Interfaith


So, I just finished the final evaluations for the course I just taught on Jesus and Muhammad, which was an intensive month-long course that (I hope) accomplished two primary things: (1) provide the students with the primary biographical sources of Jesus (gospels) and Muhammad (Sirah) in order to (2) give the students a yardstick to assess the ways in which both Jesus and Muhammad are represented and used for different rhetorical and political purposes both in the past and in the present. I was lucky to have a group of seven excellent students who took the course seriously (most of the time).

In short courses like this, it can be a challenge to provide evaluations and assessments that really provide students with an idea of “where they’re at”. There is only so much reading, and so much class participation, and so much essaying or reviewing students can do in a month’s time.  In the end, I feel like most of the class came to realize to various degrees that when it comes to Jesus and Muhammad (and the Buddha or any other significant religious figure) what we are dealing with is not with the  historical figure, but with the constructions created by either friends or foes to the traditions they represent. 

Rather than assess on information, it is important to realize that we need to assess on knowledge and understanding, even if the store of “facts” and “information” is not what we might want it to be.

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So the question is put to me, what’s so wrong with a denomination establishing criteria of doctrinal consent that are required for official ordained ministry within the denomination? It came up during a documentary that included discussion of the 5 fundamentals of early 20th century Presbyterianism and the resulting division in the church (and which paved the way for mid-twentieth century evangelical-liberal fear of each other in general).

My answer is that there’s basically nothing wrong with doing this, so long as it is recognized that this is not a universal absolute that has to be adhered to by everyone. In other words, if the denomination recognizes that this is essentially the “membership standard” in order to be part of the club of Denomination X and not membership requirements for determining who is “Christian” and who isn’t, fine.

More specifically, some denominations (such as the PCUSA) have historically been at the forefront of “updating” the Christian mission to reflect the needs of the age it finds itself in. 100 years ago, it was science and modernity, and the 5 fundamentals reflect the issues the church was faced with in how to do Christian work. In particular, colonialism, Darwinism, historical criticism, “progress,” scientific and psychoanalytic analysis, and so on, all hallmarks of modernity, were the major issues confronting the churches, and the Fundamentals themselves were completely modernist answers to a very modernist slate of issues. Absolute certainty in religion was the mirror image of absolute certainty in science and historical factuality.

As seminaries now are very clear that their mission is no longer “conversion” to Christianity, many conservatives and fundamentalists, I think, misunderstand what is going on with current Christian training. If it is truly Christian, as I’ve written on this blog in the past, there is but one essential, and that is the confession of Christ as Lord and Master. If a church’s work and mission stems from this, it is doing Christian work, Kingdom work, as I call it. Conversion may or may not be a part of this. What is happening with Seminaries and Churches and other institutions that are in the field of Christian vocations is they are cognizant of the fact that “conversion” is virtually synonymous with Colonialism, and specifically western colonialism. It recognizes that doing Kingdom work does not mean “making everyone a Christian.” But many conservatives and fundamentalists think this is exactly what it means to save the world: convert every last person to Christianity.

God save us, no!

The Church should have standards for its own governance, and it needs ways and means and an ethic of not being of the world even while it is in it. And those should be determined through much critical thought and excruciating prayer. But our mission is not to make everyone in the world “like us.” Confessing Christ’s lordship means not turning the world into a planet of Christians, let alone Presbyterians or Baptists or Methodists or Adventists or what-have-yous. Our mission is simply to bring the Kingdom of God to places where it is needed most. And these days, I daresay that the places it is most needed is in the institutional churches themselves. Getting all caught up in absolutes and certainties and doctrines and issues of “who’s in and who’s out” distracts us from our real work: to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love God with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind, to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God; and to preach Christ crucified, using words only when necessary.

Yes, that is a quote from 1 Thessalonians 5, so you can skip looking it up. No thanks necessary.

Received this email from a student, re: my Religions of the World course.

It is very difficult for me to take
these religions seriously. I honestly feel that most people in this
course are pretty much BS-ing when they talk about how amazed and
fascinated they are about these things. It’s writing what the
professor wants to hear instead of how they really feel. I have
actually talked to some students who have agreed this is the case. I
thought that by being honest and giving my genuine point of view was
better than sugar coating it, but that is often not the case in
school, as I have learned over the years. I will put my own feelings
aside in the future and only state facts. Hopefully that will help. I
honestly do not appreciate these other religions because I am a strong
Christian and God is a jealous God and does not find these other
“religions” to be at all appreciative. That’s just how I feel. I
cannot praise a religion that worships any God but the one I believe
is the ONLY one who exists. That is my struggle. I hope you understand.

