An Evangelical Episcopalian looks at pluralism

An Evangelical Episcopalian looks at pluralism

Zahl, Paul F M

Attending the Transformation Summer School of ECONI (Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland) at Antrim in July 2002, I learned a few things about Irish Protestantism that relate to our chief American export: the idea of cultural pluralism. The time in Northern Ireland, my fourth visit in recent years, was a “back to the future” moment. That is because the centuries-old scenario of theological and political division between Catholics and Protestants there has as much to say about our future, the world’s future, as it does about their past. Religious conflicts of long standing are the new reality, not just the old, in human existence on the planet. Israel/Palestine tells us this. September 11 says the same.

This review article listens to several voices coming out of Ireland-those of John Bruton, Joseph Liechty, and Cecelia Clegg-that I have found to be fruitful in engaging the American idea of cultural pluralism. It then looks at an important but too little known Israeli Jewish author, David Flusser, who has written on the relation of Christianity to Judaism. Next in the order comes Kenneth Cragg, the Anglican bishop who is our chief expert on Islam. Finally, I try to apply learnings from these three authors to the American Episcopal Church ([P]ECUSA). My application comes through the lens of Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter four, in terms of the change agent known as imputation.

In 1999 ECONI, which is a “think tank” of Bible Protestants critical of political Protestantism in Ulster, published a little book in Belfast entitled The Great White Tent. This book, edited by Alwyn Thompson, is a collection of short impressions of Protestants written by Roman Catholics. What do Catholics in Ireland really think of Protestants?

The second entry in The Gret White Tent, after a smooth equivocating first entry by Gerry Adams, is brilliant. This entry is so fine that I have not gotten past it, in thinking about pluralism, since I first read it while conducting a clergy quiet day near Belfast in February 2002. It is by John Bruton, who was taoiseach or president of the Republic of Ireland from 1994 to 1997. Bruton, a Catholic, writes the following concerning Irish evangelical Protestants:

I would like to reflect briefly on what the world owes to Irish evangelicals. When you celebrate 300 years of history your celebrations must be of the religious content of your tradition which is, of course, the most important part of it.

But it is important that you should also reflect on the political gift that Irish evangelical churches have given to the world. The democratic character of your churches, right back to their foundations, are a gift to the world. Evangelical churches have been, in many senses, schools of democracy, accountability and equality before the law (p. 16).

Bruton imputes some sublime qualities to Irish Protestant evangelicals. If you are one, or identify with them, as this reviewer does, your chest swells with pride. At the same time, I have wept with gratitude that a despised minority should be so spoken of by a major figure on the other side. I count myself ready to follow the former taoiseach off any bridge! From his affirmation of the “other” community, the Protestant community, Bruton takes a powerful step towards breaking down the dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14).1

Interestingly and fruitfully, the same author embodied his affirmation of the “other,” so counter-intuitively stated in The Great White Tent, when he spoke out in connection with the Drumcree crisis of June/July 1998. This crisis concerned the parade of the Portadown lodges of the (Protestant) Orange Order, who were denied the right to march along their traditional route after their annual Remembrance Day service at the Church of the Ascension (Church of Ireland), Drumcree. The Loyal Orders were denied this right by the Parades Commission of Northern Ireland, an official government board, because the march was considered provocative or offensive by the residents’ association of the Garvaghy Road. The Garvaghy Road runs through an area of Catholic housing estates. Protestants were deeply offended, and angered, by the government’s decision to ban their march. But the Parades Commission would not give way, and the Orangemen lost. The Commission has yet to give way.

Bruton, however, who was at that time leader of Fine Gael, a political party in the South (the Republic of Ireland), made the following statement after his “own” people had won their victory:

The residents have won an important point. But I suggest they might now consider the over-all interest of the [Good Friday Peace] agreement, and the greater nationalist interest in making the agreement work would be served if there was a unilateral and uncalled-for gesture of generosity towards the Orange Order by nationalist [that is, Catholic] residents. . . . This would show real strength and confidence among nationalists at grassroots level. An act of this kind may be what is needed to defuse a politically destructive political and security situation.2

Bruton was inviting his fellow nationalists, the residents of the Garvaghy Road, to let the Protestants march down their road!

What was in play here was what I now believe to be the only way to pluralism.3 It is this principle: the way to achieve tolerance of the “other” is to affirm the good in his or her position, and then concede at least one step in the direction of that good. In Pauline terms, this is called imputation, and the best account of imputation in the New Testament is the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

You impute good to the position of the “other” out of a sort of universal magnetism embedded within the worlds “circle of life.” Imputation converts the heart of the “other.” You affirm, or impute, good to him or her, and the wall he or she erected and maybe even steadily thickened and reinforced to keep you out, comes “tumbling down” (J. C. Mellencamp).4

The same principle is at work in another rich book on pluralism and diversity in Ulster, which was published in 2001. This is Joseph Liechty and Cecilia Clegg’s Moving Beyond Sectarianism. Religion, Conflict, and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: The Columba Press). Liechty, a Mennonite, and Clegg, a Roman Catholic Sister of the Congregation of La Retraite, apply the same idea as Bruton does to the politics of “otherness.”

