The topic of religious formation resonates for anyone with a vocational commitment to ecumenical and multi-religious realities today. The topic is: Forming Religious Identity in the Context of Religious Pluralism, and in this paper I will measure the height and depth of this sentence together, within four thematic buckets, reading this topic (like Hebrew) from right to left. These four thematic buckets are: 1) Religious Pluralism, 2) In the Context of, 3) Religious Identity, 4) being formed. My underlying belief in this temporary reversal of the stream, and of paddling a bit conceptually upriver, so to speak, is to cast a light on the truism that religious pluralism is the evolving context in which religious identity is simultaneously forming and being formed.
First Bucket: "Religious Pluralism"
 The vibrancy of religious pluralism in this country owes a lot to 1789 as a landmark year in the United States. In March of that year, the U.S. Constitution was ratified, and in September Congress introduced the U.S. Bill of Rights, which included the freedom of religion and the protection against judicial tyranny, wherein the free exercise of religion would not be prohibited by Congress. Upon this rock our national freedom for religious expression and accompanying religious education is built. Our national forebears, like Governor William Paca from Maryland, thought the protection of religious freedom necessary to the flourishing of civic life, yet even these revolutionary visionaries could only squint at the illusive waves on the far horizon, from east to west, at what Gordon Graham refers to as "a pluralistic sea" of religion in this country, and in differing emanations, indeed in the world, today.1
 We have access to multiple definitions of religious pluralism that assist our conversation today.2 These definitions point to common characteristics of a religiously pluralistic world, generative from the Latin root religio, which means to bind or gather together. Think of religious pluralism as our historical situation in which the centralized religious bindings, (including doctrines, texts, and culturally or ethnically situated moral norms) that earlier served as authoritative — like a prescribed double-helix for human religious self-understanding — have not dissolved into the sea, but rather multiplied in the world we daily inhabit. Any earlier presumption that as modernity unfolded, secularization would increase, turns out to be a misreading of what is emerging in the United States and abroad today.3
 Today, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs and more, inhabit a shared public space rendered religiously complex. For instance, religious adherents that earlier assumed the authority of one religion with its accompanying set of religious texts, must now participate in a larger constellation of religious perspectives, all bearing witness to variegated interpretations of truth.4 From an interdisciplinary course at a regional university to the March 2011 response of national U.S. religious leadership on the Peter King Hearings in Washington D.C., religions do indeed attest to similar themes and values. Consider the prohibitions against bearing false witness where this thematic value resonates like religious polyphonic melodies that testify to one another in their sounding. Contrariwise, we experience how manifold religious interpretations will also reveal ambiguities in scripture and challenge how we inhabit the moral and religious universe in which people of faith reside today, together.
 Together — Let me illustrate religious pluralism by way of example: I often think of the young Muslim woman who approached me at the end of a course at Loyola Jesuit University in 2008. I was teaching on the connection between religion and conflict in the world, and we had just finished an assessment of suffering in the narrative of Job. This student waited until all of her peers had exited the room before she approached me. She had been married for six short months and in the meantime was diagnosed with a serious auto-immune condition that would never allow her to bear children of her own. She was concerned about her new young husband, her mother, her father, and her immediate family. This Muslim student was seeking counsel from a Christian after we had together read the Hebrew Scriptures, about why God allowed her to suffer like this. In the current religiously pluralistic world, in our schools of religious formation and local communities, all of us are emerging as leaders where our responses to this student must be as incarnate and substantial as her question is serious and embodied.
 Between 1964 and 2004, the Vatican II Declaration Nostre Aetate, and assemblies such as that of the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation and others, continued the Christian quest for interpreting its place in a religiously pluralistic world.5 This era, or historical situation, has seen the rise of Pentecostalism in world Christianity, the marked decline and repositioning of Christian denominationalism in the United States, and the emergence of what we can identify as religious micro-ecologies that are reshaping regional religious identity, such as the oft-cited 'None Zone' in the Pacific Northwest. I use this term micro-ecology in part because religious pluralism does not grow in a place of seclusion or stagnation. Rather, culture, ethnicity, demographic features, educational resources, and immigration, to identify a few, are some of the staple ingredients for vibrant life, which shape the ecology of relationships that are formed in any given region.
