Friday, November 15, 2013

Review - Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk

According to recent research by Naomi Schaefer Riley, the number of interfaith marriages is increasing. 45% of all marriages in the last decade involved couples from differing religious traditions. Riley’s research also shows that these marriages are not easy. Although we live in an age that is calling for increasing religious tolerance, this does not make the daily struggles of interfaith marriage any easier to wrestle with.

These difficulties are illustrated in Saffron Cross, where Dana Trent, a Christian minister with connections to the Southern Baptist Convention, shares her experiences in an interfaith marriage with her husband Fred, a Hindu and former monk. This is an interesting volume that provides insights into what the partners in such marriages experience, and it includes lessons for those outside of such marriages. Their experiences navigating such relationships have much to teach us in navigating religious pluralism.

The book begins dramatically with Dana sharing her “sex-free honeymoon” in the village of Vrindavan in India. Dana is transparent with the reader as she shares her strong displeasure with many aspects of Indian life due to its very different complexion as a Two Thirds World country. Everything that Westerners, and Americans in particular, take for granted on a daily basis, from safe driving on city streets to fresh running water to the easy availability of toilet paper, are readily available in poverty-stricken India. As this chapter unfolds, Dana also shares her growing awareness of the differences between her experiences in the Western expression of the Christian faith and that of the Eastern religion of Hinduism. Unlike the American experience where religion is often relegated to the private sphere of the individual, in India religion is the center of every aspect of daily life. Beyond that, its basic worldview assumptions, rituals, beliefs, and forms of worship, are very different from the Southern Baptist church experience that Dana was used to back in the U.S. After the honeymoon experience in India, the couple’s return to North Carolina comprised the early stages of the challenges of an interfaith marriage.

Dana and Fred met as a result of using the eHarmony online dating service. When completing her profile on the question “What faith(s) would you accept as a partner?” (28), she opted for an openness to a wide variety of religious traditions, thinking that as a self-identified Christian the chances that the service would connect her with someone distant from her religious preferences was unlikely. She was wrong. Soon she was contacted by Fred, who identified himself as a religious person, and a former monk. Dana assumed he meant something in the Roman Catholic tradition. Instead she would learn that Fred had previously pursued the path of the Hindu monk in the Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition. This is most familiar to Americans through the work of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in the 1960s popularly known as the “Hare Krishna Movement.” This was a little off-putting for Dana, who early on in their dating made efforts to try to persuade Fred to be baptized and return to the Christianity he had negative experiences with in his youth.

Fred and Dana found great interest in each other’s religions and experiences, and in dating they also worked through various interfaith tensions that naturally arose. After the couple married these continued, and at one point seriously intensified, so much so that they came to question whether or not the marriage could survive. But Fred and Dana were just as committed to each other as they were to their differing religious pathways, and the book describes the challenges they faced and how they successful navigated through them as a married couple. As a result, Dana describes not only how she has grown closer to Fred, but also how her Christian faith has deepened and expanded. As Dana describes it, “Immersion into a religious tradition different from my own did not convert me, mix me up, or derail me” (26).

As mentioned in the introduction to this review, this volume is not only helpful for learning about interfaith marriages, it also provides food for thought on working through issues related to religious pluralism.

Dana describes herself as theologically progressive, and this is evident in several statements she makes in the book where she advocates a pluralistic understanding of religion. She says that, “the Holy Spirit lived and breathed in each representation of the Divine” (24), both Hindu and Christian; speaks of grasping “Hinduism’s validity as a bona fide spiritual path toward God” (47); says that at one point she “had no sense that Krishna was any different from Jesus” (60); and that “God was mercifully showing up as Jesus, Spirit, Vishnu, and Krishna” (140). Dana’s attempt at finding similarities between Christianity and Hinduism is laudable. And certainly these can be found. But while contrasting the religions with interpretive and analytic humility, and taking cultural considerations into account, we are left with the reality that religions teach very different things at a foundational level. We have to be careful in our search for religious unity that we don’t force this where it is not found. As Stephen Prothero has said in his book God is Not One, seeking religious unity in the name of tolerance that does not recognize real religious difference can lead to “naïve theological groupthink,”1 which he sees as dangerous rather than helpful.

