February 18th, 2018

Catawba Valley Interfaith Council

February 18, 2018

Thank you, Don Flick and the Catawba Valley Interfaith Council, for entrusting me with this privilege.  With as many options as the Council had locally for today’s presentation, it is humbling to represent the Christian perspective in this significant conversation.  I also want to thank my friend Dennis Jones for getting this dialogue started so well last week.  He said he didn’t feel qualified to reflect on Bruce Feiler’s work.  I don’t feel qualified to follow Dennis Jones!

You probably know (or might guess) that my heritage, training, and vocation are distinctively Christian.  Not many of you know that I was raised in a Muslim country and I have a Jewish grandson!

For most of my childhood, my parents were Christian missionaries in what was then West Pakistan.  Our hometown, Abbottabad, was and is the home of Pakistan Military Academy, their “West Point,” and is also the city where Americans found and killed Osama Bin Laden.  My early childhood included interaction not only the Christian minority population but with Muslims in Pakistan.

As for my Jewish connection, the evangelical Christian tradition in which my wife Linda and I were both raised has a deep appreciation for its Jewish roots, and I’ll return to that theme.  This led to our two trips to the Holy Land in the last few years, and to a deeper interest not only in Judaism during biblical times but in Jewish history during the Christian or Common Era, the last two thousand years.

More recently, however, our interest in all things Jewish took a more personal twist when our son married an ethnically Jewish woman.  Therefore our grandson, Arlo, born two months ago is also Jewish, since the line comes through the mother.  We just returned from two and a half weeks in Kailua, Hawaii and Portland, Oregon, with Phil, Carlie, and Arlo.  And yes, I have pictures!

My thesis is that Abraham is, indeed, an appropriate and helpful starting point for dialogue, mutual respect, and common ground for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Bruce Feiler’s Abraham

CVIC’s starting point for this dialogue is Bruce Feiler’s Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.  I had the opportunity to read the book in airports and on planes on the way to Hawaii, and found it to be provocative for my own thoughts.  Since not all of you have had the opportunity to read the book, I’ll begin with a brief overview.

Abraham was published in 2002, in response to the 9-11 terrorist attacks.  The book begins with an introductory chapter on the “rock of Abraham,” the place where in the Bible and in the Quran, heaven connects with earth.  It was the spot where Abraham went in obedience to the call of God to sacrifice his son, the place David purchased for the Solomon’s temple.  Also known as Mount Moriah, it protrudes through the massive Herodian temple mount.  The Muslim Dome of the Rock has covered the location for 13 centuries.  In close proximity to that spot in Jerusalem are other sacred places for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Jerusalem is thus not only a volatile and violent place, but also a holy and unifying place.  In comparison to its history, I would suggest Jerusalem is quite serene and orderly in the 21st century.  Feiler suggests the Rock of Abraham is “the spot where you can connect with God only if you understand what it means to connect with one another” (14).

The next two sections of the book offer a general overview of Abraham’s life – his birth and his call – and separate chapters on his two oldest sons – first Ishmael and then Isaac.  The stories come mostly from the Hebrew Bible.  As Feiler notes, the Quran doesn’t really tell stories – it offers perspectives on the stories it assumes its readers already know.  That’s also true of the New Testament.

Feiler then includes one chapter each on how Jews, Christians, and Muslims understand Abraham, with a concluding chapter on Abraham’s “Legacy.”  Reflecting an earlier comment that there are not only three different perspectives on Abraham, but 240, Feiler concludes his book by deciding to choose “none of the above” and instead creating Abraham #241.  His Abraham, he says, “should be a creature of the modern world.”  Feiler’s Abraham “is not Jew, Christian, or Muslim.  He is not flawless; he’s not a saint.  But he is himself, the best vessel we’ve got, the father of all….I choose him” (218).

Christians and Abraham

Feiler’s chapter on Christians and Abraham begins and ends with an interview with a Christian leader in Jerusalem.  First, there’s a Greek Orthodox bishop named Theophanes, who supervises about half of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, including Golgotha.  One chapel in the church is called the Convent of Abraham. Theophanes says,  “A hundred years from now, the serious people will be considered ecumenical.  They will understand that Abraham belongs to all humanity” (148).

