Interfaith Encounters: Mirror, Mirror On the Wall

by Rie Linton

Throughout history, people intermingled in the marketplace. Such a marketplace was even the setting for one of Jesus’ parables (Matthew 11:16-19). Humankind has seldom lived in isolation but rather in a communal, mixed gathering, dependent upon one another for life’s necessities. One fear of humankind is based upon our need to see ourselves in others. Our greatest downfall is in not seeing the image in the mirror clearly, not recognizing the marketplace reflection. This continues today.

The drum circle was open to the public, meeting every Sunday afternoon. All ages, all stages of musical ability, all types of apparel, and all types of ethnicities followed the rhythm of their souls. Some invented melodies and others accompanied on quiet stringed instruments. Tribal drums harmonized with marching snare-less drums as children ran back and forth and pets lay in the shade. The timbre of different drum skins echoed throughout the park as others left and more came. It was a market place of music, reflecting the heartbeats of centuries of gatherings of people, different and yet united in spirit.

Then one day someone brought a different drum. Instead of a skin or plastic head across the top, it was a wooden box with a hole in it. The player sat as usual and began to drum quietly, picking up the beat of the others. Slowly, one by one, they stopped and the self-appointed leader strolled over. “Where is your other drum?” he asked. “You need to either bring a drum with a head on it or stay home.” The player began to explain that, just as the others were vibrating the skin of an animal (or modern-day facsimile), the tree from which his drum had been made also represented life. He was asked to leave.

They had been talking, “mingling” for over an hour, easily conversing and comparing pet stories. Then one reached for a cup of tea and the cross around her neck became evident. Her companion quickly left, remarking that she was unaware the woman was “one of those crazy Christians”. Although they had been discussing Plato and the development of cultures based upon morals, she had no wish to discuss morals with someone who wore a sign of a religion around her neck, apparently feeling her sari represented something other than her Brahma Kumaris spiritual heritage.

The marketplaces of today may look different than those of ancient times but the cultural diversity still exists. We are still one community dependent upon each other. The djembe drum, the tribal drum most often found in drum circles, was used throughout African cultures as a song of peace. The playing of the djembe is a celebration of life and a way for people, all people, to come together. The cajón, the wooden box drum, originated in Peru as the instrument of African slaves forbidden to have any expression publicly. Separated from their culture and djembes, the slaves used what they could to express themselves. The union of the djembe and cajón that day in the drum circle was a reunion of culture, recognition of the joy of the human soul that could not be suppressed and yet, no one saw the reflection.

The young woman at the community function did indeed wear a cross. On it was inscribed “mind, body, soul”, recognition of how she wanted to live her faith. The Raja Yoga meditation of Brahma Kumaris, a form of meditative spirituality that teaches the soul is good, redefines the self as a soul and enables a direct connection and relationship with the Supreme Source of purest energy and highest consciousness. They had so much in common yet fear fogged their vision.

The drummer did return to the drum circle and the cajón was accepted. The drum circle’s purpose was the celebration of life and slowly, harmony reigned. The two women found themselves again together at the buffet, joined by an older woman. The Christian asked about the spirituality and applauded its beginnings as a feminist movement. The other girl listened, realizing there was only respect, not absolutism.
“My country is the world and my religion is to do good.” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. We should live so that others see our religion in us. Everyone we encounter is a doubting Thomas. We all make instant impressions of those we pass or with whom we converse. We need to let them see our faith just as Thomas saw the scars of Jesus.

One day our mirror will see not preconceptions but the reality of the marketplace. We are one in the spirit of life. We are one in life. Just as the drum cannot play without the player, we cannot exist without the marketplace community, united in the spirit of mind, body, and soul.

Rie Linton is a professional musician and conductor, writer, graphic artist, community family values educator and child advocate, a lifelong Episcopalian who has served as Girls Friendly leader, EYC advisor, church school director/teacher, ECW officer, church musician, EfM journeyer, and member of the Order of Daughters of the King. She hosts the blog n2myhead, is currently developing a curriculum on Diversity and lives in Huntsville, AL.

Ancient Christians in the modern world

by Sam Candler

On Tuesday morning (12 March, the Feast of Gregory the Great, in the Episcopal Church), I listened to news reports, analyses, hopes, fears, and projections about the Roman Church; the world is fascinated with the old and reverent process by which a new pope is elected.

Even Christians of other denominations are paying attention. Of course, I am quite glad to be an Episcopalian, in the Anglican Communion of Churches, where most of our bishop election processes are far more “democratically representative” than the Roman process of selecting bishops. (Furthermore, our Episcopal hierarchical structure stops locally; we are not an empire. Our bishops have no real jurisdictional authority outside their own dioceses; and even within those dioceses, our best bishops work collegially with layperson and deacons and priests.)

But we other Christians respect our dear Roman Catholic brothers and sisters; theirs is an old and revered tradition, and we really want the best for their leadership. For better and for worse, all Christians are affected by the Roman Catholic choice of pope; since non-Christians often tend to perceive all Christians in the same manner, the way any Church acts does affect all other denominations, to some degree.

However, I am particularly intrigued with the fascination of non-Christians with this Roman election system. They are legitimately curious about an event that clashes with our modern Western insistence upon open process and full transparency. The cardinals are kept to themselves, with no access to outside communication at all. Conversations occur which will probably never be written down. Ancient prayers and ceremonies and customs are repeated solemnly, customs which few non-Christians even understand.

Yes, the entire world is fascinated with that ancient system; parts of the system are quite attractive. Its solemnity is attractive, as is its sheer beauty. Surely, one would be inspired to vote honorably while inside a piece of art painted by Michelangelo! The system’s obedience to tradition is also attractive, as is its insistence on not being carried away by every wind of modernity that blows into the world.

Well, I observe that many faithful American Roman Catholics do wish for change in the Roman Catholic Church. One poll (see The New York Times, March 6, 2013, “U.S. Catholics in Poll See A Church Out of Touch”) claims that a majority of American Roman Catholics longs for policy changes on such critical matters as married priests, the possibility of women priests, and especially certain birth control methods. Personally, I doubt that the Roman Catholic Church will be changing those policies soon, no matter who the next pope is; but I do pray it does!

But there is also a dangerous reason for our fascination. Every human being, whether Christian or not, carries inside us a temptation for absolutism. We are tempted to think that our world would be so much easier if everything were settled, once and for all, with decisions that made everything perfect, forever. Absolutism is even more enticing when it is wrapped in secrecy.

Unfortunately, absolutism leads to empire, and I am wary of empire wherever it is. I am wary of imperialism, and it is an attitude that seems to come from so many quarters these days. It often comes from the places we love: from political parties who want one hundred per cent agreement with their platforms, from absolutism in general conventions, from our naive desires to make bishops emperors, from “political correctness” that can look like nonsense (read George Will’s “The Pop-Tart Terrorist” in The Washington Post, 8 March 2013), from any government who thinks that perfect law will create a perfect society.

The challenge of every Church is to bring the wisdom of our ancient prayer to the challenges of our modern world. But both ancient Christianity and the modern world agree that “empire” rarely succeeds in honoring the common good. So, I pray the same for the Roman Catholic Church as I do for the Episcopal Church as I do for all Christian churches: that our leadership can follow the Holy Spirit even into modernity, and that our leadership can bless the fullness of God in the world.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. His sermons and reflections can be found at his blog, “Good Faith and the Common Good”.

Isaac and Ishmael were brothers

By Lucy Chumbley

Minarets were my steeples growing up, and the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, was my timekeeper.

In Saudi Arabia I awoke at Fajr, the pre- dawn call to prayer, and lisened to its cadences merge with the call from nearby mosques - sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant.

At midday - Dhuhr - I heard it through the sounds of traffic, watched people stop to pray by the side of the road. I heard it in the afternoon, Asr, at sunset, Magrib, and at the end of the day, Isha.

When I later moved to Jerusalem, the call of the muezzin blended with the sounds of church bells and of the siren announcing Shabat, the start of the Jewish Sabbath.
These sounds, the sonic calling cards of the three monotheistic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - summoned the faithful to prayer and served as a reminder of the presence of God.

One God.

With a shared belief in one God, a common ancestor, Abraham - through his sons, Isaac and Ishmael - and intertwined narratives, these three faiths are members of the same spiritual family. This is what I learned in my Middle Eastern childhood; this is what I've tried to teach my son.

So imagine my surprise when I turned to the story of Abraham in the Children's Bible his grandmother had given to him and read the story of Abraham and his "only son" Isaac.
No mention of Ishmael.

It's not just Children's Bibles that marginalize or ignore this story; the tale of Abraham's second wife and first son. In our predominantly Judeo-Christian culture, there's often a tendency to focus on the other side of the family - Sarah and Isaac, Abraham's first wife and second son.

In our post-9/11 world, it's more important than ever to understand how this family fits together; to acknowledge the legitimacy of both sons and to find in their story the seeds of reconciliation.

In the Jewish/Christian story, God promises Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars and Abraham's wife, Sarah, who is barren, offers him Hagar, her Egyptian slave, as a concubine.

When Hagar becomes pregnant, the situation between the two women becomes intolerable. Hagar flees into the desert, where the angel of the Lord tells her to return, for she will give birth to a son, Ishmael, and he will father a great nation. God later tells Abraham that Sarah will give birth to a son, Isaac, with whom his covenant will be established.

After Sarah gives birth to Isaac, she banishes Hagar and Ishmael. They head for Egypt, and run out of water. As they are on the brink of death, God again speaks to Hagar, showing her a spring and telling her to take Ishmael by the hand, for he will father a great nation.

According to Islam, this encounter happened at Mecca, where later the prophet Mohammed, a descendant of Abraham through Ishmael, received the Koran as a divine revelation. The story of Hagar and Ishmael is reenact- ed each year during the hajj, the annual pilgrimage, when Muslims retrace the steps of Hagar's frantic search for water for her son and drink from the spring revealed to her by God, known as the Zamzam well.

The Koran claims that Abraham later rebuilt the Kaaba - the holiest shrine in Islam, a building believed to have been originally constructed by Adam - near the site of the spring.

Five times a day, at the Adhan, faithful Muslims stop what they are doing and turn to face the Kaaba, Abraham's house. In so doing they form a worldwide circle of religious unity, with the Kaaba as its center.

Signs of religious unity also exist in Judaism and Christianity - from symbols and traditions to the distinctive sounds of the call to prayer.

But what of unity among these three faiths of Abraham?

When the patriarch died at a ripe old age and was "gathered to his people," his sons Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury him. (Genesis 25:7)

Death has a way of bringing families together; exposing our shared and sometimes complicated roots. Though their lives were set on an adversarial course, Isaac and Ishmael were brothers.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we'd do well to remember that.

Lucy Chumbley is editor of Washington Window, the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

Buildings and meanings

By Deirdre Good

My last office in an 1825 building at the seminary where I live had two doors. One was used as an entrance to the office from the corridor outside and the other was permanently closed. Once upon a time, when my office was a waiting room, that door was the access for seminary students to the infirmary next door. Further down the corridor was the infirmary with four beds. Several seminarians were designated as infirmarians and they looked after sick students, bringing them food from the refectory. Knowing something of the history of a room brings its features and its character to light. I used to think of seminarians sitting anxiously in my office, not across the room from me, but waiting to be seen by a doctor who came to the seminary once a week.