This does not mean that Christians need to embrace a form of particularism or exclusivism that is hostile. In the book Dana shares her struggles with reconciling Christianity and Hinduism and says, “I was one of those Christians” (48, emphasis in original), referring to the narrow mindedness, defensiveness, and hostility that often characterizes Christian understandings and interactions with other religions. But this need not be the case. As Bob Robinson reminds us, one of the most famous Indian Christians, Sadhu Sundar Singh, was a particularist who “combined a deeply Christocentric faith with a quite positive attitude towards Hinduism.” 2 Christians can practice a faith identity that is rooted in the love and example of Christ, even while recognizing irreconcilable differences with other religions.

Saffron Cross is an interesting story of an interfaith relationship. It promises to reward readers who want insights into an increasing marital trend, and thoughts for reflection on interreligious relationships in the pluralistic public square.
1. Stephen Prothero, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 3.
2. Bob Robinson, “Response to Bart Abbott,” Sacred Tribes Journal 8, no. 1 (2013), special theme edition on The Ethics of Evangelism: When is Proselytism Predatory?,” Kindle edition at

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Richard Mouw at Utah Valley University

Tomorrow I will be attending an event at Utah Valley University involving Rich Mouw who will address issues related to Evangelical Christianity generally with additional remarks on Evangelical-Mormon relations, and religious freedoms. This will include a chapel event, a presentation, and interactions with UVU students. On that the UVU website describes the event as follows:

This course explores the relationship between Mormonism and Evangelical Christianity with particular attention to the contemporary dynamics of this relationship. Key texts from both traditions will be examined in light of their comparative dimensions and cultural influence. Guest scholars will be invited to engage students from a variety of perspectives.

Key Themes
* Contemporary Mormon/Evangelical Dialogues
* Contested concepts of grace, Trinity, and the nature of God
* Social cooperation in the public square
* The religious dimensions of American politics *
* The fundamentalist challenge Mormonism and evangelicalism in the 21st century

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review - Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims

Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims

By Rick Love

Paperback: Peace Catalyst International Publications, 2013. [Amazon]
ISBN: 978-1935959502

Evangelical Christians across a spectrum of denominations and political commitments are working together to provide a response to Muslims that is faithful to the best of the Christian tradition in our post-9/11 world. These efforts find their roots in two aspects of the Christian tradition. The first is a desire to emulate the way of Christ in relating to the marginalized and the outsiders that are frequently viewed with suspicion and enmity by members of their own religious tradition. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 is a primary biblical text that exemplifies the model of Jesus that these Christians want to follow in their encounters with Muslims. The second foundation for these efforts is the desire to be obedient to Christ in his call for disciples to be peacemakers.

Rick Love, through his organization, Peace Catalyst International, takes a leadership role among American Evangelicals in peacekeeping between Christians and Muslims. Grace and Truth was written as a result of Love’s participation in a global meeting of Evangelical leaders who came together to address how relations between Christians, particularly those in the West, and Muslims might be improved, and in ways that resonate with Christian faith. Love serves as the main author of this volume, although he acknowledges the input of “more than seventy leaders form around the world” (3-4). As a result, this book “is a consensus document” (5) that brings together “a spectrum of evangelical thinking” (5) and which finds a balance between slight differences of thought on the subject matter. This contributes to the layout and overlap found in the book.

The volume is comprised of an Introduction that provides a summary of helpful information and perspectives for Evangelical readers in understanding the Muslim world, and the perspective in the material that follows. This includes consideration of the diversity of categories and perspectives that make up the Muslim world, a list of the areas of agreement and disagreement in Muslim beliefs in relation to Christianity, and discussion of “significant theological and ideological diversity” (11) among Muslims. The Introduction concludes with the suggestion that Evangelicals “find a middle path between demonization of Islam and naïve political correctness” (13).

The next two major segments of the book include one titled “Toward Christ-like Relationships with Muslims: An Exposition,” and another “Toward Christ-like Relationships with Muslims: An Affirmation.” These two sections are very much alike, with the latter incorporating slight revisions that reflect the specific views of Peace Catalyst International. Both of these segments include a series of guidelines for Christian interaction with Muslims and the Muslim world, with nine in the former, and ten in the latter “reflecting Peace Catalyst’s revised, personalized version of these affirmations” (26). The ten affirmations include:

1.     Be Jesus-Centered in our Interaction
2.     Be Truthful and Gracious in our Words and Witness
3.     Be Wise in our Words and Witness
4.     Be Respectful and Bold in our Witness
5.     Be Prudent in our Glocalized World
6.     Be Persistent in our Call for Religious Freedom
7.     Be Peaceable and Uncompromising in our Dialogue
8.     Be Loving toward All
9.     Differentiate between the Role of Church and State
10. Support and Challenge the State

The chapters that unfold each of these guidelines or affirmations are very helpful, and it is evident that a lot of careful reflection has gone into their formulation. As such, they “describe how we can be agents of peace in a polarized world” (32) as Evangelicals embrace Muslims and share the Gospel of Christ.