At the end of the chapter, Feiler discusses Abraham with the Reverend Petra Heldt, a German Lutheran minister who survived a Jerusalem bombing and now heads an ecumenical group in Jerusalem.  For her, Abraham emerges as “a giant figure, who holds our joint expectations in his life, and whose character we both see as representing the best of ourselves.  It’s beautiful.  And it can happen.” (159).

Between these bookends of the chapter, Feiler wrestles with New Testament Scriptures and Christian history since the time of the New Testament.  He adds that it was only when the Jews rejected Jesus that the early Christians “decided to broaden their appeal to include non-Jews” (139).  In order to do this, they needed a founding father: “They needed Abraham.”

Feiler notes that for Paul, Abraham is important to the story because his relationship with God developed before circumcision.  Paul quotes a critical sentence in Genesis 15.  Having heard God’s promise, Abraham “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

As a non-Christian, Feiler is wise enough to consult a Christian scholar about New Testament passage.  His choice is Reverend Dr. Richard Wood, a Duke Divinity School grad who served as President of Earlham College before serving as Dean of Yale Divinity School.  Wood affirms Feiler’s thesis that Paul “created a new Abraham for his own purposes.”  While Paul was trying to be more inclusive, Wood says, his writings also “created huge problems without realizing it!” (145)

Feiler continues with an overview of the Gospels regarding Abraham, including a section on John 8, which he sees as “the expression of the rift between Christians and Jews.”  He traces that rift through some of the early church fathers – Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Augustine, who, Feiler says, transformed Abraham from Paul’s “ancestor of all who believe” to “the ancestor of all who hate” (154).

As a Christian, I am embarrassed to admit how often and how right Feiler is about the last twenty centuries or so.  He is quite restrained, actually.  He could easily have pointed an accosting finger at Christians for the Frankish forced conversion of and even massacre of Saxons in the 8th century, the Crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries, persistent and atrocious persecution of those considered heretics, and anti-Semitism throughout the centuries that culminated in the 20th century Nazi holocaust.  He could also have included less violent historical situations, such as the mass conversions in 10th century Russia under Vladimir or Hawaii under Kamehameha in the 19th century.  One might question how “Christian” people were when their rulers simply declared everyone adopt the new faith.

Of course, not all Christians dealt in such extreme efforts to spread the faith and eliminate rivals, but Feiler concludes that Christians in general have done what Jews before them had done.  They remade Abraham into their own image.  “Abraham is now a Christian, who knew Jesus, heard the gospel, and passed down God’s blessing exclusively to those who embrace the Body of Christ” (154).

Which Christians?

Now I will share my own perspective on Abraham as a Christian pastor, and some of my favorite stories.  As I do so, remember that I share the goal of this forum. Christians, Jews, and Muslims should be able not only to co-exist but cooperate for the common good of local communities and global peace.

I begin with the reflection that when one encounters religious ideas different than one’s own, the response generally falls into one of four categories:

  1. Oppress/coerce. This includes actions from genocide to displacement to forced conversion and even forced compliance with religious laws.
  2. Convert/persuade. The distinction I’m making is that this response is about words and not actions.  There are no consequences for lack of response, but there is an effort to change the minds and hearts of others.
  3. Ignore/resist. This is a passive response – neither action nor words attempting to alter another’s belief or behavior.  There may be a defensive response, if one’s own belief or freedom is threatened, but no initiative toward the other religious faith.
  4. Coexist/cooperate. The response here is to acknowledge and affirm what Bruce Feiler calls “spiritual parity” (202) among religious ideas.  There’s no competition, but it’s more than that.  The question becomes how can we actually work together for the good of all?

Historically Muslims and Christians have too often adopted #1, while Jews have more often adopted approach #3.  All three faiths have engaged in all four responses from time to time.  Lord Acton famously noted that power corrupts, and all three faiths tend to move in the direction of #1 when they have power and toward #4 if they are powerless.  What’s remarkable about this forum is that we live in North Carolina, where the Pew Forum says 77% identify with the Christian faith, and yet many of those initiating this forum are choosing to advocate Response #4.

What I noticed in reading Feiler’s chapter on Christians and Abraham is that the Christians he interviewed came from two branches of the Christian tree – Greek Orthodox and Mainline Christian.  If we’re trying to convince Christians to use Abraham as a model for more understanding and relationship with Jews and Muslims, that’s very much what we like to call “preaching to the choir.”  Those are two of the main branches of Christendom today, but historically those groups are already “in” for #4.

