Universalism

Sen. Bernie Sanders opens up a new front in America's church-state warfare

Sen. Bernie Sanders opens up a new front in America's church-state warfare

Try to imagine the media storm if the following drama ever took place under the hot glare of television lights in a U.S. Senate hearing.

So a Muslim believer who has been nominated for a cabinet-level post is taking questions. A Bible Belt senator asks: "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?"

Or perhaps a senator from a New England state -- say Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- asks the nominee: "Do you think Christians who believe in the Holy Trinity will be condemned because they reject the oneness of God?"

Ismail Royer knows what would happen if he faced those questions. He would defend one of Islam's core doctrines.

"I believe Jesus was a prophet of God, but not God himself," said Royer, who works at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. "I'd have to say that worshipping Jesus alongside God amounts to polytheism and is a rejection of the one God. There is no way that I could apologize for what I believe as a Muslim."

A purely hypothetical case? Not after a recent confrontation during a U.S. Senate budget committee hearing on the nomination of Russell Vought to serve as deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Sanders questioned a Vought article about a Wheaton College controversy, in which a professor made headlines with her claims that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. As a former Wheaton professor, Vought argued that salvation was found through Jesus -- period.

Thus, Sanders said: "You wrote, 'Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son and they stand condemned.' Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?"

The nominee repeated his defense of this ancient Christian doctrine. Sanders kept asking if Vought believed that Muslims "stand condemned."

Once again, Vought said: "Senator, I'm a Christian …"

Quran in the cathedral: A symbolic window into soul of multicultural England

In Christian tradition, the Epiphany feast marks the end of the 12-day Christmas season and celebrates the revelation -- to the whole world -- that Jesus is the Son of God.

Thus, it was highly symbolic when a Muslim participating in an Epiphany rite at St. Mary's (Episcopal) Cathedral in Glasgow, Scotland, chanted verses from the Quran, Surah 19, in which the infant Jesus proclaims:

"Lo! I am the slave of Allah. He hath given me the Scripture and hath appointed me a Prophet. … Peace is on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive!" The text then adds: "Such was Jesus, son of Mary: a statement of the truth concerning which they doubt. It befitteth not Allah that He should take unto Himself a son."

Cathedral leaders took to social media to hail this as a lovely moment. But in the Church of England, one of the chaplains of Queen Elizabeth II was dismayed by what many would consider an act of blasphemy -- a reading of this clear Islamic denial of Jesus being the Son of God.

The Glasgow rite was justified as "a way of building bridges and a way of educating people," the Rev. Gavin Ashenden told the BBC.

Nevertheless, he argued that it was wrong to insert such a reading into "the Holy Eucharist and particularly a Eucharist whose main intention is to celebrate Christ the word made flesh come into the world. … To choose the reading they chose doubled the error. Of all passages you might have read likely to cause offence, that was one of the most problematic."

After hearing from Buckingham Palace, Ashenden resigned as one the queen's chaplains. Thus, he surrendered his unique status in a land in which the Church of England has been weakened by almost every cultural trend, yet retains a unique niche in the national psyche.

This was, Ashenden said, a matter of personal principle and ancient doctrine.

NASCAR America collides with NPR America at the National Prayer Breakfast

In terms of the worldviews that drive American life, the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast was a head-on collision between NASCAR and NPR.

Both President Barack Obama and NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip were the speakers and both were sure the world would be a better place if many sinners climbed down off their high horses and ate some humble pie.

First, Waltrip bared his own soul and described how he found what he believes is the one true path to eternal salvation. Then, moments later, the president told the same flock that religious believers who embrace precisely that kind of religious certainty are threatening the peace and harmony of the modern world.

This was, in other words, a morning for red religion and blue religion.

While the president's remarks comparing the modern Islamic State with Medieval Christian crusaders made headlines, Waltrip's blunt testimony contained words that -- for many in the interfaith audience -- were just as controversial.

