Time and again—in classes, our Zoe group, and passing conversations—Abigail and I have been struck by the number of different Christian traditions represented at Chapel Hill. Most, if not all, members seem comfortable with the Methodist tradition as our church expresses it, but we have come to this place from Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, various kinds of Baptist, Evangelical Free, Mennonite, and numerous other traditions. (And sometimes more than one per person!)
As a result, our community holds a wealth of practical wisdom about the seemingly-infinite variety of ways to understand “the Way of Jesus.” Not only that, members of our church still hold at least some differing convictions from each other about that Christian way, what values (or positions on social/moral issues) it entails, and how we should live them out in public. And such differences are not insignificant. They reveal important tensions in how Christians interpret Scripture as a guide for our lives; moreover, I think such differences are (in general) an intended feature of the church gathered.
Through this blog post, I will name and discuss this kind of internal diversity under the conviction that engaging divergent viewpoints within a church fellowship can actually do more to remind us of the path we are called to walk, as Christians, than rows of seats filled with people who think “just like me”—but more on that in a few minutes. To keep with the theme of this series, I first want to draw a connection between our contrasting interpretations of what it means to follow Jesus and the same phenomenon in the other Abrahamic faiths.
Diversity on “The Path We Walk” in Islam
In our Lenten sermon series on Christianity and world religions, Pastor Jeff mentioned the fundamentally unacceptable inequalities and limitations of freedom that fly under the banner of Shariah Law around the world. As Christians and as Americans, we may justifiably rankle at the news stories we hear about life in such a context. But when we’re looking at contemporary, political-ideological applications of so-called “Shariah Law,” it may be helpful to take a step back and understand how they’re related to the religion of Islam.
Within Islam, Shariah primarily carries spiritual and moral value and can be translated simply as “the path Muslims walk.” In a search for the details, Muslim leaders try to distill life-guiding principles from the Qur’an and also from the Hadith (a collection of reported sayings and actions Muhammad)—especially parts dealing with Muhammad’s own way of living. The range of issues addressed, the paradox created by contrasting commands and/or examples, and the cruel/excessive punishments to be found throughout those sources are not so different from our own Scripture and traditions.
The practice of gaining deep enough practical wisdom to interpret these principles and spell them out in legal form is known as “fiqh.” And there’s not as much agreement among contemporary Muslims about the details of the path one should walk as you may think. So, the Islamic Law at play in any given political community is always based on somebody’s interpretation of Shariah (the Muslim way of life). In the same breath, these versions of “Islamic Law” may be forced on citizens and branded as Shariah itself, especially when the ruling class is in agreement on the version to legislate and police. (For more, see this NPR interview with Sadakat Kadri.)
Diversity on “The Path We Walk” in the Bible
Now, let’s shift gears. During Jesus’ life and ministry, a diversity of opinions was on display among those who shared a Jewish faith. The Zealots were some politically-minded folks who sought the restoration of a Jewish “theocracy” in Israel; Jesus’ disciples Simon and maybe Judas were somehow identified with them (Luke 6:15). The Pharisees committed themselves to living out not only the written Torah but also the oral tradition that includes more statutes as well as principles for interpreting the writings. And these factions were not the only games in town.
But on more than one occasion, the Pharisees were the subject of Jesus’ criticism as he tried to call them back to the Way. Of course, this was a two-way street, and the Pharisees imagined themselves as trying to do the same for Jesus. Remember how Jesus highlighted the human struggle to find the line between the Law and its interpretations among people in Mark 7? Quoting the prophet Isaiah (29:13), he said,
“This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition. (verses 6-8)
We may be comfortable with this criticism as it’s directed at these ancient religious leaders. But it’s notable that, even though we have this long-standing criticism within our Scripture, Christians of various stripes see our interpretation of Jesus’ Way as God’s will for all Christians (maybe all human beings). Doubtless, I believe we should all be living into the Great Story, but for Christians who grow passionate about their world-view as the vision of God’s will for their surrounding culture, the parallels to not only Sharia and fiqh, but their suspect political-ideological applications continue to mount.
When Traditions Become Echo Chambers
Each Abrahamic faith comprises a variety of traditions with their own ways of casting the vision of the entire faith—some differing only in emphasis, others differing dramatically. In Judaism, life direction centers on Halakha, which is sometimes seen as just laws (Torah and other traditions), but is more genuinely known (like Shariah) as “the path Jews walk.” And let’s not forget that early Christians identified themselves as followers of the Way (ἡ ὁδός), a particular path to walk as Jews (Acts 9:2). The imagery of walking a certain path seems to translate well across the Abrahamic faiths.
That said, part of the point in the biblical story I mentioned above is that human beings (especially, perhaps, religious ones) are prone to thinking they have a reliable, even comprehensive map of the Way. And what’s more, we search out self-justifying echo chambers in which our life- and world-view are validated by a group of like-minded people. The religious leaders whom Jesus called out were perfectly open to accountability when it was offered by like-minded others; such accountability means “holding me to the standard that I already know full and well and to which I am already committed.” But their openness to accountability did not include the possibility of an outsider—even the living God—speaking a better, truer (if alternative) word to guide their lives. That’s how echo chambers work. When a critic enters, their message may be delivered, but it’s then ridiculed rather than received.
Jesus’ own response, not only to the Pharisees but also to us, is the fulfillment of the line in Isaiah that follows the one he quoted above. Isaiah continues where Jesus left off, “so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden” (29:14). While we cannot exactly come up with these amazing things on our own steam (though we may wish we could), we can practice a spirit of openness to the living God’s guiding voice wherever we may find it.
Which Way from Here?
On some details, the differences between traditions’ interpretations of “the path we walk” can be traced to different ways of interpreting their faith’s Book (not to mention differing opinions about the nature of that book to begin with). Even a strict, “literal” approach to Scripture (Jewish, Christian, or Muslim) does not guarantee agreement about the life- and world-view it is said to contain.
But if we’re being honest, not all of our differences can or should be traced to our interpretation of Scripture. Human beings bring a fair amount of experience with them to the art of interpreting their sacred texts—something Methodists recognize and value in the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” which recognizes the authority of Scripture and tradition, but also reason and experience in guiding Christian lives. At the same time, Christians have caught at least some views and values from sources they may need to scrutinize more carefully. We take in values through our experiences of family, race, gender, sexuality, and class; we are committed to the visions of social groups, for example, as Americans and/or as political partisans. So, when we talk about Christian spiritual formation, we are also sometimes talking about counter-formation.
All of this speaks to the potential fruitfulness of learning to express a diversity of views within a healthy church fellowship. Such a context might provide the opportunity to learn not only how to interact maturely with people who think differently from us as Christians, but also where our understanding of some issue may not be the obvious biblical or Christian view. We don’t have all the truth ourselves, and we cannot anticipate all the ways we need to grow and repent—we have blind spots. Besides, following the Way involves more than holding fast to the truth: the path leads toward Christlikeness. So, we must learn to receive “others” as God’s gifts to us. Christians need the perspective of a variety of incarnate guides to follow the Way on toward this most beautiful end.