People (like me) who value interfaith dialogue and, in fact, think it's essential for a religiously pluralistic country like the United States, get frustrated by the fact that a lot of Christians who identify as conservative or evangelical show little interest in such interreligious understanding.
But finally there's a great new resource that offers convincing arguments about why everyone -- including conservative Christians -- should be engaged in this important work of neighborliness and education. It's a book called From Bubble to Bridge: Educating Christians for a Multifaith World, by Marion H. Larson and Sara L.H. Shady, both of whom teach at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. And there's an excellent forward by Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and author of Interfaith Leadership: A Primer, which I reviewed here last year.
(By the way Patel will be in Kansas City tomorrow as the keynote speaker and workshop leader for Project Equality's "Diversity and Inclusion Summit" at UMKC. I hope to see you there. I'll be speaking briefly early in the summit about the religious landscape of Kansas City.)
The authors' argument to convince Christians to become involved in interfaith conversations is persuasive because they take Christian teaching seriously.
"Christians," they write, "who seek to live and serve graciously in a religiously diverse world must also deliberately and thoughtfully engage with our religious neighbors. We firmly believe that not only is such engagement in line with God's command that we love all of our neighbors, including those who believe differently, it also helps us develop a mature, committed faith that's at the same time humble and open to learning from others."
In other words, if you believe Jesus when he said one duty of his followers is to love their neighbors, then you really have no choice but to get to know those neighbors, no matter what faith tradition, if any, they follow.
The authors note, however, that some Christians don't think they can be strongly committed to Christ while also being friendly with people of other faiths. That false barrier, however, creates fear, which can lead to all sorts of trouble, including failing to love our neighbors, as Christ commanded. But Larson and Shady insist that "loving our religious neighbors doesn't require abandoning our own faith commitments. Instead, it can flow from an incredibly strong and deep commitment to follow Jesus' teaching that the greatest commandments are to love God and neighbor. . .What better way to present our faith than to attempt to love others as Christ loves them?"
In the U.S., Christianity has long been the dominant faith, and remains so today. But the American religious landscape has been changing in recent decades and the percentage of people who identify as Christian is shrinking. Larson and Shady think this offers a helpful opening: "As Christians, we have the opportunity to change our voice form one of domination to one of love."
That language (sometimes unintentional) of domination can lead people outside of Christianity to feel unwelcome and even put upon. That must end, the authors say: "In particular, evangelical Christians need to listen carefully to ways in which mission and evangelistic efforts have been received. Some efforts have certainly been wrongheaded in every way; other efforts may grow out of good intentions but still feel offensive to would-be targets of evangelism."
Interfaith dialogue and understanding does not mean watering down or changing beliefs. Rather, it means knowing and being known, and that requires respect so that each person participating can be heard clearly.
This new book should be a great help with that task.
* * *
MAKING THE BIBLE WEST VIRGINIA'S STATE BOOK?
Speaking of Christians and interfaith dialogue, as I was above, a new bill in the West Virginia House of Delegates would designate the Bible as the state's official book. Well, that's one of the first things not to do if you're really interested in creating an atmosphere of religious respect in the country. I just don't get why some lawmakers don't understand why they can't promote one religion over another. It's right in the Constitution. Maybe West Virginia doesn't have enough copies of the Constitution to go around.