Children of an (un)known God

The debacle surrounding a Wheaton College professor’s conviction that Christians and Muslims worship the same God has again raised the invidious compulsions of Christian exclusivism. To be sure, this is far from representative of the broad umbrella of Christian traditions. Dr. Larycia Hawkins’ offending statement invoked Pope Francis, who has unapologetically stated that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Wheaton, an evangelical institution, alleges Dr. Hawkins’ belief contravenes its statement of faith.

I can sympathize with the Wheaton administration’s need to protect a brand based on religious belief and identity. The free practice of religion is rightly protected by law. But freedom of speech is, too, and Dr. Hawkins has every right to voice her beliefs. As tenured faculty she is surely entitled to the privileges and protections she has earned.

It’s unlikely that Hawkins’ statement is the only cause of offense given her spiritual practice in Advent of donning a hijab in solidarity with Muslims, who are increasingly targets of noxious right-wing political rhetoric in the United States. In this climate of a radicalizing right, Wheaton’s administration must surely be under tremendous political pressure not to alienate its conservative-leaning evangelical support base.

It would appear the administration’s condemnation of Hawkins, based on an interpretation of the school’s statement of faith, has more to do with contemporary political trends than a sober reading of theology centered on the teachings of Christ. There’s an apparent failure of recognizing the radical nature of the love Christ taught and demonstrated, especially for the marginalized and outcast. His ethic of loving God and loving neighbor seems to be lost amidst the clamor of vote-seeking fearmongers.

Nowhere in Wheaton’s statement of faith is there mention of other faiths and whether or not they worship the same God. There’s certainly no condemnation of other religions. It’s a positive statement of the evangelical faith the school aspires to and is clearly predicated on the particularity of Jesus Christ. While the statement is open to an exclusivist viewpoint, it also encourages proclamation of “God’s redemptive love to the ends of the earth by word and deed; by caring for all of God’s creation and actively seeking the good of everyone, especially the poor and needy.”

The statement of faith does not condemn Muslims or cast aspersions on their religion. It is merely a statement of beliefs about God that form the underpinnings of evangelical faith.

To in any way imply that it captures fully the essence of the imminent and transcendent Holy One is to build a tower of Babel with the feeble blocks of language. To limit God to a statement of faith or creed would be to lose in an instant the very nature of God, who is uncontainable, wildly free to be whatever God will be. Remember Moses before the burning bush?

It’s no wonder so many people are losing faith in religion. The “dones” and the “nones” are tired of grasping at castles in the sky. An increasing number of active religious across the faiths and traditions are too. Beyond even a generous orthodoxy, the immanence and transcendence of that which is Holy and wholly beyond comprehension is being sought through authentic relationship with the other and in relationship with the world around.

I would encourage anyone who doubts whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God to engage in meaningful conversation with someone of the other faith – not about politics or the Middle East, but about the qualities of God and the spiritual practices that bring the other more truly into relationship with God. Come into the presence of the Divine with such a deep love and respect for the other that for a moment one’s most dearly held beliefs may be suspended in favor of listening deeply and openly to the other. To listen is to love.

In my experience, engaging in interfaith and ecumenical conversations has helped develop my own sense of who I am in relation to the (Un)Knowable One I worship. It has not weakened my belief in the particularity of Jesus the Christ or my Christian faith, but it has opened my heart and spirit to new experiences of the Divine.

Surely in a world as fragmented and violent as ours is the path to peace is through compassionate respect for people who approach and articulate their faith in ways that differ from our own. Let’s not limit God through narrow interpretations of creeds or statements, but strive to love more deeply, live more generously, and counteract fear by engaging the other.

Losing Faith in Religion

So here’s my dilemma: given the rash of religiously inspired violence over the past few months (not to mention, decades and centuries), I’m increasingly suspicious of religion. My vocation as a Christian minister in the progressive theological tradition of the United Church of Christ values deeply other faiths and traditions and those schools of thought and meaning-making that shun religious faith altogether. I am able to hold a/theism without feeling threatened. Science I see as complimentary to religion. Literary criticism and socio-historical readings add to the experience of holy texts. I carry an awareness of the ways religious leaders and institutions have snuffed out the Holy One they hold at their core, and also the ways they’ve responded in marvelous life-giving ways.

