Globalization and world religions, interlocking realities in our day, place the great faiths of the world in ever closer proximity. Incidences of violence, done in the name of religion, prompt questions about whether religion is a dangerous force to be cast aside in order to search for a more moral pathway. Can one maintain that a religion is moral if immorally wielded to vanquish another way of faith? Charles Kimball has written about the possibility that a religion may become lethal, and some critics believe that the cessation of religious conviction would be a positive step. I disagree.
This past weekend I participated in a significant interfaith dialogue with Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University. Our topic was “Peace in the Middle East,” and from our faith traditions we explored what it might take for peace to ensue. Forgetting and forgiveness, as well as remembering and repentance, will be necessary. And the goal of absolute justice, pursued from one particular vantage point, renders justice unattainable.
We did not try to obscure our real differences, nor did we conceal the ways in which our traditions fall short of their own spiritual guidance. Yet, we have modeled a respectful conversation at the University of North Florida and on public radio, a conversation that portends ways forward in conflictual contexts.
Earlier iterations of interfaith dialogue sought to find commonality and too often minimized our distinct vision of redemption. As we found common ground, we did not really have to love the religious “other,” only our own reflection. Now, it appears that by emphasizing the particularity of our faith’s vision, we add to the larger understanding of how the ways of God intersect the human condition. This kind of exchange allows what Krister Stendahl calls a “holy envy.” Our religious neighbor interrogates our own perspective and summons respect, even envy, for the compelling vision of the other.
The moderator posed a question that sparked long memory for me: “What is my personal connection to Jerusalem, spiritually and emotionally?” I had to review a 40-year history of intermittent visits to the holy city.
I articulated my relationship to Jerusalem in the framework of pilgrimage. As a seminary student, I went to Jerusalem in 1974 as a missionary to convert. My formation as a Baptist Christian could only approach a Jew or Muslim as one in need of salvation, as I understood it.
In 1980, I went as a smarty-pants doctoral student to critique — how do the biblical texts really relate to the land? Can any one of the Abrahamic religions constructively sustain the primacy of their claim to contested land? Why is Judaism so patriarchal?
During that sojourn, I visited a service at the home of Rabbi Pinchas Peli, led by his wife and other women. They were practicing reading Torah, “getting ready for the time we might assume leadership,” they said. This encouraged my own struggle and advocacy for the leadership of women in the Christian tradition.
As a scholar studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute during the summers of 2012-2013, I moved toward conversation with religious “others” in a more nuanced and respectful manner. I discovered that I was the one who needed converting — to a thoughtful Christian theology of religious pluralism. Such is the near mystical power of the ancient city.
The moderator also asked how faith leaders might create paths to peace. As a theologian, it is critical that I interrogate any form of supersessionism. The penchant to believe that any prior religious form is in some way abrogated by the “new revelation” is both dismissive and dangerous. Any zero sum notion of truth allows one’s religious tradition to triumphal over-reaching.
A highlight of my time in Florida was the opportunity to engage remarkably welcoming and perceptive Muslim leaders, predominantly of Turkish background. (We share a love of strong coffee!) They are greatly concerned about the current political rhetoric, and they genuinely long to be agents of peace even as they are too often regarded with suspicion. They invest time, resources and professional skills in navigating the rather insular Christian culture of Jacksonville, Fla. This is the town, after all, where a prominent Southern Baptist leader referred to the Prophet as a “demon-possessed pedophile.” Sadly, that was not too many years ago!
I believe that the Spirit of God is leading Christians to re-examine our posture toward persons of other faiths. We have much to learn from them and, in humility, we can follow the way of Jesus more nearly as we find them to be our neighbors. When we serve the common good together, we demonstrate the richest teachings of our individual tradition’s understanding of what God requires. The pursuit of interfaith dialogue and shared service may well be the most important expression of faith in our time.