Thursday, September 16, 2010

Competing Religious Visions

The Disciples tradition, of which I'm a part, values diversity and freedom in the pursuit of Christian unity.  We have taken hold of texts such as Ephesians 4 and John 17 that affirm this unity.  But every day we see examples of competing visions of the Christian faith.  Of course, the founders of the Disciples movement, understood that there were competing visions, they just wanted to see if they could get everyone together under one banner.  In the end, we added another set of banners to the ever growing sea of religious banners.

David Gushee, a Baptist theologian and ethicist, reminds us that in reality there isn't one Christianity, but competing versions, and their not all the same.    The Terry Jones affair, which involved the pastor of a small Florida congregation, launching an "International Burn the Koran Day," showed Christianity at its worst.  And yet much of the response showed Christianity at its best -- as Christians from across the spectrum replied strongly that this guy doesn't represent us, any more than Fred Phelps does.  

Gushee writes of this contest:

To say that there are competing versions of Christianity is not to say that any version is as good as any other one. Quite the contrary -- the contest over which version of Christianity is truest to the intent of the God we have met in Jesus Christ is a matter of desperate importance. But because of the diversity of the biblical materials, because of the way Christian faith has been transmitted through various traditions, because we are all still sinners, and because we see through a glass darkly, Christians have always contested various versions of the faith. Traditionalist conservatives like to identify a pristine “faith once delivered to the saints,” and to plant their flag there. But despite heroic efforts to pin down the nature and content of that faith, its content was -- and is, and ever shall be -- contested.
And contest we must.  I can value the diversity within the church, but I also need to be discerning.  I don't believe, for instance, that Jonathan Edwards is correct in suggesting that we are "sinners in the hands of an angry God."   I don't believe that God authorized the Crusades either.  In fact, I appreciate Gushee including the story of Francis of Assisi's visit to the Sultan during the 5th Crusade -- While the official church was urging the troops into battle, Francis made his way unarmed to the Sultan and had a conversation about faith.  Francis didn't convert the Sultan, but he gained his respect.

So, what is the kicker?  Well, even as there isn't just one Christianity, then perhaps there isn't just one Islam!  Gushee again writes:

Could it also be that there is no such thing as “Islam,” but only competing versions of Islam? Could it be that those who are casually declaring that al Qaeda’s Islam just is Islam are about as accurate as those who would say that Terry Jones’ Christianity just is Christianity? Could it be that we need a moratorium on people who know nothing about the competing Muslim traditions making blanket declarations about the eternal nature of that religion?
Indeed, my Muslim friends make this very point -- Osama Bin Laden doesn't represent me!   Indeed, Bin Laden doesn't represent them any more than Terry Jones and Fred Phelps represent me and the Christianity I profess!

7 comments:

Rick's pics said...

We do see through a glass darkly. While I don't think of myself as a "beggar" before God, we might be described as "one beggar telling another beggar where to find a piece of bread." Or, like blind men trying to describe an elephant. They argued over which was right when they all were right. They just couldn't see that the elephant was big and varied in its description. Moral of this story: God is bigger than an elephant.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Bob, Good points... It becomes easier for all of us to make sense of the world if we can paint a religious group or a political group with one big brush stroke. It also doesn't require us to think as hard.

Colby Cheese said...

There are only two religious systems. They are mutually exclusive and usually oppositional.

One uses religious belief as the means by which the leaders strive to control the thoughts and actions of the faithful followers. By necessity, this religious system suppresses discussion and debate, favoring blind faith over knowledge and obedience over questions. It survives by creating an environment of justice as condemnation and reward/retribution and inclusion/exclusion and us/them and here/there - of who is in and who is out. This is not the Good News. It and science are oppositional.

The other uses religious belief to provide freedom from oppression, seeks justice as restoration, strives to improve human relations and the quality of life, and welcomes questions, discussions, debates, and increased knowledge. It survives by creating an environment of grace and universal inclusion. This is the Good News. It and science are synergistic.

John said...

Doug,

Your dualistic characterization of religion, is unfair, and denies any credibility whatsoever to those whose system is at odds with yours.

What your analysis ignores the basic premises which underlying the dichotomy you lay out. One group appears to accept as a basic premise a world view which is marked by fear, guilt and a perceived need for clear and present authority in their lives, in the world, and in places of greatest uncertainty. The other group appears to be less afraid, less concerned with issues of guilt, and more confident that chaos and uncertainty will result in positive outcomes.

Both of these operating world views are legitimate and sincere, and the religious perspectives they give rise to are entitled to fair portrayals, and genuine respect. Each has something to share with the other.

John

Colby Cheese said...

Being a disciple of the Good News is practicing generosity and hospitality; living non-violently without vengeance; living here and now as one family where all are invited, welcomed, and included without exception or qualification; living in constant relationship with God; and living here and now – not later and not someplace else – living here and now a life transformed by resurrection. The Good News – without application here and now, without making a positive and practical difference in the life of the disciple and especially in the involvement of the disciple in the lives of others – is useless and meaningless and is not the message lived and delivered by Jesus and is not of God.

From its beginning, the Good News has been apolitical and non-national. When pushed to choose between faith and empire, the way of the Good News has been to respond with non-violent defiance and refusal. Our faith life is not measured by how materially abundant or wealthy is our life and not by how much political or cultural influence we have. Our faith life in no way embodies, is connected to, or dependent upon or subservient to patriotic fervor or national loyalty or good citizenship. Our faith life is measured by how we attend to and improve the lives of others – by feeding them, quenching their thirst, clothing them, visiting them in prison, healing them, and welcoming them. Keep in mind that this is a deliberately incomplete list. It works in much the same way as when Jesus tells Peter to forgive, not 7 times, but 77 times – the point being that by the time you forgive someone 77 times, it has become, not an act that has been repeated 77 times, it has become a habit, a path, a journey, a way of life. The point is that by the time you develop the habit of feeding, quenching, clothing, healing, welcoming, and visiting prisons, you have created a new life complete with new values and new goals and new vision. Once you get to this point, you have discovered and claimed (not earned) and embodied your grace-given membership in the family of God, a membership exemplified by worship, justice, love, and service.

John said...

Doug,

You and I share a common theology pretty much down the line. What I am saying though is that the generosity of our theology needs to leave room for other theologies, even theologies which clash wildly with our own, even theologies which are in direct conflict with the values and premises which give rise to our theology.

It is no good to be generous to Muslims and then reject all Christian theologies which conflict with our own.

John

Colby Cheese said...

Upon further reflection (such is the nature of discussion)...

Instead of seeing religion as a discrete binary system, what I described is probably better viewed as the opposite ends of a spectrum with lots of room for variance in-between.