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Posts Tagged ‘interfaith

Speaking of Faith by Krista Tippett, Viking: New York, 2007, 238 pp.

Speaking of FaithI don’t listen to Krista Tippett’s On Being nearly as often as I wish I could, so I was grateful for a chance to connect with her and her show in print form. Speaking of Faith is part personal and professional memoir for Tippett, tracing her own family and religious history alongside remembrances and insights from her radio interviews across the years. More than that, though, it is an ambitious prescription for how to speak about faith in a way that opens and connects, rather than closes and divides. It was this perspective that I found especially helpful at this particular moment in life and ministry, as I serve in a congregation with a wide variety of Christian backgrounds and search for language to engage a secular city.

Tippett begins with the premise that religion and religious life matters, because there remain questions that only religion can address, “how to order our astonishments, what matters in a life, what matters in a death, how to love, how we can be of service to one another.” (4) Engaging with Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer and Wiesel, she writes:

We’ve consigned God to the gaps in our scientific understanding, to the wings of our action. We’ve reserved prayer for when our best efforts fail. Bonhoeffer said we would have to rethink the very forms and vocabulary of faith if we were to keep it alive in the center of life, in the middle of the village. (41)

Drawing on her own experience in communist East Germany, she observes that regimes that exert excessive control over people’s outer lives can cultivate rich inner lives within those same people, yet it seems that people in power often have inner lives that are the most impoverished. (45) I found this reminder of religion and spirituality as cultivating a rich inner life a particularly important insight for the work within my own congregation.

Tippett later develops this concept as having “eyes to see and ears to hear.” While that borrows Christian language, she finds the concept in every religious tradition she has engaged.

Something mysterious happens when you train your eyes to see differently, your ears to hear differently, to attend to what you have been ignoring. The experienced world actually changes shape. (115)

This is as good an understanding of prayer and spiritual practice as any I have heard–engaging in spiritual disciplines changes our experience of the world.

Tippett structures the conversations in her broadcast around first-person narrative theology, inviting people to speak the truth they know without condemnation of others. Always navigating fundamentalist or domineering perspectives, she quotes Martin Marty, who does not divide the world into conservative and liberal but “mean and non-mean.” (161) Fundamentalism does not accurately represent any faith tradition. Both conservatives and liberals can practice and articulate their faith in ways that are mean or non-mean. This seems a constant good measure of our faith.

Tippett’s book was interesting and insightful, though not life-changing. I enjoyed it, and recommend it as a good perspective, especially for those who might be outside of faith and looking for a way to engage and understand what is happening in the lives of religious people of all stripes.



Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding by Mary C. Boys, A Stimulus Book by Paulist Press, 2000, 393 pp.

This is another book I am reading in preparation for my pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the Macedonian Ministries program.

Has God Only One Blessing? begins with the metaphor of Jacob and Esau. In the original story, their father Isaac blesses Jacob instead of Esau, in spite of birth order, and then there is no blessing left for Esau. Mary C. Boys uses this story as a metaphor for much that has gone awry in Christian self-understanding about our relationship with Judaism. The book makes a case that is simultaneously biblical, historical and practical in its critique of Christian concepts of supersessionism. The book carefully argues against the idea that Christianity fulfilled or transcended Judaism to become God’s favorite faith, that Judaism is part of an “old” covenant that has been superceded.

Boys begins with a series of short parables that show how harmful these ideas are to contemporary Jewish-Christian relations. These parables serve to make the reader uncomfortable with the idea of supersessionism in the context of real relationships with partners in the Jewish faith. The parables win the argument that supersessionist theology is arrogant, inappropriate and not an accurate reflection of most Christians desired relationship to Jews and Judaism.

Boys then proceeds to outline a new understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. She begins where the idea began: with the origins of Christianity. Boys outlines a detailed picture of life in first-century Palestine, and contextualizes the Gospel arguments against Pharisees, temple authorities and “the Jews” as an internal struggle within various Jewish renewal movements. After tracing this history of separation, the theology clung to Christianity and became part of the culture of the early church. What began as a means of self-definition apart from a historic, well-established tradition turned into a dogmatic prejudice and justification for violence as Christianity grew into an empire. The history of anti-Semitism that allowed for the Shoah had its roots in centuries of violence against Jews, and in this ugly theology.

