would not make for much of a story on the news (as a Muslim, such portrayals certainly weigh heavy on my mind).

The aforementioned dynamic has resulted in a posture of defensiveness by religionists determined to maintain their faith-based convictions, which has led many dedicated religionists to dogmatism, zealotry, and, at times, isolationism. In its most pernicious form, this defensiveness consumes people, entrenching them in discourses native to their own faith denomination with little regard to the alienation it causes to those in their surroundings.  Characteristics of this attitude include what Brian McLaren refers to as a penchant for dualism (black/white thinking), essentializing the other, and eagerness for denominational one-upping as opposed to serving God.  Please don’t misunderstand my point; it is not that eschatology, theodicy, ontology, and the many other cognate studies of theology lack relevance, but rather that the nascent student or religious practitioner, exposed to these subjects with no context, has little regard for how to translate medieval discourse in a way that is meaningful to his or her congregation, or in a manner that accounts for the socio-cultural context in which its being conveyed.

The classical Muslim jurist and theologian, Nuʿmān ibn Thābit, more commonly known by his teknonym Abu Hanifah, is reported to have once rebuked his son for debating theology with a classmate. His son was shocked by such a rebuke, for Abu Hanifah was renowned for his ability to debate religious issues with his students and fellow scholars, and responded by saying that he found the rebuke hypocritical given Abu Hanifah’s debating posture. Abu Hanifah replied by saying, “when we debate, we aim to discern truth from falsehood. When you debate, you debate for the satisfaction of victory.”

This negotiation – one of an intransigent ideology with the dictates of pluralism – is perhaps the most prevalent pitfall for any religiously committed individual aspiring to study and preach in a multifaith environment. Indeed, anyone born and raised within a solitary religious tradition with little to no exposure to competing views will find it difficult to entertain the potential that other faiths contain within them profound truths. That, although you may not feel the need to subscribe to other faiths, you can respect them deeply is a process of maturation that few undertake. And yet it is this very problem that needs addressing the most; in a multifaith society, when faith is finding itself subject to examination, we need to learn to engage with one another in a meaningful way.

This engagement requires one to not only tolerate, but understand the convictions that lead and inform the decisions of those around us.  If “love thy neighbor” – the Golden Rule and common to all the great faith traditions – was described by Jesus as the greatest commandment in Mark, then it follows that an essential prerequisite to love must be understanding.  How can it be possible to love one whom you know nothing about? About whom you hold suspicion, enmity, and misunderstandings? The objective here again is not consensus, but understanding, and through understanding, love.

I am grateful for the opportunity afforded to me by the NEXT Church team to provide this modest contribution, and pray that it is of benefit to those who read it.  Indeed, God knows best.


 

Mobeen VaidAlong with serving as a Campus Minister for the Muslim Community at George Mason University, Mobeen Vaid works as a community activist in the DC Metro area teaching classes, delivering sermons, and participating in interfaith programming.  Mobeen is currently completing his Masters in Islamic Studies from Hartford Seminary with a concentration in Muslim-Christian Relations.

How my Muslim Friends Helped Me Become a Stronger Christian

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 Amy Beth Willis

One evening during my Senior year at Emory University, my friend Nasir, a practicing Shia Muslim, asked me pointedly, “If Jesus was God incarnate, why did he plead with God on the cross, ‘Oh Lord, Why have you forsaken me?” Perplexed, I struggled to respond, recognizing that he had brought up a critical difference between the Christian and Islamic understandings of Jesus. His question prompted a lively, late-night discussion centered around theological differences between Christianity and Islam. Throughout my years at Emory, conversations like these transformed my faith identity in ways that resound today.

At Emory I was blessed to become friends with people from multiple faith traditions different from my own: Catholic, Hindu, Reformed Jew, and Sunni Muslim, to name a few. Through their eyes, I began to not only learn about the traditions and beliefs of other faiths but also to respect and learn from them deeply. I fasted with my Muslim friends during Ramadan and attended Navratri celebrations with my Hindu friends. One weekend, I attended Friday Shabbat at the Hillel center, discussed the Quran on Saturday, and went to a Methodist service on Sunday. I was joyfully immersed in multiple cultures and faiths.

