Commentary: “Coexist”—a response from Matt Fitzgerald

mfitzgerald.pngDaily Devotional writer Matt Fitzgerald made a controversial confession: COEXIST bumper stickers rub him the wrong way. 

Many readers responded via email and Facebook, and about 70 percent of readers disagreed with the commentary. One reader asked Fitzgerald for clarification about his objection to the term, and this is his response.

Read the original devotional here.

As I said, I’m certainly not against different religions co-existing. What frustrates me about that bumper sticker is its assumption that all religions are either saying the same thing, or can be easily synthesized into a grand whole that just happens to reflect western secular values.

A deeper, more personal concern is the tendency of liberal Protestantism to surrender the power of Christianity to the religious right, settling for a vague universalism that leaves us unable to either speak or hear as Christians.

The world would be a simpler place if a liberal Protestant were able to sit across the table from a devout Hindu and the two of us could scrape away the contradictory claims our respective religions make, to find that underneath all the pious jargon we’re saying the same thing.

If I could set aside the distinctively Protestant claim that God accepts people into eternity through faith, not good works, and he could set aside the distinctively Hindu belief that through the law of karma each individual determines his or her own eternal destiny by their works we could really get along.

Or imagine a Buddhist monk and an Orthodox Rabbi. If the monk would set aside Buddhism’s explicit rejection of an almighty God whose hand controls the universe, and the rabbi would put away Judaism’s insistence that Yaweh created the world out of nothing and steers its course today, perhaps they’d find some common ground.

But a far more likely scenario is that robbed of their religion’s central tenets they’d have little to say. Because Buddhism with an omnipotent deity lording over its adherents is no longer Buddhism. Judaism without Yawheh becomes something else. Protestant Christianity without the doctrine of justification by faith alone has no reason to exist. And Hinduism without karma is like English without vowels.

This isn’t to say that most of the world’s religions don’t share a very similar ethic. They do. But the purpose of a religion is to order existence, to explain destiny, to make meaning out of chaos, not simply to exhort you to be a better person. Dear Abby can do that. The editorial page can do that. Your conscience can do that.

Meanwhile, just as other religions have their own particular emphases, the specific insistence of Protestant Christianity is that you and I need something much more than an admonition to be better people. We need to be saved. That is, we need to be accepted by God because we have not and we cannot earn God’s favor. God chooses to accept us precisely because we cannot earn God’s grace through our own efforts.

At this point the ice beneath our feet gets thin. I’ve disparaged the liberal desire to subsume Jesus into a universal religiosity that transcends him. Is the only other option an intolerant response which says that yes, Christian beliefs are different from those of Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and Hindus and … those people are wrong?

The conundrum is real. Those who insist that all religions are basically saying the same thing risk watering down those differences that make religions vital in the first place. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. This approach inflicts violence on the health of every religion it wants to swallow. I am the son of a UCC minister and a lifelong member of our denomination. I worry that the “mainline’s” drastic decline is spurred, in part, by our willingness to set aside what makes our faith unique and vibrant in the first place.

But if I say “Yes, my religion is different from yours,” I risk allying myself with the sort of Christianity that requires its adherents to buttonhole strangers on airplanes and insult their Jewish friends. In other words, I betray some of our deepest UCC values.

A road out of this conundrum has been paved by the contemporary Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck and the “post-liberal” theology he and others have developed.

Lindbeck believes that religions function like languages. You use your religion in order to talk to God, and to hear God speaking. If you learn a particular religion’s vocabulary, its strange, unique way of ordering existence (whether it is the law of karma, or salvation by faith alone, whether it is the claim that all things are imbued with Buddha nature, or the belief that Yaweh stands above this earth) the Divine will become clear. In Lindbeck’s words: “One can no more hope to be religious in general than one can hope to speak language in general.”

We experience God by immersing ourselves in particular religious traditions. It is not possible to take a superior stance to a faith tradition (to step outside of it) and also experience the power it holds. To my eyes, the bumper sticker tries to do just that.

When Protestants pay attention to our unique vocabulary; to sin, Jesus, and the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the mystery of God draws near, grows clear, and we begin to realize that just like those ancient Hebrew slaves trapped in Egypt, we have a God who has come to save us.

But if we don’t practice a specific religion, one that makes unique and strange claims which are bound to contradict the unique and strange claims of other religions, our sense of God will remain hopelessly vague. If, in the interest of getting along, we push the distinctive claims of competing religions aside, in effect we’re saying, “What I believe isn’t important and what you believe isn’t important either.”

In contrast to this sort of well-intentioned vagueness, Lindbeck says, “Much of what other religions teach, for instance, the importance of compassion in Buddhism, may well be truth God gives to them, and through them to us. Christians don’t have all of God’s truth. What we have is the criterion of all truth, Jesus Christ.”

I love that idea. We don’t know everything. Indeed, what we don’t know is immense! But we do know God through Jesus. He isn’t the only way God speaks, but he’s the way God speaks to Christians. He is not all

This means we ought to listen to the world’s great religions for the voice of God. Of course it also means we can judge them, but why start there? Most days it isn’t Islam or Hinduism that put us in conflict with Christ. It’s usually a secular “religion” like capitalism or fatalism or nationalism, that contradicts him. Let’s wrestle those lies to the ground before we start judging other religions. In the meantime, by learning to “speak” Christianity with increased eloquence and fluency, we may find ourselves growing as fruitful, dynamic partners in inter-faith dialogue.

A final thought, a good friend (who is from Alabama) challenged that original devotion. He said, “You’re seeing the weaknesses of that bumper sticker. Others see its strength. You are used to watered down, insipid pluralism and tolerance. If someone lives in Alabama that symbol may be a first step toward inclusion.”

Location always determines reaction. I’m sure he’s right. Like many vague symbols, that bumper sticker is multivalent. It means one thing to a college student grappling for the first time with competing religious truth claims, something else to a woman in an inter-faith marriage, a third thing to a UCC member in a conservative state and something else altogether to this progressive minister frustrated with pious liberal orthodoxies. That’s absolutely true. And I still see the sticker’s weakness.