Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Interfaith Dialogue, the Lutheran "Simuls" and Gender Justice

College Dustin.

What follows is a paper I recently wrote for a Scriptures of the World course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I'd love to hear what you think!

God's peace,

With only three weeks to go before I graduate from seminary, I’ve been reflecting a great deal about the struggles, learnings and growth I’ve experienced here over the last four years. When I first arrived in Philadelphia, I had just experienced two years of immense anger at God following my mother’s death. Furthermore, my journey into early adulthood had left me dumbfounded about, if not at times openly hostile towards Christianity. Although I grew up in a Lutheran congregation, I had only gone under compulsion as a child and then primarily just to hang out with my friends as a teenager. I always figured I was deeply spiritual, but following a specific religion seemed like such an antiquated idea in progressive New England, and certainly not a good enough reason to wake up early on Sunday morning. Upon beginning undergraduate studies at the George Washington University and experiencing what I cannot help but view as the hateful positions of some American evangelicals (I somehow never knew that such beliefs existed before), I quickly came to a vague notion of liking the idea of Jesus while perceiving the Bible as supporting the exact opposite from his message of love and liberation. At the same time, I built on my past readings of the scriptures of other faiths, especially those of Buddhism and Sufi Islam, and thought they painted a portrait of the Divine much more in line with my views.

In response to these factors I identified my religious affiliation as “sort of Buddhist” through much of college and frequently meditated in private, but eventually began missing regular participation in a faith community. As graduation neared and my mother was in the last stages of her battle with lung cancer, I felt immensely supported by my old Lutheran networks back home. Around this time I also discovered that my own Lutheran tradition largely spoke out against the negative scriptural readings of some American evangelicals. Once I heard the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had voted to allow the ordination of members of the LGBT community, I realized there could be a place for me in the Church and I began to actively participate in congregational life, leading youth groups and assisting in worship. I eventually felt called toward ordained ministry and found myself at seminary, where I learned a powerful set of hermeneutical tools for understanding the Bible. Throughout my seminary career and despite my “interfaith concentration” however, I was never exposed to a Lutheran theological grounding for incorporating those deeply cherished scriptural teachings of other faiths into my own Christian worldview. While I knew such teachings were important, I did not have the means to articulate how they related to my faith in Jesus Christ, and in turn felt that my understanding of the authority of the Christian scriptures was incomplete.

Luckily, in taking a "Scriptures of the World" course with Dr. J. Paul Rajashekar I had the opportunity to not only learn the contents of other scriptures (something I was already partially exposed to), but more importantly, to discern how and why I should read the Christian scriptures inter-scripturally, all the while grounded in my own Lutheran theological tradition. This year I also engaged in faith-based gender justice work as Communications Coordinator for Ecumenical Women at the United Nations. Throughout this work, and especially during my week in New York at the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women, I was reminded how the Christian scriptures are so often misappropriated by various actors (especially some American evangelicals), who wish to reverse the gains of women and girls in recent decades and in doing so export their ideas to believers around the world. Finally, I was blessed with the opportunity to read a Christian response to issues of gender justice that is deeply grounded in the liberating love of Christ, that of the Lutheran World Federation’s new Gender Justice Policy. Throughout the remainder of this paper I will discuss my newfound understanding of the authority of the Christian scriptures, their abuse in regard to the gender justice debate, and briefly cite the Lutheran World Federation’s recently published alternative.

Throughout its two-thousand year history the Church’s relationship with the beliefs and scriptures of other faiths has been marked with difficulty, but also diversity. In the biblical witness itself, especially in Paul’s mission to the Athenians, we first see the concept of a universal Logos working outside of Jewish/ Christian community (Acts 17:22-31). This notion of Divine revelation through human reason is also present in the writings of Justin Martyr, who due to what could be considered an early version of inter-scriptural reading with Greek philosophy, claimed that all who lived with the Logos were in fact Christians without knowing it.  Clement of Alexandria also held similar views, yet Cyprian, Tertullian (who was himself deemed a Montanist heretic near the end of his life) and the vehemently anti-Semitic John Chrysostom were all “Christian patriarchs” who denounced the people and scriptures of other faiths. Augustine of Hippo seemed to differ in opinion throughout his career, yet did specifically argue that the Logos worked through a variety of names and beliefs, at least before Christ’s incarnation:
… from the beginning of the human race, whosoever believed in Him, and in any way knew Him, and lived in a pious and just manner according to His precepts, was undoubtedly saved by Him, in whatever time and place he may have lived.
Furthermore, as indicated in his Confessions, Augustine was an active Manichean (and to a lesser degree a Neoplatonist) before converting to Christianity, and thus it would have been impossible for him not to read the Bible inter-scripturally with what he knew from the writings of his former traditions.