In the seminary's neighborhood, our once unknown Chelsea Market now draws local school kids, bus tours and is a prominently-featured destination in tourist guides to the city, which makes a visit during lunch hour almost impossible. But if you want to buy fish, it's the place to go. And it has a bookstore. The building that houses Chelsea Market used to be the headquarters of the National Biscuit Company, (Na-BIS-co), from the 1890's to the 1940's. If you enter the building on 9th Avenue at 15th street, there's an exhibit showing biscuit tins and other memorabilia. And the NaBisCo logo can be seen on the walls as you walk past the food shops from 9th to 10th Avenue. The history of this building is noticed and recorded. And the change from factory to retail has given the building continuity and perhaps status.

Further away, on 6th Avenue, Limelight Market, in which retail shops occupy the interior of a restored church, was once the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion built by Richard Upjohn in the style of Gothic Revival. Upjohn's better-known churches in New York City are Trinity Wall Street and Church of the Ascension. Deconsecrated and sold in the 70's, the Church of the Holy Communion became a nightclub, the Limelight, in the 80's, finally closing in 2007. The 2009 renovation, which was finished in 2010, restored stained glass windows and other interior features of the church as a setting for the Limelight Marketplace. In this case, although the retailers might disagree, we see the recreation of the former church as marketplace. After all, churches and cathedrals in this country and abroad offer visitors restaurants and shops full of ecclesiastical and religious items within their walls. Those who run these institutions will argue that bookshops and cafes inside the west doors of Cathedrals don't undermine its religious identity because the products are religious. But isn't it a question of degree? Doesn't the very presence of shops and restaurants already concede that the character of the Cathedral has taken on even a minor commercial aspect?

These examples show how rooms and buildings have become something else, even while their former identity is a small part of what they are now. You could visit my office without wondering why it has two doors. You could visit Chelsea Market and not notice features of the Nabisco factory. But when a building specifically built as a church exists today as a sacred building of another religion, a different kind of transformation has taken place.

On a recent visit to Istanbul, I encountered these kinds of transformations in visiting mosques that had once been churches; mosques themselves; and museums built as churches that have at one time also been mosques.

My mother and I visited the Bodrum Camisi mosque, or "mosque with a cellar," formerly the Myrelaion Church (Church of the Holy Anointing Oil). We met the Imam who told us, "The transformation of the church into our mosque saves its old identity."

We took off our shoes and put on headscarves to admire the largest mosque in the city, the newly renovated Süleymaniye Mosque, built by the great architect Sinan for Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. We also went to the Laleli (Tulip) mosque whose distinctive minarets are topped with what look like tulips.

We visited the Church of St. Savior in Chora, now known as Kariye Camii, converted to a mosque after 1453, and now a museum. The beautiful mosaics and frescoes were covered over with plaster in the conversion to a mosque but recent restorations show today's visitors something of their glorious colors.

And then there is Hagia Sophia, rebuilt on the ruins of two earlier churches by the Emperor Justinian I in 537 as a Byzantine Church. Today it is known as Ayasofya, a museum, visited annually by millions. It has a remarkable history as a church, a seat of the Patriarchate, a seat of the Caliphate, a museum and as a source of architectural inspiration for many later mosques and churches. Until 1453 when Constantinople was taken over by Ottoman Turks, it was the Cathedral Church of Constantinople and the seat of coronations. But between 1204 and 1261 it was a Roman Catholic Cathedral in the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople. After 1453, Sultan Mehmed II had Hagia Sophia converted into a mosque by removing the altar and iconostasis and adding the mihrab (directional pointer niche to Mecca), minbar (a freestanding pulpit) and four minarets. Some mosaics were covered with plaster in conformity with the ban of images in Islam. In 1935, it became a museum in the Republic of Turkey. As a desanctified building, it represented the distancing of the new Turkish Republic from its Ottoman past. DeesisatAyasofya.jpg
Click to enlarge

The sheer size and its political importance probably contributed to the survival and transformation of Hagia Sophia. Constantine laid out fourth-century Constantinople as a setting for the display of imperial power from the imperial palace to the hippodrome (now in front of the Blue Mosque adjacent to Ayasofya), mausoleum, churches and processional routes. As I stood in Ayasofya recently it seemed quite unlike any museum. Any gaze immediately looks up to the dome, 55.6 metres above, suspended in light over the nave, and just below it to the recently uncovered face of one of the four seraphim. That gaze rotates down one level to the restored mosaics including the De'esis of the upper gallery, the enormous medallions hanging on columns inscribed with the names of Allah, the prophet Mohammed, and his family, to the golden mosaics of John Chrysostom and Ignatius the Younger. Lower still on the ground level my gaze takes in the mihrab and the minbar decorated with marble. What I see seems to be not just a memorial but also a witness to lived religious experience.

Hagia%20Sophia%202011b.jpg Click to enlarge.

The adaptation of buildings is a complex process over time that is as much about architecture, as it is about politics and religion. It is about transformation, imitation and assimilation. The transformation of non-Islamic places of worship into mosques, which this essay does not discuss, is a counterpart to the examples in Istanbul mentioned here. In the above examples, what is new seeks to transform, even eclipse the old. And yet the religious character of the older building shines through and enhances the new identity providing, among other things, continuity, stability and status.

All the liturgies ever conducted and all the prayers ever prayed in this space do not disappear because it is now a museum. These religious acts are part of the fabric of the building. If God deals with these mixed religions broadcasting out of the same station, why can't we?

Photos by Deirdre Good.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

The path beyond pluralism

This is the final part of a three part series on the evolving issue of Christian interaction with believers of other religions, what the Bible says about other religions, and how Christians can welcome the contributions of other faith traditions.

By Frederick Quinn

Increasingly, a task for western Christians is to sort out how to regard other world religions. The thesis of these articles is that there may be different paths to salvation, and that different religious traditions may represent salvations in and of themselves, different from the Christian way, but still welcomed by a loving God. This does not require Christians to give up anything of their basic beliefs, but to be more open to the love of God, expressed in the core New Testament concept of the Reign of God, offered by Jesus to a progression of outsiders, Romans, Samaritans, tax collectors, prostitutes, and frail outcasts at society’s gates. Nothing is easy or comfortable about such a process. The dots do not all connect, nor are all questions answered. “The religions of man may fit together, but they do not do so easily,” Houston Smith once observed. The theology of such encounters will be awkward, incomplete, and messy, for it is exploratory and breaking new ground, not offering final resolution of the topic of interfaith encounters.

The thoughts of a parish outreach group in such a setting will have as much merit as those of church leaders. Raimon Panikkar, a Roman Catholic priest and student of world religious spirituality, once wrote, “I ‘left’ as a Christian, ‘found’ myself as a Hindu, and ‘return’ a Buddhist, without ever having ceased to be a Christian.” At its core this provocative statement invites Western Christians to explore the spiritual depths of other religions. A “more of the same” frontal attack on the worth other faiths will not be productive. “We have marched around the alien Jerichos the requisite number of times. We have sounded the trumpets. And the walls have not collapsed,” Max Warren, General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society from 1942 to 1963,once wrote.

Convergent Spirituality, the Asian Example
A common structure of faith exists at the heart of many religious traditions, suggested by the image of a tree with various faith traditions having common roots but different branches. Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University (retired), calls this "convergent spirituality" where members of one faith learn from the complementary revelations and beliefs of other traditions. Convergence does not mean the movement of all traditions to a single place, but the affirmation of a shared quest for unity and the hope that they may articulate a common set of core beliefs, and also a clearly definable set of differences, as participants move ahead in a shared life of dialogue, with the sorting out of common ground and differences that implies.

No new global religion will emerge from such contact, but it may open new possibilities for cooperation through worship and acts of mercy and justice presently unexplored at local and regional levels. Attempts to enforce authority from a central set of Western assumptions will understandably lose their force, as different religious groups explore new ways of witness to their faith in local settings, reinforced by the vision of God that the historic church has found in Jesus. In this sense, the energy currently being focused into fashioning the Anglican Communion into a top down administrative and juridical regulatory body is totally misspent.

It is from Asia that the most exciting theological possibilities have emerged in recent decades. Modern Asian Christians draw heavily on Asia’s ancient religious traditions that predate both Christianity and Islam in classical texts like the Bhagavad-Gita and Discourses of Buddha. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton, a longtime student of Asian religions, wrote in the 1960s, “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity. The future of Zen is in the West. The future of Zen is in the West. I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.”

Kwok Pui-lan and the Comparability of Sacred Texts
Kwok Pui-lan, who teaches at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., writes of the need for biblical scholarship to move beyond traditional western exegetical models. She urges that the Bible be read from an interfaith perspective, drawing on Asian sacred texts as well. This includes comparing the content of the Bible with Asian sources and finding the depths of other religious traditions, moving beyond a perspective where, if two texts are considered, the Bible will be the normative document. Such differences can now “be used to amplify certain dimensions of the biblical text or bring to the surface divergences in the religious worldviews shaping the texts. The tensions between the two texts call for more in-depth dialogue and reexamination of Christian doctrines,” she wrote in Discovering the Bible in a Non-Biblical World. She urged Christians to move beyond western claims that the Bible is the sole revelation of God, claims that unwittingly reinforce Western ethnocentrism and cultural hegemony.

Interfaith Cooperation at Work: the United Religions Initiative
Although theological exploration of interfaith contact is relatively new in contemporary Anglican discourse, there are several long-established examples of such cooperation successfully at work, including the United Religions Initiative, founded a decade ago by William E. Swing, then Episcopal Bishop of California. The San Francisco based program engages thousands of participants in over 70 countries representing more than a hundred religions, spiritual expressions, and indigenous traditions. Its goals are distilled in a single sentence, “The purpose of the United Religions Initiative is to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence, and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.”

From its inception, URI was careful not to represent itself as another religion, religious hierarchy, or organization competing with other interfaith efforts. From its collaborative encounters, a charter emerged to guide the organization. URI would be a bridge-builder among religions, not a competing religion. “We respect the sacred wisdom of each religion, spiritual expression and indigenous tradition (and) the differences among religions, spiritual expressions, and indigenous traditions (and) encourage our members to deepen their roots in their own traditions.” Another goal was “healing and reconciliation to resolve conflict without resorting to violence (and) sound ecological practices to protect and preserve the Earth.” Finally, “Members of the URI shall not be coerced to participate in any ritual or be proselytized.”

