Nanette Sawyer on Plurality 2.0

This piece is part of an on-going blog series called Plurality 2.0 (watch video here). Full schedule of guest authors throughout April and May is available here.

Nanette Sawyer is the organizing pastor of Wicker Park Grace, a faith community that meets in an art gallery in Chicago. She represents the Presbyterian Church (USA) on the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches of Christ and is the author of the book, Hospitality—the Sacred Art (Skylight Paths, 2008.) Download free samples of the book here.

Dialogue with Integrity

nanetteI can sometimes get caught up in trying to convince other Christians to think as I think and to believe as I believe. I get pulled into this tendency especially when I’m reacting to Christians who say that their opinions and theories about the nature of reality are the only correct ones and the only really Christian ones. If there’s “only one right way,” the human tendency is to defend mine as the one right way.

Sometimes though, I can let go of this paradigm and I can engage with Christians who differ from me and we have an exchange or a relationship based on real mutual respect and a deep effort to understand each other’s perspectives. When people approach me with an openness to truly understanding my perspective, I am inevitably more open to them as well as more committed to our relationship.

I want to be the kind of Christian who approaches those who differ from me with a deep respect and openness—whether that is Christians who differ from me, or people of other faiths. It’s what I believe Jesus calls me to do.

Recently, I have been studying a document called “Interfaith Relations and the Churches” which is an official policy statement of the National Council of Churches of Christ. It was adopted as policy in 1999 and “offered for the consideration of its member communions as a source for guidance, reflection, and action.”

The NCC’s member faith groups are from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches. These churches differ in theology and practice, and the Interfaith Relations document does not try to resolve the differences.

Personally, I found it liberating to read in this document some summary statements about things that this group of Christians agree and disagree about. The disagreements are signs of plurality as we experience it in ecumenical work among Christians.

Significantly, and not surprisingly, the document states that Christians disagree about whether non-Christians can be reconciled to God, and if so, how. This acknowledges that there are Christians who believe that non-Christians can be reconciled to God (without becoming Christians.) As a Christian who believes this, I felt liberated and affirmed simply to have this perspective included in a document of the National Council of Churches.

What is it about being treated with respect that allows a person to relax into a relational rather than a defensive posture?

Another challenge in ecumenical dialogue is that Christians disagree about “how best to love our neighbors.” (This is in paragraph 43 in the NCC document. Every paragraph is handily numbered.) This disagreement is directly related to our disagreements about the nature and means of reconciliation with God (or “salvation” as some would call it.)

Some Christians believe that love demands a verbal proclamation of the gospel and an attempt to bring non-Christians to the point of “conscious acceptance of Christ as incarnate Son of God and personal savior.” Others believe that the reconciling work of Christ is “salvific in it’s own right, independent of any particular human response” and/or that the reconciling power of God transcends our human-created categories and limited understandings of who (and where) God is.

Believing that we cannot limit God by saying God can only save people in this or that way, I also believe, with many other Christians, that Christian love is the most powerful witness, and that we embody that love through our commitment to justice, relationship, and mutual respect.

The NCC document includes toward the end a section called “Marks of Faithfulness,” which I invite you to take a look at. (It’s in paragraphs 47-52.) In a nutshell, it says that all relationship begins in meeting others (so go and meet them) and that it: involves risk; respects the other’s identity; is based on integrity; is rooted in accountability and respect, and offers an opportunity to serve. All of these things are described in greater detail in the document.

When we engage in interfaith dialogue, it is important to embrace our identity as Christians, and clearly define what that means to us. To me it does not mean that I am right and my dialogue partners are wrong. It does not mean that I am reconciled to God and my friends of other faiths are not. I learn much about my identity as a Christian by trying to articulate it, as well as by listening to others, of any religion, talk about their religious and spiritual lives.

