I attended a service at Highland Baptist Church on September 11 called “Honoring Sacred Texts.” The service included representatives from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikhs, and Baha’i communities, each reading a selection from their sacred texts. According to Rev. Joe Phelps, senior pastor of Highland, it was intended “to be a word of witness against . . . divisive hate-filled ideology, found in every nation and religion, by reading what we believe is fundamental and common from our various sacred texts: love, humility, peace, reverence before the Creator.”
Undoubtedly Rev. Phelps and the good folks at Highland Baptist Church will take plenty of heat from this courageous action. Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, called their “interfaith” service a “denial” of the faith. This, of course, is the exclusivist position that will continue to foster ill will between people of different religious traditions and ultimately do more harm than good.
Rev. Phelps wrote on his blog that that their intent was not in any way “to deny or dilute the role of Jesus, who is central to the message and mission of Highland.” He then observed that the way of Jesus was “one of reconciling love rather than polarizing division,” and that the only ones Jesus excluded were “driven by a spirit of division.”
Rev. Phelps noted that “while there are passages that say he [Jesus] is the only way to God . . . other Bible passages are clear that God’s bigness and love extend to all the earth, to all peoples, to all nations who come in reverence before God.” See, for example, passages like Acts 10:34-35, Eph. 1:9-10, Col. 1:19-20, and 1 Cor. 15:22. Rev. Phelps wrote, “Every sacred text–including the Bible–has passages that extol violence, which can be misunderstood and misapplied by outsiders (and by insiders).”
The Bible, Christians’ sacred text, argues with itself in numerous places. In an internet conversation with a Christian who refused to identify himself, I pointed out several passages of Scripture where there were clear contradictions and asked him to explain or defend his inerrant position on the Bible in light of these contradictions. That ended the conversation. He would not because he could not, at least not in any reasonable, logical way. It seems to me that the Christians who are most in denial of the faith are those who, like Dr. Mohler, are actually incapable of offering a legitimate, credible defense of the inconsistencies and contradictions in our sacred text. Claiming the Bible’s infallibility possibly turns more thinking young people away from Christianity than any other of the fundamentalist Christian doctrines.
I love our (Christians’) sacred text, but I do not worship it. I probably spend more time and effort studying it and teaching it than most do who claim it to be the literal word of God. And while I consider it inspired of God, it is clear to me that it is not without human flaws and errors. Rev. Phelps observed that our sacred text (the Bible) is a diverse “collection of inspirations and understandings which must be allowed to interact and inform each other.”
I am convinced that a healthy, transformative, compassion–filled Christianity is directly connected to an interpretation of Scripture that is rooted and grounded in the inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ. Thank goodness I am not alone. There are a number of other Christian leaders and churches like Rev. Phelps and Highland Baptist Church (and more are emerging) who are committed to preaching, teaching, and sharing God’s unconditional love as expressed in the inclusive gospel of Jesus, whom we claim as our Lord.