Summary, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”
Sometimes I am asked about my own viewpoint on the relationship between Christianity and other religions. Much of my belief is contained in the old hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” especially the words, “For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind” and the welcoming sentiment it suggests. Personally, I have found my own Christian faith deepened and strengthened by probing contact with the faiths of others. My perspective is that of a spiritual journeyer whose grounding is as a mainstream Episcopalian who is content to leave the final ranking of world religions to God, and who respects each for their deeply spiritual and salvific content. There may be several paths to the same or different mountain peaks, different ways to different religious ends. Here the language of the mystics is more relevant than that of theologians and historians, and more reflective of the wider concept of the Reign of God articulated by Jesus. This is not some bland universalism or relativism. I make a distinction between the uniqueness of the message and person of Jesus and church claims to exclusivity. God can do something unique in Jesus that does not exclude other religions. For me, it is quite clear that Jesus is the Christ, but this does not mean that the truth I know is the end of the story, or the only truth. My search, like that of others, is at once a quest for clarification and awareness that any such search is also grounded in divine mystery. We experience the pull of the future as we pour over the issues and personalities of this ancient quest, aware that the flow is never a neat one.

The Anglican via media represents both a broad middle way in religious encounters and its historic grounding across several centuries of contact with other religions. At times, this contact represented an exploitive extension of colonialism, but at a deeper, more enduring level it reflects a sensitive and sympathetic response to other religious traditions and their teachings.

I have come to see an abiding contemporary relevance in several anchoring biblical passages, those about the Reign of God, and those affirming the welcoming presence of outsiders like the Good Samaritan, and those passage in the Prophet Isaiah and the Book of Revelation that describe the Holy City as a stable, welcoming, place, a haven for all people:

The nations will come to your light, And kings to your dawning brightness. Your gates will lie open continually, Shut neither by day nor by night. The sound of violence shall be heard no longer in your land, Or ruin and devastation within your borders. You will call your walls, Salvation, And your gates, Praise. No more will the sun give you daylight, Nor moonlight shine upon you. But the lord will be your everlasting light, Your God will be your splendor. For you shall be called the city of God, The dwelling of the Holy One of Israel.
(Isaiah 60. 1-3, 11a, 18, 19, 14b.)

Frederick Quinn, an Episcopal priest and former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, is the author of The Sum of All Heresies, The Image of Islam in Western Culture, published by Oxford University Press in 2008. These three articles are excerpted from his forthcoming book, “And I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth,” Religious Pluralism in a Global Age.

What does the Bible say about other religions

This is a second in a three part series on the evolving issue of Christian interaction with believers of other religions, what the Bible says about other religions, and how Christians can welcome the contributions of other faith traditions.

By Frederick Quinn

The first reference point for Christians in considering the place of other religions is the Bible. But here an immediate problem is that the Bible was written before Islam appeared in the Middle East and without an awareness of the content of the great Asian religions. Are its passages seemingly hostile to other religions aimed at the other great world religions? No, the biblical writers had something else in mind. Their focus was the hostile or incomplete belief systems surrounding the Hebrew people and early Christians at a time when they were carving out their own identity. Their affirmation of a newly discovered faith and the shortcomings they found in religions around them was in the strong language of passion and discovery. The biblical quest was toward finding the Messiah and Jesus, the Savior, not toward a balanced appraisal of world religions as they evolved historically.

As a way of considering the Bible’s relationship to other religions, it is possible to list several central passages into what appear to be “Closed” and “Open” categories, representing narrower roadblock and wider Reign of God or Kingdom of God interpretations. The more frequently cited passages erected as barriers supposedly excluding other religions are “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6) and “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved. ” (Acts 4.12), which biblical literalists usually cite as limiting divine salvation only to confessed Christians who have verbally accepted Jesus as savior during their lifetimes. This excludes much of humanity, then and now, since only a minority of the earth’s population will have heard of Jesus, and fewer still will have had a realistic chance of knowing much about Christianity as a religion. If this interpretation holds, only a handful of the world’s peoples gain salvation, while millions merit exclusion or damnation through no fault or effort of their own.

“The Bible should not be used as an ammunition belt.”
The Bible is much more than a series of isolated billboard slogans. If passages like the above are considered in the wider context of Acts and John’s Gospel, they are subsumed by the New Testament’s central theme, the cosmic, consistent love of God for all humanity and the created universe through Christ, proclaimed in the wider concept of the Reign of God. In the Johannine account this represents the “true light which enlightens everyone” (John 1.9) that “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1.14). God’s loving presence is manifest in all creation and all humanity, expressed as the true light and eternal Word that assumed mortal form in Jesus. “The Bible should not be used as an ammunition belt full of verse-size bullets to be fired off as they are needed,” Diana L. Eck has written. The director of the Harvard Pluralism Project describes the “I am the way…No one comes” (John 14.6) passage as the pastoral response of Jesus to a timorous disciple, Thomas, on the night before the death of Jesus. “It was a pastoral answer, not a polemical one,” she concludes, providing an expression of comfort, not condemnation, an expression of personal commitment to Christ, but not to the denigration or demonization of neighbors. Attempts to make this Johannine passage a narrow statement of God’s intent contrast with several other clearly more welcoming passages in that gospel, including “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) and “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” (John 10:16). The contrasts are clear.

The second passage often quoted by those who would limit the place of other religions in relation to Christianity is, “There is salvation in no one else,” (Acts 4:12). But this passage in context represents a more limited statement by Peter, who is pressed by hostile interrogators, and who makes a bold personal witness to the power of Jesus in his life. The Acts of the Apostles are filled with examples of the remarkable energy of the young church, and its members were bold and unambiguous in their declarations of their newly discovered Christian identity.

Other writers have suggested that passages like the above should be understood as the “survival language” of the young church, action language whose intent was to rally people to the new faith. These passages are not actual photographs or newsreel footage, but more like artist’s sketches attempting to capture the essence of an encounter. These affirmations are like “love language,” the extravagant, poetic language a lover might use to address the beloved.

Thus, the Roadblock passages should not be seen as creedal or doctrinal formulae, but strong affirmations of personal and communal faith. They represent an invitation to follow and act like Jesus, to rally Christians to faithful representations of the teachings of Jesus, not set up doctrinal roadblocks to exclude others.

The Reign of God, the Unifying Message of New Testament

Affirmation trumps rejection, welcome is stronger than exclusion, and the New Testament message is clear about that through its core message about the the Reign of God. The phrase “Reign of God”, Basileia tou Theou in Greek, Malkuth in Hebrew, appears over 150 times in the New Testament. It has been translated as the “Kingdom of God,” though that is misleading, especially if it connotes a specific political or geographic kingdom. Another translation might be the “reigning of God,” suggesting not a static kingdom, but an active, engaging process. Spoken of often by Jesus, yet never clearly defined, the Reign of God was proclaimed in general outline in the Sermon on the Mount (Mat. 5-7) and the Beatitudes (Mat. 5: 1-11), and reinforced elsewhere in the teaching mission of Jesus. At the heart of this message is a call for justice, freedom, love, and equality among peoples. This declaration represented a radical affront to the religious and political authorities he encountered, and Jesus paid for it with his life.

The New Testament Reign of God welcomes non-Christians as common seekers after a truth fully revealed in Jesus Christ but experienced in different historical settings by other religions as well. The Kingdom was consistently made available to outsiders. Jesus said to a Roman centurion, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” (Mat.: 8:10) To a Canaanite woman he declared in healing her daughter, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (Mat. 15:21-28). Jesus conversed with a foreigner, a Samaritan woman, (Jn. 4:7-15) who sought “living water” and elsewhere cited the example of the “good Samaritan” who had pity on a wounded robbery victim (Lk. 10: 29-37). Pagans, outsiders, or foreigners were consistently welcomed by Jesus, and at the final Passover dinner he told his followers he would not eat the Passover again “until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” (Lk 22: 16).

This, in broad outline, is a reading of what the Reign of God means. Many world theologians of recent decades understand the kingdom to be freely offered to both believers and members of other religions. If their lives and beliefs reflect what Jesus preached, they too are witnesses to the Kingdom in global settings. This moves considerably beyond Rahner’s “anonymous Christians” and the classic confines of Exclusivists and Inclusivists, and affirms that God’s loving reach extends to other religions, most of which the earthly Jesus would not have encountered in the Middle East of his time.

Keith Ward, in his recent book What the Bible Really Teaches, sketches an imaginary picture of what constitutes salvation in such a setting:

It would perhaps be a picture of a trillion trillion suns, of uncountable forms of conscious and creative life, of virtually endless reaches of space and time, universe upon universe, all held together in the mind of Christ, raised from destruction and decay of the material realm to participate in the deathless and trans-temporal nature of divine Wisdom. On one small planet at the edge of a small galaxy, one young man was taken to share in the divine nature, to disclose its final purpose and mediate its illimitable power to the inhabitants of that small world. And what they see is the ultimate transfiguration of time itself into eternity, the final reconciliation of the whole universe in Christ….What the Bible really teaches us about salvation is no less than that.

Frederick Quinn, an Episcopal priest and former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, is the author of The Sum of All Heresies, The Image of Islam in Western Culture, published by Oxford University Press in 2008. These three articles are excerpted from his forthcoming book, “And I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth,” Religious Pluralism in a Global Age.

How should Episcopalians regard other religions?

This is the first of three articles on the evolving issue of Christian interaction with believers of other religions, what the Bible says about other religions, and how Christians can welcome the contributions of other faith traditions.

By Frederick Quinn

During the first decade of the present century two key issues converged. First, globalization has resulted in the content of all major religions being far better known than at any previous point in world history. The Internet, greatly increased world travel, and the expanding influence of diaspora communities in every country has made that possible. Second, longstanding Western Christian dominance of the language of global Christian discourse has given way to numerous newer expressions of world Christianity, often-incorporating insights from other sacred traditions, especially those of Asia. “Jesus is an Asian,” nonwestern Christian colleagues remind us, causing a challenging reorientation of spiritual geography for most Westerners.

Yet as an outpouring of more information becomes available about other religions, greater cooperation and tolerance are not always a result. Tension and violence clothed in religious language remains prevalent features of international life. Some recent examples are of Christian churches being burned in Pakistan, mosques being destroyed in Nigeria, the continuing headscarf controversy in France, and the global impact of the New York Ground Zero mosque controversy, triggered by a Florida pastor’s threats to publicly burn copies of the Koran on 9/11. Such examples of religious-related violence change weekly, like headlines on an Internet newswire.

Most striking of all is the finding that globally Christians and nonChristians have little intentional contact with one another and coexist in largely separate worlds, despite being crowded together in megacities and rural villages. This important conclusion comes from the painstakingly detailed Atlas of Global Christianity complied by Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross and published by Edinburgh University Press (2009). The world’s 2, 292,454,000 Christians divide into 41,000 denominations. Christian numbers grow gradually, as do those of their expanding global religious neighbors: Muslims presently at 1,549,444,000; Hindus, 948,507,000; Buddhists, 468,736,000 and Jews, 14, 641,000. Still, despite steady growth of numbers on all sides, purposeful contact is awkward and infrequent.

Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism
How should Christians look at other religions? In the 1970s Alan Race, a pioneering figure in the global interfaith dialogue, developed a much-employed typology of Exclusivism, Inclusivism and Pluralism that remains widely used, especially by Christians, to describe their attitudes toward other faiths. It first appeared in Race’s book Christians and Religious Pluralism (1983). Race never meant for the categories to be water tight, and many people would say they don’t fit any of them. Still others find themselves in a transitional place.

