This week, St. Arbuck’s Chapel features a post by guest blogger Jacob Cook. Jake lectures in philosophy at Friends University and will soon complete a doctoral degree in Christian ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He and his wife Abigail Cook, Chapel Hill’s director of adult ministry, lead a theology study group at Chapel Hill. They have two children and are expecting a third. “Knowledge, Faith and the Abrahamic Religions” offers a preview of guest posts from Jake that will run in July.
A Brief Exposure
Before I took a course in the “varieties of religious experience” at Friends University, I had virtually no understanding of any other religion. Honestly, I’m not even sure that I could have named one. I knew there were varieties of Christian churches because I had spent time in several with friends, but I didn’t know how different each church was from the other. In other words, I didn’t know what I didn’t know—and this was true across the religious board.
I remember one unusual evening not long after 9/11, when I sat in a hometown church among Christian friends and heard about the hidden agenda of global Islam. (I didn’t even know what the unhidden agenda was!) The speaker that evening was a zealous, self-styled prophet making the rounds to warn decent church folk about a not-so-distant future in which the Judeo-Christian West would face an epic challenge . . . from within. Our Muslim “neighbors,” he cautioned, were already organized into so many sleeper cells—jihadists just waiting for a critical mass to take over our country with Shari’a law. I don’t recall whether his presentation involved specific action steps or a call to arms, but I got the distinct impression that suspicion and fear were due our Muslim “neighbors.” Or were they “enemies”? In either case, no love for them categorically (contra Matthew 5:44 and 22:36-40).
Like many of you, I am thankful for Pastor Jeff’s courage in genuinely exploring other major religions through his sermon series. And after church experiences like I just described, his series also brought some personal healing to me. In this post, I want to name a few points on my journey with the Abrahamic religions, and in July, I’ll return with a series of posts on these traditions.
A Deeper Engagement
The summer after our first year of seminary, Abigail and I joined a travel study seminar in Europe, visiting cultural and historical sites, including many related to the Holocaust. Our seminar focused on how ethics and theology have changed (or should change) since the inhumanities of that time, with an interest in the ongoing relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Along the way, we learned how a warped version of Protestant Christian theology had propped up and emboldened the Nazi regime, leading many to believe that serving their ethnic group and country were part of God’s unique calling on their lives. This was not the only Christian voice in those days, but it was the overpowering one.
Then, during the first half of my doctoral studies, I worked for the Just Peacemaking Initiative (JPI) at Fuller Seminary with my late mentor—the great Baptist peacemaker Glen Harold Stassen. Over a long and distinguished career, Glen (a nuclear physicist turned Christian ethicist) worked with Christians of all stripes to build activist support for, and then academic consensus around, practices that have successfully deterred violent conflicts in human history. By the time I started working with Glen, the just peacemaking project was expanding to include Jewish and Muslim scholars supporting the same ten practices within their own religious traditions, based on their own sacred texts. And for my first assignment with the JPI, I organized a travel study seminar for about 60 people to engage peacemakers of many faiths and ideologies on both sides of the wall between Israel and Palestine.
In this season of life, I got to know some actual human beings who identify as Jews, Christians and Muslims. I learned much more than I could ever have hoped to know about the Abrahamic religions (especially after my false start with Islam).
Truth and Witness
Over the last few months, I’ve been teaching philosophy at Friends, and in those classes, we’ve looked at several longstanding human questions like: How do you know what you know? If you want to trace religious differences back to a single question, this would be a good candidate. The traditional definition of knowledge is “justified true belief.” All these words stand in for larger concepts, and along the way, religious people have disagreed with one other about each of them.
I would guess that we are particularly interested in questions of “truth” (whether our beliefs correspond to reality) and “justification” (how we might prove they do). How do you know what we know? Well, in many cases, we receive our knowledge from other people: we learn from our teachers in school, we read books, we watch the news. Put differently, we’re hearing the testimony of other people and receiving it as credible (or not). Not surprisingly, “bearing witness” is a central way people communicate their religious commitments.
And exactly here I want to name my gratitude for the way our pastor shared from his own learning about the other major religions in our world. Given the inestimable and sacred worth of every individual human being, the billions of persons represented in some way through this sermon series deserve fair representation in our pulpits and in our hearts.
The Living God as the Only Justification
Since this is Holy Week, I should ask the question a third time, but this time in earnest: How do we know what we know? In other words, how is our belief in Jesus Christ “justified”?
We might start by remembering that faith is an option for us only because we have met the risen Lord. There is a kind of wordplay going on here: justification is also a theological term for how our relationship with God is put to rights. When we know and love and relate to God as God—and not just our idea of God—we have nothing to fear in those who practice another religion, and we have less to prove to others by way of argumentation.
We know God, personally, and we hope others do or will. Thus, we pray that we might be, in the words of St. Patrick, “Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me.” Such a prayer puts us in a posture of love toward those around us, friend or (imagined) foe alike.