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Seeing the Elephant
There are times in our lives when God startles us with a long-awaited revelation, one prayed for but since forgotten. Such moments of unexpected insight can lead us to new paths on our ever-twisting spiritual journeys. Where they will ultimately lead us we do not know, yet we embark nonetheless, filled with a sense of adventure and hope. Such a moment occurred for me shortly after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. It was a crisp November day as Clergy Conference 2001 dawned in the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey. A dynamic evangelism consultant from Tennessee was our speaker, and I was cautiously hopeful. I had often prayed that the ministry of evangelism would come alive for me, but something always seemed to be missing.
As the author of Entertaining Angels I have been a keynote speaker on hospitality ministry in numerous dioceses, at our church's national convention, and at gatherings of other denominations. Even so I seldom mentioned evangelism, although I often engaged in it by inviting friends to church. Yes, I was a closet evangelist, and this seeming contradiction confused me. Could our clergy conference begin to unravel this paradox, particularly in the post-9/11 climate of disbelief and pervasive sadness?
On the second afternoon of the conference, our energetic speaker suddenly looked uncharacteristically timid. He ducked his head and said, "I hope I don't offend anyone here, but I need to tell you how I feel about something." He paused and we all sat transfixed in our seats. "I believe that if we are not saved by Jesus Christ, then we are not saved. Jesus is the only way to God. There is no other way. This is my motivation for evangelism. It's what drives me day in and day out to bring others to Christ."
In his openness about his own reasons for participating in evangelism, the belief that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to God, our speaker gave voice to that which is often unspoken. When an obvious, yet significant reality is left unsaid, it can be called "the elephant in the room." For me, the elephant in the evangelism room had finally been named, but no one seemed to notice and the talk resumed. Yet I felt as if the earth had shaken, as if something cataclysmic had occurred. Had my prayers of long ago somehow been answered?
I then found myself reflecting on how sad it was that our speaker felt he had to apologize for believing in this particular view of evangelism. Yet I realized his apology was logical, since many of us in that room, as he instinctively knew, did not live out our faith within his belief system. How many mainline Protestants today believe that Jesus is the only way to God? In The Heart of Christianity Marcus Borg refers to a 2002 poll from PBS's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and U.S. News and World Report, which found that "only 17 percent of the respondents affirmed the statement, 'My religion is the only true religion.'" I decided long before I attended seminary that my Jewish and Islamic sisters and brothers are not condemned to an eternity of hell and damnation simply because they are not Christian. And what about Buddhists and Hindus? Where do they fit into the grand scheme? Do I believe it is my call as a Christian to convert people of other faiths to my faith to save them from eternal damnation? I did not, I do not, and I doubt that I ever will.
Yet I have an abiding passion for bringing others into the body of Christ. If not to save them from eternal damnation, in what motivation is this passion rooted? Could it provide the link that has been missing from my ministry? Could it possibly be a link for others? The sincerity of our speaker's motivation was clear. There is no doubt in my mind that God does call him, and may call you, to reach out to others in the name of Jesus for the very purpose of winning their souls. He and others who share his belief have carried on the work of evangelism with little help from those of us who do not share their call. For this reason, I owe people with this call a great debt of gratitude.
At one time in my life I fervently prayed for God to fill me with their particular evangelistic fervor. In the mid-1970s, I attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, when the Campus Crusade for Christ movement was flourishing. There were white billboards around the city proclaiming, "I found it," in bold black letters. The "it" referred to Jesus or the Holy Spirit, to being born again. But "it" eluded me and I felt left out. Did God not want me? Why wouldn't God give "it" to me?
Some of my dormitory friends were involved in the movement and predictably urged me to join them. I listened to their audiotapes of preachers and prayed and prayed for God to speak to me through them. Why? Because I could see that my friends were filled with a sense of peace that eluded me. I wanted what they had, but did not know how to obtain it. But pray as I might, nothing changed within me. I simply did not respond to the message in the same way they did. Much later in life, I understood that this occurred because God does not speak to all of us in the same way. This is what Paul Jones refers to as people living in different theological worlds. In his book Theological Worlds: Understanding the Alternative Rhythms of Christian Belief, Jones writes, "The church of the future must be committed to a pluralism of alternatives, sufficiently viable to touch creatively the individual and social diversity operative in modern life ... leading to lively choice between alternative faith-styles." Writing out of this assumption, Jones calls for the Christian church of the future to celebrate the plurality of theologies within it and to be "self-consciously variegated."
