Engaging Others, Knowing Ourselves: A Lutheran Calling in a Multi-Religious World
by Carol Schersten LaHurd
Consulting editors Darrell Jodock and Kathryn Mary Lohre
Lutheran University Press, February 2016, 192 pp.
This article is an adaptation of the concluding chapter of Engaging Others, Knowing Ourselves: A Lutheran Calling in a Multi-Religious World. Consulting editor Darrell Jodock wishes to emphasize that many of his observations and insights in this article rely on the work of his co-authors. Authors who contributed chapters or case studies to this book include Caleb Arndt, Jonathan Brockopp, Jacqueline Bussie, Rebecca Cardone, Allen I. Juda, Joseph Kempf, Scottie R. Lloyd, Kathryn Mary Lohre, Esther Menn, Richard W. Priggie, J. Paul Rajashekar, Carol Schersten LaHurd, Peg Schultz-Akerson, Mark Swanson, and Sara Trumm.
Religious diversity is not new. The first synagogue in what is now the United States was organized over a hundred years before the American Revolution. Buddhists have lived in California for generations. And the first Muslims probably arrived with Columbus in 1492. The number of non-Christians in the U.S. remains relatively small, and the vast majority of new immigrants are Christians, but the awareness of the presence of people who practice other religions has grown. Christians often know them as neighbors and coworkers. And other religions are frequently in the news.
Though news reports can prompt Christians to want to find out more information about other religions, they unfortunately often have a quite different effect. They create stereotypes that are either false or only marginally accurate. Christians need to remind themselves to be skeptical of those stereotypes. For example, when one hears about the limitations placed on women in Saudi Arabia, it is important to remember that the Wahhabi form of Islam practiced there is not representative of Islam in general. Or when one hears about Sunni-Shi’ite conflict, it is important to remember that Protestants and Catholics were at war in Europe for 300 years after the Reformation—sporadically, yes, but also very destructively. (During the Thirty Years War, Germany lost about one-third of its population.) And in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Protestant and Catholic Christians tortured their Anabaptist neighbors in particularly gruesome ways. It is also important to remember that the largest numbers of Muslims are not found in the Middle East but in Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. Those fomenting conflict in the Middle East are a minority within a minority. It is somehow easier for Christians to recognize that the ELCA church member who shot nine persons in the AME Church in Charleston in 2015 is a minority within a minority than it is to recognize that the same is true for the latest Al Qaeda attack. The eighth commandment calls us to speak the truth in generous and charitable ways. Stereotypes are not the truth.
Given the increasing awareness of other religions and the inaccuracy of much that we hear, the three main questions of this book take on a new urgency: How should Christians engage their non-Christian neighbors? What is a Christian view of other religions? What does it mean to be a Christian in a multi-religious world?
How Should Christians Engage Their Non-Christian Neighbors?
Regarding the first question, one answer seems clear. Christians have a calling to practice (or pursue) hospitality. This calling comes from at least two sources. The first is the basic biblical principle that every human being is created in the image of God. This means that every human being is to be treated with respect. One can do so without knowing everything about their religion. Showing hospitality means not relating to them primarily as a representative of a larger group (a Muslim, a Buddhist etc.) but instead treating each person first as a human being. Given the diversity of persons found within any group or any religion, listening to an individual’s story and that individual’s outlook is an important way to show respect. The second source of the calling to hospitality is the unmerited grace affirmed in Christianity (and especially emphasized within Lutheran circles). In Christ, God takes the initiative to heal our broken relationship. Without any prerequisites. God chooses to treat us with generosity and adopt us. Persons who have been freely graced are called to grace others. Having experienced the generosity of God, we are called to treat others with generosity. The result is radical hospitality.
Hospitality is to be mutual. American Christians tend to want to provide assistance and to fix things. This desire can lead to what some have called an “inclined plane” relationship, when the provider is “up here” and the recipient is “down there.” The provider is then in control. By contrast, mutual hospitality puts people on the same plane, side by side or face to face. Standing or walking alongside another is an inherent part of Christianity, for, in Christ, God came to “be with” humans, to experience fully what it means to be human. In the Gospels we see a pattern of Jesus repeatedly “being with” others, as he eats with and visits with a wide variety of individuals, many of whom are not “insiders.” He shows compassion and provides assistance, yes, but he also accepts invitations into their homes and receives their hospitality. So, too, it is healthy for Christians not only to practice hospitality but also to accept the hospitality of others. It is a deeply significant way of showing them respect.
