Posts Tagged ‘Interfaith Dialogue’

wa075-035055-27Recently I and a couple of my student leaders attended an ‘Interfaith Welcome,’ to which we were invited by a University chaplain. We did so partly to show respect to the team who operate ‘Oasis’ (the religious centre on campus), and partly to observe and give feedback to the Christian club’s leadership team so they could make wise choices about how they as a Christian club would relate to and interact with the Multi-Faith Chaplaincy.

Having observed similar events in the past, I went with certain expectations, and was not disappointed to have them all met.

After being welcomed, our attention was directed to large bowl containing pebbles, which the presenter then submerged in water – symbolically representing the many religious faiths which while unique, make up the one riverbed, united by the water of our common ideals and humanity. We were invited to take a pebble from the bowl (I declined, as I did not know what we would be required to do with this pebble once we had it).

We were then give a series of pithy thoughts, including a story of a man who left his village with his only destination being ‘away from here’; a quotation from the Dalai Lama: ‘All major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that is love, compassion and forgiveness the important thing is they should be part of our daily lives.’; and a call for people of all faiths to be working together on campus, focussing on ‘mutuality’.

Participants were then invited to return their pebble, this time to create a line of stones, indicating that we are all, ultimately, on the same path together.

The ceremony concluded with a ‘Christian’ blessing (which contained nothing distinctively Christian),  followed by an Aboriginal blessing, and an invitation (which was not taken up) for anyone else to add a greeting or blessing from their own tradition.

The three of us then made a discreet exit to avoid being included in the group photo that was to be posted on Facebook.


I called this post ‘The Failed Interfaith Experiment’ because this experience highlights a number of reasons why I think such endeavours will never become the revolutionary, culture-changing phenomenon that their proponents often envisage.

Firstly, this event was entirely ‘horizontal’ – in that it was simply people talking to people, interacting with people, talking about (or implying) the Divine rather than addressing Him (or She, It, etc…). It implicitly  presented religion as a human endeavour, and contained no acknowledgement of divine presence or activity. This approach would not resonate with the majority of ‘religious traditions’ in which activities such as prayer, singing, reading, preaching, meditation and many other things are understood to be direct connection and communication between humans and the Divine.

While this could be seen as a positive thing – we weren’t expected, for example, to pray in a way that was incongruent with our understanding of God – it means that these kinds of events will not be able to offer any kind of ‘spiritual nourishment’ to the participants; they will be largely humanistic, rather than spiritual. The moment they cross over into spiritual activity someone will inevitable be excluded or offended.

Secondly, in their attempt to be inclusive of everyone, the organisers of the event were actually being exclusive. Anyone coming from a conservative religious tradition – such as an Evangelical Christian, and Orthodox Jew, or a Wahhabi Muslim – would not feel free to participate without compromising their own convictions that their faith is the only path to truth and to God. Some would find the Dalai Lama’s quote not only untrue, but even offensive, especially if their people have faced horrific suffering at the hands of people of other ‘religious traditions’.

So such an event is inclusive only of those who either already hold to a universalist or syncretist theology, or who have not really thought through the implications of their participation and how it could implicitly compromise the convictions they hold dear.

Thirdly, this kind of event actually holds very little appeal to the majority of secular, religiously apathetic Australians. This was evidenced by the fact that apart from us three, there was only one other white Australian present who was not a part of the Oasis team (ie. who was there voluntarily). The message of interfaith activities is, ‘No matter what your beliefs are, we are all on the same path,’ and this is interpreted by the average non-religious person as, ‘So if what you believe doesn’t matter in the end, why even bother with religious belief at all?’

This means that interfaith activities end up being essentially ‘in house’ and have very little potential for having any impact on the wider community.

Fourthly, these kinds of activities contain their own inherent contradictions which cause them to lack any ring of authenticity.

As I have already mentioned, while claiming to be all inclusive, they exclude those with conservative faiths.

Statements like the one made by the Dalai Lama cannot actually be maintained: Do all religious traditions really carry the same message? Does this include the tradition held to by ISIS that lead them to slaughter, rape and pillage? Or the ancient cult of Molech in which children were sacrificed to fire? Or the modern American Hebrew Israelite movement that declares white people to be devils? The Dalai Lama’s claim is ignorant and naive at best. While sounding warm and fuzzy, it actually offers no real solution to those who are wanting to both authenticate their own faith, and relate well to those of other faiths, because it ignores the fact that our differences are significant and do matter.

