By Jeff Brumley
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leader Suzii Paynter describes Rob Sellers as a superb scholar dedicated to interfaith work.
Roy Medley of the American Baptist Churches USA and the National Council of Churches lauds Sellers’ skill at building bridges between people and faiths.
If this and other high praise for Sellers — shared recently by Hardin-Simmons University — is any indication, then Sellers will be ideally suited to his new role as chairman of the Parliament of World Religions.
Sellers is professor of theology and missions at HSU’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas.
But teaching is his day job. Interfaith work has become a passion for Sellers after a period living overseas and during the last five years when he has become increasingly involved with the parliament.
The parliament is a global organization created to foster harmony among the world’s religious traditions. Its goal is to engage with global institutions to achieve a just and peaceful world, according to its website.
Sellers is only the second Baptist to chair the organization. The first was American Baptist Bob Thompson, who now holds the title of chairman emeritus, according to the organization’s website.
Medley said Sellers will show the world that Baptists can respect and defend the religious rights of others.
Sellers told Baptist News Global he’s eager to assume the chairmanship at a time when the interfaith movement is increasingly visible and important in the United States and internationally. His role at the parliament will include continuing to help larger and grassroots groups around the globe connect.
“We need to be united,” he said in an interview about his chairmanship, which begins in January 2016. “People are very aware of the fact that we live in a pluralistic world and that we have neighbors of other faiths living around us.”
Following is more of Sellers’ interview with BNG.
Were you always open to interfaith work, or has it been more of an evolution for you?
It was an evolution because I grew up in a Baptist family and my dad was a Baptist pastor in Florida and both my parents were very open minded. … Later, living in Indonesia for many years among so many other peoples who followed other faith traditions, I became more interested in other religions and other ways of life. … When we came back to the U.S. in 1996, we subsequently … got more involved in the Abilene Interfaith movement, National Council of Churches, Baptist World Alliance and so forth. … So it’s been a progression.
What is your history with the parliament?
I have been involved with the parliament for five years. I was named to be a trustee of the board and during these five years I’ve served on various committees and … become more and more active as time has gone on. … I have also served as a vice chair of the board … I have found this as a way for me to express my own ecumenism and my appreciation of other faiths.
You’ve described your service as a counterpoint to some ungracious things prominent Baptists have said through the years. Can you elaborate on that?
Prominent Baptists have made statements not gracious to other faiths and might have given the impression that Baptists are close-minded. I think it’s important that it be known that Baptists have had a tradition of religious liberty going all the way back in our history. Baptists have championed the right of people to believe in other ways. It’s important to know that not all Baptists are critical in these ways. … Of the 30 parliament trustees right now, five of them are Baptists and every one of them would say we represent a different kind of Baptist, one who is working with people of other faiths.
How do you respond to the concern some have that interfaith work can lead Christians into other religions?
The danger that we might be lured into changing our mind about our faith — I suppose that that’s a possibility, but I don’t think that it’s an inevitability… We have to go into it with an open mind and respectful attitude and with the goal of learning from our dialogue partner. That doesn’t mean we just accept what someone else says. We don’t have to accept what we are hearing and change our minds, but we have to open our minds to being convinced of something. … The key is building a friendship that produces trust between us, to share matters of deep concern.
Instead of fearing it, you’ve said Christians should consider religious diversity to be beautiful? Why?
It depends on whether you think that other religions are just bad ideas or mistakes or faults or whether you think there is something to be learned from the great wisdom traditions that have been passed down through the centuries. I’m essentially talking about the great world religions that you might learn about in a survey course. … These religions contain, as Huston Smith said, ‘the winnowed wisdom of the world.’ This is beautiful if you think of these expressions as diverse ways of searching for the divine and the meaning of life. These are some of the ways people have tried to understand mystery, and I think that diversity can be a very enriching thing.
How has it been enriching for you?
We spent years in Java where we heard the [Muslim] call to prayer five times during the day. That is broadcast out on loudspeakers on top of neighborhood mosques. It’s a reminder when you hear that … that people are stopping to pray. As a Christian I’m thinking, how often do I interrupt my daily schedule to pray?
What does the chairman do?
One of the challenges for me is to inspire and work with our trustees and other people to think how the parliament can move into new areas of work … A lot of what the chairperson does is represent the parliament in print and public appearances.
What are you hoping to achieve as chairman of the parliament?
We need to dream big dreams. We need to think outside of the box. … The interfaith movement needs to be a grassroots movement and there are thousands of small interfaith organizations around the world and around the U.S. And the parliament is one of the most influential interfaith organizations in the movement and has a big role in galvanizing and working with grassroots interfaith groups.