Alongside the calling to practice hospitality, it’s important to acknowledge the discomfort Christians may feel as they begin to interact with persons in another religion. The sources of this discomfort are multiple. One is an anxiety not to offend, and the less one knows about another religion the more acute this can be. The antidote is education and respectful inquiry (of the sort that wants to learn rather than to challenge). Another source is the human tendency to feel most comfortable in a familiar setting and a discomfort with anything unfamiliar. It is important to recognize that the person from another religion is likely also encountering the unfamiliar and is experiencing a similar discomfort. The only way to overcome this typically human feeling is to “hang in there” and gain enough experience so that the unfamiliar gradually becomes familiar. And still another source is theological uncertainty. To this we will return. As we deal with the unfamiliar, perhaps it is helpful to remember the discomfort experienced by numerous biblical figures as they received their calling. It is no accident that “fear not” or “do not be afraid” occurs so frequently in the Bible. God has a way of simultaneously calling us to cross over boundaries into the unfamiliar and reassuring us of God’s presence as we undertake this crossing.
What Is a Christian View of Other Religions?
Several biblical passages invite us to re-think our understanding of people in other religions. The Good Samaritan is a member of another religion and yet is the most familiar and powerful model of what it means to be a good neighbor. Or we can think of Cyrus, the emperor of Persia (modern-day Iran) and a member of another religion, who is anointed by God to let the Israelites return from exile (Isaiah 45: 1). Or we can think of Jethro, the priest of Midian, who gives Moses valuable advice on how to lead the Israelites (Exodus 18). Or of Abigail, who convinces David not to kill her husband Nabal, who is a Calebite (l Samuel 25). Or of Rahab, the Canaanite who hides the two spies Joshua sent to find out about Jericho prior to its conquest (Joshua 2). Or of King Abimelech. The list could go on. Again and again, God’s blessing comes through someone who is not part of the covenant. The same can happen today.
Another suggestion is to seek out new information that helps us rethink our understanding of familiar biblical passages. In Romans 11, Paul emphatically denies that God has abandoned God’s promises to the Jews or rejected his people (see verses 1 and 29). This prompts us to ask to whom the Gospel of John is referring when it says that the parents of the man born blind (John 9:22) and the disciples (John 20:19)—themselves all Jews—were afraid of “the Jews.” It turns out that John has in mind the Temple authorities, not Jews in general. When Jesus says in John 14:6 (NRSV)—”I am the way, and the truth, and the life”—he is issuing an invitation to follow the way of the cross, not to support a crusade that runs roughshod over others. When understood this way, the message is consistent with Philippians 2:5 (NRSV), “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” The point is this: When we bring to the Bible a new set of questions—questions that were not on the table at the time of the Reformation or at the time European immigrants came to the U.S.—we need to gather the relevant information and be ready to re-think our interpretation of some passages, even those with which we are most familiar. We need to expect to see in them things we had not noticed before.
Another suggestion is not to expect to have answers to every question, not to expect to have everything figured out. Each of us needs to be ready to say, “I don’t know.” After pondering questions about the fate of the Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Christ and not coming up with an answer, Paul throws up his hands in a doxology: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways! ” (Romans 11:33, NRSV). The lack of an answer does not undermine Paul’s faith. Nor did it undermine Martin Luther’s faith. His graduate degree was in biblical studies. He was a lifelong student of the Bible. And, for a time, he expected that the Bible would answer every question. When it did not seem to do so, he was troubled. He then noticed that the psalmists also voiced questions for which they had no answer, as did Jesus (who cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and did not know when the end of the world would arrive). Martin Luther came to see that people of faith are called to live with unanswered questions. For him, revelation has provided what we need—an understanding of God’s attitude toward us, an understanding of God’s purpose, and some insight into the character of God—but revelation has not answered every question. Living with unanswered questions is not the same as ignoring them. It means pondering them, seeking additional insights, but not expecting quick or easy or simple answers. Christianity is a way of life. It is relational; it is all about our relationship with God, with other humans, and with the rest of creation. New questions do not undermine our faith; faith is built on trust and does not have everything figured out. We are called to build and to foster whole and healthy relationships, even if our questions are not all answered.
Other religions are also a way of life. Beliefs (agreed-upon ideas associated with faith) do not play as prominent a role in most of them as they do in Christianity. So it is best to start a conversation with experiences, practices, and priorities. In what ways does their religious identity open up a sense of wonder, a sense of gratitude, and a sense of connectedness (which are basic aspects of any religion)?
