Last night's Lent meeting was led by one of the Anglican lay readers and was week four of Christ and the Chocolaterie. We were asked to split into small groups and talk about how we felt about contact with other faiths and other ideologies. It was fascinating to see the total terror on the faces of some people at even being asked to discuss this in abstract. It wasn't just the fear of difference but the unthinking terror of the very possibility that one might do so that struck me. In our small group one person went very red and began to fidget but could not articulate why they felt uncomfortable or uneasy about engaging with people of another worldview. I can understand and appreciate fear of taint or of being prosyletised; I share the Biblically based concerns over prohibitions on certain practices, but this was, so far as I could tell, unthinking terror.
One person in my small group - a wonderful retied Methodist minister - shared that at an interfaith meeting in Loughborough he'd met one of our local GPs (mine as it happened) who turns out to belong to druidic movement. 'So,' said one of the others turning to me with a glare, 'how do you feel about her now?' As far as I am concerned, she's my GP and so long as she does her job that's fine.
We moved on to talking about other groups in society and how people react to them. Travellers were mentioned which raised the usual anti-comments and my coments over NIMBY-ism in respect to provision of sites for them earned me more glowers. I also dared to raise the topic of migrant workers as we now have some in this little corner of the world which probalby concluded my heresy for the night!
Talking to the perosn who had clearly been the most terrified, I offered to lend her my Lion handbook of world religions (don't tell John Parry I own this, he'd kill me!) assuring them it was a nice, safe evangelical perspective. Still I hit a brick wall - why would I even want to know, was the reply.
It made me realise how far my own thinking has moved over time, how large the gap is between me and some of these folk (I've always been interested to read about other faith traditions) and how narrow-minded and terrified are some parts of the Christian church. If, as we claim, Christ is Lord and has defeated all that is false, what scares us so much?
One more Lent study to go - it has on the whole been good and I hope people have gained from it.
I think attitudes are changing slowly on interaction with other faiths.
I like to play a game in church sometimes called "pray out loud honestly about a supposedly controversial issue and see if people say amen". When I did that the other week re: Christians interactions with Islam & prayed that Christians wouldn't feel threatened by difference, would stop deliberately misinterpreting and misrepresenting others' faiths & would be able to interact with Muslims without aggressively proselytising, I was heartened by the enthusiasm of the "amen" at the end.
Sitting in an Interfaith steering group meeting last night and discussing what our budding Inter Faith Forum (NABIFG) might look like over the next year, I found myself wondering how far ahead of my own congregation, and how much further ahead of some of the churches in the town, I was going to get.
Also how far ahead of myself I was already getting!
And what is my role? Is it to follow a personal journey, guided by the Holy Spirit, and develop mutual understanding among a group of committed interfaith specialists; or is it to scout out a broader path and encourage others to follow? Realistically in my experience, most church folk are happy for the religious professionals to do all that nice ecumenical stuff while they stay at home (perhaps that's my fault). But when the ecumenical stuff is so far outside the comfort zones as sitting around eating homemade spiced steamed savoury sponge cake (yum) and talking about how to get the Sikhs and the Hindus involved, who else is going to come with me?
In NABIFG, we've talked about building friendship, understanding and mutual support. I have to agree those are good objectives - not least because I suggested them! But when we start talking about what we actually do, I realise there are some things I'm not ready for and in fact some things I may positively disagree with. I guess this is part of the rich mix that I bring to the table: I believe we have to recognise and respect our differences rather than simply seeing everything as part of one big undifferentiated bowl of spiritual semolina. There may be some things we're just not prepared to do together and that has to be ok (IMHO).
So when we talk of setting up a stall at a local festival, I'd still rather organise one for the local churches - on this particular occasion. There is a need to articulate and embody the distinctive Christian message in public as well. There is another, equally important (discuss), task of promoting wider understanding and respect for difference in the local community. I have to decide when each is most appropriate and deserving of my time and effort, and how I can integrate these two strands of my faith and praxis.
So this is all helping me to understand a bit more about myself, but also means I have to THINK again. Ouch!!!
Of course if everybody else is either evil and dangerous or deluded and in the grip of deceitful spiritual forces, that makes it all a lot clearer, doesn't it. So I'm glad I see this as a bit more complicated than that.
So I've done it. I've offered to see whether our church would be willing to provide the venue for a talk and Q&A by the local Bahais to explain their faith (on the basis that someone else in due course will doubtless allow me to use their place of worship to explain Baptist faith and tradition - that should be enlightening for the local Anglicans; it often baffles me!). This should at least flush out what the church thinks about me doing all this weird stuff on its behalf!
P.S. I won't tell John Parry about the Lion handbook if you don't. I assume he no longer has a copy himself.
P.P.S. Beware GPs who carry mistletoe and sickles in their bag - and be sure to write indignantly to the Baptist Times if they offer to pray for you!
P.P.P.S. Bit long. Sorry. I really must keep a journal!
I've dipped into your blog before but never actually posted a comment. I am a 60+ post evangelical who used to be a member of a lively Baptist Fellowship for whom I have many fond memories and still hold in a lot of affection but now, largely for my own sanity, worship with a middle of the road Anglican Parish Church. I was very proud of this all white, very middle class traditional Anglican congregation when a few years ago they vigorously objected to a visiting speaker and her Islamaphobic sermon.
Having worked in the NHS all my adult life I am used to meeting professionals of many other World Faiths and have never found it a problem work-wise. I must admit however, that I didn't socialise very much outside of my narrow semi-rural evangelical world until I acquired a Hindu son-in-law with a large extended family both here in the UK and abroad.
This son-in-law was educated in Anglican and RC schools in Mauritius and knows a lot about the Christian Faith. He will happily discuss philosophy, prayer, fasting etc and will attend Christian services occasionally. Sadly, his experience of Christians hasn't always been a very positive one.
I have visited temples and mosques in several different countries and have nervously been to a few Hindu ceremonies (2 weddings and a funeral). My daughter has even attended an open air Hindu cremation although not, I hasten to add, here in the UK.
My thinking on Christianity and its relationship with other Faiths was helped by some of the writings of Brother Ramon (another ex-Baptist) who believed in the uniqueness of Christ but recognized that there are godly and saintly people in other religions who are diligently seeking the truth. Brother Ramon was opposed to bigotry of any kind and was himself influenced by the writings of the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton who I may get round to reading when I eventually retire.
I think of non-Christians like Mahatma Gandhi who suffered so much at the hands of white Christians in South Africa and India. When Philip Yancey wrote an essay in his book "Soul Survivor" about Gandhi being one of the men who helped his faith to survive the institutional Church, he was subjected to all sorts of verbal abuse from fundamentalists within the USA.
I too have the Lion Handbook of World Faiths and have bought copies for both of my sons-in-law, the Hindu one and also the moderate evangelical Anglican one who now worships with an International Baptist Church in Germany.
thank you for your comment - good to hear your thoughts on this topic. Sounds like you've found yourself a great church community to be part of - and as a 25% Jewish cum 'christened' Methodist cum profession of faith-ed URC cum 'by conviction' baptised Baptist I'm hardly placed to comment on denomination switching!! Thankfully God doesn't get stressed over human labelling sytems