Second Bucket: "In the Context Of"
 Let's continue with the micro-ecology image relative to a particular region, taking the Pacific Northwest as an example, recognizing that all ecologies overlap and inform one another. In response to an article in The Christian Century (December 2, 2008) entitled "The None Zone: Ministry Among the Unchurched and Disaffiliated" Patricia Killen, professor and Dean at Pacific Lutheran University, noted that low affiliation today does not mean that people are less interested in spiritual themes and practices — "they are just going about it in a different way that some observers believe foreshadows where America as a whole may be heading."6 Regarding the context of America, Phyllis Tickle would agree with Killen's premise that we are experiencing a major shift in western Christianity right now.7 Part and parcel to the context of religious pluralism in the Pacific Northwest, "people are seeking different, more individualistic and more fluid ways of being religious."
 In a climate or context of the uncoupling of personal faith from institutional belonging, at least one inquiry emerges, which has a kind of trophic cascading effect. First, in the historical situation of the religiously pluralistic, what does this unlinkage between the personal and the institutional suggest for denominations in an oft-referenced "post-denominational" age?8 And second, can mainline denominations deregulate like phone companies in this way and still pass along the accumulation of religious wisdom for the generations yet to come?9
 As an initial response, on December 13, 2008, Seattle columnist Anthony Robinson lobbed a central challenge into this inquiry, as a challenge that transcends the ecology of the Pacific Northwest: "Institutions, at their best," Robinson wrote, "steward wisdom and practice, honed through time. Without them, something is lost."10 Consider the regional context, and how a school of theology and ministry responds today from the heart of this context. It seems to me that at least two fundamental and non-exhaustive responses from the Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry are indeed leaving their imprint in this ecology. First, in a religiously pluralistic context, an emphasis on an ecumenically invitational community that is strong on formation is wise. Further, as we continue this instance further, does the School for Theology and Ministry have a shared narrative in two, five, and seven-year practical benchmarks — as a strategic trajectory — with which students, faculty and the community resonate?11 Like seminaries, divinity schools, and schools for theology and ministry, (i.e., centers of religious formation) in our current context, national bilateral dialogues across denominations must also address this challenge, adequately respond to it, and appropriately evolve, or otherwise risk tying the Lusitania to the Titanic. A second question of importance is: How do these centers of religious formation envision their respective collaborative futures as national leaders across regional ecologies?
 The context of religious pluralism, in which the centers of religious formation find themselves today, indeed include multi-religious and ecumenical dimensions within the larger national ecology. With a view to the national multi-religious vector, consider that in the past month alone, two separate hearings, led independently by Congressmen Peter King and Dick Durbin, focused on Muslims in the United States. In a reference to these hearings and the protection of religious freedom, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi told a group of us in Washington D.C. last month that she, like King and Durbin, took an oath to "serve and protect." Pelosi made this comment because we recognize that part of our shared national context today for religious education is happening apace with serious societal dissonance and anxiety about the role of religion generally and Muslims specifically. The upcoming May 6th conference at St. Mark's Cathedral, titled "Am I my Brother's Keeper: Confronting Islamophobia," is an important response to this climate. What must not be underestimated are reports like those of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which identifies how, since the year 2000, hate groups in this country have risen 54%, with a precipitous rise of 844 monitored groups in 2007, to just over 1,100 as of February, 2011. This too is part of our religiously pluralistic context today.
Third Bucket: "Religious Identity"
 I'm going to assess this thematic bucket with three related points. The first point is that religious identity is formed in relationship; the second is that religious identity is a process of mutual discovery; and the third point is that religious identity is formed in a climate of trust.