Sincerely,

J. Doe, who really wants to get an A in the course without compromising her beliefs.

And, for what it’s worth, my response:

Well, I do understand. I myself am a licensed minister in the American Baptist Church of Vermont/New Hampshire. I don’t want or expect anyone to necessarily “like” any of these religions; there is much in them that doesn’t jive with Christianity. I want people to engage them, but we cannot engage them unless we know about them and look at what there is in common, as well as what the differences are. Like it or not, this is a world that is far more complicated than we Christians typically like to admit. Practitioners of religion – any religion – have got to learn to be sensitive to people of other faiths, even if they totally disagree on points of theology. This course is NOT a theology course. There is a difference between studying theology and studying religions; studying religions is studying how humans express in their own cultures their relationship to whatever is sacred to them. Studying theology is studying what humans say about God. We haven’t been doing that, although it has come up in discussion posts, which is fine, but I am not encouraging this. I do not believe we can have productive conversations about what humans think about God unless we know something about what they say and think about their world.

Part of being a Christian is being able to recognize the good. No less than Paul tells us to “Question everything, but hold on to the Good” (see 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5 I think). We can’t do that unless we learn where goodness and beauty lies, and I am of the persuasion that it does not only lie in Christianity; far from it. Genesis tells us that God the creator created our world as very good. I am trying to train students to recognize the good wherever it appears, and in this course in particular, being able to see the good and the beautiful in other religious traditions. Of course there is much that is not good; the dark side of religion is present in all of them, and this includes Christianity. I don’t know about you, but I have seen enough Christian-bashing to last me a lifetime, and I believe that throughout our history, we have deserved much of it. It is not a perfect faith. It is not “just fine the way it is.” God himself may be perfect and completely good. But Christianity is not, and I would prefer not to turn the faith into an idol that replaces God himself. It’s bad enough that this happens to the Bible.

In being critical of other religious traditions, we don’t have to resort to sarcasm and vitriol. That’s what automatically happens when we don’t understand something, usually due to our own unwillingness to be challenged or shook up a little, whether it’s in the voting booth or in conversations about religion. I hope to be giving students the tools to be critical of what they disagree with without coming across as bigoted know-it-alls who think anyone who thinks otherwise can go to hell, because they aren’t going anyplace else anyway.

So I do want you, and others in the class, to be honest. If you honestly can’t see anything the reflects the good and the beautiful in Shinto or Islam or whatever, I want you to tell me that. But you must be very specific. Condemning a Shinto garden simply because it’s not a Christian one isn’t going to cut it. Condemning the Qur’an without reading any of it simply because it’s not  New Testament isn’t going to work.

[some specific comments about student’s essays]
Peace, Benedict

Jacob wrestling with Angel of the LordSo tonight I’m giving a talk at our county public library on Judaism. I have the honor of distilling a 3,000 year old religious faith and tradition into one hour. (guffaw!)

The word is out, too. By this, I mean that apparently the chairwoman of the regional homeschooling association has learned that I’m doing this and is all excited. She got talking with some of the other homeschooling moms, who also got interested, and then they approached the wife to say how excited they are over this, began talking about having me offer classes in the homeschool co-op on world religions, give talks on the subject of Judaism and Islam and so forth at their monthly meetings, etc. Good vibes, for the most part. But… I got the “It will be so awesome (I’m thankful that I didn’t hear “wicked awesome”…) to hear someone talk about Judaism and these other religions from a Christian perspective. This is sooooo what we need!”

Wellllll….. I’m not sure how to take this. Or rather, I know exactly how I’m supposed to take this, and it kinda scares me a little bit. See, in the various circles I’m in (specifically the homeschooling one here), when the subject of world religions comes up at all, it’s always in the form of comparative apologetics. Religion X is compared with Christian doctrine and theological formulations (not Christian history, not phenomenology, symbolic imagery and iconography, ritual practices, and so on, unless it can be contrasted with Christian”orthodox” theology, doctrine, and practice), and the result of these comparisons and contrasts is as one would expect in sectarian education: We’ve got it right, and they’re off-base.

Ehhhhhh. That’s not what’s happening for this. But I feel the pressure from a demographic that is significant in the life of my family. I am there to introduce Judaism as a vibrant, living, beautiful religious faith and tradition to non-academics. I am not there to proselytize, criticize, denigrate, or even simply point out how Judaism differs from Christianity. To those informed in either tradition, the differences between them will be transparent. In fact, I have no plans to even mention Christianity except in historical context, and since this is only an hour, it will pretty much be a passing mention as a first century Jewish sect. (Rather like Josephus does in his work, actually.) Any real discussion of Judaism vis a vis Christianity will take place during the open Q+A session after the talk.