In an attempt to offend no-one, these events can often contain much ambiguity, relativism and obscurity – apart from the repeated dogmatic claim that this is how things should be. Making an absolute claim that there are no absolutes is symptomatic of confusion, not clarity. It may appeal to the emotions – in which case it becomes a handy excuse for not standing form on one’s convictions – but it does not ring true to a mind that is interested in truth, reason and consistency.


I have tried to write this post from the perspective of an objective observer, uncoloured (I hope) by my Christian convictions. However I must also point out that there is another reason why the Interfaith Experiment is a failed one.

It is worthy of notice that many interfaith activities, at least in the West, are initiated by those coming from a liberal, ‘progressive’ Christian perspective. In all cases they flow out of a milieu in which the Gospel and the authority of Scripture has been watered down or abandoned altogether. In this sense, while interfaith proponents sincerely believe they are working for God and the gospel (whatever they believe that to be), they are in fact, in the words of Gamaliel (Acts 5:39), ‘…fighting against God.’

‘All worship the same God,’  ‘All religions are the same,’ and ‘The key to world peace is interfaith cooperation,’ are relatively recent ideas in human history. Future generations should not be surprised if they observe that such ideas and those who promote them will have slipped into obscurity as yet another attempt by humanity to rule ourselves and solve our problems apart from the True and Living God made known in His Son, Jesus Christ.

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Resolve logoIntroduction

At Resolve 2016, Flinders Evangelical Students explored the issue of pluralism – an issue facing both our society and the church.

As part of this exploration, we invited Geoff Boyce, Coordinating Chaplain at Flinders University to speak in our ‘Respond’ section of the conference. Geoff has, over a period of years, developed an approach to chaplaincy that has sought to respond to the reality of pluralism, and the contemporary context on the university campus in which Christians can often be less represented that other faiths, due to both the increasing secularisation of Australia, and the increase of migrants and international students.

Our aim in having Geoff speak was to listen respectfully to someone with whom we do not agree theologically, but whose approach we want to understand, so that we may be more gracious and respectful in our response both to him and to those with similar views.

What can we affirm?

Hospitality

Geoff helpfully highlighted for us the significance of hospitality as a Biblical principle, exemplified by Jesus. God’s work through human history has been one of inviting, welcoming and drawing people to Himself. By contrast, much of human enterprise has been about exclusion – keeping our own patch safe, and keeping the ‘other’ at arm’s distance, being unwilling to learn about and from those who are different to us. Geoff and his team have developed (and designed) Oasis as a venue centred around hospitality, where people from many cultural and religious backgrounds may engage, form friendships, and learn from each other. For this we are grateful, especially in that this hospitality has been extended to us in our freedom to use Oasis for our gatherings.

Genuine enquiry

Geoff also highlighted the danger of looking at others and trying to understand them ‘through Christian spectacles’ – ie. with unrecognised assumptions that come from our Christian worldview which can prevent us from truly understanding a person. For example, the best way to learn about Islam is to speak to and get to know a Muslim, rather than to hear about them from another Christian. This may well lead to us to discover more about what we actually have in common as fellow human beings, and to help us better understand and respect our differences.

Authenticity

Geoff helpfully emphasised for us the importance of desiring authenticity for others; in other words, wanting – for their sake – that they be truly themselves, not the person we think they should be. This is God’s desire for all people – that they be the people He has created them to truly be, free from the burdens and stereotypes placed upon them by other people who are really trying to deal with their own insecurities by manipulating people to become more like themselves. This is the Biblical idea of ‘maturity’ – when someone is fully human, and thus fully alive.

Relationships

Geoff also called us to focus on relationships, pointing us to the fact that relationship is at the heart of the Kingdom of God. God desires a relationship with His people, and He so works that those in a relationship with Him express this in the way they relate to each other. It can be easy for us to allow the task or the method of our mission to get in the way of genuine, loving relationships both with fellow believers, and with those around us who aren’t Christians. The moment we lose sight of the call to love God and neighbour, we will treat people as targets to win, or commodities to exploit.

Where do we differ?

Our view of Scripture.