<1> Exclusivism, “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (Outside the Church there is no salvation.)
Broadly cast, Exclusivism makes three claims: that the Christian Bible is the only source of religious revelation, that Jesus Christ is the sole agent of salvation, and that the church represents the only presence of God’s grace and salvation in history. Although Catholic and Protestant Exclusivists then split over which church, there was no question of either accepting the legitimacy of other, non-Christian religions. Exclusivist doctrine coalesced in Roman Catholicism with Cyprian (200-258), who introduced the longstanding concept of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation). Although originally aimed at heretics and schismatics, the doctrine gradually expanded to include Jews and pagans, and by the Council of Florence (1442) its broader interdictions were firmly in place. A Protestant version of Exclusivism was voiced by Judson Smith of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1896:

There is no faith which Christianity is not worthy to replace, which it is not destined to replace. It is not to share the world with Islam, or with Buddhism, or with any other religious system. It is the true religion for man in the Orient and in the Occident, in the first century and in the twentieth century and as long as time shall last.

<2> Inclusivism and “Anonymous Christians”
Inclusivism accepts that truth is contained in other religions but finds it represents less than the salvation offered through Christ. Inclusivism vaulted into prominence when the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) issued far more gracious comments about other religions than in any previous Vatican documents, including that they “often reflect a ray of truth” (Nostra Aetate.). Vatican II stopped short of saying such religions represented ways of salvation, but made clear the Catholic Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions (and) has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines” they represent.

The principal Inclusivist voice of modern times was the German Jesuit Karl Rahner, who popularized the phrase “anonymous Christians” in the Vatican II debates. Rahner had little personal interest in other religions and never sought to advance conditions for an interreligious dialogue. “Anonymous to whom?” later critics asked. As both the content and spirituality of other religions became increasingly well known, westerners found not sources of anonymity but wellsprings of deep riches not widely recognized in Rahner’s time.

<3> Pluralism and the “Complimentary Weaving of Textiles”
Pluralism represents a convergence of religious thought. It is not a doctrine but a process, not a destination but a launching point. While recognizing Christianity’s uniqueness, it does not elevate the Christian faith to a position of finality over other faith traditions, nor does it relegate others to lower, lesser places. Also, Pluralism requires an active dialogue among participants, not as a debate to be won or lost, but as a truth-seeking encounter that includes clear points of agreement and disagreement. On Pluralism, Race wrote, “There is no reason to doubt the validity of the religious apprehension of other religious traditions and every reason to accept their integrity….The spiritual fruits of the many faith traditions seem comparable: all have inspired saints and holy figures who have been active on either individual or sociopolitical levels.”

Christians engaged in such a journey should find their own deep faith affirmed. Pluralism implies an open-ended engagement where participants are not asked to abandon their deeply held positions, but to encounter numerous other fellow pilgrims on similar journeys. In such a setting, different world religions can represent different ways to salvation or fulfillment.

Many recent definitions of Pluralism draw on imagery considerably different from traditional black letter theological language. Employing several striking visual expressions, a Korean theologian has described Pluralism as a “complementary weaving of textiles.” Kim Kyoung-Jae of Han Shin Theological Seminary employs images of Turkish and Native American rugs, Chinese and Korean silk weavings, and Tibetan and Buddhist woven shoulder bags. Each represents a blend of colors, patterns, and materials that lead to a unique final product reflecting both unity and distinct differences. The contribution of East Asian Christian culture can be thus understood as a “complementary weaving process” integrating shared gifts from other world religions. But the idea of such complementary enfolding of different strains has deep Christian origins, the new dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, reminded the Church in her installation sermon on November 7, 2010. Jane Shaw, former Dean of Divinity at New College, Oxford University, spoke of the wider implications of God’s “knitting together your elect in one communion and fellowship,” from the All Saints’ Day collect in the Book of Common Prayer (1662).

“The lamps are different, but the Light is the same.”
Finally, Pluralism is not some sort of super way above all other ways. Much religious language is metaphorical, pointing to a transcendent or ultimate reality. Such poetic and imaginative imagery does not offer literal descriptions of the divine, but provides symbolic language that approaches such mysteries. Some such descriptions include a journey toward a mountain or mountains, movement from darkness to light, or obstacles to be overcome on a path toward the holy. This convergence of world religions is represented in the words of the thirteenth century Persian poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, “Out beyond our ideas of right and wrong there is a field, I’ll meet you there.” Rumi also said, “The lamps are different, but the Light is the same.” Frank Griswold, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, used both quotes to illustrate the religious journey. Such approaches suggest the need for a climate of flexibility and willingness to engage in dialogue, a more open setting among Western Christians based on wider knowledge of and interaction with the members of other faith traditions.

One version of respectful Christian prayer for members of other religions is expressed in a fraction anthem, used at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, drawn from an English source: “We break this bread for those who journey with us: for those who travel the way of the Hindus, for those who follow the path of the Buddha. For our sisters and brothers of Islam. For the Jewish people from whom we come, and for all who walk the way of faith.”

Frederick Quinn, an Episcopal priest and former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, is the author of The Sum of All Heresies, The Image of Islam in Western Culture, published by Oxford University Press in 2008. These three articles are excerpted from his forthcoming book, “And I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth,” Religious Pluralism in a Global Age.

Say no to Christian seders

By Ann Fontaine

As Holy Week nears I see church bulletins and websites publicizing liturgies and events, welcoming others to come and participate. One of the more popular offerings is a Seder. As soon as I see this, I remember a student colleague from divinity school saying, “Why do you Christians steal our sacred rites? You have not suffered as we have suffered at your hands, yet you feel free to take our liturgies for your pleasure.”

This is similar to questions Native Americans ask when Euro-Americans hold sweat lodge ceremonies. How can those of us who have not walked the path of another tradition and lived with the oppression and violence skim off the cream of an “interesting” ritual? Doesn’t taking a ritual out of it’s cultural context cut off its roots? Rather than a living tradition, tended and shaped by history and the life around it, the ritual seems to become only the flower picked for its ability to decorate.

Asking others why they have the ceremonies out of the context in which they emerged I receive a variety of answers. Many have never thought about the roots of the ritual. They enjoyed it and thought nothing more of it.

In the case of a Seder - a rationale is that Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples or Christianity emerged from Judaism so we are just continuing that tradition. A second reason give is as a learning experience about another religion.

If it were not for the history of justification by Christians for violence against Jews and the Holocaust, perhaps holding a Seder could be seen as a fairly benign practice of pretending to be another by trying out their rituals. I wonder, though, how Christians would feel about Jews or Muslims having play Eucharists? Dressing someone up like a priest and saying the words from the Book of Common Prayer?

Addressing some of the reasons that are given in spite of the history

Jonathan Klawans, writing in Biblical Archaeology Review, discusses the question - Was the Last Supper a Seder? The short answer is “Most likely, it was not.”

Most scholars currently doubt that the Passover meal and the Last Supper were the same or even historically related. The Gospels do not offer a consistent timing of the Last Supper. Also where are the other elements: bitter herbs, the lamb, the four cups of wine?

Modern day celebrations of the Passover are a melding of traditions from shortly after the destruction of the Temple (70AD), through the early church and Middle Ages using the Exodus story as the base. To this day more is being added to the Haggadah (the book that is used for the Seder)

It was, however, common in the time of Jesus for followers to have meals together with their leader. There is record of this among many groups centered around a single leader.

According to Klawans:

In Chapters 9 and 10 of the Didache, the eucharistic prayers are remarkably close to the Jewish Grace After Meals (Birkat ha-Mazon).7 While these prayers are recited after the Passover meal, they would in fact be recited at any meal at which bread was eaten, holiday or not. Thus, this too underscores the likelihood that the Last Supper was an everyday Jewish meal.

The German New Testament scholar Karl Georg Kuhn believes that contrary to Jesus having a Seder with his disciples the synoptics actually prohibit it. Kuhn notes:
… that the synoptic Last Supper tradition attributes to Jesus a rather curious statement of abstinence: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Paschal lamb with you before I suffer, for I tell you that I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God...[and] I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:15–18; cf. Mark 14:25 [“I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God”]=Matthew 26:29). The synoptics’ placement of the Last Supper in a Passover context should be read along with Jesus’ statement on abstinence; in this view, the tradition that the Last Supper was a Passover meal argues that Christians should mark the Passover not by celebrating, but by fasting, because Jesus has already celebrated his last Passover.

It seems that perhaps Christians should not celebrate at all during Passover and especially not Seders.

What then could Christian do for a meal during Holy Week if we take seriously the objection of our Jewish brothers and sisters? One possibility is to attend a Seder offered to non-Jews by Jewish synagogues or friends. In one church I served – a Jewish family invited the members of that church to a Seder. It has become a long-standing tradition and has helped the two religious traditions get to know one another and work together on other projects. In another, a church began its life renting space in a synagogue. Now that the church has its own building, the 2 groups along with the nearby Presybterian church, who also started in the synagogue, have a lamb dinner together with each contributing food for the meal.

Another possibility is to use an early church Eucharist combined with the footwashing on Maundy Thursday. The rite of Hippolytus is from the third century (c. 225 AD). The Education for Ministry Common Lessons and Supporting Materials has a form of this service. Combining the early eucharist with the service of footwashing can offer a better teaching experience.

Other churches offer Agape or fellowship meals. An example can be found in the United Methodist Book of Worship. This could be an opportunity to learn about our joint agreement between the UMC and TEC.

No doubt there are other ideas your church has experienced you can share. Holy Week can be a time of sharing meals and deepening our spiritual lives without ripping off the spirituality of others.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Lessons for Christians in the history of the Bahai faith

By Adrian Worsfold

When I was confirmed into the Church of England in 1984 I asked some Baha'is I met at their firesides to come along. None did. In the end I fell out with the Baha'is as I discovered academic material that presented their history differently from their own. They are very committed to the preservation of their history as monitored by the Universal House of Justice, the nine seater male-only assembly meant to be a combined secular and religious decision making body for the world, elected without campaigns by the National Spiritual Assemblies below them, these elected by delegates from the Local Spiritual Assemblies below them. It is a very conserving system, a sort of democratic centralism: what the top level says goes.

Very quickly summarising: the origins of the Baha'i Faith are in the Babi faith that developed out of Shia Islam in Iran and Iraq. They were waiting for the return of the Hidden Twelfth Imam and a Holy War for the victory of Islam. In 1844 Sayyid Ali Muhammed Shrirazi claimed to be the Bab, the Gateway to the returning Imam. When he didn't appear at Karbala, Sayyid Ali Muhammed escalated his status in stages to the Imam, then the Prophet and then superseding to a new Manifestation of God. The movement was surrounded by violence, and started much of it themselves. The Bab appointed Mirza Yahya (or Sub-i-Azal) to be his successor, but after the Bab was killed by the authorities the violence continued and the movement was in severe decline. Sub-i-Azal's half brother, Mirza Husayn Ali, an elite Persian convert, built up his own faction and in 1863 he, Baha'u'llah (Glory of God) announced himself as the Bab's next Manifestation of God. The authorities never left either faction alone, and the Azalis ended up in Cyprus and the Baha'is at Palestine. However, Baha'u'llah, in the course of the compulsory travels and his declaration to the few and then the world of his status, read Sufi and New Testament material, and completely remodelled the faith as it came into the Western orbit, making itself syncretistic in character, peaceful and expecting the unification of the world.

