On March 23, United Methodist Candler School of Theology hosted an interfaith panel discussion exploring ways to create vibrant local faith communities as part of its collaborative Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology program.
Speakers included Evangelical Left author and activist Brian McLaren, Episcopal author and scholar Diana Butler Bass, and Abdullah Antepli, chief representative of Muslim Affairs at Duke University. Candler’s Laney Professor of Moral Leadership Robert M. Franklin Jr. moderated the conversation.
Franklin welcomed attendees and offered a brief commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Franklin recalled how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is a reminder of the significant role “Church women, students, Sunday school teachers, and preachers” played in dismantling Jim Crow laws and transforming American democracy.
Franklin insisted that if the “faith and practices of common people” could help transform society for the better then, “it can happen now, wherever the zeitgeist urges.”
To begin the discussion, McLaren articulated multiple, practical proposals to help construct interfaith partnerships, with a special concern for the common good. One such proposal was liturgical renewal. McLaren pointed out the need for an enrichment of traditional liturgies and a “developing and redeveloping of life-giving liturgies that are more vigorous and delightful than the death-dealing liturgies that surround us.”
Another proposal is creating intentional time and space for interfaith fellowship. “One of the downsides of institutional religion is it’s often tended to be afraid of people’s individual spiritual experience, rather than understanding itself as a curator…,” McLaren said.
McLaren, a chief figure within the nearly-extinct Emergent Church movement, believes one reason it has become difficult to instill an appreciation of the faith in younger generations is that “we’ve lost the art of storytelling of spiritual experience.” He encouraged better incorporation of contemplative and mystical spiritual experience.
White Christian churches especially need reform, according to McLaren. “The degree to which our faith and our theological categories and to which degree our liturgy were all formed in a slaveholder religion and is part of the Western colonial project because all of that is so deeply embedded.”
Next, Bass discussed the urgency of creating more vibrant and resilient faith communities by stepping outside of our respective sanctuaries. “We need practices of spiritual buoyancy that are going to help us survive the coming flood,” explained Bass.
One example Bass offered is for Christians to rethink our inward-looking approaches to the Eucharist. “The only reason we have those practices of thanksgiving within a church is not for our own personal salvation, which way too many Protestant churches are still caught up in no matter how conservative or how liberal,” she observed.
Bass continued: “I am strongly convinced that finding the core of gratitude within our religious traditions, being able to affirm and form people within those, but also recognizing in our neighbors’ moral traditions and thanksgiving traditions how we can be buoyant together in a world that is now in threat of going under.”
Finally, Antepli encouraged faith communities to take an honest evaluation of their traditions’ decline. “We cannot deny that large scale of numbers are declining. Young generations’ ability to hold on to religion and get involved in organized tradition are significantly declining.
“Vibrancy is dying,” Antepli said. “If we don’t have vibrancy and talk within our faith traditions, our faith will be represented by the most narrow-minded folks.”
While the panel was informative about how to approach interfaith engagement for the well-being of local communties, the Christian panelists seemed to overlook the significance of the Great Commission. Interfaith partnerships in an effort to build a more peaceful society is commendable, but need not suppress our ultimate mission to share the Good News with our neighbors.