Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

New Job, New Challenges

Among the requisite qualities for my new job as SMU Chaplain, I find these three: (1) passionate commitment to Christ, (2) strong United Methodist identity and (3) openness to people of other faiths.  The third point is particularly important because of the number of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other students.  I am eagerly looking forward to getting acquainted with them, but I am also aware of the tension in the aforementioned job requirements.

One might reasonably ask, “How can you be passionately committed to Christ and be open to other faith expressions?”  Part of the way one would answer that question depends on how one defines “open.”

Some religious beliefs have universal implications, meaning that if I believe ‘A,’ then by believing ‘A’ I cannot coherently believe ‘B.’  I think the belief in God as Trinity and the Incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus of Nazareth fit this logic, which prevents me from believing certain other beliefs about God and Jesus.

Drawing these conclusions, how, then, do I “be open” to other faith expressions?  When we lived in the Chicago area during graduate school days, our next door neighbors to one side were Chinese Buddhists and our neighbors on the other were Jewish.  They were our friends.  Period.  Did we talk about Jesus?  Yes.  Did we manipulate conversations and twist and turn them in order to “witness”  about Jesus?  Absolutely not.  You don’t treat friends that way.

Part of faithful Christian witness is the appropriate use of power inherent in relationshps.  We are both powerful and vulnerable in real relationshps.  We can uplift or harm others and they can do the same.  In addition to my beliefs about Jesus, I have other beliefs (that come from Jesus), about how to treat people.

In the sermon, “On Living Without God,” Mr. Wesley has the following to say (Warning: it’s a long quote in 18th century idiom):  “Let it now be observed that I…have no authority from the word of God ‘to judge those that are without [i.e. outside Christianity];’ nor do I conceive that any man living has a right to sentence all the heathen and Mahometan world to damnation.  It is far better to leave them to Him that made them, and who is ‘the Father of the spirits of all flesh;’ who is the God of the Heathens as well as the Christians, and who hateth nothing that He hath made.”

My translation: It’s God’s job to judge, not mine (thank God!).  God made all people, so we can leave the sorting out of people’s eternal destinies to God.  Since God made all people, God loves all people. Furthermore, Jesus commands us to love our neighbors.  Hopefullly, I embody the love of Jesus for all to see.  When I am given the opportunity to talk about my faith in Christ, I will do so with clarity, passion and gentleness.

In other words, I am not a pluralist.  I’m not interested in “blending” or matching doctrines from diverse religions for the sake of peace.  This approach demeans the integrity of all religions.  As a passionately committed believer in the Triune God, then, I am eager to undertake my responsibility to welcome people of other faiths, to make sure they have all appropriate means to exercise that faith as they see fit and to learn from them as God continues to work, however mysteriously,  in us all.

There is much more to say on this matter, I know.  I’ll keep thinking about how I should say it.

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June 12, 2009 - Posted by | Doctrine/Theology, General, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , ,

6 Comments »

  1. Being open to other faiths has a lot to do with respect, as well. I respect my friends’ passion in their faiths, though they are not my faith, and I know that’s how they best relate to God. That’s really the whole point of religion, isn’t it? Relating to God.

    I’ll probably say more when you say more.

    Comment by Elise | June 12, 2009 | Reply

    • Yes, respect is clearly part of the need for honest dialogue. But I think it goes beyond respect, to love of neighbor.

      Comment by steverankin | June 12, 2009 | Reply

  2. I’m happy to see SMU hiring a Jesus person like you. Too many schools out there seem to be looking for generic religionists.

    Comment by Richard H | June 12, 2009 | Reply

  3. Thanks, Richard.

    Comment by steve rankin | June 12, 2009 | Reply

  4. Steve,
    Your disavowal of pluralism sent me to Wikipedia for a definition. They don’t give a sharp definition, but say Religious Pluralism may be used “As the name of the worldview according to which one’s religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth, and thus that at least some truths and true values exist in other religions.”
    Or “As term for the condition of harmonious co-existence between adherents of different religions or religious denominations.”

    How do you define the term? Might you want to reject relativism rather than pluralism? Can you be open to other faiths without accepting the above-mentioned definitions of pluralism?

    Comment by Larry | August 3, 2009 | Reply

  5. Good question. Religious pluralism is, in one sense, an empirical fact: many people practice many religions. I certainly have no problem with the fact of religious pluralism. I’m taking issue with the more contentious understanding of “religious pluralism” as a truth claim, which, I think, comes close to your first definition. However, I would argue that one can believe that God has revealed truth in other religions while still believing that the final and full revelation of God comes in Christ Jesus. The definition from Wikipedia(?) as it stands lacks some necessary nuance.

    Pluralism as a truth claim (a la John Hick or Paul Knitter, to name a couple of pluralists with which I’m familiar) is a form of relativism, which is why I don’t agree with it.

    “Open” is a tricky, ambiguous term. Am I willing to learn from other religions? Of course. Am I willing to say that being a sincere Buddhist is as spiritually valid as being a sincere Christian? No. The logic of the Christian faith, as I understand it, does not permit me to accept this claim. But being convinced by this logic does not mean that I am therefore “not open” to other religions and it certainly does not mean that I would wish Buddhists harm or, worse, that they’re “going to hell.”

    A few years ago I read a book, edited by John Stackhouse, No Other Gods Before Me? Evangelicals Encounter the World Religions (Baker, 2001). Several of the essays were quite helpful and perhaps most of all, Amos Yong’s essay on the work of the Spirit of God through other religions. My memory has faded, but this book was helpful.

    It’s good to hear from you, Larry!

    Comment by steverankin | August 4, 2009 | Reply


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