Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Challenge of Christian Relevance

The 21st century world is one that is in constant flux. The advances in technology, the continuing spread of globalization, the uprisings in the various countries, and the growing interaction between diverse cultures presents our modern world with continuous and unstoppable change. This is indeed not the world the previous generation experienced, and it is not the world many of us envisioned in our formative years. But this world has come to us, or rather, has been created by us, and thus we can either try to halt such rapid change or we can invest our energy into reframing our lives to fit within this change.

While such flux does have an impact on every part of our lives, both individually and as a society, one important aspect of our lives that is feeling the weight of these significant cultural, technological, and global shifts is religion and the values which are derivatives of religion. Shifts in religious culture are never isolated from the broader cultural changes. Any significant social, economic, and political shifts in a society will result in a shift in that society’s religious understanding and practice. 

In our current context there is a growing grassroots Christianity that has become more open and more progressive in its understanding of belief and practice. Much of this movement may have some of its roots in the theological battles that have engrossed various Christian traditions over the last few decades. Many of these progressive Christians, like me, have become weary of these schisms, seeing them as distracting the church from its authentic mission in the world. 

Moreover, many of these Christians who have embraced the progressive label are beginning to understand the importance of working with others for the common good of the world, regardless of religious affiliation or no religious affiliation. These progressives are no longer buying sectarian views of the world or that one religion holds all the truths about God. Rather, they understand the world as the community of humanity, and they are embracing a much larger call for people of faith to work toward the common good of humanity. All of this has and will continue to have an effect on the way Christians live in a society undergoing constant change. 

As intelligent beings who are constantly receiving messages and signals through various experiences, we process these messages through our own frames of reference. These frames of reference are formed by our own histories, our own cultures, and our own beliefs, whether religious or not. But, in terms of religious beliefs, many people use religion as their primary way to understand life. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it can present challenges to people whose religious perspectives are confronted by the flux of our world.

If the church is to do more than survive the current and inevitable changes that are occurring in order to remain relevant in the midst of these shifts, then people of faith must rethink and reframe Christian belief and practice. By stating that we should rethink Christian beliefs, I am not suggesting that all of these are outdated, although some certainly are. Nor am I saying that some of these important theological ideas should be thrown out, although some definitely should.  Indeed, what we confess about our faith is vitally important to Christian identity; without beliefs we cease to be Christian.

But theology is always formulated in context, whether that theology is shaped as formal or personal. While the Bible and our Christian traditions have significant influence on shaping our theology, our experiences will play a major part in what we develop as our theology. This means that the theology that has been passed down from generation to generation, whether based on the Bible or tradition, or some combination of both, becomes ours only after we have reframed it in our own world and through our own experiences. 

Therefore, to be progressive means that we must take seriously the texts of the Bible, the creeds and confessions of the church, and the historic theology of our Christian heritage. To ignore them or to discard them completely will result in the loss of Christian identity. But, to be progressive also means that we need not transfer all of this to our own context as if the Bible, the creeds and confessions, and the historic theology of our Christian heritage are stone tablets. We have to reframe these in order that Christian theology becomes relevant for every context. 

This may not be an easy process, and it is certainly not a haphazard and willy-nilly method. Moreover, some Christians will hold out as long as they can before embracing such change. Indeed, those who are fundamentalists are called this because they generally do not accept these changes to their fundamental understandings about the Christian faith. Fundamentalists will refuse to reframe religious beliefs, choosing instead to hold on to what they see as revealed and unchangeable truth.

But those who do embrace this change must somehow reframe their understandings of their beliefs about God, the Bible, and the Christian faith to fit their own context. Reframing can mean minor adjustments to what we believe about our faith, or it can bring about major paradigm shifts in the way we think and believe. This is not a disorganized or insincere approach to theology and faith, for we must remain in dialogue with the scriptures and the traditions that have been passed on to us. In reframing our faith, we are not completely throwing out the old in order to make room for the new.