Here is a passage from Moving Beyond Sectarianism concerning the Orange Order. I consider it a sound case of imputation:

Many people on the island of Ireland and in Britain regard the Orange Order as an irredeemably sectarian institution. They point to the founding inspirations at the Battle of the Diamond in 1795, which included virulent anti-Catholicism, the seeking of economic advantage, the desire to secure socio-political power for Protestant people, and the furtherance of the Protestant religion.

We have argued elsewhere that it is the negative mixing of religion and party politics in the Order, rather than its anti-Catholic stance per se, which attracts the judgment that it is sectarian. With this in mind we would argue that there are some sufficiently strong positive elements in the founding identity of the Orange Order that have the potential to be redeemed. These elements are focused around its religious identity (p. 126, emphasis added).

An important idea is germinating in this passage. It is the idea that you can affirm good in an institution which is considered thoroughly negative by a great many people, but which at the same time is not going away. (Where after all are the Orange people to go, the blue-collar Protestants of Northern Ireland? Where are they to go? They have no second homes, nor are they “citizens of the world.” Where are they to go?)

Clegg and Liechty have something good to say about the Orange Order in principle. Any Orangeman or Orange supporter reading their book will discover his defensiveness coming down. The wall of partition goes into . . . free fall. It is in the nature of imputation to elicit an immediate positive response. The theme here is reconciliation by means of imputation. It has not been tried enough and is an untapped and specifically Christian resource of unique effect for our pluralistic world in the reconciliation of conflict.

On the theme of religious pluralism, I cannot think of an area of religious dialogue or conversation which is so sensitive, which is so much like a minefield, as the relation of Christianity to Judaism. In the post-Holocaust context, Christians, certainly in the mainline churches, are extremely reluctant to speak of Jesus and Christianity in terms that evoke any feelings of triumphalism and religious superiority. In the post-Holocaust context, most Christians, except perhaps Southern Baptists and some other conservative evangelicals, are reluctant to hoist traditional Christianity up the mast, at least in the presence of Judaism. Thus most Christian-Jewish dialogue today, and in fact for decades now, is conducted, from the Christian side, by “liberal” Christians. Conservatives in Christianity-and I am one-are generally nervous about the dialogue, because we fear we shall be required to lower our Christology if such dialogue is to take place.

For this reason, the work of David Flusser (1917-2000) has come to mean a great deal to me. Flusser, who was a Jew, taught for many years at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1980 he was awarded the Israel Prize in literature. His most important book for Christians is probably the third edition of his Jesus (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2001). He also wrote Jewish Sources in Early Christianity (Tel Aviv: MOD Books, 1989), which is a series of addresses delivered over the Israel Army Radio Network. His big book, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, known by his admirers as the “red book,” appeared in 1988, also from the Magnes Press. The “red book” collects papers that Flusser wrote over a period of almost fifty years.

Flussers last work, like Brutons words addressed to Irish Protestants, holds out the most beautiful olive branch to Christians of traditional Christology. Flusser affirms the figure of Jesus, actually and not symbolically or for the sake of courtesy. Here is what he wrote in the 1997 preface to his book Jesus:

I readily admit that I personally identify myself with Jesus’ Jewish Weltanschauung, both moral and political, and I believe that the content of his teachings and the approach he embraced have always had the potential to change our world and prevent the greatest part of evil and suffering (p. 15).

Flusser then explains why he is able, as a Jew, to affirm the founder of Christianity so warmly and sincerely. His explanation is worth quoting:

As a boy I grew up in the struggling Catholic, Bohemian town of Pr ibram. Because of the humane atmosphere in Czechoslovakia at that time, I did not experience any sort of Christian aversion to my Jewish background. In particular, I never heard any accusation of deicide directed against my people. As a student at the University of Prague, I became acquainted with Josef Perl, a pastor and member of the Unity of Bohemian Brethren, and I spent many evenings conversing with him at the local YMCA in Prague. The strong emphasis which this pastor and his fellow brethren placed on the teaching of Jesus and on the early, believing community in Jerusalem stirred in me a healthy, positive interest in Jesus (p. 16, emphasis added).

As a Jesus-Christian who sometimes feels uncomfortable or even threatened by Jewish-Christian dialogue as it is conducted today, and in particular by Christians who seem to wish, for their Jewish brothers’ sake, to become Unitarians in practice and in theory, I find the Israeli-Jewish writer David Flusser to be extremely reassuring. When I read his work, I discover myself to be open almost instantaneously to his insights concerning the very Jewish Jesus whom I have resisted in other settings. It is the principle we have already seen in John Brutons work: affirm the good in the “others” position and the walls come tumbling down.