Geoff mentioned that ‘the Scriptures were written in the exile;’ and that it was only in this time when the Jews themselves were outcasts that ‘they figured it all out.’ This is a view of the Old Testament that has emerged out of the late 19th and early 20th century ‘higher criticism’ movement that began to question the church’s traditional understanding of the origin, authorship and interpretation of the Bible. Coming from a rationalistic worldview that emerged from the Enlightenment, scholars and theologians who follow this more liberal or ‘progressive’ approach tend to emphasise the human element of authorship of scripture over the divine. Rather than viewing the historical books of the Old Testament as actual and accurate history, they prefer to see in them a ‘mythical’ element – stories that were written at a much later date than their actual historical setting, with the intention of providing a basis for meaning, identity and purpose for the discouraged and oppressed Jews living in captivity in a foreign land.

From an Evangelical perspective, such a view of Scripture undermines their authority and veracity, as expressed in the ES statement of faith: ‘[We affirm] The divine inspiration, trustworthiness, and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given, its entire sufficiency for our knowledge of God, and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.’ The conservative view of the Old Testament books, held to by most Christians for most of history, is that they were written much earlier, either during or soon after the time of the events described, sometimes by eyewitnesses, and always by men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:10-11, 2 Peter 1:21) to record an accurate account of events. These men, enabled by the Spirit, also spoke of things to come, primarily the sending of the Messiah. Thus, Jesus could say that the Scriptures spoke of him. (John 5:39). This view sees the Bible and its story as something overseen and coordinated by God, not ‘figured out’ by human beings. It is a story of God actually working throughout human history in historical acts of salvation to bring all things to the point of Him entering the world in the person of Jesus. The Christian faith is founded securely on historical events through which God has revealed Himself, not the more pop-culture idea that it is based, along with most other religions, on principles of conduct and ethical/moral behaviour.

While we can agree with Geoff’s point of hospitality being a key idea in the Bible, I would be unsure about a hermeneutic that seeks to ‘read the whole bible through the lens of hospitality.’ We can all be guilty at time of imposing on the Bible a particular framework, and us Evangelicals can be just as culpable of this as anyone. However I am not convinced that ‘hospitality’ is the one or primary framework or ‘lens’ through which we should read the Bible, such that we look for it in most if not all passages we read. Geoff pointed us to Jesus’ rejection at the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4:16-30 as an example of this ‘hospitality hermeneutic’. He suggested that hospitality was the key issue here: the fact that the two stories Jesus mentioned were of non-Jews being accepted and included by God (a Sidonian widow and a Syrian official), and this is what enraged the people and made them want to kill him. While I agree that the problem was, as Jesus says, ‘…no prophet is acceptable in his hometown (Luke 4:24), it was not the issue of the ethnic identity of the people in the stories that was taken issue with, but his accusation of the Nazarenes that they would not accept him unless he performed signs and wonders. This sets the scene for the ongoing issue Jesus faced with the Jews – that they demanded of him a sign – which comes to a head in Luke 11:29 when he says “This generation is an evil generation. It demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”

These are not the only occasions when we see Jesus ‘picking a fight’ with people who do not accept him as the Messiah and Son of God; and in the Nazarene synagogue it is he who starts the conflict by speaking scathingly of those who were otherwise, ‘speaking well of him and marvelling at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.’ (Luke 4:22). It is difficult to see how this, and many similar incidents, are an expression of hospitality, at least as described by Geoff.

Our view on the urgency of the Gospel

Geoff advocated strongly for an approach to those of other faiths which is only comfortable with another changing their view when it is entirely on their own terms and through their own initiative. He supports a model of ministry (specifically for chaplaincy) which is, ‘…no longer the ‘rescuing’, ‘telling’ salvation paradigm, but the hospitable, listening, empowering and long-term-committed mentoring (‘walking beside you’) paradigm, directed toward individual and corporate well being.’

Such an approach to institutional chaplaincy is understandable and expected, given the brief of a chaplain to work primarily for the well being of the organisation and the individuals within it. However it is a model that unfortunately discounts the fact that the Gospel is a message of salvation that is to be proclaimed, and must be received through repentance and faith. It is not merely a set of tools to be used in promoting individual and corporate wellbeing and harmony (although these are outcomes that should be expected as fruit of Christ at work in people through the Gospel.)