The next two sections are study guides that look at each of the preceding major segments of the book. They are designed for small group and Sunday school settings as well as individual study. The volume concludes with a bibliography of materials that will be helpful for further study.

Although this volume is very small, and involves a great deal of overlap and repetition in its layout and subject matter, it provides a concise and accessible study for Evangelicals. The volume might have been strengthened with a few additions, including mention of Islam’s priority of ritual rather than belief, the addition of a few more noteworthy volumes in the bibliography, and the suggestion that the study of Islam be connected to relationships and conversations with Muslims in readers’ neighborhoods. But despite these suggestions, this is a helpful book that has the potential to overcome some of the stereotypes, generalizations, assumptions, and hostility that many Evangelicals have in regards to the Muslim world in the wake of 9/11 and the continuing “War on Terror.”

Monday, November 11, 2013

Cognitive Empathy in Interreligious Engagement

This is a video from the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and I found it on a blog called The Crooked Mouth posted with the title "Empathy and the Conservative/Progressive Theological Divide," where the author, Anderson Campbell, connects the discussion to Christian concerns. Campbell has an intrafaith context in mind when he writes:
Much like the social, political, and economic realms, the Christian theological realm has become highly polarized in the past several decades. The distance between conservative and progressive theological camps is growing wider by the day. Conversation between people of differing theologies is becoming less frequent and is often derisive, not charitable. We have become very good at “othering” because we have a failure of empathy within the Christian church.
 Of particular interest is the discussion is the idea of "cognitive empathy" in application to theology. On this Campbell distills and teases out the relevant section of the video for us:
When most people think of empathy, they often think of a kind of emotional mirroring. When you see someone in distress and you feel badly for that person, you are empathizing with them. This is affective empathy. It is the ability to recognize what the other is feeling and respond appropriately. We often characterize this kind of empathy as soft and passive, largely emotive. Contrast this with cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand or put on someone else’s perspective, when you don’t necessarily share that same perspective. It is the ability to move past labeling the other and step into their shoes, so to speak. This empathy is more potent for change, asserts Krznaric. In contrast “touchy-feely” affective empathy, cognitive empathy ”is actually quite dangerous, because [it] can create revolution . . . a revolution of human relationships.”
I appreciate Campbell's application of this to the divide between progressives and conservatives in the church. I have found value in the thought of certain progressives, such as (dare I say their names?) Marcus Borg on the atonement, and Brian McLaren on interreligious encounters, and had no difficulty engaging progressive thought, but I've taken some heat from conservatives for doing so. I am a part of the Evangelical subculture, and in my experience we tend toward a faith identity that is hostile and confrontational with others, not only in intrafaith contexts, but interfaith ones as well.
Cognitive empathy has potential for addressing this, especially in the context of a theology and praxis of interreligious engagement. Some similarities can be found in my prior proposal on this in my essay on this at Patheos in "A Generous Orthopathy: Evangelicals and a Transformed Affective Dimension of Faith."

Plenty of food for thought here for those Evangelicals involved in interreligious dialogue and religious diplomacy. 

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Enns on Theological Belligerence

Peter Enns recently made a blog post that is worth reading. It's titled "Fear Leads to Anger: Unpacking Theological Belligerence." The piece begins:

"My point: Belligerence in theological discussions is a reaction to a deep fear—typically unperceived—that one’s metanarrative is under threat.

"Let me put that in English: People fight about their views of God because they are afraid of the consequences of being wrong. Being wrong about God is fearful because it destabilizes their way of looking at the universe and their place in it. People tend to fight when frightened this way."

As he unpacks this, Enns responds to various arguments that are offered many times as to why theological belligerence is the right way forward. As he does so he echoes sentiments that I have presented in a number of venues. I feel vindicated in some way as another Evangelical has made the same observations that I have.

I think Enns has "in-house" arguments in mind between fellow Christians and Evangelicals given the harsh response he has received from many in regards to his views on the Old Testament, evolution, and inerrancy. But this essay also has application to interreligious contexts, and helps explain one of the dynamics involved in confrontational encounters between Evangelicals and those in other religions.

The essay is worthwhile for critical reflection by Evangelicals.