An interfaith education conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Episcopal Church warned that evangelicals and evangelism are potential obstacles to positive relations between Christianity and other religions.
Among the featured speakers at the Interfaith Education Initiative was Methodist theologian Wesley Ariarajah, a former official of the World Council of Churches who has denied the need for Christian evangelism, as well as Harvard professor Diane Eck, also a Methodist and Harvard’s first openly lesbian dormitory mother. She heads the Pluralism Project, which celebrates the growing interfaith nature of America’s religious demographic.
Also speaking was Shanta Prem-awar-dhana, who heads the National Council of Churches’ interfaith efforts and who shares Ariarajah’s and Eck’s preference for dialogue over conversion. The conference was sponsored jointly by Episcopal Relief and Development and the church’s Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.
Speaking before about 100 people in an auditorium perched high in one of the National Cathedral’s gothic spires, Ariarajah assured a sympathetic audience that the world is “irreversibly interfaith.”
“Globalization has thrown us together as an interfaith community,” said Ariarajah, who teaches ecumenical theology at Drew University in New Jersey. “We’re removed from isolation and forced to be engaged.”
“Christian ecumenism has lowered the boundaries between traditions,” Ariarajah enthused. “There’s a new realization by the church that pluralism is here to stay.”
Ariarajah noted that, after three centuries of global evangelism, only one third of the world’s population is Christian. Only three percent of India is Christian, despite intense missions efforts. The problems that confront the world cross religious boundaries, he said, and surmounting them cannot be achieved by any one religion.
“We need partnerships,” Ariarajah insisted. But the “misuse” of religion, such as that of the Islamic terrorists on September 11, is present in all religions. “The credibility of religion itself is at stake today.”
The former interfaith officer for the World Council of Churches asserted that interfaith dialogue does not mean “running away from one’s own faith.” Instead, it should be seen as “mutual correction and enrichment.” He admitted, however, that dialogue is becoming more difficult because of “internal diversity” within religions.
In particular, Ariarajah was speaking of the problem of “militant Islam” and “fundamentalist” Christianity. “They’re in our churches,” he said of evangelicals, who make interfaith outreach more complicated.
Ariarajah admitted that the different religions do not worship the same god, but, he wondered, “Would God not listen because the praying person has the wrong understanding of God?” Ultimately, it is God’s business to listen to everybody’s prayers, he said. “From God’s perspective there can only be a human family.”
Regarding biblical language that asserts Jesus Christ is the only way to God, Ariarajah warned that the language of “love and faith” should not be confused with the “language of truth.” Just as his daughter might call him the “best daddy in the world,” so, too, can Christians call Jesus the only Lord, because that is true of their “experience.”
“We take seriously [the exclusive truth claims of Christianity] because it’s a judgment on other people,” Ariarajah explained. “Jesus didn’t engage in polemics against other religious traditions except the religion of mammon.”
Ariarajah declared that September 11 had changed how America sees the world, while the war in Iraq has changed how the world sees America. “Both are based on views that violence can solve issues.”
As a Methodist minister in his native Sri Lanka, Ariarajah developed his syncretistic views about religion as a response to being a member of a minority religion in a predominantly Hindu culture. In studied contrast, Diane Eck recalled her own initial forays into interfaith understanding when she headed to India to explore the mysteries of Hinduism. “I’ve been to more Hindu temples than any [other] Methodist!” Eck boasted, as she remembered her first visits to the Indian city of Banaris and trying to understand the worldview of Hindus.
Her 2001 book, A New Religious America, emphasizes growing religious pluralism in America, almost to exaggeration. “The Islamic world isn’t elsewhere,” Eck said. “It includes D.C. and Chicago.” She prefers not to examine actual demographic statistics showing that 80 to 85 percent of Americans still describe themselves as Christian, while less than 5 percent profess to belong to other religions.
Like most pluralists and religious liberals, Eck de-emphasized the exclusive claims that Jesus made about Himself in favor of a more inclusive Jesus:
The Gospel . . . is not in the first instance about ideas but about relationships, transcending and breaking boundaries of ethnicity, legalisms, etc., to reach out to the other just as Jesus did.
Eck lamented “conservatives,” such as evangelist Franklin Graham, who have said “inflammatory, ugly things” that are “instantly heard” by Muslims around the world. Conservative Christians find “tolerance to be intolerable” if it means admitting that other religions worship the same god as Christianity, she hypothesized. Nonetheless, September 11 was “great for opening interfaith dialogue.”