Following the Edict of Milan and the rise of Christendom in the fourth century, inter-scriptural reading largely disappeared throughout the Church, at least officially. For the vast majority of illiterate Christians and those on the periphery of the empire, spoken and visual depictions by missionaries may have allowed a sense of inter-scriptural reading, but this was increasingly absent from the academic realm. By the time of Martin Luther and his fellow reformers, Western Europe had become a homoreligious society where marginalized Jews and the Muslim invaders outside Vienna were sometimes considered heretical Christians rather than people of distinctly separate faiths. It was within this homoreligious context that Martin Luther, out of both a pastoral concern that the scriptures be available to the masses and his need for a polemical tool against the abuses of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, developed the concept of the “solas,” thereby leading to our traditional Lutheran exclusivism:
The Lutheran tendency toward exclusivism, therefore, is derived from a doctrinal interpretation of biblical texts. The absoluteness of the Christian claim is thus articulated in terms of the “Lutheran solas:” solus Deus, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola scriptura, solo verbo, sola fide and so on. The doctrinal language of “God alone,” “Christ alone,” “grace alone,” “Scripture alone,” “Word alone” and “faith alone” are all intertwined, and reinforce claims of Lutheran exclusivism.
Operating within a homoreligious context, the Lutheran solas form a powerful argument, as they free the Christian scriptures to be read solely through the lens of Christ. Indeed, when engaged in public theology one can simply say, “As read through the lens of our shared faith in Christ, the Bible says __________, so we should do __________,” and thereby make a persuasive argument.

While theologically powerful, the Lutheran solas also form a circular argument, and thus in their exclusivism cannot provide a strong basis for public theology in our now multi-scriptural world. In recent decades some have attempted to remedy this problem by employing the traditional Lutheran concepts of ‘law and gospel’ and ‘the doctrine of the two kingdoms’ to their engagement with other faiths and texts. Essentially, this line of thought states that in natural law, God is at work in this world through all individuals, no matter their faith tradition. Working within this theological framework, which is essentially a rehashing of Justin Martyr’s old idea of “anonymous Christians,” those engaged in public theology rarely refer to their scriptures or their faith at all. Throughout my engagement with faith-based gender justice work over the past two years, first as an intern at the Lutheran Office for World Community and now as Communications Coordinator for Ecumenical Women at the United Nations, the typical modus operandi was to first privately study to the Bible as an organization, and then make a public statement in almost exclusively secular language. Although still usually quite persuasive, these statements lacked the full prophetic power of a true confession of faith, as they only appealed to minds rather than the hearts of decision makers.

In a twenty-first century world where homoreligiousity is less and less the norm on even the local level, the Lutheran solas alone can no longer provide us with a persuasive means to employ our scriptures in public theology. Indeed, as feminist, womanist and post-colonial theologians have taught us, the inherent universality of the Lutheran solas were always problematic. As Rosemary Radford Ruether states,
Feminism is a new challenge to Christian claims of universalism that poses different problems from those of interreligious relationships. Interreligious relationships speak of many different ways in which experience of the divine has been localized in human experience and the mutual recognition of these historico-cultural configurations by each other. Feminism speaks of new contexts where the divine needs to be localized. By and large, not only Judaism and Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, but even ancient tribal religions have not allowed the divine to be experienced in a way defined by women. Feminism looks back at the history of all religions as expressions of male-dominated cultures that have marginalized women to some extent, although some have been more radically and totally marginalized in some religious systems than in others.
The inherent universality of the Lutheran solas also precludes to possibility of a positive dialogue with an increasing number of nonreligious individuals as well. Furthermore, by instead solely employing a law and gospel understanding to our use of scriptures in public theology, we often end up neglecting to refer to our scriptures or faith at all. Although done with the intention of not offending non-Christians, this in the end is simply another way of dismissing the salvific power of Christ and or even simply the humanity of all individuals regardless of their specific faith tradition.