“The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” If I am not mistaken, that statement has been attributed to Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister in the 1960s and 1970s. Regardless of who said it, the statement is apropos to the church’s place in a world of change. The church can remain a stagnant institution leading it to a place of irrelevancy in the changing world. Or, progressives can continue to lead the charge of reframing the Christian faith in order to remain authentically relevant to a world in constant flux.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How should Christians respond the debate over immigration reform?

As the U.S. Senate begins its debate over immigration reform, a debate that will prove to be complicated as well as fierce, how should Christians respond to this debate?

Perhaps the most beloved story in the Gospels, and indeed maybe the favorite story for many from the entire Bible, is the story of Jesus’ birth. Even when it is not the time for Christmas, the familiar nativity story lives on in our hearts and minds, narrating for us the incarnation of God into the world in the person of Jesus. Yet, while we celebrate and retell the story with feelings of warmth and comfort, from its beginning to its end the story is a narrative about the rejection of Jesus as a stranger and alien in a foreign land.

Luke tells us that when Jesus was born, Mary laid him in a feeding trough because there was no room for him in the inn. Matthew narrates a story about a young family having to live a nomadic life because of the threat of governing authorities. While these stories may not be entirely historical, both birth narratives reflect what Jesus knew to be true about his own life, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Throughout his life, while Jesus did gather a small following, in most cases, he was rejected. The story of the incarnation, then, is a story about how the God of creation had entered into that creation as a rejected alien and stranger. Can this story shed biblical light on the question concerning our current immigration policies?

I am ill-equipped to answer questions about immigration from a legal stand point, and I see the strengths and weaknesses of various positions on the issue. But as Christians who follow a Savior who himself lived as an alien rejected by his own, I am troubled that many folks are not concerned about developing a compassionate response to the immigration issue.

Since the horror of 9/11, xenophobia has been prevalent in our country. This fear of foreigners has grown out of a return to an entrenched and zealous patriotism that has gone too far in its understanding of America as the only culturally pure society. Yet, some blame must also be placed on our fear of not feeling secure and the perception that American culture is under threat. Such xenophobic tendencies may overtly or implicitly influence our feelings about immigrants and our political positions on the issue of immigration.

How might Scripture inform us as we struggle to formulate common sense and faithful Christian responses to the issue of immigration? First, we need to recall God’s commands to Israel regarding aliens in their midst. The Mosaic Law states that God is one “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” Moses goes on to command Israel to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19).

When we turn to the New Testament, we find that followers of Christ are called citizens of the kingdom of God, and alien and strangers to the world. The Christian movement negated ethnic differences and crossed boundaries of ethnic separation to welcome all into the kingdom of God. Jesus consistently reaches out to the outcasts of society, even the Gentile, who were viewed as ethnically inferior by the Jewish religious leaders. Paul reaffirms the breaking down of ethnic divisions by stating that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, as both have been joined together into one new humanity (see Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14-22).

One thing we must keep in mind is that most immigrants we see and meet in our communities are not undocumented immigrants. They are law abiding citizens who desire a better economic and political life for themselves and their families. We should remember that at some point in history our ancestors were immigrants to this country seeking exactly what immigrants to the U.S. seek today. Moreover, we cannot simply blame immigrants for problems such as crime, loss of jobs, or other social programs. These problems would exist even if there were no immigrants.

And, while there may be as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., many of these are hard working people who are seeking a better life for themselves and for their families. The majority contribute to the economy of this nation, including doing many jobs that Americans will not perform, as well as starting small businesses in the entrepreneurial spirit of America, as a report on NBC indicated.

As people of faith, we should be informed about this important issue and voice our religious conscience. But if we claim to follow Jesus, we need to make sure our views are more informed by the compassion of our faith than the fear our culture feeds us. Our positions on the issues surrounding immigration must not only model the teachings of Jesus on welcoming the strangers and outcasts, they should also be views that see the person of Jesus in every human being. If they do not, we may find ourselves asking Jesus, “When did we see you as a stranger?” only to hear, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:31-46).