 Prior to addressing these three, we need to first be aware that a theological lexicon for the politics of identity in religious formation is part of the national conversation in universities and centers of religious formation today. This includes, for instance, emphasis on public narrative, from the important work of Diana Eck and Marshall Ganz to the interdisciplinary attestation of religious identity that is shaped (primarily in robust philosophical discourse) in relation to the neighbor, or nearby person in our midst.12 In this current context, an ecumenical, shared emphasis is fundamentally necessary. For instance, the Jesuit emphasis on justice-centric values and activities is essential. I completed my doctorate at Loyola University in Chicago; it was there that I was awakened to how the Jesuit emphasis upon a faith that does justice can also form and be formed by my Lutheran understanding of baptismal calling that wholly frees the Christian in service to one's neighbor. In an intentional community, there are ecumenical, polyphonic tones here that resonate through a formational curriculum and out into the world. Precisely this kind of visible unity in ecumenical formation will be part of a future religious identity in this country.
 Religious identity is always formed in relationship, and those relationships are always being discerned for a common moral future.13 And often, we need to be aware that formation in the context of religious pluralism is mainly taking place out there, away from the classroom. Consider the religious identity of the first hearers of 1 Peter 2:4, who were under duress in Asia Minor. "You are living stones in the household of God." These must have been received as words spoken that run down like water. There are multi-religious and international equivalents to this passage. For instance, in November, 1993, the oldest and only-surviving "slender arch" bridge in Europe was destroyed in Mostar, Croatia. The bridge was built in 1557 by the Ottoman Emperor Suleiman, and it collapsed after being continuously shelled at close range by a tank. For four centuries, the bridge had come to symbolize the unity of Muslims, Jews, Croatian Catholics and Serbian Orthodox living together in a multi-religious Bosnia.14 When the physical conflict ended in June, 1997, these religious communities combed the bottom of the Neretva river and drew up the rock deep down; they returned to the quarry where the rock was first hewn, and they rebuilt the slender arch bridge, stone by stone. Religious identity in a pluralistic world is real, unfolding, transcends the classroom, and sometimes requires total reparation in communities where conflict will also prove formative.
 Religious identity is formed through mutual discovery. Discovery requires us to risk ourselves insofar as our pre-conceived perspectives are re-formed in relationship. In the national context, consider an example of such re-formation in the white and black churches' relationship in the United States. One would be hard pressed to find a national bilateral dialogue that produced a shared "mission statement" between a historically black and historically-predominantly white denomination in this country.15 The fact is, such a mission statement did not exist until March, 2011, when the African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Evangelical Lutheran churches entered into formal relationship. At the national ecological context, why did we wait so long? Whatever the answers to this question, this lack of attention meant a commensurate impoverishment of awareness of how the African-American and white narratives of race and structural racism shape our sense of being the Body of Christ in the United States today. The mission statement leads to a September 2011 AMEZ-ELCA Summit in North Carolina where professors, pastors, bishops, laypeople and seminary students within the United States will meet in order to identify who "we" are today as church that allows us to address together the ministry needs of the moment. Albeit hopeful, our mutual needs are so great today that we must build the machine as we simultaneously ignite the engines — such is the reality of communitarian-based organizing in ecumenical contexts today. But mutual discovery is the place where religious identity is formed and re-formed, in a re-formation that requires trust.16
 And so, we have arrived at the third point — religious identity is formed in a context of trust. And trust is also informed when dialogue is embodied, which is precisely to say that trust happens when religious adherents encounter and engage one another. In terms of embodied trust, a local imam friend of mine, in an effort to educate his mosque, noted to me that when he hung up a sign on the front door that read: "Come meet Christians," hardly anyone showed up. But, when he hoisted a sign that read: "Come encounter your Christian neighbors," his community arrived. Why? They arrived because we live in a pluralistic context where religious identity is not something we experience as a passive observer, but to which we are called as an active participant.