Luckily, some are beginning to discover the possibility of robustly employing another traditional Lutheran theological concept to scriptural engage in public theology, that of “simul:”
The dialectic of the simul, what we understand as “simultaneously,” is a fundamental presupposition of almost all Lutheran doctrinal affirmations. Lutheran theology understands God’s revelation as simultaneously hidden and revealed; God’s activity occurs simultaneously through the work of the left hand and right hand; Christ is simultaneously human and divine; God’s saving activity occurs simultaneously through law and gospel; the Christian is simultaneously saint and sinner; the sacrament of bread and wine is simultaneously the body and blood; the kingdom of God is simultaneously present here and now and not yet. This emphasis on the simuls in Lutheran theology opens up possibilities for a positive engagement with all people in our world. A proper understanding of the simuls, in fact, pushes us away from an exclusive stance in matters of faith and invites us into an inclusive engagement with people.
The Lutheran solas are still essential however, as they provide us with theological grounding. At that same time, when we allow the solas to exist in a dialectic with the theological paradox of the simuls, we can recognize God’s mysterious work through both law AND gospel in Christians and non-Christians alike.

In this way, we can open ourselves to the diverse peoples and scriptures of other faiths, and instead of theorizing about a “Christian theology of religions,” prioritize the praxis of actually engaging in dialogue. James L. Fredericks eloquently speaks to this point:
In the twenty-first century Christians need to find an alternative to the entire project of a theology of religions. Preoccupation with a comprehensive interpretation of the other religious paths is neither necessary nor advisable for Christians committed to developing new forms of social and religious solidarity with those who follow other religious paths. Instead of a theology that attempts to account comprehensively for the religious lives of those who follow the other paths, Christians should set for themselves a considerably more modest goal. This will entail a shift from theory to praxis… The problems attending theologies of religions make clear how dubious this project is. Instead of using theology as a theoretical basis for dialogue, I propose to let dialogue be the basis, or praxis, of doing theology. Doing theology in dialogue with the others is not an attempt to provide a foundation or rationale for dialogue. Rather, what is called for is a theology that arises through dialogue. This is not a theology about interreligious dialogue, or a theology that justifies dialogue, but rather Christian theology itself carried out in dialogue with those who follow other religious paths.
To put it in practical terms, instead of only referencing the Bible or only using secular terminology when engaging in public theology, we can instead from a place of non-anxiety in Christ state something like, “We are called to believe that we should __________ because of how we understand our scriptures through our faith in Christ. As a fellow human being, how does this teaching relate to the scriptures of your own faith or worldview? I know for sure you have something to teach me, so how can we learn from each other?”

Through our faith in Christ, we know in a general sense how God works: Our God is a god of immense love, who shows up in the most unexpected of ways in the most unexpected of places. By relying on the Lutheran solas, or even the dialectic of law and gospel alone, we further constrain our already limited possibility of understanding the immense power and love of God. Instead, we can simultaneous know that our faith in Christ grants our scriptures immense authority while at the same time living out the calling of our scriptures to see the face of God working through both law and gospel in all individuals, no matter their religious system or worldview. The point of faith is not to make us agree to dogma or a theological legalism, but rather to help us to live out the life our Creator intended and provide comfort when we fall short. As we live out such lives to the best of our limited human ability, acting in Christian hospitality towards people of other faiths and worldviews out of our love for God, we in turn embody the authority of our scriptures for all individuals. Through such actions we proclaim, “We’re okay with whatever theological beliefs you might have, and we want to learn from you. In calling us to live in such a way, the Bible definitely has something good to say.”