To the extent that, as Christian, this presentation will be “a Christian perspective” on a world religion, I think that Christians will – or should – recognize much in the Jewish concepts of God, the Book, and Israel. I strongly believe that serious interfaith dialog absolutely has to begin with establishing commonalities between them. I am making these the focus. And this is the aspect that I can envision frustrating my Christian, apologetically-oriented homeschooling folks potentially in the room. Evangelicals typically emphasize difference, and indeed are often afraid of having similarities in religion even pointed out, let alone discussed and engaged.

Not that there’s any shortage of “Christian perspectives” on world religions. They’re a dime a dozen, and in fact this has been going on in “orientalist” scholarship for several centuries. It’s easy enough to find. What I think makes this so exciting for these folks is the idea that it’s one of their own, someone they trust, and who they regard as being a competent authority on the subject, who is doing it. I’m more likely,launcelot.jpg perhaps, to be taken seriously than, say, a rabbi coming in to do exactly the same talk. So I welcome the opportunity. I just hope that the bridges that these types of events can potentially construct, that I seek to build, are open to everyone, and that others don’t plant a funny-looking old man demanding answers to the “questions three” before allowing others, who do not share their perspective, to cross.

ashuramain01.jpgRan across this in today’s Washington Post online: “Bloody Ritual, Modern Meaning.” Check it out; it’s a short take on the passion of Imam Husain (a grandson of Prophet Muhammad) as observed and commemorated during the week of the tenth of Muharram. The Ashura festival, as it is also called, combines extensive liturgies and dramatic passion plays re-enacting Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala (in Iraq) at the hands of Umayyad caliphs from Damascus in 680 AD/CE, or in Islamic reckoning, 61 AH. The WashPost piece focuses on its ritual observance in Kabul.

Like most universal rites of commemoration, the Ashura practices vary from location to location, but there are always passion plays of the event, and there are always ritual displays of mourning for Husain, and it is this that studies and documentaries tend to highlight, condemn, and criticize as being offensive to modern sensibilities. The mourning rites involve symbolic mortification of the body, and the methods involve everything from rhythmic beating of the chest to serious flagellation using knives whipped over the back. Religion scholars have long noted the similarities of these types of practices to medieval Christian ritual processions of penance.

But such comparisons miss the point of Ashura. It is true that there are some similarities between the martyrdom of Jesus and the martyrdom of Husain, and both have come to have cosmic significance in Christian and Muslim (especially Shi’a Muslim) ethos and worldview. Both stories likewise served as identity markers and the memory of them are celebrated as foundational for the community memory. Still, the point is not the blood-letting in itself, but rather to protest an unjust death brought about by the injustice of spreading tyranny.

In the class I’m teaching on Holidays, one of the points we’re discussing now is the inherent and latent power of holidays to function in the service of the status quo AND to protest and challenge it. And in fact, when we dig deep enough to the narratives underlying many of our holidays, the story is, more often than not, a story that challenges power, and that in succeeding generations, that story is smothered over with re-interpretations to maintain the social order and try to minimize the potential that holidays have to upset the status quo of those in power. In other words, holidays and ritual celebrations in holidays are extremely dangerous, and the more visible the expression of this the ritual is, the greater the potential for the latent and suppressed power to challenge tyranny, empire, exploitation, consumption, and so on, is feared. It is for this reason that many holidays throughout history have been outlawed by governments or at least severely restricted and monitored (e.g., the Passover in the first century).

The WashPost article highlights this by electing to point out the Ashura observance in Kabul, which is one of the most bloody and violent locations for the annual commemoration of the 10th of Muharram. The effect is to stir up fear, and judging from the comments on the site by other readers, it seems to work. Unfortunately. Because Ashura and Muharram have a lot to teach those of us outside of Islam. Our Muslim brothers and sisters here provide us with an example analoguous to the passion of Jesus as a righteous act that symbolizes the rejection of the abuse of power and empire in a way that our (meaning, my own tradition of Christian) lame passion plays have totally lost. Understand, I don’t advocate self-flagellation with sharp instruments, as in Muslim practices of matam or medieval flagellant movements, any more than I advocate self-crucifixion as an acceptable imitation of Christ. Instead, I advocate recognizing the ability of our religious observance of holidays to challenge the abuses of imperialism, and I can think of no better public example of this than the rites of Ashura on the 10th of Muharram. It is a demonstration of a passion for justice. Prophetic justice.

cross_crescent.jpgIn the July 8 issue of the Boston Globe, a fascinating piece on “What it means to be a Christian after George W. Bush” dominated the “most e-mailed” category of the paper’s website for a number of weeks. In like fashion, but seemingly flying much lower under the radar, the July 30 issue of Newsweek featured a special report on “Islam in America” that seeks to at least raise the question of how Muslims citizens of the United States can be true to both their faith and to their country to public consciousness. Despite different approaches and examples (the Globe focuses on Christian responses to the Gulf war, while Newsweek turns on Muslim experience in the US since 9/11), both articles address the same critical issue, which is how can observant and committed Christians and Muslims be faithful to their religious and spiritual heritage and be responsible citizens of the US?