This, to me, is dialogue based on integrity and respecting another’s identity, as well as respecting my own. And I think that’s where plurality 2.0 can take us. Not to forfeit identity, but to root more thoroughly in our own identity and to engage others more deeply and respectfully in their identities. New understandings and stronger human connections emerge when we proceed in this way. I would even go so far as to say that God is made more manifest.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks Nanette, I will def. look into the NCC document. Thank you for sharing. I’m glad I’m not the only one who sometimes falls into the trap of wanting to ‘persuade’ others to see things the way I do or feel I have to defend my beliefs just because someone is advocating for theirs. I sometimes find I just like to argue for the sake of arguing when I come across someone who seems to suggest their way is the only way or when they appear to be so sure of themselves. I sometimes find it difficult not to challenge their thinking even if I happen to basically believe what they do. Thank you for words and your experiences.

  2. Jason says

    The NCC document includes toward the end a section called “Marks of Faithfulness,” which I invite you to take a look at. (It’s in paragraphs 47-52.) In a nutshell, it says that all relationship begins in meeting others (so go and meet them) and that it: involves risk; respects the other’s identity; is based on integrity; is rooted in accountability and respect, and offers an opportunity to serve. All of these things are described in greater detail in the document.

    This is great insofar as it describes what it’s like to become somebody’s friend. But what does it have to do with becoming a follower of Jesus Christ, or going somewhere where people pray to and worship Jesus as God in the flesh? A “church” that thinks this is its task in the world is bound to end up acting, looking and feeling like a glorified country club.

  3. says

    Nanette,

    A HUGE thank you for your words of wisdom. i feel and believe the same way you do regarding people of different faiths being able to be reconciled to G-D. i get told i am a heretic all the time for this belief.

    Question for you – How do you deal with people when they throw those scriptures at you that they think show Jesus and Christianity is the ONLY way to G-D? i think they are being taken out of context but i have nothing to back that up. Can you help me out here?

    Much thanks and admiration,

    Existential Punk

  4. says

    You’re welcome, Stephen. Thanks for your comment.

    I’m on a theology caucus group at the NCC which is thinking about what kind of study guides or additional materials would help make this document be more useful.

    I welcome comments, reflections, challenges, ideas here.

    Peace.

  5. Nanette Sawyer says

    Thanks, friends. I wrote that last comment before I saw all of yours.

    Jason, you raise a great question: what is the goal of interfaith dialogue? Many Christians differ in their answers to this and many of us probably have multiple goals.

    Some of my goals include being a better disciple of Christ, encountering and loving people as they are, exhibiting the love of Christ, opening my eyes to better see where God is at work in the world.

    As a pastor, I place high priority on my goal of helping people who have been “culturally” Christian (born or raised Christian, but not embracing the faith) to become spiritually and religiously Christian.

    I place a very low priority (none in fact) on trying to make non-Christians to become Christian. That’s because I believe they can be reconciled to God through their own faith. I would certainly be open to them becoming Christian if they wanted to and I would help them do that.

    If you differ from me in your understanding of whether non-Christians can be reconciled to God, then I understand that you would have different goals for interfaith dialogue.

    There are others in the National Council of Churches who would share your views. That’s why the document goes into how Christians differ.

    That’s an interesting thing about talking ecumenically about interfaith dialogue. We differ. It doesn’t stop evangelizers from evangelizing and it doesn’t stop dialoguers from dialoguing.

    Our ecumenical work is about better understanding each other and seeking the unity we have in Christ. I find it helpful to acknowledge our differences as a starting point.

    Existential Punk, I do have some thoughts about the Bible. However, I’m typing this comment on my cell phone! Let me get to a computer later today and I’m happy to share more thoughts.

    Peace.

  6. Jason says

    I place a very low priority (none in fact) on trying to make non-Christians to become Christian. That’s because I believe they can be reconciled to God through their own faith.

    Then what’s the point of being Christian?

  7. Nanette Sawyer says

    Hi Jason,
    I would be happy to have a long face-to-face talk with you about your faith and why or whether you should be a Christian. Blog conversations can be less than fruitful when there are deeply-felt differences of opinion. That’s exactly why ecumenical face-to-face, on-going relationships and deep dialogue are necessary. So that you can better understand what it means to me to be Christian and how that differs from your perspective, and so that I can better understand your perspective. I am sure that your perspective comes from a heart-felt and deeply convicted place. Mine does too.