To convince Christians, especially in the Bible belt, to embrace interfaith dialogue, the appeal must be broadened beyond Orthodox and Mainline Christians.  In North Carolina, for example, Orthodox Christians comprise about 1% of those who self-identify as Christians, roughly the same percentage as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Catholics are about 13%, Black Christian denominations about 16%, Mainline Christians about 25%, and the largest bloc is the Evangelical/fundamentalist Christian bloc at about 45%.  Sharing perspective from Orthodox and Mainline Christians is comparable to quoting only Reformed Jews or Shiite Muslims.

My pushback is not only that Feiler doesn’t quote an evangelical in his chapter on Christians and Abraham.  It’s that at points his argument is actually off-putting to Evangelicals and perhaps Catholics and other Christian groups.  Let me speak to the Evangelical worldview since I know that branch best.

First, the heart of “evangelical” faith is the word “evangel,” which means “good news.”  While there is certainly diversity among evangelicals on many issues, what makes an evangelical an evangelical is the identity of Jesus as the Christ, and the responsibility and privilege of sharing the good news of God’s forgiveness because this Jesus, the Son of God, died for our sins and rose again.

Second, evangelicals believe the Bible, Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God.  The degree to which they use the word “literal” in understanding and applying the Bible varies, but all would agree the Bible is their ultimate guide for what they believe and how they live.

Third, for the last century or so, evangelicals have been mostly favorable toward Judaism and the state of Israel.  There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them is a major shift around the turn of the 20th century in theology from postmillennialism to premillennialism.  The difference between the two is not important for this conversation, but the latter suggests a significant and unalterable place for national Israel, Jews, Jerusalem, and even the temple at the end of the age.  One of the fascinating twists of the early 20th century was how the religious right and political left joined forces to make America Israel’s greatest friend among the nations.

Fourth, evangelicals have had a more strained relationship with Islam.  One reason is that evangelicals believe their primary duty is to share their faith.  When Muslims are in charge of a country or community, they tend to outlaw or discourage evangelism by Christians and penalize conversion of Muslims to Christianity or any other faith.  More recently, of course, the actions of Al Qaida, ISIS, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other radical Islamic elements have made many Americans, especially conservative ones, even more afraid of Islam.  Since I grew up in Pakistan, I certainly understand what many Americans cannot grasp, that the most radical elements do not represent all of Islam.

I name those four points simply because if we’re going to encourage all branches of the Christian faith to enter this dialogue, we need to understand where they’re coming from.  For example, when Feiler makes the statement that Jesus never claimed “that he was the messiah Jews had been awaiting for centuries” (139), many Christians, not just evangelicals, will dispute that point vigorously.  If the goal is “spiritual parity among the faiths” (202), evangelicals and (I suspect) most Catholics, Mormons, and black Christians will pull back.  Feiler quotes Walter Bruegemann that “spiritual parity” is a value shared by 2/3 of Jews, 1/2 of Christians, and 1/3 of Muslims.  Not only Evangelicals, but other Christians, Jews, and Muslims who believe that their faith is superior are precisely the ones we want in the dialogue.  If spiritual parity is an essential starting point for this dialogue, then we just lost the majority of monotheists – probably even the ones we most need in the dialogue.

If, however, the conversation were more like the one described by Harvard’s Jon Levenson, “one that did not minimize differences but accentuated them” (203), we have a place to begin.  We shouldn’t expect Jews in an interfaith dialogue to deny the Torah, or Muslims to set aside the Five Pillars.  Evangelical Christians cannot be expected to stop proclaiming Jesus Christ as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). But we need want them, as well as all Jews and Muslims, to be invited to the table.

Toward an inclusive Christian approach

I will suggest a few considerations for a more inclusive Christian approach to interfaith dialogue.

First, let’s at least attempt to consider all Christian traditions.  My own vantage point is that my early background and education are in the Evangelical branch of Christianity, while my adult life and ministry have been in the mainline church (United Church of Christ).  Those are the two branches I understand best, but I’ve also been intentional about developing listening friendships with black Christians and Catholics.  My daughter’s ex-husband was raised as a Mormon, which occasioned a visit to Salt Lake City.  I have the least connection with Orthodox Christians, but I did have dinner in the home of a Russian Orthodox bishop in Moldova a year and a half ago, and also attended an ecumenical forum last year which included an Orthodox patriarch from the Middle East as well as a Catholic cardinal.

