That I am a Christian, as are millions of other Americans, doesn't mean that this is a Christian nation--or ever was or ever will be. It's a mix and always was. The three huge Abrahamic faiths--Christianity, Judaism, and Islam--aren't even the sum total of the faiths that populate these United States. We've got Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists. We've got Wiccans and all kinds of members of the Native American church. As everyone knows these days, we've also got Mormons, who fit with the Abrahamics, but aren't cut exactly from the same cloth.
We're a nation of separate faith communities, a pluralistic society where everyone has a seat or a place to stand in the public square, a nation where power isn't specifically given (or taken) by any single religious group or institutional church. When, in 1834, my own little denomination had its birth in Holland, its preachers faced imprisonment and its churches were boarded up because the particular faith the renegades espoused ran contrary to what the state had institutionally considered to be the proper one. Doctrine was law because the state had a stake in its very own church.
No more. So, if not everyone believes what you do, and everyone still has a place at the table, then how shall we live? Seriously--how shall we live?
Try on this complication: if, as some evangelical Christians believe, America is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Sharia law, then there may well be some reason to rejoice because should Sharia law somehow replace American jurisprudence, abortion would, in all likelihood, be banned. "Whoever has spared the life of the soul, it is as though he has spared the life of all people. Whoever has killed a soul, it is as if he has killed all mankind," Qur'an 5:32.
A fetus might do well under Sharia law, but--depending on whose vision of Sharia law we're talking about--Christians could well find the going more than a little tough. Go figure.
I just finished Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, and I loved it. Volf's prescription begins with importance of what he calls "human flourishing": "The supreme good that makes human beings truly happy--in my terminology, the proper content of a flourishing life--consists," he says, "in love of God and neighbor and enjoyment of both." Then he quotes Augustine, who staked his claim like this: "a completely harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God, and each other in God." That's not far afield from the first Q and A of the Westminster Catechism.
How can a pluralist nation nurture real human flourishing in all its faith communities and its citizenry, when those communities each brandish a separate truth? That's the problem. We don't all agree on TRUTH.
Those questions Volf addresses in A Public Faith. As you can imagine, he advises a generous respect of others, and of limited proselytizing--save in a ministry of presence. He says we all need to offer what he calls "hermeneutical hospitality."
What on earth is that? Here it is, I think, as practiced by two men a century ago.
An old Anglo missionary used to come sit outside the family hogan and talk and talk and talk with the father--talk about all kinds of things. Through all that talk, the Christian and the Navajo became fast friends.
One day, the missionary told the man that his own child--a little boy--should go to the mission school, a Christian mission school. The old Navajo thought about it and agreed. The old Navajo was never baptized himself, but, even though he practiced Native ways, he consented to sending his son to a Christian mission school.
I once wrote the life story of that boy, and when I did I asked him why his father allowed his son to go to the mission school. His father told him that the way of life this old missionary friend of his was preaching was just another path of "the Beauty Way," a Navajo teaching and ritual meant to awaken the soul of a man or woman into true spiritual--and physical--health.
I shall walk and beauty will go before me.
I shall walk and beauty will go behind me.
I shall walk and beauty will go above me.
I shall walk and beauty will go beneath me.
I shall walk and beauty will surround me.
I shall walk and speak of beauty.
For the rest of my days I shall be whole,
for all things are beautiful.
His son would go to the Christian school because at some level what the missionary was advocating--Christianity--was, to that father, yet another path to spiritual beauty.
Today, that family worships Jesus Christ.
Salvation, the psalmist says, belongs to the Lord. We don't save people, He does. The friendship that arose by long hours of talk beneath a tree outside a hogan on the Navajo reservation created mutual respect and admiration, understanding, a ministry of simple presence.
That kind of generosity--on the part of the Christian and the Navajo--is a way to grant each of us and all of us a place in the public square.
What Volf offers us in A Public Faith is just that--a public faith.
Tomorrow is the election. Nothing separates Christians today like politics. We don't even need to think about America's separate faith traditions, as Christians we are ourselves just a step away from a bitter divorce. Even between Christians, the kind of generosity Volf recommends is not only helpful, but vital.
My morning thanks today is for the thoughtful advice Miroslave Volf offers in A Public Faith, his own version of "the Beauty Way."
You can see and hear Volf talk about his book here.