Deconstruction is insufficient. It is not enough to elucidate the anti-Jewish and supersessionist theology that still clings to Christianity. We must also offer a new narrative to replace it. Boys does just that—beginning with a brief retelling of Christian origins, and continuing on throughout the various chapters. She shows the reader all the ways in which supersessionist ideas haunt the scriptures, theology, liturgy, and then offers alternative understandings for use in teaching, preaching, worship and theology.

I especially appreciated Boys’ attention to “Re-Educating Ecclesia” (the title of the final chapter), understanding that scholarship and dialogue must move into the words and practices of the church in order to overcome the dangers of supersessionism. It is not enough to enter into interfaith conversation and partnership with Judaism. We as Christians must recognize and repent for the harmful effects of our theological misunderstandings, and change our thinking and our acting.

The harmful history of supersessionist theology is not new to me, but I have never read such a concise, directed, theological and practical assessment of it. Boys’ book lays out, in brief, both the harmful history and the way forward. Clearly, the God who created all the universe has more than one blessing to give, more than one path to worship the Spirit, more than one faith to recognize.

Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, by Diana L. Eck, Beacon Press, 1993, 259 pp.

This is another book for my Macedonian Ministries group that will be journeying to the Holy Land this winter.

I doubt I would have ever chosen this book for myself, but I am so glad to have read it. What a beautiful perspective on Hinduism and Christianity, the personal spiritual impact of interfaith dialogue, and the importance of religious pluralism in our shrinking world.

Diana Eck is widely known as a leading expert on interfaith relationships here in the United States, and her work as the head of The Pluralism Project has given her a reputation as the leading authority on the diversity of religious life in America. I loved A New Religious America when I read it several years ago.

Encountering God is a very different sort of book. Rather than a catalog of statistics and anecdotes, it is the spiritual memoir of a scholar. Eck tells her own story of finding God in her private life of faith, and in her professional life as a scholar. She weaves together the ways she found God in the typical places (her home church in Bozeman, Montana; her family’s immigrant story; her church at Harvard) and the unusual places (at the side of the Ganges River; beside a funeral pyre in Banaras, India; in a Hindu temple). Each of these personal stories of encountering God is accompanied by a deep and thorough analysis that shows Eck’s scholarly side. The book makes a compelling case for head and heart about the importance of interfaith conversation and the possibility of encountering the Holy in other faiths.

Reading this book showed me how little depth I have in my own thinking about interfaith relationships. Long ago, I tossed out the Christian exclusivist theology,  and I replaced it with a general openness to partnership with people of all faiths and a conviction that God can work through other faiths than mine. Although I have engaged in a lot of interfaith work since then, I have not really thought deeply about the impact that engaging other faiths might have on my own relationship with God. What can I learn, if I am open, about God from people of other faiths?

For example, Eck raises a question about the language we use to talk about the Divine among people of different faith traditions.

Are there many gods to choose from? Is there room for a Christian god, a Hindu god and a Muslim god? … One approach to understanding God language is to take seriously and literally the oneness of God, an affirmation which is central to many faith traditions. (54)

In other words, rather than talking about how my God is similiar to (or different from) your God, we can talk about how you and I understand the same Reality at the core of the universe. I had never considered the implications of that language of “my God and your God,” but I will now think differently about what I am doing when I engage in a faith conversation with someone in another tradition.

Eck guides the way for a faithful pilgrim of one tradition to earnestly explore the wisdom of another. She shows, through a detailed explanation of what pluralism is and isn’t, how one can learn deep insight into meditation from the Eastern traditions, while honoring their integrity and one’s own. In the final chapter,  she talks about the critical importance of the world’s religions to one another. We live in a pluralist world, where interfaith dialogue does not just happen in scholarly forums, but in PTA meetings, daily greetings and business encounters. We are keepers of one another’s images, and of one another’s rights—what impacts one faith will impact all faiths, and we must work together to honor one another’s ability to follow God.

Encountering God is an outstanding book. Eck brings together her scholarly expertise, her passion and her personal journey in a way that compels the reader to think differently about their interfaith relationships and personal faith practices. A perfect read for anyone interested in Hinduism and Christianity, or considering how to approach interfaith conversations.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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