When the interfaith group of which I am a part began a few years ago, most of the participants wanted to learn about each other’s religions (or, as some put it, each other’s faiths). After a couple of years of monthly meetings, it became evident that among some members of the group, personal friendships had developed across lines of our various religions. Those friendships were able to develop because the persons involved were honest with each other about their beliefs, a necessary element in any enduring friendship. If the participants in interfaith dialogue water down their beliefs for the sake of “getting along,” the dialogue eventually will die.
My own involvement in the dialogue and the development of friendships within the group have led me to reflect more sharply on the implications of believing in Jesus Christ as God’s unique embodiment and revelation in the midst of a pluralistic world and especially among friends of other religions. Reflecting on such matters from a biblical perspective has led me to a few basic theological positions on baptism, Christian discipleship and Christian evangelism.
1) Jesus Christ died for all humankind. In fact, for the entire Creation. Since in baptism we are bonded with Christ in his death, it would seem to follow that we are bonded with him on behalf of all humankind. Instead of separating us from others, our baptism binds us to all humankind regardless of religion, politics, morality or anything else. (Of course, in baptism we are incorporated into a holy, or set apart, community, but we are set apart among and for others, not apart from others.)
2) Any attempt to speak the Christian proclamation to others inevitably is heard through the filters of 18 centuries of Christian imperialism. The primary testimony of the New Testament is that in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, God was reasserting his sovereignty over the creation (as in the Gospels) or bringing a new creation (as in the letters of Paul), over which the resurrected and transformed Jesus reigns as Lord. The early church was bound together in community under that Lordship.
In succeeding centuries, however, the church abandoned that proclamation and began to see its task not as one of proclaiming the good news of what was now happening for the world, but as one of saving individuals in life beyond this one. (Both, of course, were parts of the early message, but that the church eventually reversed the order of the two, and later still, completely lost the element of God’s reign here and now.) Those who did not buy the message were shut out, derided, persecuted and even killed.
Consequently, the assertion that Jesus Christ is Lord of all things is likely to be taken seriously only when embodied in the actions of those who affirm it, by lives that reflect the character of Jesus himself, for example, by loving our enemies.
3) The third position is intertwined with the second. Adopted into the family of Abraham through baptism, the church participates in Israel’s role as God’s instrument for the blessing of the world. How God will use the church for that purpose from one period of history to another, no one can say. The individual Christian, however, has the task of embodying that role.
Friendships are one means by which that blessing may be carried out. A few members of the local synagogue are among my closest friends. I did not calculate the creation of those friendships. As do all friendships, they simply grew and developed. Moreover, the synagogue has no responsibility to accept me as a member of the family of Abraham. I share the life of the congregation on its terms, not on my own. In the context of that relationship, however, I remain open to the possibility that God may decide to use me as an instrument for the blessing of those friends, just as I remain open to the possibility that God might use me as an instrument of blessing for all my friends of any religion, or of none. I do not presume. I simply am open to the possibility.
Given the history of the church’s treatment of Jews, Muslims, atheists and others, the stereotypes of Christianity and of Christian witness are so demonic that I do not attempt to convert my Jewish, Muslim or atheist friends to Christianity. I simply embrace their friendship, explain my faith at appropriate times (as they do theirs), and hope that in those friendships, all of us will be blessed.
Gene Davenport is professor emeritus of religion at Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., and theologian in residence at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jackson. His book Though the Mountains Tremble: Biblical Reflections on Contemporary Society is available from Wipf & Stock. This column appeared originally at the On Faith page of the Washington Post.
Gene Davenport (1936-2018) was Professor Emeritus of Religion at Lambuth University and a columnist for The Jackson Sun.