    Personally, I am a Christian because I love God and Christ and believe that following Christ brings me closer to God–that, in fact, it saves me and reconciles me to God.

    However, I don’t believe my salvation depends upon those who are different from me *not* being saved. I hope that my embodiment of the Christian faith and my discipleship will be moving and appealing to others, inspiring them to seek after God as well. Many of them, especially those disenfranchised from the Christianity of their own childhood, their own culture, might find a way to be Christian which is powerfully transformative and filled with hope, love, justice and mercy. I hope that my witness of Christian love will have the effect of drawing them toward that.

    My salvation, to repeat a key point, does not depend on other people not being saved. My salvation does not depend on my “way” of faith being the only right way. My salvation depends on my own relationship to God, and primarily on the grace of God.

    I am one of the those Christians who believes that “the reconciling work of Jesus is salvific in its own right, independent of any particular human response”, and also that “the saving power of God is understood as a mystery and an expression of God’s sovereignty that cannot be confined within our limited conceptions.” (paragraph 33 in the NCC document)

    I am guessing, based on your line of questioning, that you are a Christian who believes that there is “no possibility of reconciliation with God apart from a conscious acceptance of Jesus Christ as incarnate Son of God and personal savior.” (also paragraph 33) But correct me if I am wrong.

    Thanks for being in conversation. I think that we are modeling the challenge of ecumenical diversity/plurality as it relates to interfaith relations. It’s a touchy subject because we feel so passionate about it.

  8. Nanette Sawyer says

    Existential Punk,

    I’ll try to address other bible verses too, but in the meantime, here’s a link to a blog post I made at The Christian Century last year about John 14: 1-14, which says, “‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

    http://theolog.org/2008/04/blogging-toward-sunday-how-do-i-love.html

    Here’s a little excerpt describing Jesus’s reaction to his disciples when they are filled with grief and fear about his imminent arrest and death:
    Jesus tells them to trust in God and trust in him. He also implicitly tells them to trust in themselves and in their relationship. “You do know the way,” he asserts. “I am the way,” and you know me. Trust yourself to know what you know. Trust what we have done here together. Keep doing it. Keep loving each other as I have loved you. You know God, because you know me. You know the way, because you know me. Trust yourselves, trust me, trust God.
    This is love language, meant to reinforce the love relationship between Jesus and the disciples. Love language asserts devotion and commitment. “There is no one else in the world for me” or “you are the most beautiful woman in the world” or “you are my everything.” Whatever the words, they are meant as a sign of deep connection.

    This “love language” idea is not my own, but has been used by a number of theologians. The post also has a link to The Pluralism Project (http://www.pluralism.org/index.php) at Harvard University which has tons of great resources.

    The director of The Pluralism Project, Dr. Diana Eck, is the current Chair of the Interfaith Relations Commission (IRC) of the NCC.

    I hope these resources are helpful. At the NCC-IRC we are working on organizing resources and making them more easily accessible to people.

  9. Jason says

    My salvation, to repeat a key point, does not depend on other people not being saved. My salvation does not depend on my “way” of faith being the only right way. My salvation depends on my own relationship to God, and primarily on the grace of God.

    I agree with this. No orthodox Protestant could disagree. Justification comes sola fide, sola gratia. I do not think that reconciliation cannot come without conscious acceptance of Jesus Christ as personal savior. I just think that such is the way reconciliation DOES in fact come about, and I think that way because I am a Christian. You’re right to say that justification does not depend on the damnation of others. In fact, rather the reverse is more likely true (though not necessarily!). Indeed, just because salvation is mysterious, as you claim (“the saving power of God is understood as a mystery and an expression of God’s sovereignty that cannot be confined within our limited conceptions”), we cannot rule out the possibility that not all of creation will be redeemed in the end. We cannot so readily embrace universalism as you seem to.

    I’m guessing that Wicker Park Grace is a place where people come to “feel accepted” and “tolerated,” but not a place where people are informed of their sin and shown how that sin is redeemed by Jesus Christ. Am I wrong?