Three questions, three fault lines in American pews and puplits

If the goal is to map the evolving landscape of American religion, the late George Gallup, Jr., once told me, it was crucial to keep asking two kinds of questions.

The kind attempted to document things that never seemed to change or that were changing very, very slowly. Thus, Gallup urged his team to keep using old questions his father and others in the family business began asking in the 1940s and '50s, such as how often people attended worship services, how often they prayed and whether they believed in God.

The second kind of question, he said, tested whether these alleged beliefs and practices affected daily life.

"We revere the Bible, but don't read it," he warned, in one 1990 address. "We believe the Ten Commandments to be valid rules for living, although we can't name them.

"We believe in God, but this God is a totally affirming one, not a demanding one. He does not command our total allegiance. We have other gods before him."

About that time, I shared a set of three questions with Gallup that I had begun asking, after our previous discussions. The key, he affirmed, was that these were doctrinal, not political, questions. My journalistic goal was to probe doctrinal changes that revealed fault lines in churches. The questions:

A (liberal) church-growth strategy to save the Episcopal Church

Once upon a time, the Anglican bishops at the global Lambeth Conference boldly declared the 1990s the "Decade of Evangelism." 

 This effort was supposed to spur church growth and it did, in the already booming Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and across the "Global South." But in the lovely, historic sanctuaries of England and North America? Not so much.

 "There was some lip service given to evangelism at that time," said Ted Mollegen, a businessman with decades of national Episcopal Church leadership experience. Membership totals continued to spiral down and the Decade of Evangelism "basically faded away without much success ... because of a lack of effort and institutional commitment."

 The Episcopal Church then created a "20/20 Vision" task force committed to doubling baptized membership by 2020. The goal was a renewed evangelism emphasis, along with programs for spiritual development, emerging leaders, church planting and improved work with children, teens and college students. Mollegen was the task force's secretary and a founding member of the Episcopal Network for Evangelism.

Episcopalians, however, promptly entered yet another period of doctrinal warfare and schism, symbolized by the departure of many large evangelical parishes following the 2003 election of a noncelibate gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire. Mollegen served on the national church's executive council from 2003-2009.

God, Allah and Rick Warren

At the Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, centuries of Islamic doctrine have literally been carved into the shrine's walls. Two quotations on the northwest wall will be of special interest to anyone interested in the latest whirlwind of controversy linked to evangelical superstar Rick Warren and his giant Saddleback Church.

The outer face inscription states, in part: "Praise be to God who has not taken a son and who does not have any partner in dominion. ..." On the inside, after a reference to Jesus, is written: "Peace be upon the day he was born, the day he dies and the day he is raised up alive. That is Jesus, son of Mary. ... It is not for God to take a son."

In other words, Islam proclaims a strict monotheism, while rejecting the Christian belief that God is One, yet has been revealed as God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Thus, it matters that fundamentalist critics are circulating excerpts from a recent Orange County Register report claiming that Warren and his megachurch have joined with nearby mosques to promote a "set of theological principles" -- called the King's Way -- proclaiming that "Christians and Muslims worship the same God."

Warren is never quoted affirming these crucial claims and the article also reports that leaders on both sides have agreed to cease evangelistic efforts to convert members of each other's flocks.

The preacher and bestselling author has attempted to distance himself from the online firestorm, which builds on longstanding claims by religious broadcaster Jack Van Impe that Warren has become a proponent of "Chrislam" -- an alleged attempt to blend Islam and Christianity.

Warren's defenders have, however, posted an interview transcript in which he has responded to these "Chrislam" allegations.

"Christians have a view of God that is unique," stressed Warren. "We believe God is a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not three separate gods but one God. No other faith believes Jesus is God. The belief in God as a Trinity is the foundational difference between Christians and everyone else."

The Saddleback leader also denied that King's Way efforts to build a "bridge" of understanding and tolerance represents a change in his Southern Baptist congregation's commitment to evangelism.

