Back in July I traveled to Detroit for the Lutheran Hour Ministries Global SENT Outreach Conference where I was invited to speak on the topic of Christian encounters with the world's religions and sundry spiritualities.
I remember a few things from the trip: 1) I loved Detroit, its food/beer culture, its waterfront, and its people; 2) I spent the night in the airport with a guy who talked about Dungeons & Dragons at 2am in the morning (lovely); 3) it gave me an opportunity to share my "theology of religion" with a wider audience.
The conference was organized by Lutheran Hour Ministries who shared in their conference report:
More than 1,000 people gathered on July 24-27 in Detroit, Mich. to hear speakers, musicians, and entertainment...these photos, quotes, and videos tell an abbreviated story of how God worked through the Lutheran Hour Ministries SENT Outreach Conference...
Along with Rev. Gregory Seltz, speaker of the Lutheran Hour, Rev. Dr. John Nunes of Valparaiso University, Rev. Dr. Joel D. Biermann of Concordia Seminary St. Louis, Rev. Dominic Rivkin of LINC Los Angeles, Jon Acuff, Jon Dansby, and others I was included in LHM's Storify highlights.
Reflecting on the feedback provided to me from conference participants and from the Storify, I want to ruminate on the major takeaways from my approach to a "theology of religion." Here goes.
I love this. Why? Because I stole it. Author and interfaith activist Eboo Patel gets all the credit for this one. In his book Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America Patel wrote of the need for us to flip the script in our theology from one of antagonism and conflict to one of affinity and compassion. His quote was in reference to the need for Christians to befriend Muslims. While mine referenced Hindus in this presentation the point is the same -- inspired by Christ's actions in John 4 with the Samaritan woman at the well we must endeavor to befriend the "religious other."
Indeed, we must cease thinking of the "religious other" as "other." Instead, recognizing the imago Dei -- image of God -- within each of us, we must see others as part of the same human story, unique in their formation, important in God's creation. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, it is recognizing that "no human life can be rightly understood apart from the whole story of which each life-story is a part." This posture can lead to mutual understanding, bonds of friendship and solidarity, and common efforts toward peace.
Of course, this can, and will, be hard. Why?
People often ask me what the fastest growing religion in the U.S. is. Is it Islam? Mormonism? Evangelicalism? Which "-ism" is it Ken?
Due to forces of individualization, "normal nihilism," and a general belief in the supernatural and the importance of the spiritual we are all on our own spiritual journeys, mixing-and-matching our religious sentiments like patrons at a Sizzler buffet.
Because, as Paul W. Robinson wrote, “the assumptions, attitudes, & understandings that lead to the practice of mix-and-match religion surround us" we tend to pick-and-choose what we like, and what we want, from each and every religion and/or spirituality. A little bit of Hindu meditation? Sure. Some Buddhist prayer beads? Heck yeah! Christianity's Jesus? Bring it on. Sufi poetry for meditation? Two helpings please!
While I make light, the truth is that it is difficult to navigate the religious landscape we encounter because it is so stunningly diverse. Not only do we live in a pluralistic context outside of us, but we also wrestle with pluralist tendencies and tensions within our own spiritual journey as we choose between various spiritual perspectives, orthodoxies, heresies, and practices delivered to us on websites, podcasts, apps, sermons, and publications.
Despite the stunning diversity, our challenge remains the same. Again, Patel wrote, "The question is how to have a vertical relationship with one’s own understanding of the divine and a horizontal relationship with the diversity of the world." We must not only ascribe to truth as we know it, but be comfortable enough with a plurality of truth-claims to hold peaceable conversations with others and together work toward the resolution of conflict and the blessing of our communities.
Although we may struggle with our own journey and others cannot quite explain their "spiritual-but-not-religious" perspective, we must still lean into these relationships with mercy, truth, love, patience, and grace.
The U.S. is suffering from a case of multi-generational and multi-cultural religious illiteracy —what Stephen Prothero calls, “religious amnesia.” The United States, in spite of its established secularism, is a thoroughly pluralistic nation with robust expressions of myriad world religions everywhere from the wheat fields of Iowa to the buckled asphalt of Los Angeles. Yet, we are simultaneously “a nation of religious illiterates” who flunk the most basic of quizzes on religion — even our own.
To the rescue come “world religion Bible studies” that attempt to help Christians navigate their world’s stunning religious pluralism. The problem is, most “world religion Bible studies” are terrible.
While most of the leaders of these studies start with the intention to help their parishioners learn more about the world’s religions, the way they go about it usually leads to nominally increased religious literacy. Even worse, these studies often exacerbate pre-existing prejudices or presuppositions about studied worldviews.
Instead of informed, generous, and balanced studies most devolve into bullhorn-style, biased, polemic, opinion-infused and horribly misinformed misadventures into religions and worldviews.
Still, there is a need for Christians, and others, to study the world's religions -- to listen and learn, to dialogue, to work together, to dine with one another, and build bridges of understanding, friendship, and common cause.
These are the highlights that LHM shared. There was other feedback as well and I could spend days writing about it, but if you want to dig deeper into my "theology of religion" and the approach I advocate for Christians to take toward other religions and worldviews please take the time to read, and respond to, my recent paper, "Building Bridges: Toward Constructing a Christian Foundation for Inter-Religious Relationships in the Shift from Religious Privilege to Spiritual Plurality."
I want to thank LHM again for inviting me to come and speak. I pray that this conversation is both compassionate and constructive, building upon the church's theological foundations to construct a common path toward reconciliation and peace-making in the world today.