This leads to another suggestion: not to see oneself engaged in a dialogue between religions, but to see oneself relating to a person whose religious way of life is different from one’s own. Just as there are all sorts of Christians who construe the faith in all sorts of ways, so there are all sorts of persons in any other religion who construe that religion in all sorts of ways. Just as not every Christian agrees totally with the statements of Pat Robertson or Pope Francis I, the same is true in other religions, where only the provocateurs are likely to make the news. The focus needs to be on the person or persons we are meeting. Neither they nor we are likely to be well-informed spokespersons for the religion as a whole. Thus, the next step for a Christian participant is a kind of “back and forth” between learning to know the person(s) and learning more about the basics of their religion, so that one can both understand the person(s) and get some sense of how representative their outlook and practices are.
The most basic response to the discomfort Christians experience is the reassurance of those who have already traveled this path. They know that establishing respectful relationships and learning more about another religion are not threats to or betrayals of one’s faith. Those who have traveled this path have watched their appreciation for Christianity grow. They begin to notice aspects of it that they had taken for granted or overlooked before. What they already know, they come to understand more deeply. And they discover how much more they have to learn about the Bible and their own faith. Learning more about the other and learning more about one’s own faith go hand in hand.
Participating in inter-religious dialogue and cooperation does not put an end to witnessing to the good news. Christians who value the good news will let it show. What it does affect is how and when witnessing occurs. The good news is shared as a gift rather than a demand. This is the “how.” Inter-religious dialogue involves one limit regarding “when”: A dialogical conversation is a time for exploration and not the setting in which to press for conversion. Respecting this limit is important for all involved.
Why Practice Inter-Religious Dialogue and Cooperation?
Given all that we have been saying, there are several reasons to practice inter-religious dialogue and inter-religious cooperation.
One is our calling to serve the neighbor. Getting to know the neighbor is crucial if we are to serve that person or that person’s community.
Closely related to this is a second. Members of other religions are often harmed when stereotypes are allowed to circulate without objection or correction. Finding out enough to challenge misinformation contributes to the well-being of our neighbors and the well-being of society as a whole.
Third, a growing number of Americans describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Most of them believe in God or in a spiritual being but are disillusioned with the church. The reasons are many, but one of them is its historical exclusivism. They have trouble believing that their non-Christian friends are total outsiders in God’s kingdom and under divine condemnation. Just as Martin Luther saw God’s hand at work even in challenges to the church (such as that posed by the Turks who were threatening to overrun Germany), so God’s hand may be at work in this challenge. In the voices of the church’s critics, God may be calling Christians to move beyond the triumphalism of claiming exclusive rights to the truth to a more humble and open exploration patterned after the way of the cross. This does not mean saying that all religions are the same nor that they are all paths to the same goal. Nor does it mean abandoning or lessening our commitment to the faith. It does mean reserving judgment and exploring whether we have something to learn from those whose religious outlook differs from our own.
Fourth, Christians are called to be peacemakers. With all of the forces in our world that fragment and divide peoples, inter-religious cooperation has the potential to bring them together.
A fifth reason is the benefit it can bring to the Christian, whose own understanding of faith is typically deepened and enhanced in the process.
And a sixth has to do with our calling to be good citizens. This reason may need some additional explanation. Christians in the United States live in a society that is “pluralistic.” Not only are all the major religions of the world represented here, and not only are they all to be tolerated, but they also all have the same constitutional standing with regard to the government. “Pluralism” means that none has a privileged position and that Christians should not expect the government to pass laws that favor Christians, even though they have historically been in the majority. It is instead the responsibility of every citizen—Christian, Muslim, Jewish. Hindu, Buddhist—to distinguish between what is good for the population as a whole and what is good for their particular group. The only way citizens can do this is to build relations with members of other religions so that they can sort out together what actually serves the common good. Otherwise, how is one to know?
To take this one step further, there are contributions that religions, when they work together, can make to society as a whole. For example, they have a shared interest in religious freedom. They have a shared interest in human dignity. They have a shared interest in feeding the hungry, providing access to health care, and insuring economic opportunity for all. They have a shared interest in healthy families and healthy communities. Although sometimes it is forgotten as they fall victim to their own fear, they have a shared interest in fostering the wholeness of all humans and in all the conditions that make this possible. None of these shared goals can be attained in isolation or via religious conflict. Rather, the members of the various religions need to work together. And if they do work together, they can have a much more credible influence on public policy than if they remain isolated. So, this sixth reason for engaging in inter-religious dialogue and cooperation is to be able to maximize the benefits Christians and others can contribute to society as a whole. There is little doubt that our fractured world needs their contribution.
While recognizing that the road to inter-religious understanding can be a demanding pilgrimage with not all the theological questions settled in advance, the purpose of this book has been to provide encouragement (theological encouragement and practical encouragement) to engage in respectful conversation and cooperation.
Its next chapter is in your hands.