There can be little doubt that religion has the capacity to inspire great good in the world. We see it all the time in acts of kindness, justice, peace, love, compassion, and sacrifice that are inspired by religious belief. Such acts aren’t unique to religion, but they’re often inspired by the intuition that lies at the heart of religion: that holiness or divinity exists beyond the human self that seems to call out the very best in the believer.

Sadly, the opposite is horrifyingly true as well.

There can be little doubt that religion has the capacity to inspire great evil in the world. We see it all the time in acts of terror, injustice, violence, hatred, abuse, and self-aggrandizement. Such acts aren’t unique to religion, but they’re often inspired by the intuition that lies at the heart of religion: that holiness or divinity exists beyond the human self that seems to call out the very worst in the believer.

The outcome of religious belief depends on a broad range of individual and communal interpretations of religious traditions and on theological notions pertaining to the character of the deity at the center of the faith, the reason for the religious community’s existence (its ultimate purpose), and the specific ends it is encouraged to seek. Interpretations of religion no doubt stem from a combination of factors, including culture, socio-political dynamics, economic class, education, geographical location, social pressures, and perceptions of history.

Given the increasing intensity of religious violence in the world and the heinous acts being committed in the name of religion – the horrendous evils committed by ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al Shabaab; the attacks in Sydney, Paris, and Denmark; the Anders Behring Breivik attack in Sweden; the killing last week of three Muslim students in North Carolina (though no confirmed as religiously motivated crime); sectarian violence in nations around the world; the war in Gaza last summer; and so many small attacks that barely or never make the news – I am led to question the usefulness of religion. I can see why many people today (comedian Bill Maher comes to mind) completely recoil from and often attack religion. People who claim to be religious have a lot to answer for. No religious tradition is off the hook.

I don’t know what the answer is to religion, and I fear a world without religion. Perhaps the only way forward is for religious people of goodwill and good conscience to stand up more vocally and with greater fervor against the violence and harm being done in the name of their religions. The great challenge in this would have to be that the means of protest would of necessity have to be consistent with the desired end. The only problem is that I don’t think religious people can ever truly agree on the desired end. It’s impossible within traditions, let alone across religions.

On Being Green

It was Kermit the Frog who once sang, “It’s not that easy being green.” I quite agree. The bright red stoles of Pentecost have been neatly folded away. The white and gold of the 50 days of Eastertide deserve good rest after adorning the sanctuary since replacing the dark shadows of the Paschal Triduum. The purples that guided our imaginations in Lent won’t be seen again until the first Sunday of Advent.

Liturgically we’re on the cusp of the long season after Pentecost known as Ordinary Time. It’s the second and longest period of Ordinary Time in the church year. The stoles on the lectern or draped over the preacher’s shoulders will be green for the 24 weeks that follow the white of this week’s Trinity Sunday service. It’s a long season that encompasses the bright greens of June, the lush dog days of summer, the first cool nights, and the glorious tapestry of fall. It can seem like a long, unexciting season for those of us who don’t celebrate minor feasts for saints or other commemorations. Ordinary Time can come to seem a little, well, ordinary. Yet it is in the ordinary where the extraordinary can come to light.

Kermit reminds us that while it’s not that easy being green, “Green’s the color of spring, and green can be cool and friendly-like, and green can be big like an ocean, or important like a mountain, or tall like a tree. When green is all there is to be, it could make you wonder why. But why wonder? I’m green. And it will do fine. It’s beautiful.”

Joan Chittister frames the essence of Ordinary Time this way: “Like an echo off a mountain that ripples and repeats itself down the valleys of life, the Sundays of Ordinary Time stand as a stark and repeating reminder of the center of the faith. Each Sunday, remember, is a feast, a little Easter, in its own right. Unencumbered by the overlay of any other feast, they carry within themselves, stark and unadorned, the essence of the Lord’s Day. Each of them is Easter, a return to the core of the faith, the center of the church, the call of the Christian community that ‘Jesus is risen.'” (The Liturgical Year, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009, p 185.)

Imagine what the church will become if we used Ordinary Time as an opportunity to return to the core of the faith, to get back to the basics of what we have come to believe. Imagine how much more meaningful Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany will be. Imagine what Lent, Easter, and Pentecost will come to mean. Imagine, if you dare, how your life will be transformed when you more fully live the commitment that Christ is risen.

So let’s heed the wisdom of Kermit and Chittister and live into what’s special about being green. Let’s celebrate Ordinary Time in a way that opens our hearts and minds to the extraordinary presence of God in the world. What a tremendous gift Ordinary Time promises to be!