By Sam Candler
Down here in the South, we always care about what the Bible says. No matter whether we are liberal or conservative, many of us Christians grew up breathing biblical stories. We did more than just hear the stories; we grew to see and to trust biblical principles. Even the strangest biblical material had a message for us. That’s why we called it, and still call it, the Word of God; it is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.
Therefore, it disturbs me when, in the midst of bona fide theological debate, one group or another begins to abandon biblical support. It even disturbs me when good faith Episcopalians begin to raise reason and tradition as theological authorities over the Bible. If we Christians abandon the Word of the Bible as our principal source of theological authority, we have relinquished our very heritage.
Our trust in, and use of, the Bible is even more critical these days when we begin to discuss interfaith relationships. For, in my opinion, the issue of our time is not sexuality. The issue is interfaith relationships. We live in a world where people of very different religious traditions inevitably know and relate to one another. Will we do justice or violence to one another?
We live in a world where most of us have probably been asked, not what we believe about sexuality, but what we think about other faith traditions. We have all been asked something like: will only Christians be saved? (or some variation of the question). Our answer to that question can bring peace, or it can bring violence.
In this age, our answer must be strong and direct. We are called to be passionately Christian and compassionately interfaith. The world does not need any more wimpy Christians, or lazy liberals, or complacent conservatives. The world needs passion. I do not mean the mean-spirited sort of passion; but I mean the passion committed to peace and justice that brings forth vigor and soul, and the passion which brings forth life itself.
Therefore, the first principle in living in a multi-faith world is to be unabashedly Christian. The world needs more passionate Christians, not less passionate ones. But the world also needs a second principle: compassion in interfaith relationships.
In other words, God does not need more Christians passionate only about wiping out all other forms of religious expression. God needs Christians who are passionate about who we are, about our own identities, but who are yet compassionate toward the religious identities of other folks.
The best “interfaith dialogues” are those where Christians –and others—do not try simply to bend down to the lowest common denominator, or try to soften everything we believe. The best interfaith dialogues are those where people are strong and fully convinced of their own religious identities. The world needs passionate and sure Christians.
In fact, the world needs Christians who believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Yes, I know that some of our exclusivist brothers and sisters are accustomed to using John 14.6 as a verse which speaks against interfaith compassion; “no one comes to the Father except through me” is the second part of John 14.6. More liberal types often omit reading aloud that last section of John 14.6 during services.
But I propose that John 14.6 is a verse that witnesses fully both to passionate Christianity and to compassionate interfaith experiences. The verse does allow non-Christians to enjoy salvation. I invite those who use that verse in accusation to consider the verse more literally. Yes, more literally. Jesus did not say, “No one comes to the Father except through the Christian Church.” Jesus used the phrase, “through me.”
We do not need to disavow, or ignore, or change, John 14.6 in order to be passionately Christian and compassionately interfaith. We simply need to realize that Jesus, and the way of Jesus, is larger than the Christian Church. The way to God, through Jesus, may be much larger than the various doors and hurdles which the Christian Church has presented through history.
In short, the way of Jesus is the way of truth and of life. That is the Christian witness which the world needs to see. I know that the Bible, and the Christian witness, have been used violently. But ultimately, the Bible provides the Word of Life even when we engage others in interfaith relationships.
The Very Reverend Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.