I’m grateful to live and work among people that respect religious plurality and to be minister of music for a congregation that celebrates it![i] This is a different experience from my upbringing in Southern Baptist churches that, except for the occasional Thanksgiving community service, did not emphasize ecumenism and certainly did not encourage the support of other religions. In high school, I remember studying a denominational pamphlet that denied the validity of other faiths by providing scriptural defense for Christianity as the only true religion. My eyes were opened to this kind of isolationism when my Western Civilization professor at Oklahoma Baptist University bravely exposed the egotism involved in Southern Baptists’ “Bold Mission Thrust,” a campaign in the last quarter of the 20th century to evangelize the world without cooperative work with other denominations. Though I appreciate and value many aspects of my early church experience, it did not teach that Christianity, nor even its various denominations, could “coexist” as the contemporary art piece and bumper sticker expresses.
This insecurity of the Christian religion was demonstrated further in several ways during my youth. In church youth group, I remember seeing horrific movies that graphically warned of apocalyptic “anti-Christs” and “marks of the Beast,”[ii] and singing popular “Christian” songs, such as “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,”[iii] or “Oh Buddha,”[iv] that sought to scare “the hell” out of us. All of these promoted a strict Christianity-only message as they traumatized us to think that we would be “left behind” and sent to a fiery pit if we didn’t believe in Jesus as the only way. Even more, one had to have the right kind of Christian experience in order to get to heaven. A revival evangelist at my church once shamefully exclaimed that many of our Christian experiences were “counterfeit,” causing my adolescent emotions to go wild and my teenage mind to fear.
Thankfully, the guidance of my parents and the wisdom they provided navigated these disgraceful and potentially-harmful church experiences, allowing me to healthfully continue exploring faith while asking questions along the way. Through continued education I came to understand that Christianity is only one of countless other faith expressions (and that Christianity itself is interpreted and practiced in unbelievably diverse and conflicting ways). I came to know that some persons of faith – Christian or otherwise – rely on a divine being or beings while others live deeply meaningful lives apart from belief in any Gods. And those that do express confidence in a supreme being or beings, understand and name those divinities in myriad ways.
People in our country and all over the world express their best humanity and highest values in ways worthy of honor. Some express them through religion and others do not. The Jesus I grew to envision would have no problem with this, and even more, would call diverse peoples to recognize similarities and celebrate differences while working together to create a loving and just world. If the world’s peoples could ever achieve peace, the Jesus I imagine would not mind if his name was a part of that result or not. I think this is what Episcopal bishop, John Shelby Spong, means (as referenced in my first blog post) when he encourages us to walk so deeply through our own tradition and into our humanity that tribal boundaries disappear.[v] And I think this is what minister, Gretta Vosper, of the brave West Hill United Church, Toronto, Canada, means when she exclaims “the way we live is more important than what we believe.”[vi]
As ever-evolving 21st century people, while living our most authentic selves, can we transcend our own limited experience, find relevance in our work and become one with all? I think we must.
(One of my congregational songs that supports religious plurality is Where Is the Sacred?)
[i] Pullen Memorial Baptist Church’s 125th Anniversary hymn, “In Our Own Voice (Raise Up New Hope)” by Shirley Erena Murray & Larry E. Schultz describes the congregation as one that sees “in other faiths enduring worth.” The hymn is published in Murray’s collection: A Place at the Table (Hope Publishing Company, 2013).
[ii] A Thief in the Night film series written by Russell S. Doughten, Jr., Jim Grant, Donald W. Thompson.
[iii] Song by Larry Norman, recorded by various artists and included in the A Thief in the Night film series as well as the more recent Left Behind movie.
[iv] Song by Mark Farrow recorded by The Imperials on the album: Heed the Call (DaySpring Records, 1979).
[v] See A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying & How a New Faith Is Being Born (HarperCollins Publishers, 2001) and other books, essays and lectures by John Shelby Spong.
[vi] From the subtitle and content in Gretta Vosper’s book, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important than What We Believe (HarperCollins Publishers, 2008).