    My point with all of these questions is to point out the fact that there are plenty of places in the world one may go to “feel accepted” and “be tolerated”–from the YMCA to the baseball field to the pool hall or the country club. But only one place reveals the depth of God’s love and affection for us in that he came to seek and save what was lost: the Christian Church where the Gospel is preached and believed.

  10. says

    Nanette,

    i sort of get what you are saying but still not sure how to respond to conservatives who use the scriptures to say salvation can only be found by believing in Jesus and joining Christianity. i do believe Jesus’ death is salvific and that people of other faiths or no faith at all can be saved without joining Christianity.

    Thanks,

    EP

  11. says

    Nanette,

    Thanks for your post and the links to the NCC Statement. There is much to commend in it. Both you and the statement do a good job of acknowledging the diversity of motivations that Christians have when they encounter the Other. And in addition to that you accept that this diversity need not be (and for that matter) cannot be purged. As you put it aptly, “Dialoguers can dialogue, evangelizers can evangelize.”

    But I have to wonder if we can’t be both dialoguers and evangelizers. What do you think? I realize this attempt may sound like a trip to the murky middle. After all, its not necessarily efficient and its often risky. But as a member of the Diversity Generation (Gen Y), I feel like this ambiguity is the air we breathe. Pinning down someone’s ethnic and religious identity is an elusive task. In my experience, the ‘dialogue among equals’ concept helps people to better understand and articulate where they’re coming from in their sense of identity. We all have a history that is equally valid. I’ve gained much from this kind of dialogue in both Catholic countries and Muslim countries. However, in the process, I’ve realized these are not always helpful labels, because the individuals inside these countries are complex. Some cherish their faith, others dissent from them. Others still are neutral or agnostic toward any faith. The reasons are many and in order to understand we need sincere dialogue which is not self-seeking.

    But in regards to evangelism, I would hope that my witnessing (in both word and deed) to my own faith may guide the course of others as they discern God’s call on their life. For some, but not all, that may mean changing faiths, and if Westerners do so rather freely I don’t want to impinge upon someone else’s ability to do the same. Ultimately where they or I move on the faith continuum may not be as important as the fact that through our encounter we nudge, prod, and love each other towards being something different, something better than we were before we met. I’ve never had any encounter like this that wasn’t as some point messy. But they were worth it. And its likely my theological understanding of the Holy Spirit that allows me to make peace with that.

  12. says

    @ JMorrow,

    i really loved it and resonated with what you said, ‘Ultimately where they or I move on the faith continuum may not be as important as the fact that through our encounter we nudge, prod, and love each other towards being something different, something better than we were before we met.’ That is so beautiful. THANK YOU! That to me is one aspect of evangelism.

    Warmest Regards,
    EP

  13. Nanette Sawyer says

    Hi Friends,
    Thanks for your comments. Here are some thoughts:

    Jason, you said, “we cannot rule out the possibility that not all of creation will be redeemed in the end. We cannot so readily embrace universalism as you seem to.”

    In taking up the theological question of universalism, which in my opinion is theologically and biblically challenging, as well as an open question, I struggle with a number of biblical texts which are in tension with each other. I take seriously, for example, the biblical accounts of eternal separation from God, such as that described in Matthew 25 for those who do not help the suffering. I take equally seriously the biblical accounts of the universal nature of God’s intention for humanity. For example, Colossians 1:19-20, “For in him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Or again, Jesus himself says in John 12:32, “I, when I am lifted up from earth, will draw all men [people?] to myself.”

    When Jesus says, “I will” and Colossians tells us that “all things” are reconciled, or will be reconciled to God, depending on how you interpret the verb tenses, can we believe these things?

    The Matthew text teaches that there are consequences for our greed, selfishness, fear, isolation of others, and so on. The universalist texts teach us that God’s love for us is steadfast and universal and will lead to the eventual reconcilation of “all men” and “all things” with God. Jason, how do you deal with these universalist texts?

