A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 26, 2011
Luke 9:49-50 GNT
I see a lot of religious polls and surveys on church attendance, religious beliefs and the like, including ones that give statistics on young adults who attend church and don’t attend church and who profess Christianity and don’t. Regarding those who don’t attend, when asked why they don’t attend one of the reasons that was given in one survey is Christians are narrow-minded and prejudiced. Ouch! That tends to hurt, doesn’t it? The implication is that young adults tend to be much more open-minded when it comes to issues like religious diversity, other world religions, sexual orientation, and so on. I am of the opinion that there is a fair amount of truth in that. But isn’t that the way it has always been? Weren’t many of us as young adults more open-minded than our parents were?
What got me to thinking about this topic was an article in the Christian Century magazine some months back on religious scholar Karen Armstrong. Armstrong, who happens to be British, has become the world’s interfaith religious theologian. Her books on Judaism, Christianity and Islam have been bestsellers. She is highly respected and recognized as an expert in matters of religion. She was the originator of “The Charter for Compassion” that is seeking to bring together people from various religious traditions of the world based on the foundation of compassion.
At any rate, the Christian Century article points out that Armstrong “thinks humans are too quick to insist that their particular form of meaning is the only correct form. Religious people tend to insist on certainty, homogeneity and doctrinal consistency. In their view, those who do not assent to this formulation deserve exile, if not death. Christianity, Armstrong finds, has been particularly inclined to this path because it has emphasized belief over practice and doctrinal agreement over dialogue. [Therein lies the key.] Armstrong calls this the ‘fundamentalist’ path. . . ”1 Such a path in which religious persons insist on uniform belief and doctrinal agreement can lead to narrow-mindedness and prejudice, as religious groups fall into the error of thinking they alone have a hold on the truth and everyone else is wrong, in the dark, not as good, not as holy, or doomed to eternal punishment. In its extreme form, such narrow-mindedness and religious prejudice leads to ostracism, oppression, fighting, and even wars. There are any number of conflicts going on in the world at any given time based on religious differences and the belief among opposing factions that we are right, we have the real truth, and you are wrong, and God wants us to punish you.
Consequently, some of us may have grown up with it being drilled into our heads that to be a good Christian, you have to believe certain things, you have to believe a certain way. And if you don’t, well, you’re just not a Christian and you could be in danger of losing your immortal soul. So if there are certain things that I am supposed to believe, then what about all those other people out there in different denominations and different world religions who believe something totally different? How can I acknowledge or (God forbid) be friends with someone who is not a “true believer”? So the question arises, “Is it possible to be an open-minded Christian? Or is an open-minded Christian—or a Christian with an open mind—an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms?”
From the two verses that I read from the gospel of Luke, it appears that the disciple John was somewhat narrow-minded. It seems that John was more exclusive than Jesus was. The question had to do with someone who was seeking to do good work in Jesus’ name, but he was not a part of the in-crowd. “He doesn’t belong to our group,” John lamented, “so I tried to stop him.” John’s statement illustrates the sentiment that only the twelve, the inner circle, should have the power and privileges of discipleship and those outside the circle should not. This episode shows how some Christians can feel like being a Christian confers special powers or privileges. Yet, Jesus’ response to John’s exclusivity is a corrective that calls for openness and tolerance. “Whoever is not against you is for you” is Jesus’ reply. One’s religious integrity is determined by what one does, not by privileges of one’s position.
When I was growing up, religious exclusivity in our conservative rural community (and I did grow up in a conservative, rural community) was pretty much limited to those of other Christian denominations, because that is all we knew. Some denominations were suspicious because they didn’t believe or worship exactly like we did. Our southern, rural, narrow-mindedness was quite narrow, since we had never heard of Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus. But then as our world began to get smaller, the narrow circle of who was in and who might be out got larger as distinctions were made between ourselves and those of other world religions who obviously were in error because of what they believed.
But then when I began taking classes in philosophy and world religion at East Tennessee State University and began to learn about and be exposed to persons from other religious traditions, my views began to change. How could the awesome Creator God of the universe be partial to the tiny Christian denomination to which I belonged and be unhappy with the rest of the world? What an arrogant stance to take, I decided! The thought that our denomination alone, or even Christianity alone, could have a hold on truth and somehow be favored by God began to appear as a leaky theological bucket filled with holes. And so, my own views on those of other denominations and other world religions gradually changed as I came to believe that all Christian denominations could have a portion of truth and find favor with God. And then eventually my circle of inclusivity (contrasted to exclusivity) continued to expand wider and wider so that I came to be open to and respectful of those of other world religions as well.
Thankfully, in addition to the religious path of right belief and right doctrine, there is another path, the path of right practice. This is the path that Karen Armstrong is seeking to hold out before the world. It is the path toward openness, humility and compassion. Incidently, the path of compassion is also the path being pursued by American Christian theologian Marcus Borg, as well as the path esteemed by the Dalai Lama, who practices Tibetan Buddhism. It seems to be the way that many religious scholars and world religious leaders are going.
Liberal religious theologian James Luther Adams noted that one of the major principles of religious liberalism is “the basic theological assertion that all are children of one God, by which is meant that all persons by nature potentially share in the deepest meanings of existence, all have the capacity for discovering or responding to ‘saving truth,’ and all are responsible for selecting and putting into action the right means and ends of cooperation for the fulfillment of human destiny.”2 In other words, as the Hebrew prophet Malachi put it, “all of us are children of the one God” (2:10). All have the longing and capacity to search for and know God. And all of us have the responsibility of working for harmony among all in the world, regardless of religious affiliation.
Regarding right practice as opposed to right belief, I would like to share with you a story about some former neighbors of ours. As most of you know, for six years we lived in Albany, New York. Our next-door neighbors happened to be Conservative Jews. They were very serious about their faith, observing the Friday night Sabbath dinners, attending synagogue on Saturday, and celebrating all the Jewish religious festivals. I, of course, was the minister of First Congregational Church, and they knew it. But the Fisher Family proved to be the best neighbors we had ever had. When we went away for a week on vacation, they watched over our house and did whatever needed to be done. They came over every day and cared for our sick cat, even to the point of giving him a daily insulin shot. They blew the snow off our sidewalk with their snow blower. There wasn’t anything the Fishers would not have done for us, and us for them. The Fishers were full of genuine love, compassion and practiced the Golden Rule, doing to others as they would have others do to them. The bottom line is the Fishers—though Conservative Jews—in practice were better Christians than many professing, believing Christians I have known over the years. To rephrase that, I have known a lot of non-professing Christians who in practice were much better Christians than many professing Christians who speak the loudest about what they believe. Truly it is as the apostle James says, “Faith [belief] without works is dead [empty, meaningless].” Now, it is fine to have beliefs. All of us do. You have your beliefs, and I have mine. The point is, practice needs to accompany the beliefs we hold.
Well, returning to the question I raised earlier—“Is it possible to be an open-minded Christian?”—over the years I have become convinced that it can be no other way. If Jesus himself was open-minded and inclusive, as Luke portrays him as being throughout his gospel, then how could those who follow him not be open-minded and inclusive too? Amen.
1Amy Frykholm, Christian Century, June 29, 2010.
2James Luther Adams, On Being Human Religiously, 15.