"Building a bridge" to the Muslim community, said Warren, "has nothing to do with compromising your beliefs. It's all about your behavior and your attitude toward them. It's about genuinely loving people. ... Before people trust Jesus they must trust you. You cannot win your enemies to Christ, only your friends. ... Besides, it is Christ like to treat all people with dignity and listen to them with respect."

Meanwhile, the conservative "Apprising Ministries" website has posted what it claims is a piece of a King's Way document obtained by the Register from a source close to the interfaith effort.

In its section on God, this report claims that both sides -- backed with quotations from the Bible and the Koran -- agreed that "God is one," "God is the Creator," "God is different from the world," "God is good," "God loves," "God is just" and that "God's love encompasses God's judgment."

The problem, of course, is that Christians and Muslims, as well as Jews, have for centuries proclaimed that "God is one" -- while disagreeing on whether this oneness can be reconciled with Christianity's doctrine of the Trinity.

Contacted by email, Warren insisted that public discussions of an official King's Way doctrinal statement -- as opposed to a program by that name that promotes interfaith understanding -- caught him by surprise. "Neither I, nor my staff had ever seen such a document UNTIL the article mentioned it. It wasn't created or even seen by us. ... Saddleback church as a church was not involved," he said.

However, the bitter cyber-debates continue, similar to those surrounding Warren's efforts to promote dialogues with atheists, gay-rights leaders and President Barack Obama and his supporters on the Christian left.

Asked directly if he is "promoting Chrislam," Warren released this blunt reply.

"It's the lie that won't die," he said. "Jesus is the ONLY way to salvation. Period. If I didn't believe that, I'd get into much easier line of work! But I do believe that everybody needs Jesus and I am willing to put up with false statements and misunderstandings in order to get the Gospel out."

'Lost' in the eternal lite

When describing the mysterious concept called purgatory, the Catechism of the Catholic Church starts with the basics. "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven," the text states. "The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification. ... The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire."

Alas, any distressed "Lost" viewers who rushed to the Vatican website after the show's finale found no insights about the smoke monster, the Dharma Initiative, that mysterious "4 8 15 16 23 42" sequence or why the fate of the world depended on a pool of light on one very strange island.

At least one member of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has owned up to being tuned into the "Lost" phenomenon from the beginning. At the end, all Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark could do was understate the obvious.

"I've enjoyed the series, considering it to be akin to science fiction," he noted, reacting to the raging debates about the religious symbols and language that dominated the final moments. "While the Catholic Church does believe in Purgatory, I'm not sure that the series presents an accurate understanding of our beliefs."

Before the finale, the scribes who had been running "Lost" -- Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse -- said their creation would end by focusing on how the Oceanic Flight 815 survivors answered ultimate questions about the wounds, conflicts and sins in their pasts. The key word, they agreed, was "redemption." All of that pain and suffering had a purpose.

The final episode blended together lots of vague theology, philosophy, pop psychology, religious symbols and references to popular books and movies. Think of it as "Our Town" meets "The Sixth Sense," with dashes of "Ghost," "Field of Dreams," "It's a Wonderful Life" and, at the last minute, a comforting nod to "All Dogs Go to Heaven."

After years of flashing back and forth in time, the final year's action centered on events in two parallel time sequences -- the climactic battle to determine the island's fate and a purgatorial "sideways" timeline in which the characters gained insights into their troubled lives, before and after the fateful crash.

At the end, the castaways gathered in a church sanctuary for one last group hug before entering eternity -- an ocean of bright light outside the exit doors. The big chat explaining these final events -- reuniting the show's Christ figure, Jack Shephard, with his father, Christian Shephard -- was lit by a stained-glass window containing symbols of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

But was the show, as some had theorized all along, actually built on the concept of purgatory? Hadn't Lindelof told the New York Times in 2006: "People who believe that they're in purgatory or that they're subjects of an experiment are going to start reassessing those theories. ..." The creator of "Lost," J.J. Abrams, had denied the purgatory theory, too.

