An Ecumenical and Inter-faith Impact
by W. Bruce Benson (March / April 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 2)
St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota
Experiences abroad and at home are broadening a respect for persons of different traditions and faiths.
In a rather ordinary looking compound of dwellings, offices, and church precincts, and in a rather ordinary district of Istanbul, Turkey, is the headquarters of His All Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
Twenty five St. Olaf students and I were welcomed into this compound on a rainy late afternoon last January. His All Holiness, Patriarch Bartholomew, could not meet with us; he had been called suddenly to Ankara for a closed-door political meeting.
We could hardly complain of being cheated, however. We were given two memorable, good-humored, and informative hours by the Patriarch's Grand Arch Deacon, a bright eyed, dark-bearded American, born and raised in Texas.
I tell this story for two reasons: (1) The Christianity described for us that evening in Istanbul would once have made pious college students wince; and (2) It does so no more because living people, like the Grand Arch Deacon, have changed student minds and hearts more quickly than books.
To maintain its presence in Turkey, the Grand Arch Deacon told us, the Orthodox Church has agreed not to seek converts from among Muslim Turks. Had the students heard this from me or from a book (or from anyone two decades ago), many would likely have accused the Orthodox Church of infidelity or heresy. Isn't the whole point of Christianity to make converts? How can you call yourself the church if you are content merely to be one voice alongside others?
But the testimony of someone who lives in the situation being described has authority, and students listened. Sympathetically. Just a few hours earlier, they had all, women included, been welcomed to stay and observe noon hour prayers in Istanbul's Rüstum Pasha Mosque. Our Muslim guide secured the invitation, and she was with us now for the Grand Arch Deacon's address.
In our group conversations over the following evenings, students began to say that they could not and would not support evangelistic groups from the United States that go to Turkey in order to convert Muslims to conservative Protestantism. And what position should their pastor take on this matter?
During the past 20 years, the religious face St. Olaf shows to the world has changed very little. We still have chapel services every day, an active Student Congregation with weekly Eucharist attended by hundreds, required courses in Bible and Christian theology, a student body that is nearly 50 percent Lutheran, and as well-traveled a road from college to seminary as any school of the ELCA.
All of our choirs sing sacred (Christian) choral literature, our bands, orchestras, bell choirs, and numerous ensembles play for chapel services, and faculty from all departments speak at chapel services. We still look pretty "churchified" as liberal arts colleges go.
But just under that surface which appears little changed from two decades ago is an increased desire and openness for a Christianity not so different from what was described by the Grand Arch Deacon in Istanbul: a Christianity that can be a friend and colleague instead of an adversary of other religions, and a Christianity that can embrace rather than chafe against religious pluralism.
Just as most students have come to affirm rather than simply tolerate their gay and lesbian classmates, they want to affirm their Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim friends–without ceasing to be Christian themselves. Is that possible?
Longing for such Christianity has come, I think, through encountering people of other religions first hand. This has happened mostly through off-campus international programs. About two thirds of our students study abroad during their four years at St. Olaf. As a result, they have Islamic friends in Egypt, Morocco, and Indonesia; Buddhist friends in Thailand and China; Hindu friends in India.
But it has also happened on campus, and even in the homes of some of our students. An unbaptized student recently told me, "If I can figure out how to affirm Christianity for myself without condemning my Buddhist mother, I want to be baptized." She attended a confirmation class where our only texts were the Bible and Luther's Small Catechism, and she was baptized at the Easter Vigil service her junior year.
I suppose this growing appreciation for religious pluralism is not especially good for a triumphalist, consumer church, but it doesn't seem so bad for grace-based Christianity. Learning to share the world with people of other religions calls for modesty, hospitality, collegiality, and attentiveness. Such attitudes and behaviors are more in keeping with the heart of Christianity than are smugness, self-righteousness, and rejection.
I continue to learn good lessons from St. Olaf students.
W. Bruce Benson is campus pastor at St. Olaf College, an ELCA college located in Northfield, Minnesota.