After a generally unsatisfying run at Examiner.com, I’ve decided to return to my own blogging platform to allow me more freedom of expression. You can find my older postings, at least for now, under San Jose Interfaith Examiner.
The Rev. Dr. Susan Strouse has been a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for over 17 years, serving congregations in Buffalo, NY, and Novato, CA. Since 2004, she has been at the First United Lutheran Church in San Francisco. “I’m still on my own evolving spiritual journey,” she says, and a considerable part of that journey has involved the encounter with non-Christian communities and individuals.
Each Summer for the past several years, Rev. Strouse has invited representatives of other religious traditions – Wicca, Hinduism, Brahma Kumari, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Baha’i and more – to come during “Pluralism Summer” to share their teachings, perspectives, prayers and selves with the congregation. “Make no mistake about it: we haven’t watered down our identity as a Christian church in the Lutheran tradition,” she wrote during the first year. “That is who and what we are. But we’re also very interfaith-friendly. And we believe that it’s our duty and our joy to make friends with all of God’s people – even if they don’t believe, worship or practice the same way we do.”
Inevitably, profound questions arise out of such encounters. Many who have been involved in cooperative engagements with people of other faith traditions discover that it is often easier to talk with people of a different religion than it is with the person sitting next to you in your own congregation. For others, the struggle is within, as in the case of Elsie L., a parishioner in Buffalo. After a church session in which a Hindu woman active in interfaith activities had spoken to the group, Elsie spoke to Pastor Strouse. “If I accept the Hindu path as equal to Christianity,” she said, “I’m worried that I’m betraying Jesus.”
Years of wrestling with that question and similar ones resulted in Strouse’s new book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? In it, Dr. Strouse addresses the challenges that the increasingly interfaith realities of today present to Christians, and invites reflection on how Christian theology and identity might be shaped and even strengthened by cooperative interfaith encounters.
Blending personal stories, thoughtful reflection on the changing face of America and pastoral concern, The INTRAfaith Conversation invites readers to understand and appreciate just what doing Christian theology means in today’s multi-religious world. The book’s sections reflect the breadth of Strouse’s focus: dealing with the new religious context; what it means to think theologically as a community; tolerance, exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism; personal experience; and pastoral and leadership issues for congregations entering the interfaith world. The book is designed to be used with a discussion group; each section is followed by a series of questions for reflection and discussion along with suggestions for further reading.
I recently had opportunity to ask Dr. Strouse some questions about her book and her ongoing work:
IFS: What in your experience of the interfaith encounter led you to write this book?
Rev. Strouse: It all started with Elsie Leary. When I began my doctoral work, I called it “The Elsie Project” (several years later, when Paul Chaffee from the Interfaith Center at the Presidio read my thesis, he was surprised because he’d always thought I was saying “LC,” meaning Lutheran Church). Elsie was a member of my former congregation back in Buffalo, NY. After Sept. 11, 2001, our adult forum decided to study the world’s religions. They chose to study Hinduism first. I asked them if they’d like me to invite a Hindu guest to come for one of the sessions and share her story. They said yes, so I invited Pat, who was part of an interfaith women’s group I belonged to.
After the session, Elsie asked if she could stay and talk about something that was bothering her. She began by saying how much she was enjoying the study. She had appreciated meeting our guest and hearing her personal story. But she had a big concern. “If I accept the Hindu path as equal to Christianity,” she said, “I’m worried that I’m betraying Jesus.”
That got me thinking . . . and thinking. . . and thinking. Later, I read a book by Professor Judith Berling of the Graduate Theological Union in which she talked about the two poles of the interreligious learning process: 1) understanding another religion faithfully, and 2) reappropriating Christian tradition in light of new understandings and relationships.
And I realized that, while there was a lot happening on the interfaith scene (the first pole), not much was being done on the intrafaith (the second pole) side of things. So I decided to go to The GTU and get my doctorate in interfaith education. I finished that in 2005, with the intention of turning my thesis into a book. As you can see, it’s taken a while to reach that goal.
IFS: Why do you think this is an important topic for today?
Rev. Strouse: In the first chapter of the book, I talk about the interfaith landscape. As Diana Eck of Harvard’s Pluralism Project describes: “All of us live in the new world in which the proximity and intermingling of people of many faiths is a fact of our global life and increasingly our local lives as well.” That’s just a given.
The second chapter is entitled “The Intrafaith Landscape: A New Reformation” and it gets more complex. For one thing, Christianity is undergoing a major shift in the Western world, and most churches don’t know what to do about it. Membership is in free fall. And it’s not only about “spiritual but not religious” millennials declining to join the church in the first place; there’s also the “church alumni society” (described by John Shelby Spong), who have left. There are many things contributing to this phenomenon and gallons of ink (or bytes) being used to explain what’s going on and what to do about it. But I don’t see much about how the church should be responding to the interfaith landscape: what to do with some of the inherent exclusivist claims of Christianity that creep into even the most progressive churches among us. There are many “Elsies” out there and church leaders should be helping them to wrestle with the intrafaith questions with creativity, courage, and pastoral sensitivity.
IFS: What do you hope people will take away from reading the book?
Rev. Strouse: I hope people will form discussion groups where they will:
- learn new information and resources;
- feel a sense of hope that they’re not alone in their questioning;
- engage in challenging conversation, respectful of differences of opinion or beliefs;
- be open to new ways of thinking about their faith and expressing it both in a personal and congregational context
IFS: What was the most challenging part of the writing for you?
Rev. Strouse: Finding the time to write in the midst of full-time parish m ministry; finding a balance between the academic and the practical. My intended audience is intentionally somewhat broad: from lay members of congregations with little or no theological training to clergy with extensive theological backgrounds, albeit not necessarily in this area.
Examiner: What else would you like people to know about you?
Rev. Strouse: Some of my favorite spiritual practices are dancing, coloring, and walking a labyrinth.
The Rev. Dr. Strouse continues to reflect on her work and its implications at The INTRAfaith Conversation and at progressivechurch.wordpress.com/.