Second, it might be helpful to see Abraham not only as the first monotheist but as a baby monotheist.  As I mentioned, my wife and I have just returned from about two and a half weeks interacting with our baby grandson.  I fully expect that our grandson will be brilliant, not only because both his parents have Ph.D.s in marine science, but because they are paying attention to what will give him the best chance to develop mentally.  Even so, we can’t expect him to respond like a grown up, not yet. Abraham’s story precedes Moses, Jesus, Paul, and Muhammad.  Let Abraham be an infant.

Third, we will take seriously the account in Genesis.  Genesis means “beginning,” and we will expect to see the beginning of many themes that will be expanded on in both Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  A concept I teach is “the progress of revelation,” which means that I don’t look for exactly the same theology or practice in the same way all through the Bible.  I want to appreciate Abraham in his own context, then we watch that understanding of faith grow and expand in the Bible.

Finally, we need to connect Abraham to themes in the New Testament.  With these principles in mind, let me share some of my favorite Abraham stories and connect each to a particular theme.

Theme 1:  Calling

Abraham:  “The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’”  (Genesis 12:1)

New Testament:  “Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”  (Matthew 4:21-22)

The call of God is a quest, not an adventure.  Tim Keller notes that an adventure is “there and back again” (the Hobbit) while a quest is into the unknown (Lord of the Rings).  Abraham is asked to leave the familiar and risk the unknown without guaranteed outcomes.  Fear is no reason to run from interfaith dialogue.  We don’t know how it will change us.  That’s OK.  It’s God calling.

 Theme 2:  Universality

Abraham:  “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  (Genesis 12:3)

New Testament:  “I tell you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 8:11)

The heart of God is on the whole world.  Whenever we convey that God’s interest is limited to our kind of people, we are projecting our own spiritual narcissism on to God.  Abraham describes himself as a stranger (Genesis 23:4), which he is not only in Canaan but in Harran and Egypt.  Whether speaking of missions or immigration, we must recall God’s interest in people of every race and place.

Theme 3:  Humility

Abraham:  “So Pharaoh summoned Abram.  ‘What have you done to me?’ he said.  ‘Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?…Now then, here is your wife.  Take her and go.’”  (Genesis 12:18-19)

New Testament:  “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Only God is perfect in knowledge and action.  Pharaoh acted more nobly than Abraham.  The Bible gives us these very humbling stories of its heroes to remind us that no human being (or movement) gets it all right.  If I disagree with you as a Muslim or a Jew, even about matters we consider essential, there are only three possibilities – either you need to learn from me, I need to learn from you, or we need to learn from each other.  None of them will happen if we avoid each other.

Theme 4:  Concession

Abraham:  “Is not the whole land before you?  Let’s part company.  If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” (Genesis 12:9)

New Testament:  “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” (Luke 6:30)

If God is in charge, I don’t have to be.  This story is about a quarrel, not so much between Abraham and Lot as between their undershepherds.  Abraham concedes the need to separate and also gives Lot first choice of the land.  We often think of “the other guy” as Lot – the bad guy compared to ourselves.  Letting go of the need to control people is an act of faith.  I can give the benefit of the doubt, even be generous without expecting a return.

Theme 5:  Mystery

Abraham:  “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High.”  (Genesis 14:18)

New Testament:  “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

God has people we don’t know or understand.  Melchizedek is an enigmatic figure in Genesis.  He appears once more in the Hebrew Bible, Psalm 110:4, where the psalmist says of David, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”  The writer of Hebrews compares his mysterious origins to Jesus Christ, using Melchizedek as precedent for the idea that God is working in ways and through people that are totally unexpected to us.  Later in the book that same author reminds us that a stranger may be an angel.  So many more biblical accounts point to God working through those we didn’t expect.

Theme 6:  Faith

Abraham:  “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”  (Genesis 15:6)

New Testament:  “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”  (Hebrews 11:1)

Trusting God’s word means trusting God’s timing.  Abraham was 75 years old when he set out from Haran, 100 when Isaac was born.  When God first made the covenant with him (and he believed the LORD), God added that four generations would pass before the promise would be fulfilled that his descendants would live in the land (Genesis 15:16).  Paul notes that Abraham’s faith preceded his works, so his faith that made him righteous.  Trusting God’s promises means trusting God’s character.  This is essential to what faith is.  We hope, but don’t see.  God is working invisibly in others.

