Questions and concerns surround the recent “Honoring All Sacred Texts” gathering at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., that included Jews, Muslims, Hindu, Buddhists, Sikhs and Baha’i.
How does a Christian church, which affirms Jesus as Lord, welcome people of other faiths to a shared experience of readings from our texts and singing together?
As one writer put it, “I do not believe that Christians have any business honoring any sacred texts other than the Holy Bible.”
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also in Louisville, weighed in for his followers via Twitter. With a link to the newspaper story, he wrote, “Here is where ‘interfaith’ means ‘denying the faith’ at a former SBC church.”
The intent of the “Honoring All Sacred Texts” event was not to deny or dilute the role of Jesus, who is central to our message and mission at Highland.
The Jesus I find in Scripture blazes a singular path of self-giving love rather than a path of domination over others, be that others within his band of followers, the religious leaders, the Roman authorities or other religions.
His way is one of reconciling love rather than polarizing division. The only ones Jesus excluded were those driven by a spirit of exclusion. And while there are passages that say he is the only way to God – and he is the way we follow at Highland – other Bible passages are clear that God’s bigness and love extend to all the earth, to all peoples, to all nations who come in reverence before God.
Our intent on Sept. 11 was to mark the day our country was wounded by the violence of extremists. “Honoring All Sacred Texts” invited people of all faiths to come together to speak a word of witness against this kind of divisive, hate-filled ideology, found in every nation and religion, by reading what we believe is fundamental and common from our various sacred texts: love, humility, peace, reverence before the Creator.
We invited each to read what they believe best represents their faith’s understanding of God, rather than us scouring their texts looking for lines we find threatening or violent.
Every sacred text, including the Bible, has passages that extol violence, which can be misunderstood and misapplied by outsiders and by insiders.
We can no more understand the context of a verse by a cursory reading of another’s sacred text than I can understand clearly the dynamics of someone else’s family system by simply looking at their front door. While their text is not ours, we can honor the fact that it is their sacred text, their attempt, as is our Bible, to use language to speak of experiences of Holy Mystery being revealed to humanity.
I can hear the rebuttals that excuse our Bible from this kind of level playing field – that the Bible is the only real sacred text because it is more inspired, infallible, without human influence, having been dictated from the mouth of God, who is a Christian God alone. But how is this different than Joseph Smith’s insistence that his golden tablets appeared from heaven to him alone?
Don’t get me wrong: I love the Bible and believe it is inspired by God. I read it devotionally every morning and hear God’s Spirit speak to my heart through it. I study it and preach from it four times a weekend. (I suspect Highland reads more Bible in worship than many churches that claim they revere it more than we do.)
But can we not acknowledge that our faith’s text is a disparate collection of inspirations and understandings, which must be allowed to interact and thus inform each other? And that its meaning must be continually explored, in concert with the Spirit, to discern its intent?
As Paul said, “we know in part” (1 Corinthians 13).
Our world is in great danger right now from religious divisions, from various faiths whose “extremists” see eradicating “the other” as God’s solution.
Instead, can we all aspire to be part of God’s real desire to bring healing and hope to a world in pain? Christians do so by following Jesus Christ and no other. But we fail Christ, I believe, when we turn him into yet another contestant in a battle of competing ideologies. This is not what it means to say that Jesus came into the world to save us, nor what it means to affirm “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Highland’s rear sanctuary window contains images from the Book of Revelation that celebrate the promise that in the end divine love is stronger than hate. To follow Jesus is to walk this vulnerable way of love, hand in hand with all who believe in sacred love’s power, trusting that God will use our walk and our witness to bring God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.
Joseph Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Louisville, Ky.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.