Of course, religious liberals such as Eck and Ariarajah represent a dwindling minority within global Christianity, for whom organizations such as the World Council and National Council of Churches are increasingly marginal.
More pointed in his warnings about religious conservatives than either Eck or Ariarajah, Shanta Prem-awar-dhana said there are two visions of America: one pluralist, and one monolithic. In the past, the pendulum has always swung toward homogeneity in America. However, recent immigrants are not melting into American culture as their predecessors did, he claimed.
Before coming to the National Council of Churches (NCC), Prem-awar-dhana was a Chicago-area Baptist pastor and leader in interfaith dialogue there. Like Ariarajah, he is originally from Sri Lanka. Not surprisingly, he belongs to the Alliance for Baptists, a small, liberal spin-off from the Southern Baptist Convention that disagreed with the SBC’s conservative direction.
The NCC is outspokenly supportive of the United Nations, and Prem-awar-dhana tried to link America’s growing skepticism about that organization and growing “unilateralism” by the United States to the rise of conservative Christianity.
“This administration is unilateral,” Prem-awar-dhana fretted. “There is a link between religion and unilateralism. Multilateralism is messy and deals with ambiguity.” Trying to explain the failure of religious liberals to capture a large audience, he complained that “a lot of people like certainty. They [conservatives] use Scripture better than we do.”
The Christian Right used to “crusade” against communism and is now focused on opposing “the liberal United Nations agenda,” Prem-awar-dhana explained. He said Christian conservatives root their ideology in biblical prophecy, “rapture theology,” apocalyptic books by Hal Lindsey, “fear of the new world order,” and Christian Zionism. “End time prophecies have a huge impact on public policy,” he observed with concern.
Prem-awar-dhana recalled that the Christian Right organized in the 1970’s around school prayer, the Equal Rights Amendment, and homosexual rights. “They are very active even in the Episcopal Church,” he warned. But at least the “progressive community” is being heard. The “unilateral” actions of President Bush have caused a nearly universal response by the progressive religious community, he said. As an example, he recalled a televised apology to the Iraqi people that the NCC broadcast in the United States.
“We will do our theology better” if other religions are involved, Prem-awar-dhana claimed. He recalled that an NCC publication called “God is One—The Way of Islam” was distributed to every NCC church and paid for by a Muslim group.
Prem-awar-dhana regretted that conservative Christians are not interested in interfaith dialogue, as “progressive” religionists understand it. Instead, conservatives see it as an opening for evangelism. Until conservatives are willing to change, dialogue with them will not work, he said. “[I]nterfaith dialogue must come with the ability to change.” The dialogue should not be framed in “Christian terms.” Many believe that the Bible is not helpful for interfaith exchanges, he observed. But Scripture “can be helpful if we read it more carefully.”
On the whole, the remarks by Ariarajah, Eck, and Prem-awar-dhana were probably more thoughtful than the Interfaith Education Initiative might have deserved. Few, if anybody, in attendance at the event audibly commented on the many layers of irony about their Episcopal Church and its concerns for interfaith dialogue.
Global South Anglicans now increasingly fear that their ties to the U.S. Episcopal Church, with its pro-“gay” stance, will undermine their relations with other religionists, especially Muslims, who are anxious to portray Christianity as decadent. The Episcopal Church, U.S.A., is dwindling in size, unlike more robustly orthodox Anglicans elsewhere. De-emphasizing evangelism even further in favor of multifaith dialogue hardly seems the kind of medicine this denomination needs. And, as Episcopalians increasingly implode doctrinally, it is difficult to know what exactly they have to “dialogue” about with true believers in other faiths. Pluralism, which is displacing the Trinity and the Incarnation as core doctrine for many Episcopalian elites, is hardly a foundation for a substantive interfaith exchange.
You tell us what you believe while we tell you what we don’t believe seems to be the approach of Episcopalians and other liberal Western Christians who obsess over dialogue with non-Christian religions. In an added irony, their approach to dialogue seems to be confining their conversation to grumbling and commiserating within their own confined circles.
Unlike many other liberal Western Christians, however, Episcopalians are able to conduct their interfaith grumbling within the gothic splendor of cathedrals and with the beneficence of ancient endowments embedded deep within America’s most boutique of religions.