The implicit argument of both articles is that the experience of living through the Bush II administration somehow changes what it means to be a Christian or a Muslim in the United States. It is true that the elections of 2000 and 2004, which brought conservative and evangelical Christians out of the woodwork and into the voting box to elect the candidate ordained by national evangelical leaders, and the support of an unreal 87% of evangelicals who supported Bush’s Iraq War in 2003 have absolutely affected public perception of the role Christians play (or ought to play, or should not play) in the governance of the country (as well as in the election of its leaders) and in our involvement overseas. Neither can there any doubt that the trauma of 9/11 has thrust the nearly 2.35 million Muslims into the national limelight in an unprecedented degree, and the continued announcements of alleged terrorist plots being thwarted does nothing to dissuade millions of others from erroneous and potentially deadly misconceptions about our brothers and sisters of our sibling faith.

At the same time, though, the question itself, that of how to be a good and responsible citizen of our country and yet be true to our faith tradition, is hardly new. It is, in fact, at least as old as the biblical prophets in the Hebrew tradition, and it is upon this tradition that Jesus and Muhammad both drew for their own particular responses and to whom Christians and Muslims today look to for their respective archetypal ethical examples. Likewise it was St. Paul and, still later, St. Augustine who formulated this problem for Christians in the Roman Empire in theoretical and theo-political terms. While the specific examples of being Muslim or being Christian in the age of George W. Bush might be new, the problem is not.

Positively, the whole Administration has called attention to the religious elephant that has always been in the political room. While we certainly may wish that the circumstances were different, there can be no question today that religion, and in particular Christianity and Islam in the United States, is political, and politics is fundamentally religious. It is ironic, therefore, that as the neocon Republican Bush administration prepares its exeunt, the Rebublican candidates have spoken little of the impact of faith in politics (which has left evangelical leaders scrambling for a suitable candidate, and even a dismayed Jim Dobson himself threatening to not vote in 2008!), the traditionally “secular” Democratic Party has itself “gotten religion,” demonstrated first by the election of Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) as the nation’s first Muslim Congressman and then by the recent and powerful declarations of the importance and significance of the role of faith and religion in national politics by candidates Obama, Clinton, and Edwards. What is becoming clear is that we don’t have to “be” Christian or “be” Muslims necessarily any different than we are, but we do need to change perceptions of “being” of the faith really means vis-a-vis responsible citizenship.

In both traditions, Jesus and Muhammad call on their respective followers to be prophetic witnesses to peace and justice in the world. Nowhere in either the Qur’an or the Christian Bible are the people of God commanded to internalize their faith to such a degree that it is solely and completely private and detached from affairs of this world, which include our politics, civic engagements and responsibilities, and so forth. The prophetic call is a call to engage issues of injustice where we are, and to exercise compassion and mercy in so doing. Our militant versions of our faiths (Islamic extremism in the case of my Muslim friends, and Christian fundamentalism in my own tradition) may very well believe they are acting on behalf of divine justice, but they fail to act on their own mandates of mercy and compassion in their scriptural traditions.

Thus to respond to the challenge raised by Newsweek and the Globe, we, as brothers and sisters in the service of God, can indeed engage our civic and political issues for the betterment of our country without resorting to quasi-pseudo theocracy on the one hand or extremism on the other. Inshallah.

Apparently Pat Robertson is a mite jealous over Chuck’s receipt of the JSU! Award; not to be outdone, we get this brilliant piece from the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of The 700 Club on Monday night’s show:

There you have it. “Islam is not a religion. It is a worldwide political movement meant (sic) on domination of the world. And it is meant to subjugate all people under Islamic law.”

Yikes. Not only do we need to present Pat with his own JSU! Award, but we may have to institute the F-Bomb Award for Religious Ignorance (see here, here, and here, all on Aedificium) as well.

There are something like 2.3 million or so Muslims in the US alone. That means that we Christians are more likely to bump into Muslims in the grocery store than we are to bump into Episcopalians. Pat’s, and Chuck’s, comments ought to be as unwelcome to those of us who are Christians as they are to our Muslim friends and neighbors. Neither of these guys speaks for the majority of Christians, but they’re the ones getting the airtime.

It’s not like we can get Pat off the air, I guess, but those of us in the rank-and-file of American Christians can still be active in denouncing this kind of extremism through our relationships with our Muslim friends, neighbors, colleagues, co-workers, and so forth, in pretty much the same way that American Muslims denounce terrorism and extremism. We can blog, we can call in to radio shows, we can write op-ed pieces, and engage in other creative ways of rejecting this kind of influence.

Upshot: Islam is a religion. And it’s a sibling of Christianity and Judaism. Spread the word.

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