Theme 7:  Omniscience

Abraham:  Hagar “gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’”  (Genesis 16:13)

New Testament:  “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth…he is not far from any of us.  For in him we live and move and have our being.”  (Acts 17:26-28)

God sees every person, everywhere.  This idea of “seeing” is more than simply catching a glimpse.  That God sees Hagar means that he knows her situation and cares for her, her son, and their destiny.  Hagar and Ishmael are not mentioned in the New Testament, which only reinforces my point.  God’s all-seeing ability is not limited to Isaac and his descendants – biological or spiritual.  God sees every person, everywhere.

Theme 8:  Covenant

Abraham: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.  Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”  (Genesis 17:1-2)

New Testament:  “This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord.  I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people.”  (Hebrews 8:10)

God seeks relationship with human beings.  Covenant as a personal, internal relationship with God is a theme in the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament.  A covenant is more than a deal or contract.  It lies at the very heart of what it means to be human.  God created us in his own image for the purpose of relationship.  We may disagree about how that covenant comes about, but this deep desire of God for intimacy with us extends to every person.  How can we partner with God in his desire to know and be known by others?  Only by keeping our heart’s door open to them.

Theme 9: Prayer

Abraham: “Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike.  Far be it from you!  Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”  (Genesis 18:25)

New Testament: “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9-10)

Prayer is releasing life to a just and personal God.  The story of Abraham pleading for the infamously immoral city of Sodom gives a grace-filled portrait of Abraham, but even more tellingly reveals what God is like.  He is “the judge of all the earth,” but he also listens to, bargains with, and responds to Abraham as his friend.  Notice that Abraham doesn’t pray against them; he intercedes on their behalf.  He prays for justice, for hope, for grace.  We pray so we can release outcomes to God.

Theme 10: Provision

Abraham:  “So Abraham called that place The LORD will provide.  And to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.’”  (Genesis 22:14)

New Testament:  “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”  (1 Corinthians 10:13)

When God tests, he provides a way out.  The story of Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac does not validate human sacrifice; it’s God’s way of saying “Let’s end this.”  Whenever we think God has called us to murder or hate in his name, that this is the only way out of our current dilemma, we need to think again.  God will provide a way out.  It may not be free of risk or pain, but he will provide.

Grounded respect

From a Christian perspective, the story of Abraham is not Christians or Jews or Muslims.  More importantly, it’s not even about Abraham.  It is about God.  Abraham lives out what it means to believe in one God who created all things, who governs the universe, who calls us to obey him, to believe in him, to submit to him, and who will be our judge when this life is over.  If God exists….

First, we seek truth.  The Apostle Paul says that “God our Savior…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).  Paul believes this truth is found in the “one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.”  Others who believe in God may not embrace that, but we can all agree that if there is a God, we want to pursue the truth about God.  We can help each other confront the blind spots of our own traditions.

Second, we pursue peace.  In this same passage, the Apostle Paul urges Christians to pray “for kinds and all those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1).  One would think the prayer is that they would favor our understanding of truth.  Instead, he says to pray “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.”  Christians should always pray and work for peace.

Third, we advocate freedom.  We said earlier there are four primary responses to people of other faiths.  The greater the sense of power, the more religions move toward the top of that list.  You may think that the best response is at the bottom of the list.  I would disagree.  I suggest we should empower people of all faiths to have the freedom to either coexist/cooperate, ignore/resist, or convert/persuade, but never to oppress.  There should be a free exchange of ideas in a free society.   God gives a remarkable degree of freedom to human beings to choose to believe or not believe, to act in righteousness or otherwise.  Belief in God enables us to extend the same freedom he gives.

Finally, we choose love.  In all of my relations with other Christians and with those who are not Christians, I need to follow Paul’s admonition to “do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:4).  At the end of my life, I pray that it will be said of me that I acted in love toward Christians of all stripes, toward Muslims, toward Jews, and toward people of other faiths or no faith at all.

Dr. David Ludwig attended last week’s session and corresponded with me this week.  He used a phrase that sums up well what I’m suggesting: “grounded respect.”  I remain grounded in what I believe but I respect those who believe otherwise.  Dave says, “I pray I will always see the way others view God as a gift for my growth.  I also pray they will see my view of God as a gift to them!”  Amen to that!

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