The finale's spirituality shocked many critics, including one or two who were so upset that they retroactively (flash backward) dismissed "Lost" as a whole. But veteran Washington Post writer Hank Stuever, drawing on his Catholic school past, said it's time to admit the obvious.

In the final five minutes, "I realized that the purgatory camp had been right all along, that Occam’s razor (the simplest solution is usually the correct one) had worked," he argued. "Oceanic 815 crashed. Some of its souls awoke in a realm that is neither heaven nor hell. It's limbo. ... Jack Shephard and his fellow travelers were brought there to resolve a number of problems between heaven and hell."

But some Catholic viewers struggled to reconcile their church's teachings with the limitations of a product created in Hollywood, a place that has its own definitions of terms such as "sin," "repentance," "redemption" and "savior."

Now, the creators of "Lost" have offered a glimpse of purgatory -- lite.

"From a theological point of view -- well, you can't have 'purgatory' per se without God, without Christ," said Amy Welborn, a popular online Catholic commentator. "But given a vague, non-specific Christ-less spirituality, I really don't see an argument that the sideways realities in the final episode, at least, weren't meant to be purgatory."

Sermons by Billy and Obama

Both men faced rows of loved ones still wrapped in grief after shocking tragedies. Both men quoted the Psalms. Both concluded with visions of eternal life and heavenly reunions. Both referred to familiar songs that offered comfort.

Facing those gathered in Beckley, W.Va., to mourn the loss of 29 miners, President Barack Obama asked them to remember a rhythm and blues classic -- "Lean on Me" -- that had its roots in coal country life.

Songwriter Bill Withers wrote: "Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow. ... Lean on me, when you're not strong and I'll be your friend. I'll help you carry on, for it won't be long 'til I'm gonna need somebody to lean on."

The Rev. Billy Graham was more daring at the 1995 prayer service for the 168 victims of the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The world's most famous evangelist even quoted an explicitly Christian hymn.

"The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose I will not, I will not desert to its foes," claims "How Firm a Foundation," in its final verse. "That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I'll never, no, never, no, never forsake!"

There is no way to know if Obama and Graham talked about heaven, hell and eulogies when they held their first face-to-face meeting, just a few hours before the president traveled to West Virginia.

Reporters were not allowed to witness the 30-minute session, the kind of confidential meeting that Graham has held with every president since Harry Truman. Obama was the first to meet with the evangelical statesman at his log home on a mountainside above Montreat, N.C.

Graham's career has been defined as much by these moments of civil religion as by the decades of crusades in which he preached to millions. Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters that Graham is a "treasure to our country" and that, while the 91-year-old preacher has "some of the creaks that come with advancing age," he remains as "sharp as he ever was."

Some details of the meeting were relayed to the Associated Press by the Rev. Franklin Graham, the outspoken heir to his father's ministry. Billy Graham gave Obama two Bibles, one for him and one for First Lady Michelle Obama. The evangelist prayed for America and for wisdom for the president. Obama offered a prayer thanking God for Graham's life and ministry.

Franklin Graham's presence guaranteed the discussion of at least one sensitive subject, since the Army recently rescinded his invitation to speak at a Pentagon prayer service. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the younger Graham called Islam an "evil and wicked religion" and he still insists that Muslims need to know that Jesus died for their sins.

When they discussed the Pentagon's approach to religion, Franklin Graham said that Obama promised "he would look into it."

That's the kind of theological terrain that presidents strive to avoid. Thus, Obama remained safely vague when using God language in West Virginia. If there is comfort in the wake of the mine tragedy, he said, "it can, perhaps, be found by seeking the face of God, who quiets our troubled minds, a God who mends our broken hearts, a God who eases our mourning souls."

Obama concluded with an appeal for safer mines, blending spiritual concerns into the politics of rock and coal.

"We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. They are with the Lord now," he said. "Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy; to do what must do, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground. ... We have to lean on one another, and look out for one another, and love one another, and pray for one another."

In Oklahoma City, Graham had closed with an openly evangelistic appeal, the kind of spiritual warning he has urgently voiced for decades.

