Proclaiming the Gospel in a Pluralistic World

As a Christian, I often feel under attack in interfaith work. Those promoting spirituality frequently assert that Christian institutions are oppressive and hierarchical. Those emphasizing the religious experience of women and nature traditions that have been marginalized by patriarchal religions, often see little hope for a more just and ecological form of Christian faith. Those pursuing an inner journey of spiritual discipline may well reject the Christian practice of praying to a transcendent God.

I am constantly reminded that Christian faith has been used to sanction the killing of Jews, wars against Muslims, the conquest and desecration of land, the exploitation of other cultures, and the oppression of women. My response, however, is not to give the counter arguments on behalf of Christian faith, although there are many. Instead, in humility I confess these sins committed in the name of Christian faith, affirm my commitment to a life of repentance, share my faith and hope in the power of forgiveness, and continue the struggle.

I am a Christian, because I have known forgiveness as a Christian. I embrace Christian faith, because I "live and move and have my being" (Acts 17:28) in the Spirit of God that I know best through the biblical witness. And so, I affirm the good news of the gospel, that we may come to eternal life now, in this life, by loving God and our neighbors.

Yet, how is such a gospel to be proclaimed in our pluralistic world? What does the Christian community have to offer that other religious communities do not? How is the church to compete in the religious marketplace of our secular society?

You may feel these are the wrong questions. You may believe that all Christians need to do — in order to live out their faith and share it with others — is to work for justice. There are, however, two Great Commandments, not one. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. (Mt. 22:37, Lk. 10:27) That's not only what the Bible tells us, but it's good advice. For only by loving God, and by experiencing the love of God, will we be enabled to love those who are (whether we like it or not) our neighbors.

Our challenge is to love God as Christians. Therefore, if we are to continue in the struggle for justice, we need to strengthen our Christian communities. Our challenge isn't just to lobby the UN or other governing officials to do what is right, although this, too, is our responsibility. Our challenge is to live and proclaim Christian faith as a spiritual and ethical way of life. To meet this challenge, those of us who are known for emphasizing ethics — and the commitment of the church to work for justice — need to embrace a stronger spiritual discipline.

Christian Meditation

Meditation is often associated with a Hindu or Buddhist teaching, but it can and should be incorporated into our spiritual practice. A Catholic sister I know in England is an authorized teacher of Zen meditation, and has been teaching meditation for over 30 years. The Church in the Philippines embraced her work, but the Catholic Church in England does not recognize it. She teaches meditation to prisoners and in the last several years more than 3,000 in the United Kingdom have taken up this practice.

The Anglican prison chaplains won't help her at all, however, perhaps because her meditation trainers are primarily not Christians but yoga teachers. Yet, it seems clear that she is offering a spiritual discipline of real significance to many prisoners, who testify to its benefits. Can we not incorporate such a practice into the life of the church? When Sr. Elaine leads a meditation retreat in her own Zendo in Oxford, a cross is present at the front along with candles and flowers. She both meditates and prays each day, and goes to mass regularly. For her, it all fits together.

For over 25 years I have included a time of meditation in my morning prayer. I begin with a few hatha yoga exercises, then sit in the lotus position, before singing a refrain giving thanks for the day and then a psalm. After reading from the New Testament, and singing an alleluia or some other Christian chant, I meditate for about 20 minutes. I conclude my morning discipline by saying the Lord's prayer, still seated in the lotus position.

I emphasize the position, because the posture of Christian faith has largely focused on bowing the head, or kneeling and prostrating oneself in submission to God, who is envisioned to be above and apart from us. Sitting in the lotus position is a different experience of prayer. With your back and neck straight, your backside and legs firmly on the ground, and your head up, you feel both relaxed and centered. The direction of attention is not out and up, but in and down.

I am convinced by changes in my disposition over the years, and an experience of being forgiven for suffering I caused in my family, that prayer and meditation are part of my salvation. Thus, they belong to the good news that I have to share, as a Christian. They are part of a spiritual discipline that I can recommend to everyone, as a way of letting go of pride and self-hatred and of embracing, as an inner strength and miraculous gift, what in the Christian tradition has been called the love or grace of God.

Meditation and prayer may easily be understood as alternate ways of opening ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit. In our time we may also understand such "a movement" in terms of quantum physics. We know that, at the quantum level of reality, the world is not material as such but consists of waves of potentiality out of which particles (or that which is "material") are created. These waves of potentiality are also the foundation of our "consciousness," as the fields of quantum waves in living cells aggregate and reinforce one another. We might say then that at the quantum level, mysteriously and in many ways unpredictably, the "Spirit" blows where it wills. (John 3:8) That Spirit is present in us, in every part of our being, and if the fields of energy within us are brought into harmony with that Spirit, then we will be "born again" as a new person.

