Monday, November 19, 2012

Bob Roberts Calls All Faiths To Gather At God's Table

Bob Roberts, Jr., Bold as Love: What Can Happen When We See People the Way God Does

Once upon a time, people chose religions much the same way they chose football teams: they rooted for the same team their neighbors did. But today’s unprecedented mass migration has resulted in diverse, powerful world religions living next door to one another. Picking our faith passively, or throwing our hands in the air, is not an option. We must speak frankly, but lovingly, with all religions in today’s compact world.

When Dallas megachurch pastor Bob Roberts, Jr., met a Saudi prince who asked him what he had done to promote dialog, he felt overwhelmed. Dallas is the capital of Jesusland! Yet when he got home, he noticed mosques, synagogues, temples, and more, right on his doorstep. The supposed Bible Belt has as much religious diversity as any American region. So he took the logical step, reaching out to imams and rabbis for his city’s first multifaith sit-down.

This book combines anecdotes of Roberts’ personal discoveries, lessons he learned about his own and others’ beliefs, and suggestions to build similar experiences across America. Roberts’ suggestions are both timely and relevant. The Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) share a call to love our neighbors, a call shared by most faiths and philosophies. But it’s hard to love one another when we don’t know one another.

Like me, Roberts distrusts the sort of “interfaith” meetings that enjoyed hip cachet in the 1990s. Too often, these descended into huggy, syncretic pablum in which nobody stood for anything. No wonder interfaith outreach dwindled after 9/11. Roberts prefers the term “multifaith,” which reflects his real goal: people who passionately believe their own faith, and passionately want to know their neighbors as real people.

Roberts expected initial hostility from his congregation, and to an extent, he got it. Some people have a fortress mentality, only talking to others of like mind, seeing outsiders as a besieging enemy. A certain subset of American religious and political discourse drums up the idea that we only retain our ideological purity if we keep diversity at arm’s length. Some families left Roberts’ congregation rather than sit down with Jews and Muslims.

But far more families stayed. People with intensely different theologies found they could discuss their beliefs without muddying themselves. Indeed, Roberts says how frank, respectful dialog with believers of multiple faiths urged him to refine his own beliefs. Creation makes more sense after you’ve explained your beliefs to atheists; the Trinity comes into sharp detail when you define the doctrine for Muslims.

Roberts says, “The strength of a religion or faith is not what it is when left alone but what it is when challenged. Hard times make for strong faith, deep learning, and moving closer to God.” Participants in Roberts’ multifaith encounters emerged with a deeper understanding of their own beliefs, and cast off trappings that were merely cultural, not true to the faith.

Often, sincere believers of good character fall into the trap of seeing other faiths’ adherents as prospective converts. We proselytize without bothering to learn each other’s hopes and aspirations. But God does not call us to keep a scorecard. We love one another when we know each other’s names and hearts. We have the best hope of reaching each other when the world sees us live the true tenets of our faith.

For instance, Roberts describes one early meeting between his congregation and local Muslims. His congregation forgot to put away their Sunday stuff, and Roberts was astonished to see several Muslims signing up to join his members on an inner-city work retreat. Think about that. What better way to learn what another religion believes than to sweat side-by-side with true believers? Even if we never make converts, we make friends.

Roberts tells touching, funny stories about his multifaith friendships. His wife joined a multifaith cooking club. Not only did the women learn about each other’s cuisine and culture, but the Muslim women made new friends around whom they could take off their hijabs. Roberts also describes halal turkey hunting with his good friend, Imam Zia. He sees these encounters as metaphors for what’s possible when faiths talk with, not past, each other.

If we want to know members of other world faiths, we must abandon the fuzzy dream of ignoring our differences. Bob Roberts makes a persuasive case that, if we just talk to one another in love, we will not only make inroads toward lasting peace, but we will know the belief our faith has called us to for a long time.

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