 As a national equivalent, I remember an unprecedented moment in world history when Muslim religious leadership from around the world sent a letter titled "A Common Word Between Us and You" through the internet to Christian leadership in the world, at the end of Ramadan, 2007. It was a Thursday and the letter required an immediate response from the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, then also President of the Lutheran World Federation, in a manner that resonated with local to national ecologies, before the news cycle powered down over the weekend. In his response, President Hanson recalled a recent trip to Jordan and how the Christian delegation spoke at length with Prince Ghazi about the origins of the Abrahamic faiths in that region of the world. During the visit, one of Jordan's dignitaries spoke to the solemn obligation of Jordan in its care for many Christian holy sites within its national borders. In his response, Hanson noted that Christians are freely called to religious neighbors "as to a holy site, where God's living revelation in the world is received in reverence among the faithful and not in fear of our neighbors."17 Trust among co-religionists means we will entrust one another with the site of God's in-breaking revelation in relationship itself.
But how should religious identity be formed in a multi-religious and pluralistic context, today?
Fourth Bucket: "Forming and Being Formed"
 In fact, because religious identity is always in the process of being in-formed and re-formed in the contextual situation of religious pluralism, formation has been our first topic of interest all along. Denominations typically do a less than adequate job at forming religious identity, simply because the task is too large and must be shared in a way that collaborates in every vector of communion life. From the grassroots to international venues, formation is an evolving, dynamic and promising enterprise that includes the entire Body.
 In light of the context of religious pluralism, religious identity is formed in relation to a pervading culture, ethos, and worldview, where identity is shaped in public narratives that attest to who "I" am, who "we" are becoming together, and what we will do "now." An instance of religious identity today, within this three-step movement — I-We-Now — is exemplified in the 2006 National Prayer Breakfast, where Bono stood before Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and others, and spoke of his individual faith, within the context of who "we" as a world are becoming, in the urgent spirit or need of "now," which for Bono was a prelude to a highly successful One Campaign that galvanized public sentiment and action.18
 Most of us aren't rock stars, even though this may take some convincing. But centers or schools of religious discernment and identity are places where who I am, and who you are, are shaped by how we form one another and are in-formed and re-formed by an invitational environment. How we are formed is centered on the Missio Dei, first. For Lutherans, the Mission of God is more than an ideology of local or regional accompaniment; rather, our mission is God's first, and requires — as General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Martin Junge, noted — "polycentric" awareness. That is, in a pluralistic religious context, missional accompaniment does not originate in one national environ alone, or even in one region of the globe, but instead belongs to the entire expression of "being" Lutheran in the world today. How the Lutheran World Federation conceives of accompaniment is worth our collective attention today. Likewise, Church World Service, working cooperatively with ELCA Global Mission, reveals avenues of potential growth and mutual accompaniment.
 In my experience teaching in and facilitating diverse ecumenical and inter-religious venues, I believe that the most formatively promising courses, schools, or centers of religious activity — that move from I-We-Now — are those that are strong on what can be called convening capacity. Let me finally say a word about the principle of organizational convening capacity by way of an illustration:
 Organizational convening capacity. Imagine the earliest movement of organized, collective human activity, or routes of trade, where diverse groups of travelers were drawn together, to an intersecting compass point along a variety of pathways. These pathways led to a common destination as they simultaneously trailed away into the world. This aggregate of wanderers arrived with, and embarked again, in the spirit of mutual need. I venture to say that these streams of human activity were also the first centers of education in the specter of difference in terms of cultural mores, craft specialization, and narratives for distinct worldviews.
 By analogy, centers of religious formation of this intersecting caliber are where individuals journey from afar to a destination that intentionally convenes networks of ecumenical and inter-religious relationships, that intersects with distinct vocational interests, that encourages diverse theological scholarship and best practices in ministry, that is open to emerging pastoral vision and unique ecclesiological features in the One Body of Christ, that creates strategy for a future not yet present, in order to be formed in how we ply our trade in a climate that is unfolding, challenging and encouraging.19
 In today's pluralistic and transecting ecologies, centers of religious formation that do this well, with inspired curriculum and a shared communitarian identity, as a consequence convene in a way that generates a prevailing sense of organizational collective agency. Convened organizational collective agency is just a ten-dollar phrase for the creation of gravitas, after that initial spark where the center does indeed hold. And a collective agency, like gravity, draws attention to itself in the orbit of relationships. In this way, collective agency simultaneously sets out on a trajectory and draws a future to it.