Amy Beth participating in a Muslim Student Association event with her Emory peers

Amy Beth participating in a Muslim Student Association event with her Emory peers

Conversations about faith with friends of other faiths forced me to articulate and understand Christianity in a way that going to church never had. Moreover, I had to grapple with exclusivity of my Christian upbringing’s understanding of the path to God. Jesus’ command to love God and to love neighbor gained new meaning: how could I love my friends and also believe their souls were destined to eternal torment? I was forced to reckon with the purpose of Christianity if not to help others know Christ.

These relationships led me to a Christian faith much stronger and deeper than I had known: a faith rooted in the praxis of working for God’s kingdom of justice and peace on Earth. This faith affirms the sacredness of Jesus as God incarnate, a hope for all people, but is inclusive of all those that seek the divine. This stronger faith also pushes me to seek the divine in other faiths. Now, I could beautifully end a hopeful thought with “Inshallah,” meaning “God willing” in Arabic. Now, I could watch the devotion of fellow students to the Hindu goddess Durga and find beauty and depth in this female vision of God. Now, I could cheerfully sing “When we eat we say Bismillah (In the name of God), when we’re done we say Alhamdullillah (Thanks be to God),” a tune taught to American Muslim children in the same manner I was taught, “God is Great, God is Good, let us thank him for our food.” Engaging in these practices furthered my relationships with my friends that confessed these faiths as their own.

This benevolent and strong Christian faith allows me now to work in an interfaith advocacy context on Capitol Hill at the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness as a Young Adult Volunteer. I can articulate the Christian theological rationale for caring for unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border, while I learn the Jewish rationale. Our voices for political change are stronger together.

If we seek a more just and peaceful world, we must seek understanding between and among faiths. In a more diverse and globalized world, these kind of interfaith and intrafaith relationships are the first steps on a path towards global reconciliation. Misunderstandings fuel wars, death, and destruction around the world. Muslim rebel groups clash with the majority Buddhist government in Thailand; Protestants and Catholic communities are still separated by “Peace” walls in Belfast, Northern Ireland; the state of Israel continues to forcefully push the boundaries of its illegal settlements into the olive farms of Palestinian farmers.

By developing strong relationships with people of other faiths, I am able to birth into this world my understanding of the kingdom of God—people of all faiths joining together as one human family, seeking peace and justice as one. This is the Christian identity I can now proudly claim.


 

Amy Beth WillisAmy Beth Willis is a 2nd year Young Adult Volunteer through the PC(USA) in Washington, D.C., having served her first year in Tucson, AZ. A born and bred Baptist, she hails from Murfreesboro, Tennessee and is passionate about music, education, zumba, and her amazing family and friends.

 

Wrestling with Christianity’s Issues

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 Yena Hwang

I attended the Brian McLaren conference at George Mason University in October, having enjoyed his book “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road.” I have heard Brian McLaren’s “talks” at various events in the past, so I knew that the conference would be good and that I would benefit from what he had to share and teach. As expected, Brian McLaren’s presentation helped me to gain a deeper insight and helped me to acquire new vocabularies and ideas to engage in more meaningful interfaith dialogues. The structure of the conference, where participants were invited to listen to Brian’s presentation and then invited to engage in more intimate conversations through table discussions, provided a good framework to help me digest the contents being presented.

What I realized through this conference is that we as Christians need to do a better job of understanding our own issues, before pointing our fingers at others’ religious issues. At the beginning of one of our table discussions, each participant was asked to share a personal story involving our encounter with a religion that was different than our own. This is the story I shared.

My encounter was not with a different religion. I was a freshman in college and had joined a campus Christian fellowship geared towards Korean Americans, called Agape Ministry. It was customary to share our joys and concerns at the weekly gathering, where we sang praise songs, listened to someone’s testimony and shared fellowship. That particular night, I had shared a prayer request for my mother, who just learned that her brother, my uncle, had died in Korea. My mother’s grief was compounded by the fact that she had hoped to visit him and share the Gospel with him, but she had missed that opportunity. I shared that it was comforting to be visited by our pastor and that we had a service at home, since my mother could not attend the funeral being held in Korea. At the end of the night, during the free fellowship time, someone came up to me and said, “I’m sorry about your uncle…but you know that he is going to hell, right?” I don’t remember how I responded, but I do remember how I felt. I felt confused. I felt sad and then angry.