Within this context we are all free to explore our own understanding of and call to evangelism, but where to start? As soon as the conference was over I turned to my trusted theological dictionary, which offered a helpful beginning point for this new phase of my spiritual journey. "While the New Testament is the basis of the church's understanding of evangelism, it does not describe a model or define a programme for the kind of cross-cultural mission and inter-faith dialogue in which today's evangelists must engage.... The challenge to the contemporary church is how to do evangelism in a pluralistic world, how to be both ecumenical and evangelical at the same time, affirming the truth of other faiths without compromising the uniqueness of Christ."
In making this assertion, it is important to note that Christianity was born in the midst of a pluralistic culture. There were many different faith traditions at that time, as well. So what marks the twenty-first century as different? There are now two thousand years of established Christian history that includes interactions with those of other faiths. While some of those interactions have been positive, some have decidedly not been, as we will see in the next chapter. We must learn from mistakes in the past—both those we have made and those that have been made toward us.
Studying evangelism in the immediate wake of September 11 opened my eyes to the pain that can result from exclusivist religious claims. This truth had always been present, but I had not previously seen it. With this long-awaited revelation before me, I begin my exploration along a new, untested path. Come along with me as I seek a different path for evangelism, one that upholds the uniqueness of Christ without religious exclusivity, a motivation that speaks to the pluralistic world in which we live.
Not only is our world as the global village pluralistic, but so are our local communities. Look around you! God has blessed us with a plurality of faith traditions within the United States; our neighbors whom God has spoken to through a variety of means are all around us. In A New Religious America, Harvard professor Diana Eck writes that there are about six million Muslim Americans (as many as all Episcopalians and Presbyterians combined); four million Buddhist Americans (more than either Episcopalians or Presbyterians), and approximately one million Hindus in the United States (about as many as in the United Church of Christ). With such a rich diversity of religious expression in our own country, the opportunities for learning from one another are immense.
The wonderful reality of spiritual journeys is that we never know what God has in mind for us. We simply must trust and follow, realizing that we will encounter curves, bumps, and dead ends along the way. In persevering, however, we are invariably stronger and wiser for the journey. In joining me, keep in mind that God may not lead you down this particular path. God may lead you to another, making our Christian tradition richer for the "self-consciously variegated" perspectives within it.
Blazing a New Path
Before beginning a journey along any new path, it is helpful to study the history that has led you to it. The attack of September 11 was a turning point for me, shedding light on the tragedy that can result from a belief in religious exclusivism when that belief is taken to the extreme. While exclusivist religious claims are only part of a web of complex political, social, and religious issues that led to the attack, they are a contributing factor and therefore call for examination by people of faith. In questioning this fundamentalist Islamic belief, I must ask about my own faith tradition.
Has a belief in Christianity as the only true religion ever brought similar suffering and tragedy to people of other religions? How might that history inform us as we move forward? While Christian history can be viewed from a variety of valid perspectives, I decided to focus primarily on the work of a multicultural theologian since pluralism lies at the heart of my concern. Many new perspectives can emerge when we are willing to see ourselves through the eyes of the other.
Theologian Raimundo Panikkar has lived in Hindu and Christian, Eastern and Western cultures with doctorates in both philosophy and theology. He writes of five turning points in Christian history—evangelistic witness, conversion, crusade, mission, and dialogue. He is careful to point out that these historical periods often overlap; thus they are not strictly chronological. Nevertheless, Panikkar places evangelistic witness in the first centuries of Christian history up through the death of St. Augustine in 430. Jesus' apostles along with his disciples, some of whom were women, spread the gospel message beyond the borders of Palestine, witnessing to the power of the risen Christ in their lives. Because Christianity threatened the world order, and the Roman emperor in particular, early Christians were often martyred for their beliefs. Legend has it that each apostle died the death of a martyr, with Peter being crucified upside down. Likewise, many of their followers were not spared an untimely death. "They were martyrs," Panikkar writes, "witnesses to an event."
A period of conversion then followed, as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Not only being a member of the official religion was necessary, but also a change of heart was needed, a conversion to Christ. Entire countries were converted to Christianity, particularly the peoples of Europe. This lasted until the Middle Ages and the establishment of Christianity throughout Europe. From the eighth century to well past the fall of Constantinople in 1453, according to Panikkar, the dominant force in shaping Christian consciousness was the threat from Islam. At this point, Christians became soldiers, crusaders, which strongly influenced the church's self-understanding.
