In this lengthy, all-text post, I will reflect on two experiences this week that ignited no small amount of spiritual and intellectual energy in me. If you're up to the challenge of hanging with me, read on after the break for an exploration of interfaith dialogue, psycho-social theology, and discipleship...
This past Wednesday, my mentor-professor-pastor-friend, Gerald Shenk, was speaking to the Eastern Mennonite University community in a colloquium presentation called "Theologies of Pluralism: Why We Need To Be in Abraham's Tent." The particular role Gerald was speaking from, among many he carries, was as current director of Abraham's Tent, an emerging Christian-Jewish-Muslim interfaith dialogue/encounter/research center lodged here at the university. The presentation was a mix of storytelling (which Gerald excels at) and an argument for why this center is an important addition to the EMU and broader Mennonite community, as well as the local community and beyond.
Gerald had a list of ten points to this argument, and I will focus on one in this post. It was his last point, and as it relates to interfaith matters: We become better followers of Jesus in relationships with the "religious other" (a problematic sociological term, but one I'll use here, as Gerald himself used it). Put another way: the quality of our relationships with people of other faiths can (should) be reflective of our commitment to being disciples of Jesus Christ.
A common argument against interfaith dialogue is that it presupposes a commitment to a secularized, pluralistic worldview - an "all roads lead to Rome"(a troubling figure of speech for Anabaptists) view - more so than a thorough commitment to one's religious faith and its doctrines, traditions, and holy texts. Gerald pushes back and says, No, and I affirm this move. His point directly preceding essentially stated: We have more to learn from skilled and able opponents, than we do people who either agree with us already, or are committed to an anything-goes approach. Gerald used the analogy of a chess game, which I loved, because Greg Boyd used the same analogy for something entirely different last week. Do we become better chess players by playing easy opponents? No, we become better by being pushed and prodded by players who are challenging.
I realize this analogy might be problematic for some, because it contains an element of opposition and competition. Some might say "If you treat the 'religious other' as an opponent, aren't you asking for trouble?" I concede this, and empathize. I have benefited greatly from personal relationships with people from radically different backgrounds than my own, and wouldn't for a second consider these friends as opponents. But I must also name the reality that there are many deeply committed people of faith who do look at people of other faiths with deep, deep suspicion, mistrust, and enmity. Finally, I'll remind us that any analogy is just that: a comparison that has both definite strengths and definite weaknesses.
Essentially, Gerald is arguing that interfaith dialogue is important, especially for deeply committed people of faith, because it pushes us to grow as disciples. Now I'll turn to a theological reflection on this argument that I share with Gerald.
The day after Gerald's colloquium, I was sitting in a class called "Living Theology." Our instructor for this course, Dr. Christian Early, is a philosopher of religion and science. Our usual theology professor, Mark Thiessen Nation, is on sabbatical this year, so Dr. Early is filling in, and I find the particularity of his academic background exciting to the study of theology. He has expressed to the class in these first few weeks, an interest in not only teaching us traditional systematic theology (using James McClendon's Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Vol. 2), but also a more narrative theological approach along with attention to the more psychological aspects of theology that have often been overlooked in the traditional study of theology. (He also observed that Anabaptists tend to fetishize on the political dimensions of theology, which have also been overlooked, traditionally.)
Dr. Early opened the class with a discussion that had great relevance to Gerald's discussion the day before, by talking about popular critiques of monotheistic religions which argue they are, by their very nature, coercive at best, and violent at worst. This argument claims that because monotheistic religions presuppose a universe-encompassing worldview with universe-encompassing truth claims that someone is bound to be "right" (us) and someone is bound to be "wrong" (them). Therefore, how can there not be coercion and violence? This argument carries a lot of water in contemporary American society, even among people of faith. (Authors/Books on this view: Jan Assmann's The Price of Monotheism, and Regina Schwartz's Curse of Cain)
Using Eric Santner's On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life (which in turn makes use of Freud) as a frame of reference, Dr. Early says No, this isn't necessarily the case! And like Gerald's push-back, I agree. Through class discussion, Dr. Early developed an argument that is sociological, psychological, and theologically eschatological in nature. More plainly: it deals with the outer and inner realities of lived experience in the broader frame of life in this world as Christians view it. To top it all off, Scripture seems to be teaching this already, without any complex social-scientific concepts and language.
The argument is essentially this: Christianity (as a monotheistic religion) teaches that it is in the stranger where we discover, practice with, and work toward "a universality of becoming." So rather than our universal truth claims leading us to "other" those who don't agree with us, then on to coercion and possible violence, the Christian faith is one that sees the image of God in the face of the stranger (sociological). Not only that, but the Christian faith is also one that sees that strangeness is not only found in others, but also in ourselves (psychological). We cannot ignore our own fallibility and estrangement from God in preference to seeing the same thing in others.
The eschatological aspect of this is the "universality in becoming." Christians recognize that we are in an in-between age, but we look toward that final consummation - the end, the eschaton - of God's will for all of Creation where all will be made even and complete and whole and just and right.
Scripture, Synthesis, and Conclusion
Paul refers to this psycho-social-eschatological understanding of strangeness/obscurity/opaqueness in 1 Corinthians 13 while discussing, of all things, love, which he says "never ends," despite all other things passing away. Referring to the coming of perfection, when all things pass away, Paul observes that "now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." (ESV, emphasis mine)
An Old Testament text that has recently captured my imagination and seems relevant to this exploration is found in Leviticus 19:34, which reads: "The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." (NIV) Similar to the other love commands stated and restated across Scripture, this text places the location of our faithfulness to God in other people whom we are probably not familiar with. The NIV uses "alien," and other translations use "stranger." If we understand this strangeness in others as having been historically part of our own faith tradition and condition, as well as being always-already-still being part of our inward condition, then Christians should shudder at this command from the LORD.
This last text has keen relevance to matters of interfaith dialogue discussed in the first section of this post, but the subsequent psycho-social-theological discussion folds that in and takes us much deeper. This understanding is scalable in the sense that all of creation is at present staring at itself in a mirror dimly. All is strange. I'm strange. You're strange. Our attempts at Church are strange and sometimes sad. Our attempts at culture and society are bewilderingly strange. If Christians understand this and take its implications seriously, it would radically reshape our discipleship, our outworking of faith. "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose," Paul tells us in Philippians 2:12-13 (NIV). Oh, for a dose of that fear and trembling to be sensed and spread among those faithful to God, manifest to us in Jesus Christ, allowing God's work to work toward that good purpose! Through us, perhaps in spite of us. Amen.