Meditation is a way of tuning ourselves to the Spirit of God, that potential movement within us to bring forth a new creation, not only in the world around us but in the quantum worlds within. In meditation and prayer we may let go of the self that is resisting the grace of God, and discover a new identify — even as Paul tells us, from his own experience, he found new life "in Christ."

Way of Life

Last month at an interfaith forum a Native American speaker emphasized that his religious tradition was a "way of life" and not just a matter of attending worship once a week. His criticism of the church was unfair, of course, but effective none the less. Muslims also assert that Islam is a complete way of life. Prayer five times a day, in Arabic, provides a powerful experience of physical submission. As the emphasis in Islam is on faith as practice, beliefs and creeds are less important than in most churches. Moreover, Islam sets itself squarely against the secular world, and offers an alternative way of life, which includes not only precepts for individual behavior but also a vision of how government should enforce the laws of God.

The Christian vision, especially in mainline Protestant churches, often appears to be little more than the ethical commandment to love one's neighbor. In our time this commandment is given a more sophisticated form, such as the commitment to "justice, peace and the integrity of creation" voiced by the World Council of Churches. To be sure such a commitment is crucial to the mission of the church, but ethical imperatives by themselves will not be able to compete with a religious vision like Islam, which emphasizes spiritual practice as well as moral conduct.

As an alternative way of life, Islam sets itself over against secular society. One of the reasons Islam resists the secular world is because, in modern pluralistic societies, religion is reduced to merely a personal choice. In Islam, however, the world of religion is presented as God's will. For Muslims, that which is secular exists as an impurity within that which is sacred. Their commitment to jihad is a commitment to ridding the world, which is sacred, of its secular impurities.

If Muslims often sound like Old Testament prophets, we should not be surprised, as we share this tradition of a powerful and judging God with them, and with the Jews. We may also share with Muslims certain commitments concerning justice in the world, even if we do not always share their sense of a vengeful God or of the role of government in enforcing the justice of such a God. We value freedom, particularly the freedom of the individual, more than most Muslims do. We are more secular than most Muslims are.

In some ways this is a conflict between a medieval Muslim world and a modern (or postmodern) Christian world. Christian fundamentalists would also have us return to a medieval mentality, and clearly their vision is competitive with Islam (and many other religious alternatives) at least in the short run. Yet, for Christians who think critically, because their faith is rooted in the prophetic tradition that culminates in the gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth, there can be no way forward by going back. 

How are we to go forward? Christians who think critically and are at home in secular society will not be competitive in the religious marketplace, until they embrace a spirituality that offers a more compelling sense of the sacred in which to ground their ethical action. Christians need what the Buddhists call "mindfulness” — a continuing awareness of the true nature of things — or what we might describe as awareness of the sacramental presence of the sacred in the midst of the secular. To use a quantum image again, being "mindful" is being aware of the potentiality (and mystery) of the wave, and resisting the notion that the particle coming from the wave is all that is real.

I believe this is similar to what is meant by "continuous prayer" in the Christian tradition. Perhaps you know the story of the Russian pilgrim who spent years trying to understand the meaning of the statement in Paul's letter to the church in Thessalonica to "pray constantly." Saying the prayer — "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner!” — over and over again changed his life. The prayer worked its way into him, moving beneath the level of his consciousness, centering his mind in God and on Christ.

Repeating or chanting a phrase from the Bible over and over again is one way of entering into such a state of continuous prayer. It tunes the mind and heart more than it communicates "prayers" to God, but that is probably what prayer is supposed to be — an orienting of ourselves to that which is the source of our faith.

The monks of Taizé have reintroduced this kind of prayer into the modern church in a powerful way. Singing Taizé chants over and over again, and entering into that harmony as a physical as well as an emotional and mental experience, is an example of bringing the sacred more fully into realization in our lives. I know from my own experience, that these chants resonate within, that they are not merely remembered but shape our unconscious life.

To greet the day with such a chant, rather than by listening to the news, is to create your world in a different way. To allow such a chant to work its way into your personality and character is to know time and space with rhythms and textures very different from the secular world. Such prayer helps to resist despair and may even transform menial and mindless work into a spiritual discipline. 

Therefore, we need not return to the medieval world of the Muslim or to fundamentalist Christian patriarchy to experience the world as sacred. We can create such a world through spiritual practice, which orients our life in trust and openness to God. When we do, our Christian faith will be more than beliefs, ethical practice, and occasional worship added onto our secular lives. Our Christian faith will then be a way of life.