The ‘rescuing, telling salvation paradigm’ is unavoidable when we see the ministry of both Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament. ‘Repent and believe the Gospel’ is the summary statement of Jesus’ preaching given in Mark 1:14, and must be held alongside his ‘hospitality’ statements (eg. ‘come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28) is said in the immediate context of him just having pronounced woes upon towns that had rejected him!). Not simply a set of ideas and principles that can be explored and considered intellectually or emotionally, it is a message that carries with it a command to be obeyed:

‘The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17:30-31)

This command is given in light of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the coming Day of Judgement, from which God wants people to be saved. If Jesus, as he claimed, is the only way to the Father (John 14:6), then we truly love people by pointing them to him, and calling them to put their faith exclusively in him.

Our view on ‘comparative religion’.

Geoff encouraged us to look at the things we have in common with those of other faiths. That will be the point at which hospitality will be able to happen, as we use these commonalities as our starting point in creating open, trusting friendships (see diagram).

He suggested that the key point of commonality between all religions is love: the Golden Rule:

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12).

This is a popular idea today, especially when people are trying to make sense of and find solutions to the problem of religiously motivated violence and abuse. It is suggested that if all religious people simply practiced this as the heart of their religion, there will be harmony.

While it is true that many (but not all) religions contain a principle that in some way resembles Jesus’ Golden Rule (See table below), there are some problems with such a claim.

Golden Rule

Firstly Jesus, echoing the Law given through Moses, stands apart from the other religions in the way he phrases the Rule. His is the only one that is together entirely unconditional (ie. not for spiritual merit, or in order to receive good in return), proactively loving (as opposed to simply avoiding doing harm to others), and non-exclusive (not just within one’s own community.)

Secondly, unlike some religions in which the central theme is the effort humans must make to be good, the Golden Rule is not the central theme of Christianity in that sense. Christianity is based around not what we do, but what God has done in Jesus Christ. Jesus came not to enforce the law, but to fulfil it. What we were and are unable to do (love God and neighbour perfectly), he has done on our behalf, hand in hand with taking at the cross the punishment we deserve for our blatant unwillingness to love. In Jesus Christ God has done for us what we should have done for Him, and because He has perfectly kept the Golden Rule, we may be reconciled to Him:

‘In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.’ (1 John 4:10-11)

Our call to love is the outflow from the centre of our faith, which is in the person and cross of Jesus.

Our view of the Kingdom of God

Geoff told us that the Kingdom of God is about relationships. While that is true in as much as all that the Triune God does is about relationships, the Kingdom language used in the Scriptures is not primarily about communicating the truth of relationship as much as the truth of God’s authority. Entering the Kingdom of God means coming into a place of submission and allegiance to the King – the cry of Christians is ‘Jesus is Lord!’ and the message conveyed by Jesus’ resurrection is that he now reigns at the Father’s right hand and has been appointed as the coming judge of all people.

That being so, how are we to recognise the Kingdom of God in action in this life? Primarily, it must be people who are both acknowledging the lordship of Jesus over their lives and the world, and who are living in such a way that their actions give glory to Him.

This must necessarily be more than people of any faith or creed showing friendship and hospitality to one another. While we can certainly acknowledge that Jesus as King rules over all people regardless of their awareness of him, we can only call something a true expression of his kingdom where people are doing what they do ‘in his name’.

Because all people are made in the image of God, friendship and hospitality will be given expression in some form no matter how ‘fallen’ we may be, as long as we are human. However, as long as we are seeking to live outside of the lordship of Christ, such actions will ultimately be another expression of our rebellion. Because our deeds can in no way change our status before God, ultimately ‘…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.’ (Isaiah 64:6)

Geoff told us, in the context of speaking about inter-faith friendships, that ‘God is doing his thing – he doesn’t need the church.’ This is really a straw-man argument. I have rarely heard anyone say words to the effect that, ‘God does need the church.’ He is bigger than the church, and technically could accomplish all He wants to accomplish apart from the church – except for the fact that in His plan that the Church is actually central to all He wants to accomplish! His goal in all He is doing in this world is to prepare the Church to be a spotless bride who will be presented to his Son, Jesus. Because of this the church is described with such terms as, ‘God’s household,’ ’The pillar and foundation of the truth’ (Titus 3:15), ‘a kingdom, priests to his God and Father,’ (Revelation 1:6), ‘a chosen race… a holy nation.’ (1 Peter 2:9). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the church (the people, not the institution) is the visible expression of the Kingdom of God, and the instrument God uses to bring people into the Kingdom though its proclamation of the ‘Gospel of the Kingdom’ (Matthew 24:14).