A third author I wish to mention is Kenneth Cragg. Cragg, who is retired but still active at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, was assistant bishop in Jerusalem, and served in Beirut, Cairo, Nigeria, the United States, and Israel/Palestine. He has made what is probably the Anglican Communions most significant scholarly contribution to the field of Islamic studies. The Call of the Minaret (1956) is perhaps his most famous book, but I prefer Jesus and the Muslim (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1999); first published by Allen & Unwin, 1985). Cragg’s autobiography, Faith and Life Negotiate: A Christian Story-Study (Norwich: The Canterbury Press, 1994), is also Riled with insight concerning Islam and Christianity in their historic and contemporary relations. I am acquainted with Cragg personally and consider him a statesman of our Communion.

Bishop Cragg’s work is less directly focused on the pluralism/diversity question than is John Bruton’s or David Flussers. But because of September 11, Cragg’s work has become more important than ever in helping clarify for Christians the similarities and dissimilarities between Christianity and Islam.

The bishops knowledge of how Muslims regard Christ is what makes Jesus and the Muslim so important for Christians as we seek to understand the religious insights of the Qur’an in a positive and cordial spirit. Cragg is wonderfully learned, and he knows the full range of the Muslim respect and admiration for-indeed near-veneration of-Jesus of Nazareth. The Qur’an’s honoring of Jesus in several memorable and affirming passages is laid out comprehensively and sympathetically in Jesus and the Muslim.

It is also true that Cragg is and remains a broadly evangelical Christian within Anglicanism. It is true that he is dissatisfied with Islam’s portrait of Christ. It is also finally true that he regards the decision of Muhammad to use violence in the pursuit of his religious aims to be the core issue between Christianity, as a religion of humiliation, and Islam, as a religion of exaltation.

Kenneth Cragg is an erudite partisan for the Christian faith. He gives less away to Islam than John Bruton, as a Roman Catholic, concedes to Protestantism or David Flusser, as a Jew, concedes to Christianity. Nevertheless, in the post-September 11 world, Cragg s books on Islam in relation to our Faith arc probably the best informed and also most profoundly theological to be found anywhere.

It is imputation, Paul’s lens of divine grace from Romans 4, which is at work in Bruton’s statements and also actions in respect to Drumcree. It is imputation which is at work in Flusser’s Jesus and which draws traditional Christians irresistibly to that author s Jewish Jesus of “high self-awareness” (pp. 175, 176). In Cragg’s case, his life’s study of Islamic sources can only inspire the largest respect from Muslim critics of Christianity.

As an American Episcopalian of evangelical and Protestant conviction, I look at my church sometimes, (P)ECUSA, and don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I laugh a little at a kind of dogged “penultimacy” which has afflicted us ever since I was a boy growing up at the National Cathedral in Washington. Even then, in the mid-1960s, we were “slaves to the rhythm” (Grace Jones), or in other words slaves to the Zeitgeist. I remember one night in the spring of 1967 when Arthur Conley sang “Do You Like Soul Music (Sweet Soul Music)” at the very first disco ever held in the cathedral nave. Arthur Conley was great. But the setting? It was surreal. Plus ca change. . . . I have been laughing since the 1960s.

But I have also been crying since the 1970s. That is the decade when I, with others, became lepers: “renewal” people in the church. This is the un-funny part. The church seemed to offer little room for “Bible people” (John Stott’s phrase) like my wife and me. And a private history of what today would be called exclusion has never fully been rewritten. Redeemed? Yes. Recreated? Nut yet.

Nevertheless, my reading of Bruton, Flusser, and Cragg gives me grounds for hope-and in Bruton’s case, a paradigm. Affirm the good in the “other,” right or left, and the great and sorrowful wall of partition, the impassable divide of party and opinion, can, even within the blink of an eye, come tumbling down.

1 It is also true, by the way, that some Northern Irish Catholics dismiss Bruton’s olive branch to the Protestants because it is from the South, that is, it is one step removed from the real situation as they live it. Bruton is even referred to sometimes as “Loyalist John.”

2 The Times of London, June 30, 1998.

3 See also The Anglican Digest, Transfiguration 2002, 32.

4 The mayor of Belfast, Alex Maskey, did something like this in the summer of 2002. The first Sinn Fein mayor of that city, he was a marked man because of his well-known IRA connection. Many Protestants have regarded Maskey as a terrorist. When it came time for the mayor of Belfast to lay a wreath ex officio at the memorial to the men who fell at the Somme during the First World War, everyone held their breath. That is because the fallen heroes of Ulster were almost all Protestant boys who died for “King and Country.” Would Alex Maskey compromise his nationalist principles to observe a Protestant/Loyalist/Unionist holiday? He did. He said that he was laying a wreath in memory of all Ireland’s dead, for all wars, not just the First World War. But he did lay the wreath. Protestant people were touched by his gesture. Considerable goodwill was created by the Sinn Fein mayor of Belfast. I believe this was imputation at work.


* Paul F. M. Zahl is dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent, Birmingham, Alabama.

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Summer 2003

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