Baha'u'llah died in 1892, and Abbas Effendi, his eldest son, or Abdul-Baha, became the leader and only interpreter or "Centre of the Covenant". Here there was factionalism, as a group known as the Unitarians (people of the Book, not Abdul-Baha's interpretations) broke out and were excommunicated. The Young Turks' victory meant an end to imprisonment, and Abdul Baha became a traveller around the West even more spiritualising and Westernising the movement, and was a charismatic figure as he attended mosques, Christian and Unitarian (the other sort) churches and synagogues.

After he died Shoghi Effendi became the first Guardian. Some Germans did not accept the validity of Abdul Baha's will appointing him and so the Free Baha'is emerged for a time. Shoghi Effendi should have had a serving Universal House of Justice under him, but he did not set it up. He should have left a will, but either he didn't or it never appeared. So when he died in 1957 there was a crisis of leadership, after which in 1963 the Universal House of Justice was formed and took to itself powers of the Guardian, most importantly the sole power to interpret and the power to excommunicate.

The chief of Hands of the Cause, a forerunner to the UHJ, Mason Remey, thought he should be the new Guardian. Factions have arisen ever since from that branch, including one that now thinks the second Guardian was presumptive, but so was the Universal House of Justice taking power to itself.

The UHJ produces plans for growth. The millennial nature of the Bahai Faith is that it expects the Most Great Peace to arrive (instead we had George Bush) and a tipping point where "troops" of people convert to the Bahai Faith. Unfortunately, the Bahai Faith has been born in a rather irreligious age in Europe, and other than some growth in developing countries, Europe has been slow and with a high turnover of members. Plus, the UHJ in Haifa has a habit of turning members who don't submit to censorship panels into covenant breakers. There are also quite a few people who find themselves mysteriously removed from the rolls of membership, but in the age of the Internet they continue the faith themselves with new freedom, the name Baha'i being in the public realm. A problem for the Haifa Baha'is is that only they can raise money for themselves, and members who can participate in Feasts as well as Firesides find themselves locked into administration details: the Baha'i Faith is an "Administrative Order" after all.

So at each stage of leadership transition elite groups have competed and been excluded, and it is reasonable to say that the quest for unity has been a failure because of its high cost in factions and breakaways, and now there is a more relaxed Bahaism emerging of excluded or drifter individuals. It matters not that the Universal House of Justice only recognises itself as legitimate, because anyone can read the Kitab-i-Iqan and Kitabi-i-Aqdas and the published materials that Shoghi Effendi translated into his strained olde-worlde English. Even infallibility is being questioned by individuals let loose.

The Bahai Faith is useful for Christians and Christian theology in a number of ways.

First of all we see something of a parallel in the Bab as a kind of announcer of a new manifestation, although he became what he expected. He gets positioned like a John the Baptist, and probably John the Baptist was his own man too. Then we have the central manifestation (Incarnation) figure, Baha'u'llah. Then we have the very important St. Paul figure, who becomes such an important interpreter and spreader into new cultures and giving a further twist to the faith.

Then we have the issue of authority. There is something of the Pope in the Guardian, of course, but the UHJ is like Orthodoxy or Roman Catholic centralism - with knobs on. In fact it is very Weberian-bureaucratic, and very pyramidal. Weber regarded such with great pessimism: it was anti the life-giving enchantment that he thought religion supplied.

The other lesson is that of allowing theology to grow organically and in diversity. There is a distinct double identity problem of Baha'i member scholarship in secular institutions including that of religious studies departments. It does the Baha'i Faith no favours. We see similar with some Roman Catholics. If Christians become more subject to such pressures of membership conformity, then there is a distortion to both the academic sphere and to the representational sphere.

I also suggest that Christians should express the truth as they find it even when it conflicts with doctrines or interpretations of the Bible. If there is some compelling finding about, say, the Jesus of history as an endtime Jewish rabbi, then this should come first, or at least people should be honest about the layer-cake nature of doctrines or how people interpret the Bible.

Older faiths have developed more maturity with time. They can sit light and worry less about how their faiths are represented. Or at least this is what we thought, as the Christian world gave rise to a secular and plural world.

There are pressures to go along a road of such as the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. There is a narrowing of what is legitimate expression of a faith, and there are calls for excluding those who are not biblical enough. An Anglican Communion, properly understood, would become a World Wide Anglican Church with authoritative statements handed down, with again distant high-up forms of selection of those with centralised power.

Who knows how these developments will work out. The Baha'is could not predict their own future, despite the claimed infallibility of the words of both their Manifestation of God and Centre of the Covenant. So Anglicans cannot predict theirs! Nevertheless, if secularisation and plurality lead down the road to authoritarianism and centralisation, there are going to be quite a few Anglican Communion Covenant Breakers who will continue to define the faith in a broad way, however they organise, meet and link up together.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

Religious freedom in a diverse, secular society

By Luiz Coelho

It took several hours and the hardwork of many skilled professionals to install the huge Vermont-granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court in Montgomery. The sculpture, which was donated by benefactors, weighed more than five thousand pounds, and the process of installing the monument was so arduous and impressive that it was filmed by professional cameramen. However, despite the difficulties, Chief Justice Roy Stewart Moore was proud to announce to the media on the morning of August 1, 2001, the successful installation of the monument.

This story might sound like an ordinary episode in the history of public administration in the United States. It was not, though. The monument also portrayed, alongside the Judeo-Christian foundations of moral living, quotes from the Declaration of Independence, the United States’ National Anthem, and various sayings of the Founding Fathers. Many were in favor of the creation of the monument; however, many were also opposed to its installation in the Supreme Court rotunda, because they felt it overstepped the bounds of separation of Church and State. Several organizations filed suit in the United States District Court, asking for the removal of such a monument. Moore, who was already known for trying to implement prayer before trials and for taking his own portable Ten Commandments tablets to court, used the powers of his Office to resist the removal of the sculpture as long as he could. However, eight members of the Alabama Supreme Court intervened, unanimously overruled Moore, and ordered the removal of the monument. In the end, both the monument and Judge Moore were removed from the building.

Moore's story is not an isolated case. In several other instances of American public life, the Courts have removed religious symbols, such as crosses, crèches, and ten commandment tablets, from the public square in the last fifty years at least. Prayers in such environments are also heard less frequently. It can be said that in the United States, religion has been playing a less and less important role in public affairs altogether, even though conservative Christians are still seen in prominent circles both in society and the government.

Some see this trend as a direct attack against “traditional American values”, and – at least their perception of – the society that the forefathers of the United States worked to create. They often cite how peaceful and prosperous life was in the past, when “the Christian God” had a place of public honor among Americans. Many would argue, also, that freedom of religion has always been guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution, and that religious minorities have always had the right to build houses of worship. Are these views and arguments valid? Was religious freedom so evident in the past? Or, was it plainly masqueraded by a certain majority who belonged to one kind of faith only, and who created a set of structures to secure it? How worse, or better, are we now?

Like many people of faith, I dearly welcome the advent of real religious freedom, especially because it frees us to deal with symbols related to the religious life. It might be interesting, then, to see some examples of how public expressions of religion actually have changed in the last fifty years, and if they really helped us achieve more tolerance and full separation between church and state.

It would be inconceivable nowadays to demand anyone to hold to a particular religious viewpoint or to express a belief in God in order to hold a public office. Yet, fifty years ago, it was possible for public organizations to have prerequisites that would limit access to such jobs to people of faith only. For example, in the early sixties, Roy Torcaso was denied his appointment as a Notary Public in Maryland because he refused to declare a belief in God. Article 37 of Maryland's Declaration of Rights stated that a declaration of belief in the existence of God was necessary for any office, profit or trust in that state. The case went to the Supreme Court in 1961, and the Justices unanimously found Maryland's requirement a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. That decision established a legal precedent which created a paradigm shift in the role of faith in the public square. From then on, an acknowledgement of a given religious belief ceased to be a prerequisite for public jobs in every part of the country.

Another example of changing attitudes toward the place of religion in the public square during the last fifty years can be seen in the public schools. The elderly can still recall that it was not uncommon to say prayers, sing religious hymns or even have obligatory religious services in public schools. A series of court rulings, however, has changed the possibility of such practices today. These rulings were the results of complaints by citizens, such as a group of parents of students in New Hyde Park, New York, who complained in 1966 that a public prayer to “Almighty God” was against their beliefs. The case, which became known as Engel v. Vitale, went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that government-directed prayers in public schools are a violation of the Establishment cause. Since that ruling, it has become more and more difficult to hear prayers said in public schools, and subsequent attempts to allow them have been defeated in court. Prayers in educational institutions are confined nowadays, to chaplaincies, religious clubs or associations of common-minded people. But, in no case may a person be obliged to participate in public prayers in school.

Such lawsuits and governmental measures have not appeared out of nowhere. They reflect, in fact, a very noticeable paradigm shift on the American religious scene. When the British allowed European settlers to establish colonies in these lands, most of them belonged to Christian religious groups, often Protestant denominations, although some Jewish settlers found a home here as well. With an increasing immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this profile changed to include more Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Judeo-Christian religious ideology was still the norm, however, and it is reasonable to say that fifty years ago the overwhelming majority of Americans were Christians, or believers in God. This pattern started to change when immigration from non-Christian countries began to increase.

In their American Religious Identification Survey, researchers at the City University of New York discovered that from 1990 to 2001, the number of people in the United States ,who have a religion other than Christianity increased from 5.8 million to 8.7 million. Such a number, albeit still small, reflects a sizeable minority, which practically did not exist years ago.

Much more significant than the increase in non-Christians is the increase of people who identify as atheist and agnostic. Non-religious people were usually a very small and intellectual minority in the first half of the twentieth century. Today, they compose about fourteen percent of the American population, as pointed out in the aforementioned study, after having more than doubled in size from fourteen million people to practically thirty million people between 1990 and 2001. Together with non-Christians, they compose practically twenty percent of the American population – a percentage that is growing, according to the study.

The gradual secularization of the public square is merely a response to a more religiously diverse society. It is now impossible to ignore non-Christians and those who profess no faith at all. The removal of religious symbols, sometimes under serious protest, is the most neutral answer to a truly pluralistic society, rooted in the freedom of religion articulated in the United States Constitution and several other historical documents of this country.

It has to be said, though, that not only has the percentage of those who identify with a specific religion changed, but the profile of the typical religious American has also changed. In The Fifties Spiritual Marketplace: American Religion in a Decade of Conflict, Robert Ellwood argues that religious traditions in the 1950s were largely intensified by socio-political conditions. He believes that religious organizations used to provide a very important framework upon which families built their lives in the postwar period. Routine religion was part of what was perceived as normalcy, and after all the chaos of previous decades, people needed normalcy. Religion was also seen as the amalgama of American families – especially at a time many families were marked by the loss of beloved relatives. Finally, being religious was a sign of anti-communism; and, the cold war, with all of its implications, was often portrayed as a kind of Armageddon in many households. Back then, religion was completely intertwined with the way society was organized.