Conclusion

I want to reiterate our thankfulness to God for the opportunities we have to gather freely as God’s people at Flinders Uni, and the role that Oasis as a location and as a team has played in making this possible. This space is a privilege that very few groups like ours around Australia and the world have.

We also appreciate the friendship and hospitality extended to us by Oasis team volunteers, staff and chaplains, and affirm their genuine desire to work for the wellbeing of students at Flinders. Flinders ES members and friends should be encouraged to participate in and assist with any activities in Oasis as their conscience gives them freedom to do so.

The relationship between ES and Oasis has not been without difficulties through the fifty years of us operating on campus, and it is important to acknowledge that this relationship has been strained at times, especially as the transition was made from a mainly Christian chaplaincy based ‘Religious Centre’ to a multi-faith and inter-faith ‘Oasis’. It is important also for us to acknowledge and be repentant of those things done and said by representatives of ES that have not reflected the love and grace of Christ. While we cannot take responsibility for the way in which others may perceive or interpret our actions, the love of Christ constrains us to make every effort to not merely speak the truth, but to speak it in love.

It is also important to remain firm on the commitment we have to our convictions as evangelicals – a commitment to the absolute truth of the Gospel, the uniqueness of Christ, the authority of the Bible, and the call to proclaim Jesus at university. Compromising on these would not only lead us to be disobedient to Christ, but would also annul our reason for existing as a club. The testimony of history is that Christian student groups who have assumed, lost, or denied the Gospel have eventually lost traction and finally ceased to exist, as they have nothing to offer to people that the world is not already claiming to give.

This means that we need to be always carefully and prayerfully thinking through what it means for us to be operating in the environment of a secular institution, a pluralistic culture, and an inter-faith setting such as Oasis. This is a similar issue to that wrestled with by the Israelites as they lived in exile in Babylon: They were called by God to remain distinctly seperate as His holy people, yet at the same time told to ‘…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7).

There is no simple formula to apply when working out our relationship with the university and with Oasis. We walk the tightrope somewhere between the compromise of full-blown partnership and the ‘bunker mentality’ of full separation, and we need the wisdom of God to guide us as we seek to navigate between these unhelpful extremes. ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’ (Romans 12:18) is a verse that we must apply to everyone, not just to Christians or those who may provide some benefit to us. This principle is motivated not by pragmatism, but by sincere love (Romans 12:9). Because of God’s grace, we can be confident that He will enable us to practice this sincere love towards our friends in Oasis in such a way that we will not compromise the Gospel or our mission, to the glory of God.

On Thursday, August 22nd 2013, Flinders Evangelical Students partnered with the Flinders Uni Muslim Association to present a forum exploring the identity of Jesus.

Speakers were Samuel Green (Christian) and Abdullah Kunde (Muslim)

When we met with our Muslim friends to plan the event, we began by acknowledging that both Christianity and Islam are missionary faiths. We were honest about the fact that we would like all Muslims to become Christians, and that they would like all Christians to become Muslims – in fact the two faiths are mutually exclusive. We were able to respect one another on this basis – because we knew that there would be no ‘hidden’ agendas. How can you be friends when you never know if the other is being honest with you?

The format of the evening was as follows:

A 20 minute presentation by each of the speakers on their view of Jesus. The aim of their talk was not to refute the other, but to present why they believe their view to be true.

15 minutes each for each speaker to pose questions to the other. This was an opportunity to clarify, and to raise any inconsistencies in the other’s presentation.

10 minutes each to answer questions that had been written down by the audience.

As you watch, I trust that something will become clear. The Muslim view of Jesus is not good news. Much of it is refuting those who believe Him to be divine. What is left is simply another role model, whose teaching has been lost (as Muslims believe the New Testament is corrupted, even though the Quran does not say this).  As Samuel says right at the end of his question time (1:43:00), how can you honour a prophet if you do not read his book? But Muslims cannot do this, because they do not trust the New Testament (Gospel) we have today.

By contrast, the true Jesus – as seen in the Bible and proclaimed by Christians – is incredibly good news. In Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, God does for us what we are unable to do for ourselves; through faith in his death and resurrection on behalf of sinners, we may come into the Father’s family, and have the assurance of sins forgiven, and future that is secure.

Jesus is not the bringer of Good news; He is the Good News. He does not bring a way of salvation, He is Salvation.