Not long ago I mentioned my upcoming participation on an interfaith panel at a local university and asked for your opinions on what I might say about Christianity. The event seemed to go well; about seventy students turned out to hear representatives of atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity speak briefly about our faith traditions.
After brief introductions we were each asked to respond to a series of questions. I’ll share the questions here along with summaries of my responses. What might have you said differently in similar circumstances?
What is a general overview of Christianity?
It was challenging to give a fair representation of the whole of Christianity in less than five minutes! I first said that, given the global nature of my faith, I was the worst person to represent Christianity. People who know these things are now saying that a young, non-white, woman from the global south is the best representation of the religion. I then acknowledge the many, many differences within Christianity and pointed to the person of Jesus as the primary unifying reality across traditions and denominations. I pointed out- graciously, I hope- that unlike some of the other panelists, I represented people who believe the fundamental problems of the world cannot be made right by humanity. Rescue must come from elsewhere, and Christians believe that rescue has come in Jesus.
What are the differences within Christianity?
Again, how to represent my diverse Christian family succinctly? I gave a brief overview of the historic Christian divisions (schisms) and acknowledged the theological differences among many Christians. I then made this claim: All Christianity is local. In other words, many of the historic and ongoing differences among Christians have been shaped by the cultures these very different people inhabit. By way of example I noted the history of the many African American churches that surround the university where the panel took place. As those historically outside of mainstream American culture and shaped by experiences of disenfranchisement and oppression, these churches will often look and sound quite different than their white cousins. Theological conviction is one reason for the differences within Christianity but is is certainly not the only reason.
What is the Christian view of the afterlife?
On this question the atheist, the Muslim Imam, and I were the most succinct; each of us had a certain belief in the reality or non-reality of an afterlife. I said that in Jesus we have the template for what to expect after death, a bodily resurrection into physical, eternal life. Christians believe that God embodies love which include both justice and mercy. Justice must be served- and here I gave an example of my own implication in the sin that must be judged– and has been served through the death and resurrection of the Son of God. As a Christian I understand the cross as the merciful acceptance into eternal relationship with God. A loving God is one who is able to hold both justice and mercy simultaneously.
It was interesting that the Imam, who followed me on this question, directly referenced my answer in his own.
What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
This question came from the audience in response to something I’d said earlier. I responded that humanity was and is created in God’s image, meant to reflect something of God to the world. I referenced two implications of this belief. First, that this image has been cracked and can only be repaired through restoration that comes from outside ourselves. Second, that we are meant to live within a community that collectively reflects the presence of God to the world.
If memory serves, that was the trajectory of the evening. The organizers thought it went well and the students I spoke with afterward seemed to appreciate the discussion. As a Christian, it is my hope that the evening provokes further questions about Jesus.
What would you have added?
4 thoughts on “Interfaith Dialogue”
That we await the renewal of the world, rather than the destruction of it, by God.
Good thought Byron.
Good to see a lucid and organised representation of Christianity. It occured to me that within Christianity we differ most on the matters that cannot be independently verified. For example there are many different versions of what constitutes heaven and many different views on who is eligible. Perhaps if we spent more time on the matters that actually get general agreeement between faiths eg holding to the ideals of compassion, forgiveness and concern for those suffering injustice or problems not of their making we might get closer to what Karen Armstrong called the Charter of Compassion. There seems to be a growing trend to treat all who through birth or circulmstances have a different faith journey as heretics. For example I have come across much derision of the quarter of the World’s population who are Muslim.
I hope it was a lucid representation, though some in the audience may have disagreed.
I appreciate your point on finding the many areas of common ground within Christianity. It’s easy to forget how our disagreements are perceived by those outside the faith.