    I take offence at your closing paragraph which suggests that Wicker Park Grace is no more Christian than a YMCA, baseball field, pool hall, or country club. That’s a pretty big leap on your part, based on how well we know each other, don’t you think?

    I’m glad that we share a belief in the depth of God’s love and affection for us. I hope that brings you peace and joy, as it does me.

    EP, you asked “how to respond to conservatives who use the scriptures to say salvation can only be found by believing in Jesus and joining Christianity.” Well, it depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to change how they think by using the scriptures, it’s unlikely that you’ll succeed, because when we read the scriptures through our different paradigms the very same scriptures mean different things to us. Sometimes when I’m talking with someone who is a Christian exclusivist, I am aware that even the frameworks of our thoughts are different. Our underlying questions are different. Our assumptions are different. To understand someone who is this different from ourselves requires a lot of time and a lot of respect.

    Our best response, if it’s possible, is to try to become friends, and through that on-going friendship to try to understand each other’s deepest concerns, hopes, and dreams. It’s only possible to go far if both parties are willing to engage based on fundamental respect for the good intentions of each other, and if both are willing to engage primarily with the goal of understanding rather than the goal of changing (or disproving) the other.

    That’s my opinion.

    JMorrow, I agree with you that dialoguing and evangelizing are both simultaneously possible, in the way that you describe it. In my opinion the best evangelism happens through dialogue and through “witnessing (in both word and deed) to my own faith,” as you say. I do think that dialogue can help us to root more deeply in our own faith and grow into something more beautiful than we were before we met. I think all three of the elements you name–nudging, prodding and loving–are all essential to that.

    Good conversation everyone. Thanks for your comments!

  14. says

    Nanette,

    You said to me, ‘Well, it depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to change how they think by using the scriptures, it’s unlikely that you’ll succeed, because when we read the scriptures through our different paradigms the very same scriptures mean different things to us.’ No, i am not out to change anyone. i like to stir the pot and challenge people in their beliefs/assumptions/etc. i more want to know for my own growth and learning. i sometimes find myself believing something but don’t know how to articulate to someone or myself why. Does that make sense? i feel some scriptures are taken out of context but don’t know why or how to explain them. Like the ‘Born Again’ passage of John 3.16.

    i hope that helps at what i am getting at.

    Thanks for your time.

    Shalom,
    EP

  15. says

    Nanette,
    You may remember me from McCormick. I’ve visited Wicker Park Grace as well. Thanks for leavening the perspective with the texts you provided. These are also parts of our Scriptural heritage we cannot ignore and must allow to shape our theology.

    I want to offer a slightly different take on your last point about friendship being possible, “..if both are willing to engage primarily with the goal of understanding rather than the goal of changing (or disproving) the other.”
    My inclination is to see both understanding and change as mutually dependent foundations of friendship. For instance, I want someone to understand who I am as an African American; to realize I can’t change my DNA, the history i’m involved in or the color of my skin. Yet, I do want to hold out the possibility that my own understanding of what it means to be African American may be transformed by interacting with people who are different from me (whether they share the same ethnic heritage or not). I like the dynamism of that possibilty. I like how it gives the Gospel (in its most expansive sense) breathing room to work on us. But I also realize the danger. I worry and whince at the fact that it opens the door for all sorts of coercive, manipulative, self-seeking attempts to force change upon people.

    Gandhi once said “Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence to cowardice.”

    Similar I’d say, between silence and manipulative, self-seeking evangelism, I can only prefer silence.

    Peace!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Simple logic tells us that if you have to become something, then it’s quite obvious you were not that thing before. But this is not an abberation in Sawyer’s messed-up mystic message. Just a couple of months ago at the Pomomusings website of fellow “presbymergent” and contributor to EMH Adam Walker Cleaveland we’re told that Sawyer is: the organizing pastor of Wicker Park Grace, a faith community that meets in an art gallery in Chicago. She represents the Presbyterian Church (USA) on the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches of Christ and is the author of the book, Hospitality—the Sacred Art (Skylight Paths, 2008.) (Online source) [...]

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