Scholar Bernard Lewis echoes Panikkar's view in What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. He writes, "For most medieval Muslims, Christendom meant, primarily, the Byzantine Empire, which gradually became smaller and weaker until its final disappearance with the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453." Thus, Islam was the dominant world religion at the time, not Christianity. As I read these accounts of fifteenth-century Christendom, I realize that even ten years ago I would have been surprised to learn of the historical dominance of Islam; I simply was not aware of it. That is why educating ourselves about the past, particularly in regard to the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—is a critical part of finding a new path for the future.
Panikkar goes on to state that Christian crusades evolved into almost annual expeditions characterized at times by extreme brutality, both toward the Jews at home and the subjected peoples of the East. It is at this unfortunate point in Christian history that the belief in Christianity as the only true religion intensified. All others were deemed to be false. This belief in the exclusive claim of Christianity, furthermore, inevitably led into a fourth period, one that Panikkar characterizes as mission. He writes that when Columbus came to America in 1492, the Indians who inhabited the land could not be considered a threat, as were the Muslims in earlier centuries. Nevertheless, the European desire to conquer was still strong. At this point, Christians became missionaries rather than crusaders, evangelizing the Indians that they might turn from their pagan ways and accept a Christian belief system and way of life.
With a belief in the superiority of Christianity over all other religions, missionary work was extended to the far reaches of the globe, first by Europeans to America and then from America to numerous third world countries. In God Has Many Names, theologian John Hick reminds us that this missionary work was based on a belief in the thirteenth-century Roman Catholic doctrine Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (Outside the church, no salvation), with its nineteenth-century Protestant missionary equivalent (Outside Christianity, no salvation). Twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth also articulates this view in relation to mission work. In Church Dogmatics he writes that Christianity "alone has the commission and authority to be a missionary religion, i.e., to confront the world of religion as the one true religion, with absolute self-confidence to invite and challenge it to abandon its ways and to start on the Christian way."
As Christians increasingly interacted with those of other faith traditions, they began to sense the value inherent in some of them; theological reflection began. In the midst of these reflections came two world wars and the deaths of millions of innocent people. Some Christians gradually began to realize that they could no longer evangelize people in other countries. It is at this point that the contemporary age was born, with its far different focus in missionary work.
As I studied Panikkar's perspective on my faith tradition, I began to wonder if Christianity were unique in believing in the exclusivity and superiority of its own tradition. Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a world-renowned Islamic philosopher and author of The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity, states that all three Abrahamic faiths have historically believed they were the only true religion. He explains that this was the normal human situation for thousands of years, in part because people were not exposed to religions outside their own village. Therefore, he cautions against criticizing these beliefs simply because they no longer work in today's world of the global village.
Believing that one's own faith is the only true faith, in itself, is not necessarily problematic. It is the actions undertaken as a result of these beliefs that have caused untold human suffering both in the past and present. A study of all religious traditions worldwide shows that almost every tradition contains a history of the harmful effect of religious absolutism resulting in sanctified violent aggression, exploitation, and intolerance. It is this part of Christian history that must not be repeated as we move forward. It is for this reason that I seek a different path.
Fortunately, Panikkar's view of the present age of Christendom is more positive. The last period he discusses is characterized by dialogue. Colonial political order has been dismantled, while technology has changed the world into a global village with worldwide communication readily available. "Many Christians," he writes, "no longer want to conquer, not even to convert; they want to serve and to learn; they offer themselves as sincere participants in an open dialogue." At this time, the model of the Servant Church emerges in both mainline Protestantism and Catholicism, and Jewish-Christian dialogue becomes common. The 1988 Lambeth Conference commended a document called Jews, Christians and Muslims: The Way of Dialogue to churches within the Anglican Communion. It was not, however, until the tragedy of September 11, 2001, that such dialogue occurred on a widespread basis. There seems to be a sincere desire on the part of Christians to learn about other faiths, to truly understand them. Hospitality in the sense of mutual respect for another's tradition begins to emerge. We can begin to look forward to a new era.
Excerpted from Fireweed Evangelism by Elizabeth Geitz. Copyright © 2004 Elizabeth R. Geitz. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Part I MOTIVATION
1. Seeing the Elephant
2. Blazing a New Path
3. Fireweed Evangelism
4. Finding Your Own Path
Part II CONTEXT
5. Backyard Evangelism
8. Moral Commitment
Part III ACTION
9. Hospitality Evangelism
10. Components of Successful Hospitality Programs
11. Gift Discernment Retreat
12. Visioning Workshop
13. Hospitality Evangelism Workshop
Appendix: HANDOUTS AND FORMS