However, throughout the last fifty years, a series of movements in American society, such as the sexual revolution, women empowerment, the end of the cold war and fast communications, have drastically changed what Americans might call “family”. What is perceived as a familial arrangement in today’s society does not always correspond to the vision our grandparents shared. There are manifold types of families in our times and a direct genetic link between relatives does not exist in all of them. Families now include both heterosexual and homosexual partners, stepchildren, adopted children, remarried spouses, half-siblings, close friends and a myriad of other groups of people which would take pages to define. Religion, under this new context, is not necessaily the glue that holds families together. Common Sunday after-church luncheons have given way to cell phone calls or even e-mails. And with the rise of the so-called “religious right” in the government, the merger between religion and politics à la the cold war is not viewed favorably in more liberal circles.

Such conclusions are often misinterpreted as the final defeat of religion in the United States. Yet, it can be said that religious freedom was probably never more celebrated and protected in U. S. History as it is in our contemporary, pluralistic society today. The largely-Christian/largely-familial religious environment of the fifties posed a much greater threat to freedom of faith. People were often forced, by social conventions, to follow the same religion (and in many cases, the same denomination) as their parents and grandparents. Marriages often took place within such religious circles, regardles of the true beliefs of the participants. The scenario, nowadays, is markedly different. The latest survey by the Pew Forum of Religious and Public Life reveals an astonishing piece of information: nearly half of American adults leave the faith tradition of their upbringing, either to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether. Roman Catholic and Protestant mainline churches have lost members to newer Christian groups. Those who lack faith, are increasingly comfortable in leaving religious organizations they once belonged to for primarily social reasons. Yet once people find a religion that fulfills their needs, they are moe likely to adhere to it faithfully, and to try to engage in all the possibilities that it provides. Religion is to our generation, therefore, is much more a matter of personal choice than it was fifty years ago.

When the religious spectrum was monolithic, public manifestations of the majority faith were not bothersome to most people. Now, in a much more varied religious climate, it seems logical not to encourage any particular brand of faith in a public space. Thus, the much-criticized secularization of public places is actually an important step toward protecting religious freedom, and creating a more diverse and equaitalbe society. It helps reinforce the values enshrined in the U. S. Constitution and respects people's rights to choose whether to have a faith or be part of a religious institution. It also protects newer churches and religious groups from state-sponsored propaganda of older ones. And, as long as religions have the right to worship in their houses of prayer and act according to their beliefs, their rights are protected. The ongoing changes are definitely for the common good.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

A dialog with atheism

By Martin L. Smith

What kind of conversation should there be between Christians and atheists? One way of looking at that question is to consider this to be an invitation to a kind of interfaith dialogue, and one that serious Christians should equip themselves to conduct.

Today interfaith dialogue is literally coming home. It isn’t something to be reserved for experts on official commissions. Our daughter might return from college having adopted Tibetan Buddhism. Our brother might marry a keen and eloquent Muslim wife. Hindu neighbors might move in next door. We might become close friends with a new co-worker who is deeply observant Jew. But the chances are just as high we will be spiritually face to face with a humanist agnostic or committed atheist. I am not talking about someone who is merely tone-deaf when it comes to religion. I mean atheism chosen as a moral commitment—and that kind of atheism can be understood as a type of (non-religious) faith, and therefore a world-view and commitment that invites our conversation.

Think of serious agnosticism and atheism as a stance of faith. Its adherents believe human beings can and must create for themselves lives that are worth living, that we must forge values that work now without the claims of a supernatural source. It believes that though human beings enjoy only a few decades of existence and our species is destined for extinction, yet the adventure of human existence is sufficiently glorious to be lived well.

Now, as the late Bishop Krister Stendhal has reminded us, the only kind of interfaith dialogue worthy of the name is a conversation between equals that puts both parties at risk of being drawn to adopt the other person’s belief; so we must mean business and take that risk. If the outcome is that someone comes to know God through our conversation that is great. But even if she doesn’t, it will do us good to discover that atheists have something important to contribute to our religious faith. They can keep us more rigorously honest. Their challenges can have a purging effect and jolt us into more mature belief.

Take ethics and morals. Unfortunately, Christians bear some responsibility for the popular caricature of religion in which choosing good and avoiding evil seems to be governed by fear of divine punishment or expectation of divine favor. Go deep in conversation with our humanist neighbor and we might discover a commitment to justice, decency, compassion, even to virtue, for their own sake. The idea that atheists are intrinsically likely to believe that anything goes morally is a slander. So in dialogue with humanists, Christians may find themselves more in agreement than they imagine. When I talk with an avowed humanist committed to social justice and strong personal ethics of compassion and fidelity, I find myself in hearty agreement that goodness is to be chosen from the heart because it is good, as our mystics have always held. Making a choice from fear of punishment is spiritually infantile.

And what about superstition and religious illusion? In a sense, much of the critique that atheists direct at religion is an offshoot of the biblical critique. If we knew how to read the Bible properly, we would find that a great deal of it is devoted to exposing the elements of illusion and self-deception in so much human religiosity. It isn’t that the prophets merely attacked pagan idolatries as superstitious and toxic. They directed their most devastating analyses to the religion of their own people, all in the name of a very mysterious God who refused to be represented by any image, and who inspired his messengers to vigorously disassociate him from a host of practices performed supposedly in his name. It is out of this prophetic critique that the Jewish saying arose, “The next best thing to believing in the Lord is not to believe in God!”

Another incentive for American Christians to enter into dialogue with atheists, not just intellectual counter-attack, is that they can remind us that God is not obvious. Most Americans claim to believe in God and our cultural climate favors the idea that the existence of God is somehow obvious. But God is far from obvious, and our atheist friends can recall us to that truth. Faith is faith, not taking something for granted. There are millions of intelligent people who aren’t prejudiced against spirituality but who see no signs of the existence of God when they look hard at the same world we live in as people of faith. It is very healthy for Christians to realize how mysteriously hidden God is. We believe that God is hidden intentionally. If God were obvious, our devotion would be coerced. It is because we can say No to the being of God that when we do say Yes we are acting in real freedom.

Martin Smith is well-known in the Episcopal Church and beyond as a priest, writer, preacher and leader of retreats. Through such popular works as A Season for the Spirit and The Word is Very Near You and in numerous workshops, lectures and retreats, he continues to explore a contemporary spirituality that encourages a lively conversation between new knowledge and the riches of tradition.

Episcopalians, Unitarians and Catholics--Free, Liberal and otherwise

By Adrian Worsfold

One wonders if The Episcopal Church as a body is wearied by the constant ideological attacks made upon it by the more conservative of Christians, especially those coming out of its ranks. It and its leadership are commonly accused of Unitarianism. Perhaps this comparison ought to be examined.

The Anglo-American strand of Unitarianism is liberal at every level. It does not have checks and balances via structural overlaps in its liberalism, but rather is independent and liberal at each and every level and it all works by persuasion and goodwill (or doesn't). Thus the model is without creeds and articles, and is congregational and evolutionary. American Unitarianism was always congregational, the English too. The Anglican Church was actually resistant and oppositional to the congregationalists of the East coast of the United States. Although The Episcopal Church has inherited much in the way of American democratic culture, it keeps a qualified episcopal system. It keeps creeds and is somewhat systematic. It has congregations but is not made by congregations.

Now there have always been points of crossing over. King's Chapel was the first Episcopal Church in New England. Loyalists to Britain were forced out in 1776 and it closed. A year later congregationalists displaced by the British effectively opened it up, sharing with Episcopalians until 1783, when their own chapel was refurbished, and James Freeman was selected to be the minister at Kings Chapel among the Episcopalians, and it was agreed that he would not have to read the Athanasian Creed. He read Joseph Priestley's A History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782) and Theophilus Lindsey's An Historical View of the State of the Unitarian Doctrine and Worship from the Reformation to our own Times (1783) and became Unitarian, and the congregation on hearing some sermons adopted a qualified Unitarian stance. The church nevertheless retains something of an Anglican ethos to this day. Lindsey is important, because he was an Anglican rector in the north of England who resigned his orders when the Feathers Tavern petition against subscription to the Thirty-nine articles failed, and he opened the first named Unitarian Church in 1774, using an Arian liturgy produced by the Anglican Samuel Clarke. The important point often made is that Arianism was more important in the Anglican Church than in English Unitarianism and of course there were Anglican Latitudinarians too, a long word for liberal. After that some Anglicans and some Unitarians co-operated, and there were individuals who crossed over in both directions, and continue to do so to this day. One wonders if the downgrading since Lindsey's day of the Thirty-nine Articles to "historic formularies" receiving a general assent in the Church of England would have satisfied him.

People forget that while John Henry Newman went on his travels from gothic Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, his brother Francis went in the opposite direction from Anglicanism through Unitarianism. Blanco White went from Roman Catholicism via Anglicanism to Unitarianism. I know today of a Unitarian who is now Roman Catholic, and there is a vicar in Essex who was once a Unitarian minister, and indeed an important person in my own religious travels (now deceased) started off as a Anglo-Catholic ordained in St Paul's Cathedral and ended up as a humanist-Buddhist and symbols-using Unitarian minister in London.

Of course there are Unitarian Christians who have an ecumenical outlook and who draw on the theology produced by liberal Anglicans. Many an Anglican has read Unitarian Christian writing with sympathy. The oddity is that Unitarian Christianity is conservative (I never got on with it; I went down more progressive routes) whereas Anglican liberalism is what it indicates. The two Churches are quite different in approach and ethos, and it is why Unitarian Universalism how has humanist, neo-Pagan, Eastern and Christian wings, and an identifiable Christianity is a minor element of that Church. The British Unitarian Church is more liberal Christian, but shares the same constituencies as the American Church.

There is of course the central European Unitarian tradition that has and retains a catechism, that is a Unitarian form of Protestant Christianity, and was Socinian in Poland and Unitarian in Transylvania, and with repression spread itself to the Netherlands to affect other communities.

One wonders whether the critics of The Episcopal Church actually make the best comparison with Unitarians when they want to accuse it of liberalism. Why not instead attempt to compare it with Liberal Catholicism?

Now Liberal Catholicism does retain apostolic succession, and it does retain some creeds (it tends to keep the Apostles Creed and quietly drop the Nicene Creed). It is, however, very theologically diverse - indeed in terms of groups with apostolic succession in goes the full distance, from strict Eastern Orthodoxy and ultra-Romanism right through to anarchy. Rather than have any pretence to centralisation, they all pursue the autocephalous understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy whilst recognising the apostolic orders. Personally I think the autocephalous understanding would be a better model for Anglicanism than the intended centralisation of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems all too often to describe the Anglican Communion as an Anglican Church. He wants to make it recognisable to Roman Catholicism as a body, but to do so would be highly innovative and a Covenant to do this would cause enormous institutional strain and almost certain division by rejection. The cost of the autocephalous route, however, would inevitably be more than one Anglicanism in a geographical area - something that has already happened.

