published Saturday, September 7th, 2013

Forum in Chattanooga to examine the Christian divide

IF YOU GO

What: National Adventist Forum, “A Third Way: Beyond the Liberal/Conservative Divide to a Christian Identity Refreshed by Interfaith Dialogue.”

When: 6:30-9 p.m. today, 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Sheraton Read House, 827 Broad St.

Admission: $165 (without meals), $270 (with meals through Sunday lunch).

Website: spectrummagazine.org.

TODAY

8 a.m.: Breakfast

9-10:30 a.m.: “The Liturgical Challenge and the Missional Challenge,” Brian McLaren (with responses)

10:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m.: “My Friend and Brother, Mohsen,” William Johnsson

12:30 p.m.: Lunch

1:30 p.m.: Break

3-4:30 p.m.: “Seventh-day Adventist Identity in a Multi-Faith World,” Samir Selmanovic (with responses)

4:45-6:30 p.m.: Roundtable discussions

6:45-8:30 p.m.: interfaith dinner celebration

SUNDAY

7:30 a.m.: Breakfast

8:30-10 a.m.: “Risking Transformational Friendships: Between the Fears and Fantasies of Interfaith Relationships,” Ryan Bell (with responses)

10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.: Panel discussion

A national conference in Chattanooga this weekend is holding up a mirror to Christianity.

The faith, according to speakers at the 2013 Adventist Forum, has become a tug of war between conservatives and liberals, with the result being a stagnant faith that wins over no one.

"A Third Way: Beyond the Liberal/Conservative Divide to a Christian Identity Refreshed by Interfaith Dialogue" began Friday at the Sheraton Read House and continues through Sunday. It is sponsored by Spectrum magazine, the official publication of Adventist Forums but not an official publication of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The title comes from ideas in conference speaker Brian McLaren's recent book, "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World."

The tug of war, according to the author, a former English teacher and pastor and now an ecumenical activist and theologian, has created liberal and conservative versions of God.

The one on the left, he said, "often seems more like one's 'great-aunt in Heaven,'" and the one on the right "seems more like Rush Limbaugh writ large."

"The divide also tricks some Christians into practicing compassion without seeking justice and others into seeking justice without practicing compassion," McLaren said in a phone interview ahead of the conference.

"It leads some Christians to act as if big government is a problem, but not big business, and others to act as if the reverse is true. In the end, it makes both sides too often seem more like chaplaincies to political parties, or worse, it keeps people who should be agents of justice and peace silent, safe and afraid of offending anyone."

Chattanooga resident and conference participant Amin Issa said earlier this week that conservatism and liberalism, "which argue [interfaith] issues from core tenets backed up by evidence, rather than just mood and feelings," are valid.

"However, if interfaith relations become instinctual and primitive, relying on nothing more than emotions," he said, "we're going to continue ending up with misunderstandings and friction."

The third way referred to in the conference title is that Christians would have such a strong identity in their faith that they are open to the good in other faiths.

"It's often only in an encounter with another that we see ourselves," McLaren said. "For example, until you learn there's something called Spanish or Chinese, you are hardly aware that you speak English. You just think you speak 'human.' In encountering religious diversity among [people of other faiths], we can learn skills necessary to deal with religious diversity among [fellow Christians]."

Unfortunately, diversity among Christians, he said, can be more dangerous and scary than diversity among faiths.

In one such recent incident in Chattanooga, a Church of Christ minister asked a congregation member to repent for supporting her daughter's homesexuality or be banished from the church.

Issa said the case is not cut-and-dried and likely would not be found to be so among those attending this weekend's conference.

"Any religious interpretations that lead to discrimination and segregation will likely be denounced theoretically from a humane standpoint," he said, "but I think conference attendees will still allow for the notion that different denominations and congregations have the right to define the criteria for who they want their membership to consist of."

However, McLaren said Christians and churches must be careful "to claim to know the complete and accurate list of moral absolutes in the universe."

"That sounds dangerously like grasping for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which didn't turn out so well, biblically speaking," he said.

But issues of homosexuality and homosexual marriage, McLaren said, give people an opportunity not to condemn but "to think afresh about human identity, gender identity and social identity."

"It gives us a chance to grapple with the problems of heterosexual marriage, and the realities of something like 6 percent of our population who are not heterosexual," he said. "But sadly, we've simply made it a wedge issue for voters and a battle line in churches."

Unfortunately, said Spectrum editor Bonnie Dwyer, sometimes those battle lines are drawn even tighter by a simplistic media response.

In many cases, she said, the word "Christian becomes kind of a [negative] code word I don't recognize in myself. The nuances that exist in Christianity ... are a lot more naunced than they are given credit for."

In the same way all Muslims shouldn't be judged as jihadists, Dwyer said, all Christians shouldn't be judged by those who display hate or intolerance in the view of others.

"The conference," she said, "is about helping us understand [each other] a little better. In doing so, it helps us understand ourselves, too."

Contact Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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