That night, I decided that there was something wrong with our understanding of Agape God, that there had to be more than just orthodox teachings and doctrines heaven and hell and about salvation in general. That was the beginning of my journey into questioning and wrestling with my Christian belief and faith and identity. How do we encourage fellow Christians to engage, struggle, strife, and wrestle with our own Christian issues? Until we come face to face with our own demons, name them and claim them, we will continue to live in a fear-based, “strong and hostile” attitude towards those ideas and beliefs that are foreign to us. Until we work through unpacking our own baggage and sift through what is valuable to keep and what is no longer useful, we will not even be ready to understand that “strong and benevolent” Christian identity is possible.

As someone from our table shared, we need to be the best Christian that we can be–the kind of Christian who puts into action/practice the greatest commandment to love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves, no matter what that neighbor’s religious beliefs are and most certainly, no matter what that neighbor may look or sound like. May it begin with me. May it be so. Amen.


 Yena-HwangYena Hwang is the Associate Pastor of Christian Formation at Fairfax Presbyterian Church. Yena was born in Seoul, Korea and moved to the United States with her parents when she as 11 years old. Yena received her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Yena is married to Rick Choi and together, they are parents to two children, Justin and Nathan. 

Why Do Presbyterians Cross the Road?

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.

interfaithGolf

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 P. BurnsThe 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.

Mick is married to Joni, a teacher with Fairfax County Public Schools. They have been married for 35 years and have two sons and two grandchildren. 

Strong Benevolent Faith Identity

By Marranda Major

I have taken it for granted that interfaith dialog has been a vital part of my spiritual formation. I was fortunate to have church mentors who encouraged my curiosity about other faiths and one Sunday school teacher who even devoted an entire year’s worth of curriculum to letting us explore world religions and the diversity among different Christian beliefs. During that year, my teacher often quoted Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, “test everything that is said, hold on to that which is good,” (5:21). That idea was huge for preteen Marranda and highly influential in shaping my worldview to be open, curious, and inquisitive. Learning how other religions relate to the divine and trying out different spiritual disciplines and practices helped me to become more rooted in my faith. I’ve never doubted how valuable these interfaith conversations were in shaping my Christian identity; but I have questioned what I have to offer to these discussions when there are so many Christian voices already at the table.

At my small liberal arts college, I had a very different experience of being one of few Christians present in discussions of faith. It was a bizarre sensation to be in theology seminars where very few (if any) students publicly identified as Christian. Within the intellectual conversation surrounding the violent history of the Church as an oppressor, it was easy to detach my beliefs and experiences of my home church from the institutional Church. When my classmates demanded a Christian response to critiques of hierarchical structures in the Church that have promoted sexist, racist, imperialist ideologies for the past millennium, I was not prepared to answer.

I struggled to own my public identity as a Christian, and I know I’m hardly the first person to be challenged to articulate my faith. A 2010 Pew Research report shows that Christians make up 31.5% of the world’s population: statistically, we are living in a more diverse, pluralistic society and our public faith identity is becoming ever more important. This November, writers for the NEXT Blog will take on strong benevolent faith identity and explore what that looks like in the public sphere.

 

Photo Credit: ARISE Campus Ministry

Photo Credit: ARISE Campus Ministry

This topic is inspired by a recent conference in which NEXT Church partnered with George Mason University’s ARISE campus ministry as well as several Northern Virginia area churches to bring Brian McLaren to speak about Christian identity as examined in his books Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World and Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words. The conference was open to local clergy and church leaders as well as GMU faculty and students. Most of this month’s contributors attended and will be blogging about the ideas struck them from McLaren’s talks, small group discussions, and dialog with the interfaith panel.

Have you had an interfaith encounter that informed your faith? What does your public Christian identity look like? Tell us in the comments section and join us this November as NEXT writers explore strong and benevolent faith identity!


 

Marranda MajorMarranda is the Young Adult Volunteer serving with NEXT Church.