Liberal Catholicism is part of what sometimes is called the phenomenon of Episcopi Vagantes. It is actually misleading, because there should be something like 45,000 Liberal Catholics in the world (still tiny) and some eight million independent Catholics.

There are different lines of apostolic succession and they are quite complex. My interest has been more ideological. Roughly speaking there are two strands. The first might be called Liberal Catholic Theosophical. Arnold Harris Mathew was made a bishop by the Old Catholic Church that has deep origins in the Netherlands and then in the rejection of the 1870 decision by the Pope to regard himself and all successors as infallible. Mathew came back to Britain and gathered around him some priests, most of whom became interested in Theosophy. Tolerant at first, he then dismissed them, and also personally tried to reconcile himself with Rome (he had been Roman and Anglican - and even Unitarian for a moment). His relationship with the Anglican leadership was difficult because he reordain very many Anglo-Catholic priests worried about the validity of their orders. It is from this relationship that English Anglicanism has an ideological chip on its shoulder about Episcopi Vagantes (whereas Roman Catholicism seems more relaxed).

Mathew consecrated his successor, who then consecrated one of the Theosophy interested priests, James Ingall Wedgwood (of the pottery family), in 1916, and he consecrated Charles Webster Leadbeater, also in 1916, who was the real deal when it came to pursuing Theosophy and a magical view of the eucharist. He had also been a Buddhist (which also allows a rather magical interpretation in the richer traditions). The current various descendents of Liberal Catholicism regard Theosophy with variable levels of importance, and Leadbeater himself forsaw a time when it would not be important. Liberal Catholicism has a history of splits and has a number of branches.

A second ideological source comes from the Unitarians. For convenience I call it Free Catholicism (which is how it called itself). Joseph Morgan Lloyd Thomas took the liturgical and Victorian gothic Free Christian tradition to a Catholic liturgical logic along with ecumenical friends including the congregationalist W. E. Orchard. This is just a few years after the outbreak of Liberal Catholicism. Free Catholicism did become trinitarian, after a fashion, but promoted creedless sacramentalism. Another strand is from Ulric Vernon Herford, who came from a family of Unitarian ministers. He had ordinary ministries in East Anglia and the west of England, but had mixed with the liturgical side of Unitarianism and indeed partly trained with Anglo-Catholics in Oxford. He then moved his Oxford congregation into a semi-monastic and liturgically richer setting and had a grand world-ecumenical vision, being ordained and consecrated in India along the lines of the Syro-Chaldean (Nestorian) Church and Roman Catholic Church, Syro-Chaldean Rite. He did not change his theology - he continued to be in all effect Unitarian. It seems that he assumed a Unitarianism of sorts in his consecrator and his consecrator Luis Mariano Suares, Mar Basilius, assumed a trinitarianism in Herford.

I would like to think that Free Catholicism adds a rationality to the more magical tradition that is Liberal Catholicism - that would be my own bias I suppose. Free Catholicism did not continue like Liberal Catholicism did, and Unitarianism is biased against it - it regards the founders as unreliable, detached and against the ethos of Unitarianism. I used to think they were missing a trick or three (especially in a more symbolic postmodern age), and it is a principle reason why I moved to the Anglicans for a more liturgical and eucharistic setting, and a faith path or spiritual discipline.

One gets the connection, but I realise that I stretch Anglicanism as far as it can go (and possibly too far). My own religious beginnings were in liberal theological Anglicanism - and I moved to the Unitarians, and from them moved back to the Anglicans. I am one of those who has crossed the borders. I probably live in the borders, a sort of religious Northumberland.

My resistance to Liberal Catholicism is pretty thin, but I am put off by the esoteric and magical. The mainline Christian traditions make a point of distinguishing between the supernatural and the magical. Magic means power invested in the individual, whereas the supernatural is a vertical channel from God and presumably more reliable. However, the whole priestly "ontological difference" and Orders business does come pretty close to magic, and magic can be in the service of people just as kingship can be. My own argument is more about having rationality as an approach: for me mainline Christianity leads to a kind of self-emptying and burial of the supernatural (in the end) and the magical is something else. Incidentally, I was also involved in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, which, as well as stressing its own multiple apostolic succession (!), made a distinction between what is essential and what is culturally added on. I carry some of that, though I think religion is all cultural. My view of apostolic succession is that it is just a point of identity and continuity: I don't give it power. My own view of the eucharist is rather more social anthropological too, at root, as to how it 'works'.

Magic is not compulsory in all Liberal Catholicism, just as Theosophy usually is not, but it gets a friendly press because it offers an explanation for apostolic succession and eucharistic power. Now, if you limit the magic, is there any substantive difference between Liberal Catholicism and some tendencies in Anglicanism? Are they not more similar than liberal Anglicanism and Unitarianism as it has evolved? I simply ask the question. One wonders about the Protestantism in the equation. It could just be that Anglicanism, whilst it has its near neighbours, cannot be compared with anything, and that it is an utterly unique animal. It might regard itself as part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, whatever others may think, but nevertheless it is its own culture as are the other branches of the Pauline derived varieties.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

"To Win the New Asia for Christ”

By Frederick Quinn

“To win the New Asia for Christ” was a widely employed missionary concept in the immediate World War II years. But half a century later less than two to five per cent of Asia is Christian. The number is still lower if the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines is excluded from the count. Having spent time recently in Myanmar, Indonesia, Singapore (as a tourist), and the Philippines (as a lecturer), and after talking with laity and clergy of different denominations, several observations come to mind:

1.) Asia has become a world-class exporter of theology. With the plateauing of major German and English language theological writers, names like the Sri Lankan Catholic Aloysius Pieris, the Taiwanese Protestant C. S. Song, and the New Zealand Anglican, Jenny Te Paa, have gained global recognition for their different contributions.

Pieris for linking the social-economic emphasis of Latin American Liberation theologians with Asia’s poor, whom he contends must be the center of any missionary effort.

Song as a leader in the widespread contextual theology movement that allows individuals and communities to tell their deeply meaningful stories with religious implications, relate them to the life and teachings of Jesus, and from the ground up build theologies derived from them.

Te Paa as a respected voice in the global Anglican Communion. Her bridging of Maori and white New Zealand cultures and their complex race relations serves as a model for similar efforts elsewhere.

2.) Hunger for contact with Western churches is widespread. Priests and laity often shared details of their lives in long and heartfelt detail. An Episcopal Church “Fulbright Program” would have real benefits. While many American parishes, dioceses, and seminaries already have such exchange programs with overseas partners, they could be greatly increased as a way of promoting wider understanding.

3.) On the one occasion when the subject came up, there was real interest in and support for ordaining women and persons of single sex orientation to ministry and episcopacy. Ex: before discussing these issues with a group Asian church leaders, I spent the previous evening rereading To Set Our Hope on Christ, the Episcopal Church’s much-neglected but comprehensive response to the Windsor Report. I expected questions about the biblical justification for such ordinations, but none were forthcoming. Instead, participants (about half women and half men) wanted to hear details of the Episcopal Church’s half-century struggle toward fuller acceptance of women and gays and lesbians as children of God and ministers of the church.

4.) Asians note that Asia’s major religions were long established centuries before Christianity and Islam arrived. As for the latter, one class in the Philippines described numerous cooperative efforts at the local level, such as jointly sponsored primary schools, credit unions, medical clinics, agricultural cooperatives, etc. Following a period of warfare in the southern Philippines, local Roman Catholic bishops and Muslim leaders created a Bishops-Ulama council that meets four times a year.

5.) After witnessing the vitality and diversity of religious expressions in Asia, the Global South Anglican advocacy group’s claims to be representative voices of this vast segment of the developing world appear increasingly thin.

6.) Nor does the oft-invoked North/South divide hold up under scrutiny. Instead, a careful look at different countries reveals multiple social, ethnic, and religious groups defying easy generalization. The observation of Pakistan-born Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen in Identity and Violence is apt here that such simplistic generalizations reflect “extraordinary descriptive crudeness and historical innocence. Many of the significant diversities within each civilization are effectively ignored, and interactions between them are substantially overlooked.”

7.) Many deeply devout Asian Christians accept the idea that other valid paths to salvation are represented in the different religions around them. Ex: a leading Indian Christian, Rammon Panikkar, wrote metaphorically of his own religious experience, “I ‘left’ as a Christian, I ‘found’ myself a Hindu, and I ‘return’ a Buddhist, without ever having ceased to be a Christian.” Panikkar is a deeply devout Roman Catholic who over a half century has come to appreciate and use elements of the prayer life and wisdom of other religious traditions. Asian religious pluralism is grounded less in doctrine and more in experience. This includes sustained encounters with other religions, building trust among faith communities, and accepting the different histories and contexts from which they emerge. “We are right side of the brain people,” I was often reminded.

A leading voice in the Asian-American religious encounter, Peter Phan, is a Vietnamese priest who teaches world religions at Georgetown University. Recently he wrote in Being Religious Interreligiously, Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue, “It is useful to recall that Jesus did not and could not reveal everything to his disciples and that it is the Holy Spirit who will lead them to ‘the complete truth’. It is quite possible that the Holy Spirit will lead the church to the complete truth by means of a dialogue with other religions in which the Spirit is actively present.”

Asia has moved to a new place religiously during the last half-century. New theological voices are emerging, as compelling as their European and American predecessors. It is not a fading West/ Rising East scenario, but one of Westerners broadening their study of and respect for the riches of Asian religions. Rooted deeply in tradition, yet adapted to local settings, Asian Christians seek a wider understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus and a broader exploration of the central concept of the Reign of God.

Focusing on current controversies in the Anglican Communion distorts the wider possibilities of such a potentially rich religious encounter, one that can benefit all participants.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Quinn is a former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, a retired Foreign Service Officer, and the author of numerous books on law, history, and religion. His most recent work is The Sum of All Heresies, the Image of Islam in Western Thought (Oxford University Press).

The language God speaks

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

I’m teaching an Honors seminar at the University of Maryland this semester called “Ideas of God in Scripture and Literature,” and we spend the first six weeks or so on Scripture and interpretive traditions in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I brought in a Muslim colleague and a Jewish rabbi, on separate days, to speak to the class on the idea of God in the Qu’ran and on the rabbinic interpretive tradition, or midrash.

Describing the rabbis’ attention to the Hebrew text, every “jot and tittle” of it in their often creative interpretations, the Rabbi told the students “the conceit is that God speaks Hebrew,” so the words of the Hebrew text are themselves sacred. At the previous class, the students had heard from my Muslim colleague that in effect God speaks Arabic, since Muslims regard the text of the Qu’ran as literally God’s words, dictated to the Prophet Muhammad. In conversations with these colleagues and my students we also explored the idea that each monotheistic tradition reveres a means of revelation – a way that the transcendent, distant God has made godself available to human perceptions: for the Jews, it is through Torah. For the Muslims, it is through the Qu’ran. For Christians, it is through a human being, Jesus, the Word of God incarnate. Whenever I engage in these interfaith conversations (as I do each time I teach the course), I find myself believing, and joyfully, that deep down, it is all the same revelation, that God just keeps trying to get through to us, calling us home.