 Within that gravity, and for this moment specific to ELCA seminaries, we need to ask ourselves, how do our students arrive and depart; or in short, what skill-sets are necessary for ministry today? When I consider my own theological education and preparation for ministry, and the pluralistic context today, a few stamps of religious identity (albeit non-exhaustive) are necessary, which are contemporaneous with a sound theological education. First, students must be multilingual, if not with languages then with multiple religious concepts, a variety of religious texts, and recognition of polyphonic resonance and dissonance. Second, students need some sense of communitarian-based organizing capacity that can be translated into a language of ministry and theological identity. Third, students need to be hybrid-leaders, who understand themselves as pastors, administrators, and facilitators often across multiple, complicating contexts; and fourth, in a pluralistic age students require a maturity of faith that is evangelically centered on the great commission while also working with inter-religious colleagues in the faithful co-mission of meeting today's challenges.
 1789 was an important year in this country, and so is 2011. Forming and being formed in the daily context of religious pluralism takes place in the ways I've identified above. I often reflect on the courses I've co-taught every January at the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, Switzerland, on the topic of ecumenical and inter-religious challenges in the world today. Students from around the world arrived with unique ecclesiologies, distinct contextual awareness and experience of the religious neighbor, and differing interpretations of the Body of Christ in the world today. And yet, these students shared a common theme that informed conversation, late night fireside chats, and a lot of cathartic laughter as well. They shared a commitment to a calling that arose from within them and that led them as individuals to this place, together… now. In this way, together their expectations for formation were formed, in-formed, re-formed and transcended, which is, after all, the heart of all religious formation — that is, to be trans-formed for ministry in the world.
 Ultimately, the activity of trans-formation arrives because centers of religious formation, and the communities that represent them, believe it must. When these are present, faith of a mustard seed and the calling of the Holy Spirit can move mountains.20
Michael Trice is Associate Executive for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations in the Office of the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
1. Gordon Graham, Evil and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 18; see also Lewis S. Mudge, "Moral Hospitality for Public Reasoners," in Rethinking the Beloved Community: Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, Social Theory (New York: University Press of America, 2001) 275–296. Religious adherents in a pluralistic age must discern how their faiths will be shaped by multi-religious sameness, difference, and ambiguity, and what such correlations suggest for us. See also, Wendy Farley, Eros for the Other: Retaining Truth in a Pluralistic World (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996). Finally, see David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
2. David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 2000) 3–46. For Christians, the pluralistic world must be understood as a properly theological reality. We might consider also Ogden's "fully reflective theology" that is engaged in the correlation of the rough practicalities in the economy of human affairs with the "basic existential faith that is constitutive of human existence," and which addresses this question in a religiously pluralistic age: What should the Christian witness of faith now become as decisive for human existence? See Shubert M. Ogden, On Theology (New York: Harper & Row, 1986) 2, 13, 24, 73.
3. Peter Berger, sociologist and Lutheran theologian, earlier suggested this connection between modernity and the rise of secularization, which he has since revised with insights into pluralism, which includes a personalized quest for meaning that alters how we are experiencing religious themes today. See, Berger, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Eerdmans: New York, 1999).
4. Professor Ronald Thiemann (Yale Divinity School) and Diana Eck (Pluralism Project, Harvard) are but two luminaries who speak often and elegantly on the connection between religious pluralism and how we arbitrate for truth amidst ambiguities without slipping into relativism or indifferentism to truth. In a pluralistic context, we might say that inter-religious dialogue requires an awareness of religious truth as polycentric, rather than mono-centric, in scope.