If we recognize the authority of our scriptures in Christ while simultaneously constructing ambivalent spaces of hybridity (to borrow a postcolonial term) within which we can dialogue with peoples of other religious and worldviews, what then can we say about how our scriptures are abused to perpetuate systems of patriarchy, particularly towards women and girls? At both the national and international levels, we repeatedly see our scriptures proof-texted to support all sorts of “traditional family values,” many which stand starkly against the cause of gender justice. Many Christian organizations lobby against providing comprehensive sex education and free access to contraceptives in communities stricken by HIV/AIDS. Others cite the Bible to refrain from ordaining women or speaking out against rape and other forms of sexual violence in their congregations. While strongly pro-choice myself, I am able to see how the scriptural witness could lead Christians to stand against universal access to abortion services. Yet at the same time, year after year at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), American evangelical groups along with conservative Muslim countries, the Holy See and others work to block language concerning women's access to a wide variety of life saving sexual and reproductive health services, all in the name of preventing abortions alone. Year after year, these same groups attempt to life up language regarding “traditional family values,” while neglecting to mention a large proportion of violence against women and girls occurs in the home. We must prophetically proclaim the sin of such behavior, yet at the same we must ask how do so many (often well meaning) Christians get such harmful ideas?

The Lutheran solas may provide us with insight on this question. As discussed above, at least in a homoreligious environment, the solas form an extremely powerful argument: “As read through the lens of our shared faith in Christ, the Bible says __________, so we should do __________.” Remember however, that the solas only work as an interconnected circle. Without “grace alone” and “Christ alone,” basing one’s thinking on “Scripture alone,” as those who abuse the scriptures to limit the rights of girls and women frequently do, inevitably leads one to some pretty harmful conclusions. Simply arguing “the Bible says __________, so we should do __________” in a multi-scriptural society while not particularly convincing is often quite harmful.

Especially since the late 1990s, such a message has unfortunately been presented by American evangelicals as the only Christian message concerning the rights of women and girls. Predominately secular individuals at the United Nations, often in a honest attempt to include the “Christian” perspective in international agreements, have in turn limited the progress of gender-justice, but at the same time probably figured Christianity as more a source of harm than good in the world (much as I initially did as college student). By prophetically promoting a more careful reading of the Christian scriptures that keeps in mind God’s liberating love in Christ, organizations like the Lutheran World Federation are now showing the international community there are multiple Christian messages regarding the rights of women and girls:
God desired to share human life fully in the flesh of a human being. God meets human beings in Jesus Christ, who shows who God is: a God who wants to liberate people out of slavery, free them from the bondage of a fallen world, empower the poor and oppressed and invite all to lead lives in freedom as children of God. This is the experience of the God “listening and coming down” to liberate the people who cry for help (Ex 2:24; 3:7). Jesus Christ called his followers into a new paradigm of God’s family, one in which the male-ruled biological family systems were transformed (Mk 3:35). The human body, in all of its realities, sufferings and joy is at the center of Christian revelation because of God’s incarnation through Jesus Christ. Thus, through incarnation God establishes a deeper relationship with human beings. The divine Word assumes a human body and inhabits us (Jn 1:14). Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ is a new, just community of sisters and brothers. This community, the church, is the body of Christ today (1 Cor 12:26–27).
Although we must still improve on reading our scriptures in conversation with those of other faiths, the work of groups like the LWF seems to be working! At CSW57 in 2013, strong language was adopted concerning the prevention of violence against women and girls. This past March at CSW58, those on the side of gender-justice succeeded in moving the international community towards including a robust stand-alone goal concerning girls and women in the post-2015 development agenda.

After four years of struggling to find a theological basis for including the wisdom of other faiths in my understanding of the Christian message, I thoroughly believe the traditional Lutheran concept of the simuls, when grounded in dialogue with the solas, provides a powerful way forward. To put it in less academic terms, through our faith in Christ, we know in a general sense how God works: Our God is a god of immense love, who shows up in the most unexpected of ways in the most unexpected of places. Indeed, by beginning to read our scriptures in dialogue with the scriptures of other religions and worldviews, we can learn more about ourselves while living out our call to practice Christian hospitality toward all God’s children. Christian hospitality is not the only reason to read the Bible inter-scripturally however. As others seek to influence decision makers on important issues like the rights of women and girls by abusing our scriptures, we are called to develop alternative Christian messages that will hold authority in an increasingly pluralistic, multi-scriptural world.

Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

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