Recovering the Bible

This spring a Buddhist nun suggested in an interfaith gathering that the Bible is burdened by mythological language unlike her own Buddhist texts. One could quarrel with her characterization of Buddhist texts, as they are often highly mythological, but certainly we have to agree that the biblical narratives are shaped by mythological ideas. No educated Christian can say that the Bible is simply history. Nor can we claim the Bible is literally the word of God transcribed by those who were mere vehicles of its transmission, as most Muslims believe about the Qur'an.

Fundamentalist Christians, of course, want it both ways. They want to claim that the Bible is both historically accurate and the infallible, revealed word of God. Yet, we know this is not true. We know the Bible expresses the faith of those who wrote it. Our challenge is to make sense of the Bible, as a call to a way of life that is both spiritual and ethical. We cannot support the work of justice, however, by just lifting out "proof" texts from the Bible or by justifying our commitment with a litany of the needs of the poor and the dire facts of the economic and ecological crises of our time.

We need now to recover the Bible as a powerful text that can ground the distinctive life of a Christian community committed to compassion and justice. To do this, we need to read it spiritually as well as critically and ethically. It is important to know about the Bible, but we must also know the Bible. We must not only learn its stories and teachings, but enter into its story and the world of faith it creates.

A critical reading of the Bible helps us see that the gospels, which were written after most of the letters, are shaped by conflicts within the early church. For instance, the early Gentile churches rejected the demand of Jewish Christians, who were led by James (the brother of Jesus), that all Christians (including Gentile converts) must keep the Jewish law. Moreover, some of the synagogues that had welcomed Jewish Christians (and Gentile sympathizers) began to expel them, when Gentile Christians began to dominate the movement. For reasons such as these, John's gospel vehemently attacks "the Jews" who "had believed" in Jesus. (Jn. 8:31) This attack against Jewish Christians, placed in the mouth of Jesus, is political polemic against the enemies of those writing the gospel. It is not the word of God.

Ethically, John's gospel is a story of fellowship among the followers of Jesus, who have sacrificed their personal interests for the sake of the new community. Spiritually, the words that the author of the gospel places in the mouth of Jesus have for centuries inspired Christians to discover their own identity not only in relation to one another, but in unity with God and the Spirit of God. The ethical and spiritual truth of the gospel of John must be shared as the will of God, even as we declare that the vicious attack of the gospel on "the Jews" is certainly not God's will.

In the English translations of John's gospel the word "faith" does not appear, but John's gospel is filled with the verb for faith — which, in Greek, is a form of the noun but in English is "believe." A careless reading of the gospel might lead to the conclusion that we are saved by beliefs about Jesus. Yet, "believing in" Jesus means having faith in him — trusting in him. In the gospels we discover that not only Jews but also non-Jews, such as a centurion and a Canaanite women, have such “ aith." As these non-Jews  did not have the beliefs we associate with faith, much less the beliefs that the disciples thought necessary for faith, clearly faith is not a matter of belief.

By stressing faith the gospels confirm Paul's experience and teaching to the Gentiles, that we are saved by faith through the grace of God and not by keeping Jewish laws. Today we should add that we also are not saved by having Christian beliefs. Although much is unclear about Jesus, it is clear that he called women and men to enter the kingdom of God by loving God and one another in ways that were contrary to many of the traditional beliefs of his time. It is also clear that Paul's experience of the risen Christ liberated him from an understanding of God and religious practice that was limited to the Jewish people.

In this sense, the Bible reveals that Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life", because he opens wide the door of faith. Christian scripture reveals a God who commands love and justice,  offering the love and forgiveness that enables love and justice.  This is the good news.

Our challenge is to interpret the Bible, as a witness to the faith of the communities that preserved it, and to open ourselves to entering into its world of faith. The Bible will either be a burden for our understanding, or a source of spiritual discovery. We must not allow fundamentalist Christians to continue to control the way the Bible is presented within our communities. We must offer an alternative that is more compelling.

Witnessing to the Gospel

When Gandhi was organizing a satyagraha campaign to free India from British oppression, he urged his followers not to consider sacrificing themselves in nonviolent confrontation until they had worked to renew the physical, moral and spiritual life of their communities. He put them to work in a constructive campaign of community self-help, because he knew that the success of the political struggle would depend on the moral and spiritual strength of the people.

We, too, must strengthen our faith communities, if we would be successful in the struggle for justice. I have suggested that meditation, prayer through chanting, and reading the Bible spiritually as well as critically and ethically, will be central for the renewal of our churches. I believe these practices will not only help churches witness to the good news of gospel in the religious marketplace of today, but also will strengthen and deepen the faith of our Christian communities.

We must come to see our faith as a way of life, and then live it. We must embrace a spiritual and ethical practice that is grounded in a biblical faith. We must seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. If we do this, with joy in our hearts, then others will know what it means to be Christian.

July 29, 1995 © Robert Traer 2016