On Sabbath afternoon at the Adventist Forum Conference, Samir Selmanović will speak on “Seventh-day Adventist Identity in a Multifaith World.” Here he answers three questions about the Christian divide, moral absolutes, and interfaith dialogue.
Question: In what specific ways is the liberal/conservative divide damaging Christian identity?
Answer: Diversity is life-giving. We all owe our lives to forces that complement us and collaborate with us, as well as challenge us. In fact, it is precisely at the points where we disagree that the greatest potential for learning and truly new ideas lie.
So, in a very real way, we disagree for and not against one another. This requires not only trust in God (the way we imagine the world should work) but something more difficult: trust in people. We come to trust that our views, fears, and desires are a part of a larger whole and a longer view. Without this trust, we as Christians become self-absorbed, dysfunctional, and ineffective.
Once separated from this larger Christian identity, Christians start to see humility and inclusion as threatening, giving ground to the other side – a form of weakness. The paradox is that Christian identity is all about humility, weakness, and inclusion. We stake our religion on Jesus who was executed because of these. We believe that Jesus was not a nutty revolutionary, but the smartest person who ever lived – one who knew how things work. So, in our division, we are undoing the work of God.
In more specific terms, when the liberal/conservative divide is healthy, it sharpens everyone and increases the total impact on the world in terms of getting done what Jesus has asked us to do: nurturing individuals and families, feeding the hungry, giving voice to voiceless, caring for the planet, affecting peace, loving justice, bringing healing, etc.
Question: What does a Christian do when the moral absolutes of his faith and/or church bump up against the likes of abortion rights and homosexual marriage?
Answer: To be a human being is to have ideals and hold them with passion, patience, and tenacity. And that’s why we have belief systems and communities of practice: to be able to sustain ourselves. But as no person is an island, no religion is an island. There are other warm suns, other ways of life, other reasons and other loves, that we don’t know about.
In the past, our worlds were isolated from one another, and everyone could arrange his or her own. Now, these worlds are hyper-connected and colliding; we have to figure how to live together, not in some ideal place one day, but here and now. Our religion has to work on this earth. So, what are my options when the moral absolute of my faith bumps against the will of the larger democratic society?
First, we grieve.
Second, we choose to learn to live out our ideals anew both as individuals and as communities of faith. Get creative. Love has millions of ways. At times, we have to become custodians of values that are dormant, but will sprout and thrive when the time is right. At other times, we are corrected and see that the views and beliefs that used to be strange to us are, upon deeper reflection, actually better expressions of deep yearnings of our faith. At still other times, we find a way to work in synergy – we find a third way to address issues that are in accord with more than one set of beliefs.
Question: In what ways can interfaith dialogue tame the liberal/conservative divide?
Answer: I am not sure that the liberal/conservative divide in any religion should be tamed. As I said, our disagreements are essential to our futures. But the divide could be made more productive. The tension can create spaces where not only new solutions can be found, but a place where new and better questions can be asked. This leads to the third way of doing things.
Intra-faith divisions are often far more acute than the divisions between faiths. It is the disagreement with the people from my own religion that threatens my identity, while disagreement with another religion actually strengthens my identity. That’s why every religion has so much to learn from interfaith work.
Interfaith friendship, mutual respect, and collective action does not do away with our differences. In fact, we have all become better through experiences of walking in the shoes of the other – seeing ourselves from their perspectives. The other, the strangers, are essential to our survival. They can see what we cannot see and say what we cannot say.
Another way interfaith dialogue can transform the intra-faith divide is that it gives us an impetus to take a new look at our real treasures, both liberals and conservatives together, and put them on the public table with the pride and joy of making a contribution.
Samir Selmanović, founded interfaith nonprofit Faith House Manhattan. As a consultant, he works with nonprofits on ways to deepen their identities and tell their stories.
Earlier this week a reporter from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, at work on an article about the conference, asked Selmanović three questions. These are the answers he shared.