For anyone interested in a video resource that offers a faith perspective on the issue of immigration, "Gospel Without Borders", produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics, is a great tool for faith communities.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Journey into Understanding Other Religions for People of Faith

I teach a survey course on world religions each semester at the university where I serve as director of international programs. In that course, we begin with discussions on defining religion and how we can approach the study of religion. The university is an academic setting and in the course we approach the study of world religions from an academic position that is mostly philosophical, historical, and comparative.

But as a person who is a practicing Christian and a minister, I am also concerned with how people of faith might approach the study of other religions in their communities of faith. Certainly there is room to incorporate an academic approach in these settings, but because these settings mostly take place within religious congregations, there may be more at stake when believers from one tradition engage in the study of other traditions.

That’s why I think it is important to set the tone for such an endeavor that hopefully engages not only the more open minded believers, who are already receptive to other faiths, but perhaps also the more traditional believers who may not be as open minded and possibly uncomfortable with delving into understanding not only other faiths, but more importantly, those people who sincerely practice other faiths.

I think a good starting point would be to deconstruct the stereotypes about other religions that are fed to us through various mediums. In this sense, we must be honest to admit that the actions of a few within a religious tradition do not speak for the many. As a Christian, I would certainly not want the actions of particular groups or individuals who claim to be Christian to define what it means to be a Christian. Thus, we should not allow the actions of a minority who claim to be practitioners of a certain religion to define what we accept as that religion’s core values.

A second strategy to take is to reevaluate categories. Christians are so prone to thinking in their own categories that we also think those categories fit other religions. For example, we might think that other religions must believe in some deity, but many do not. Moreover, we might wrongly ask what other religions teach about salvation and heaven, when some do not even concern themselves with such questions. We cannot place the grid of our own faith categories onto other faiths hoping to come away with a clearer understanding; our grid does not always fit.

The third action in this approach may be the most challenging for people of faith. Yet, if we are to be sincere in our desire to understand other religions, then we must open ourselves to the faith of others by crossing over into their faith. This does not mean we embrace their belief system as our own, but it does mean that we embrace them in their faith, and we seek to understand, as best we can, why they believe what they believe and practice what they practice. To do this with authenticity, however, requires that we do not judge their faith through our own, but we allow them to speak about their faith on their own terms as we listen and seek understanding.

Such an action should lead to a fourth step in this process, which also may be difficult for many, but is perhaps necessary. We should be critical of our own religion. We live with the tenets of our faith so close to us that it may be difficult to see their weaknesses and faults. We have learned the teachings of our faith, perhaps since a young age, and we know them so well that it is hard to distance ourselves from them. But, if we are to be honest seekers of truth, we must be willing not only to admit the truths we might discover in other religions, but also the faults in our own.  

Fifth, we should also embrace differences as part of being human. In a real sense, the world’s faiths are all attempts to understand what it means to be human, although there are other ways of understanding what it means to be human outside of religion. Yet, in our humanity, we are limited in our ability to flesh out this meaning fully with absolute certainty. This has lead to differences in understanding that are also fed by cultural differences in which religions are born and grow.

The final two steps in this process will hopefully also be the results of seriously engaging in the first five steps. A course of genuine truth seeking should lead us to recognize the revelatory core of each religion as the basis on which to build common ground, despite how different we believe from others. Once we reach this step, we are deep in the process to the extent that the stereotypes we deconstructed in our first step are now replaced by a more truthful understanding, and we can honestly admit to ourselves and to others the value of other faiths.

This should lead us to the final step, where we not only reaffirm our own faith, but we also affirm the faith of another. Anyone that I have ever spoken with who has involved themselves in interfaith understanding with sincerity has reported that such a venture has led to a deepening of their own faith. Perhaps if we can authentically affirm the validity of another person’s faith, it grounds us deeper into our own beliefs and practices.

In taking these steps, people of faith can remain passionate about their own faith, but also encourage others to be passionate about their faith. We can also enrich our own lives by affirming the other instead of treating the other as opposition. In this way, barriers can be torn down and doors can be opened that move us beyond mere intellectual knowledge about other religions, into personal relationships with those of other faiths that focus on the common good