Each time the class comes to this interfaith conversation, I gain new insights. This year it has been about this question of the language God “speaks.” If the Jews say that God speaks Hebrew, and the Muslims that God speaks Arabic, what language do we Christians say that God speaks? Our revelation is not so much through a text as through a human being, Jesus, (and, however unlikely this seems sometimes, through his body, the Church visible and invisible). What is the human language that translates this revelation? What is the language God speaks, for us?

After some reflection, I decided that the language God speaks, in Christianity, is the language of Pentecost: the gospel is proclaimed in all the languages, through all the cultural frameworks, of the world. As people learn to read Scripture for themselves, in translation, this is magnified, as each reader brings his/her own life experience and point of view to the reading of the story of the gospel. But we read the gospel story, revealed in Scripture, each in our own language, in order to come to know and follow the Living Christ.. That has made the interpretation of the gospel both challenging and lively as Christianity has spread across classes and cultures, some core of it always surviving, miraculously it sometimes seems.

The Rabbinic tradition of midrash holds that every new interpretation of Scripture, if it is faithful and connected to the text, adds to the sum of human knowledge of the divine revelation – even when the new insight contradicts the insight of other rabbis. Without admitting it, I think Christians at our best also adopt that attitude: Brian McLaren, in A Generous Orthodoxy, speaks of 21st century Christianity as a potluck supper to which each tradition brings something valuable, and the point is that we share the feast together, I would add, we share it in the company of the same Host. Not that truth isn’t important; of course it is. But since none of us will ever completely grasp the mystery of God and God’s love for us, isn’t the most important thing the lively and engaged pursuit of understanding, and of genuine Christian discipleship, in fellowship with one another?

I don’t think this is the vision that my Honors students have of Christianity. They see us as being mainly occupied with who’s in and who’s out, who is going to Heaven and who is going to Hell. And that is the underside of the language of our faith: that we have heard the gospel in so many different languages, we scramble to find some kind of ordering principle that will distinguish "us" from "them," "myself" from the "other."

But, good Anglican that I am, I believe that there is a "both/and" that is the bottom line in our faith, the one we should be claiming in the 21st century. We quote Galatians 3:28 in the service of many agendas, but it continues to hold out a vision for us of who we are called to be. When will the world see Christians living as if this were truly our core belief: that God speaks the language of every people and every nation, and that differences, though real, are not the bottom line: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise" (Gal 3:28-29)

Dr Kathleen Henderson Staudt works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature and theology at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture. Her blog is at

Uncle Walt keeps the gate

By Heidi Shott

My Uncle Walt died last Tuesday, just a few weeks shy of his 92nd birthday. An extremely pious Roman Catholic, he considered my father’s older sister, Alene, his wife until the day he passed on – 32 years after she left a short note and skipped out of the house like a school girl.

He was a goofy kind of guy, but I always liked him. He played the guitar and sang; he wore moccasins; he liked to play catch. He was a terrible driver. He liked to swim in the lakes in our part of central New York and appreciated my mother’s willingness to swim with him when no one else would. He used Grecian Formula on his gray hair and everybody knew it.

But his outstanding characteristic was his profound devotion to the Church. He made his daughters say the rosary every night. As a small child I remember staying overnight at their house and reading comic books while they fingered their beads and murmured the prayers over and over. It was both extremely exotic (they were the only Catholics in our extended clan) and extremely boring. It seemed to last for hours and hours as I lay flopped on their living room davenport, as Aunt Alene always called the sofa, listening to the cadence of their voices and watching my two older cousins glance at their watches and one another.

Uncle Walt was exceedingly frail when I saw him last at my father’s funeral in 2000. As we sat with our baked ham and potato salad after Dad’s informal service on the side lawn of the family farm, Uncle Walt told me how he drove each Sunday to Syracuse (at least an hour’s drive) to hear the Latin mass. The thought of an 85 year-old Uncle Walt driving on the New York State Thruway was truly terrifying.

He died on Tuesday, the day Pope Benedict XVI released his statement which contends, in part, that Protestant denominations are no more than “Christian communities.” This reiteration of the “Dominus Iesus” declaration of 2000 and the news last week about the lifting of restrictions for the Latin mass may very well have been too much of a good thing for the old guy. He must have died a happy man. Things were finally swinging his way!

No one else in our family was religious, including another uncle who was an American Baptist minister. The rest of us were Protestants merely because we weren’t Catholic or Jewish or Zen Buddhist. So it’s funny that my most enduring childhood memory of spending time with Uncle Walt and Aunt Alene is of those Sundays when they dragged me to Mass and I had to sit alone while they went up for Communion. It was my first experience of exclusion.

“You’re part of our family for everything else. You can wear hand-me-downs from your cousins. You can drink milk from the special Mary Poppins cup. You can fall asleep on our laps after you’ve run around in the backyard and we’ll stoke the damp hair off your hot forehead. But at Mass on Sundays you can’t approach, much less partake of the body of Jesus. Nope, sorry. Not allowed. Stay in your seat and be a good girl. We’ll be right back.”

It seems we Christians…of virtually every stripe…are very good at being gatekeepers of Jesus. When we humans attempt, through sophisticated theological debate or literal scriptural interpretation or the occasional lively claim of divine revelation, to have the corner on the Jesus market, it scares me. I’ve been there and can’t forget the sucky way it made me feel. Implicit in the act of keeping the gate is the notion that the keeper has access to information and power and knowledge and secret handshakes that the rest of us don’t.

I’ve always been tickled by the practice – started in Mormon youth groups, I recall – of determining one’s actions by asking the question, “What would Jesus do?”

Here’s my answer: “I don’t know! I’m not Jesus!”

As a parent of two young teenagers, I’m beginning to realize there’s a day in the not-so-distant future when they are going to shake our hands and say (I hope), “thank you, lovely parents.” Then they will walk out that door. When confronted with the inevitable choices life will bring their way, I hope to God they don’t ask, “What would my Mom do?” I want them to do the right thing because it’s what they know they should do. I want them to remember how we’ve taught them to live and to how we’ve taught them to treat the people they encounter. If they have to pause to ask the question, then I fear for the answer.

Jesus, that savvy teacher, left us such good, simple instructions. If we heed them well and faithfully, we shouldn’t have to stop and think.

There has been a lot of interesting talk about open communion in these parts and I understand (most of) the conversation and appreciate the arguments on both sides. The recent posts reminded me of my college roommate reading aloud a letter from an old boyfriend who was an agnostic and fairly cynical about Christian faith. He wrote that he was attending an Episcopal Church and that he liked the ritual. He “relished” walking up the aisle and taking Communion.

“Eeeuuuwww,” we both said when she read that part. “That’s creepy.”

But now I’m not so sure. Maybe the mysterious act of taking communion was the start of something for that young man. Maybe, as the songwriter Bruce Cockburn sang a few years later, “spirits open to the thrust of grace.” Who am I to say?

But then again, maybe being shut off from something mysterious and holy, something I didn’t understand when I was seven or eight, maybe that fed my yearning for the things of God. Maybe I’m still pondering these things decades later because they weren’t just handed to me. Does it matter how the gift is given? Does it matter how it is received?

But not everyone is an asker of questions. God gifts some people with the different propensities. Some people are like my Uncle Walt whose passion for the Blessed Mother and the Roman Catholic Church was all consuming. His need to keep that gate in place was as clear to him as breathing.

What does the question-asker do with an Uncle Walt?

Seven years ago, at my father’s funeral, I balanced a chinet plate on my lap and listened to him tell me about the Nocturnal Adoration Society. The next day I prayed he wouldn’t kill anyone while driving to the Latin mass in Syracuse.

Then today, I sent some flowers.

"Unchurched" is not a swear word

By Susan Fawcett

In a recent article, Sam Candler wrote about the issue he sees as the most pressing in our time: interfaith relations. “The best ‘interfaith dialogues,’” he wrote, “are those where Christians—and others—do not try simply to bend down to the lowest common denominator, or try to soften everything we believe. The best interfaith dialogues are those where people are strong and fully convinced of their own religious identities. The world needs passionate and sure Christians.” His point about being both passionately Christian and compassionately interfaith is a breath of fresh air on a topic that probably needs a lot more discussion.

I’d like to put another card on the table, though: the issue of how Christians talk about and talk to those who identify as agnostic, atheist, or ‘unchurched.’ As our anxiety about the shrinking of mainline Christianity in America rises, statistics on growing numbers of unchurched folk abound. We spend some serious energy talking about how to evangelize the unchurched. And, as in Sam Candler’s point, well we should. If we have some good news, let’s share it, by all means.

I suppose my issue lies with the condescension involved in how we talk about the unchurched, and all those who do not profess any faith at all. Let me explain: when I was in grade school, and a very devout evangelical Christian, I remember being told by a camp counselor that it just wasn’t possible to be friends with a Jewish person or a ‘non-Christian.’ “You can be acquaintances,” she said, probably underlining John 14:6 in my study bible. “You can really care about them. But you just can’t really share life with someone who doesn’t know God the way you do, and you should probably be trying to save them. Then you can really be friends.”

It did not take me long to realize that the camp counselor was full of hooey. My grandmother is Jewish, I thought. She shares life with me pretty well. My friend Natalie is Jewish and I think she’s wise. God speaks to them. Why should I think less of them?

It took me a little longer to abandon the idea that my faith in God put me on a higher level of life experience than all my unreligious friends—the ones who didn’t know what they believed about God, or hadn’t been to church, or had been to church and hated it. As I began to question my evangelical community’s assumptions, I grew closer and closer to those who professed no faith at all—perhaps because they were willing to ask harder questions.

What I found in those particular people was not apathy or ignorance or even a sense of being victimized by the church. Rather, I found in them a set of very apt criticisms: Why do Christians say they follow Jesus, but spend all their energy on looking holy instead of helping the poor? Why do churches argue all the time instead of being kind to each other? Why does the church tend to exclude the very people Jesus welcomed? Why does the church seem so UN-like Jesus Christ? Moreover, I often found people whose lives looked significantly more Christlike than mine did.

Since then, it has been important to me to cultivate close relationships with friends whose spirituality manifests itself in arenas other than the church, and who are ready to offer critique and criticism of my own ministry goals and Christianese at the drop of a hat. Whether they call themselves atheist or agnostic or unchurched or post-church, I have found that I need these people not only as companions and true friends, but that they do me a great service: they help to keep me from being a hypocrite. They hold me accountable to the standards that the Church sometimes forgets it has. Thanks be to God.

So I am offering a word of humility for the Church: as we talk with those of other religions, and as we talk about those whom we think lack religious faith, let us remember that we might learn just as much from them as we can impart. And, that our characterization of the unchurched/agnostic/atheist as apathetic, ignorant, or pitiable can often just as well be turned upon our own kind.

For a much more academic discussion of this issue, see Archbishop Rowan Williams's article: "Analysing Atheism; Unbelief and the world of Faiths."

The Rev. Susan Fawcett keeps the blog This Passage. She serves a parish the Diocese of Virginia, and supports the work of the General Convention publication The Center Aisle.

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