"This event," he said, "reminds us of the brevity and uncertainty of life. It reminds us that we never know when we are going to be taken. I doubt if even one of those who went to that building to work or to go to the children's place ever dreamed that that was their last day on earth. That is why we each need to face our own spiritual need and commit ourselves to God."

A rabbi, a preacher and a journalist

Mitch Albom has seen plenty of extremely large men, which isn't surprising after a quarter century as one of America's top sports writers. But he wasn't ready for the giant who met him outside the Pilgrim Church's dilapidated Gothic sanctuary near downtown Detroit. The Rev. Henry Covington was as tall as a basketball player, but weighed 400 pounds or more.

"His body seemed to unroll in layers, a broad slab of a chest cascading into a huge belly that hung like a pillow over the belt of his pants. His arms spread the sleeves of his oversized white T-shirt. His forehead was sweating, and he breathed heavily, as if he had just climbed stairs," wrote Albom, in "Have a Little Faith," a slim book that represents his return to non-fiction 12 years after his inspirational bestseller "Tuesdays With Morrie."

Albom's first impression was crystal clear: "If this is a man of God ... I'm the man in the moon."

Covington certainly stood in stark contrast to the other clergyman whose image was fixed in the writer's mind at the time -- the late Albert Lewis, the articulate leader of the Jewish congregation in which Albom grew up, in Cherry Hill, N.J.

The elderly rabbi had shocked Albom by asking him to deliver his eulogy, when that became necessary. This led to eight years of talks between "the Reb" and the skeptical journalist, who had walked away from his Jewish faith after college. This process resembled those philosophical Tuesday dialogues between Albom and a favorite college professor, Morrie Schwartz, in the years before he died of Lou Gehrig's disease.

But Albom wasn't looking for another book during his weekday visit to Pilgrim's Church. He had -- while working to boost Detroit charities -- dropped by to learn more about the tiny Pentecostal flock's work with the homeless.

Albom expected to meet people there scarred by life on the street or behind bars, but didn't expect to find one in the pulpit.

In "Have a Little Faith," Albom describes a dramatic sermon in which Covington explored the twisted road that led to redemption: "Amazing grace. ... I coulda been dead. ... Shoulda been dead! … Woulda been dead! … His grace … saved a wretch. And I was a wretch. You know what a wretch is? I was a crackhead, an alcoholic, I was a heroin addict, a liar, a thief. I was all those things. But then came Jesus."

At first, "I wasn't sure that I trusted him," said Albom, in a quick telephone interview. "I thought, 'Isn't there supposed to be some minimal 'goodness' quotient in all of this? How can you have done all of that and now call yourself a man of God?' "

As Albom met members of Covington's church and heard their stories, bonds of trust developed, followed by friendship. Then some of the lessons he learned there began to overlap and interact with what he was learning in his pre-eulogy talks with Rabbi Lewis. There was an emphasis on respecting others, doing good works and helping needy and struggling seekers.

The writer rediscovered his own Jewish roots, but he also had to confront the blunt, powerful claims of Covington's preaching. The rabbi's approach was broad, universal and embraced all faiths. The preacher's faith reached out to others, but remained rooted in the claims of Christianity. He didn't force the needy to convert, but he witnessed to them and prayed for their conversion.

This led Albom back to some of the big questions that emerged from the dialogues with his rabbi: "How can different religions coexist? If one faith believes on thing, and another believes something else, how can they both be correct? And does one religion have the right -- or even the obligation -- to try to convert the other?"

At the end of the book, Albom concludes: "God sings, we hum along, and there are many melodies, but it's all one song." At the same time, he chooses to worship in his familiar Jewish congregation, as well as at Pilgrim's Church.

"What can I say? I like Henry's sermons and I like the people and I like the spirit in that church. It is what it is," said Albom.

"I've decided that I'm not wise enough to tell you that one faith is better than another. God will have to sort it all out. That's in God's hands."