5. See The World Mission Conference in San Antonio (1989), which addressed the irresolvable tension between the unicity of salvation through Christ, and the claim of God's presence in the vitality of other faiths. See also the WCC plenary commission of Faith and Order, meeting in Kaula Lumpur, Malaysia (2004) emphasizing the "journey of faith."
6. I owe a debt of gratitude to the Rev. Donald McCoid, for his research and comments on these points, from the William Reed Huntington Mass St. Peter's, New York — January 21, 2009.
7. Patricia O'Connell Killen and Mark Silk, Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone, (Berkeley, California: Altamira Press, 2004). "A new type of religious/spiritual style is emerging — one that emphasizes private and individual spiritual experience and questing rather than being part of an institution."
8. WCC, Religious Plurality and Christian Self-Understanding, Faith and Order (Geneva, 2006) 2.
9. The conversation of a post-denominational age continues. For helpful quantitative research and qualitative insights, see Kenneth Inskeep and Robert Bacher, Chasing Down a Rumor: The Death of Mainline Denominations (Augsburg Books, 2005).
10. See the Rev. Donald McCoid, "What Happens Now: Ecumenical Agreements, Ecumenical Challenges," Journal of Lutheran Ethics, October, 2009.
11. A rich strategic trajectory will have multiple vectors and achievable benchmarks that are focused on a methodology of evolution, which is characterized by a community's shared telos on the horizon. Alternatively, a strategic plan can be interpreted by its readers as teleological, with a fixed end point that skews a community's grasp on a shared, unfolding narrative future.
12. Marshall Ganz and Diana Eck offer a fascinating annual leadership Immersion Workshop titled: Faith & Leadership in a Fragmented World, at the Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership. Theology and philosophy have assisted us greatly in understanding the proximity of the neighbor-other.
13. The Christian emphasis on the "other" in our midst generates from a nearly inexhaustible aggregation of thinkers on this subject; here is an ecumenical sampling: consider Bernard of Clairvaux's (On Loving God, treatise II) effort to correlate perfected love within the Trinity and the imperfect expression of love in human community; or Martin Luther's (Freedom of a Christian) and Ignatius of Loyola's (Autobiography) challenges to faithful obedience through public service,;or Moltmann's (Theology of Hope) and McFague's (Models of God) clear theological call for personal transformation that manifests in renewed ecclesial understanding and language; or Gutiérrez's (A Theology of Liberation) and Pope John Paul II's (Love and Responsibility) dedication to a loving God that liberates oneself fully to the neighbor.
15. The African-Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America respective conference of bishops entered into a shared Statement of Mission on March 4, 2011.
16. If the religious identity of United Methodists requires a curricular requirement to take a history course on the African-American historical Methodist experience (as indeed is the case), then this is an ecumenical contribution to Episcopalians and Lutherans as well.
17. For the full response of the ELCA Presiding Bishop, see: http://www.acommonword.com. Next, philosophers and theologians have long entertained a discourse on the features of the neighbor-other. Recommended texts include Emmanuel Levinas, Entre Nous: Thinking-of-the-Other, trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav ( New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), or Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), and Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).
18. I owe a debt of gratitude to Kathryn Lohre of the Harvard Pluralism Project for her consistent collegiality and excellent conversation toward discovery. Likewise, Marshall Ganz' Faith and Leadership course speaks directly to the public narrative of this three-fold methodology, which is right on track for our current pluralistic context.
19. A trade route is a series of networks that lead to and away from an intersecting point. Schools of formation are where the ebb and flow of discourse about the Missio Dei takes place. In terms of intersections of convening capacity, current discussion on the nature of social networks should be a deep-grade consideration for divinity schools and seminaries who are concerned with the future of religious formation today. See Albert-László Barabási, Bursts — The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do, (Dutton: 2010); see also, Cross, R., and Parker, A., The hidden power of social networks: Understanding how work really gets done in organizations (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004); and Gladwell, M., The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2000).
20. For those who would suggest we reorganize first, I'm reminded of Gaius Petronius's comments in AD 60: "We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and a wasteful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization."
© May / June 2011
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 11, Issue 3