Successful interfaith work is not seeking the lowest common denominator and watering down differences in beliefs, George Mason told supporters of the T.B. Maston Foundation Oct. 27 as he and colleague Nancy Kasten received the Maston Christian Ethics Award.
The award was given to Faith Commons, a nonprofit created by Mason five years ago, long before his recent retirement from the pastorate of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. Kasten, a Jewish rabbi, not only was instrumental in that formation but now serves the organization as chief relationship officer.
In a presentation to about 150 people present for the first return to the annual dinner since COVID, Kasten said her Jewish identity has been enriched by engaging in the interfaith work of Faith Commons. Mason said his Christian identity has been enriched by engaging in the work.
“It’s not just kumbaya moments that we share where we get together and try to find the lowest common denominator that binds us together.”
“For those of you who aren’t yet engaged in interfaith work or may be nervous about that in some way … it’s not just kumbaya moments that we share where we get together and try to find the lowest common denominator that binds us together,” he explained. “That is to say, keep all your differences quiet and try to just get to know each other, just care for one another and be good neighbors.
“There’s something to that. I’m not saying it’s wrong, it’s just not what we care most about, ”Mason continued. “We fully respect the whole person and whole religion who is next to us, and we stand side by side and we try to understand the differences as well as the commonalities. That’s something important in the development of all of this.”
Based in Dallas, Faith Commons convenes faith leaders and people of good faith for conversations about critical issues of the day. This is accomplished through a podcast called “Good God” as well as through advocacy work, seminars and relationship building.
Also present at the dinner was Omar Suleiman, a Muslim scholar and civil rights leader who is a frequent collaborator with Mason and Kasten in interfaith work in Dallas. The trio often are seen leading interfaith advocacy projects in the Dallas area.
The Maston Foundation honors the life and legacy of T.B. Maston, who was a highly regarded professor of Christian ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, in the middle of the 20th century.
“We are fully aware of what an extraordinary moment this is in the history of the Maston Foundation and the trajectory of what this organization is doing,” said Mason, who did master’s and doctoral work at Southwestern after Maston’s retirement but while he was still living on campus.
“We feel honored to be the first organization, rather than individual, to receive this award and the first interfaith group to receive this award,” he added. “We are mindful of this moment, and we think that in the context of the world in which we live, this is a moment truly to celebrate.”
Faith Commons was born of a shared lament that Dallas, although increasingly pluralistic, had no interfaith organization that brought people together in such a way that they could “speak together when circumstances called for it,” Mason said.
“We think this is about saying that when you enter into the Commons, so to speak, you shouldn’t have to drop your faith in order to participate,” Kasten said. “You should be able to bring yourself fully from your faith tradition and speak from it honestly. The Commons is the place where we seek the common good together, where we live together.”
That honors the legacy of Maston, who was a pioneer among Baptists on causes of religious liberty and race relations, Mason said. “We think theology and ethics go together, as does Faith Commons, … and this is really a legacy of T.B. Maston. … He was a man ahead of his time.”
“We think theology and ethics go together.”
Unfortunately, Maston did not “solve” the chronic problems of religious liberty and race in America, so “we find ourselves in the position of continuing to work on the ways in which those wicked problems have continued to morph into new guises through white supremacy … and Christian nationalism that is threatening real religious liberty,” Mason said.
Maston did model for later generations the importance of dialogue and respect, he continued. “This work is not going to succeed if we are just trying to convince everyone else of our own point of view. Instead, what I think interfaith work really has to do is even go beyond multifaith work. And that is to have a kind of vulnerability about your own faith as you engage in this that allows you to examine your own faith in light of your relationship to someone else’s.”
Another secret of success at Faith Commons is that “we’re not trying to be everything to everybody,” Kasten said. “We just want to connect different kinds of people who might not already know about each other to each other, to ask more questions, to maybe think about things in a little bit of a different way, to try to find new answers to old problems and to really be problem solvers as opposed to answer givers. We like to ask questions. We like to ask a lot of questions.”
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