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
I 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.