Brimming With God: Reflecting Theologically on Cases in Ministry
Edited by Barbara J. Blodgett and Matthew Floding
The immediate context of this case is a field trip in which I took my students from the Pacific Theological College in Fiji to some rural villages on a neighboring island in Fiji. The students were Pacific Islanders from Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, and Solomon Islands as well as Fiji. I am of European descent.
The wider context is that of Fiji, a nation almost evenly divided between two distinct demographic groups. Half the population is Indigenous Melanesians who are overwhelmingly Christian and predominantly Methodist. The other half of the population are East Indians—an enduring legacy of the indentured labor system during British colonialism—who are primarily Hindu and Muslim. At the time of the field trip, the nation was engaged in drafting a Constitution and was embroiled in debate about its religious identity. Many indigenous Melanesians wanted the Constitution to declare Fiji to be a Christian nation even while protecting religious liberty. Many East Indians were very worried about the implications of such Christian nationalism.
According to custom, the highest ranking in status delivers the message when invited for the first time to a village. That’s why I was the preacher that day. It happened to also be “Prophet Muhammad's Birthday” on the Fijian calendar which celebrated Christian, Hindu and Muslim holidays as well as both British and Fijian national ones. Fijians like holidays. Even though there were no Muslims present within this village, I thought this was still a good occasion for making some theological connections between Muslims and Christians, two communities that had been experiencing tension within the nation.
I preached on Mark 9:40 (“For he that is not against us is for us”) and on the blessing of Ishmael in Genesis 17:20 and 21:17-18. From memory, I mentioned some of the statements about Jesus that are made in the Holy Koran—those proclaiming Jesus’ virgin birth and ascension, and declaring that he is the messiah, word of God and having a spirit from God. I acknowledged the differences between the two religions, especially pertaining to the Trinity, but I emphasized their similarity as Abrahamic religions that believed in one God and confessed a similar heritage. I thought I preached pretty well. Afterward, a congregant asked me sincerely, “So which is better?” “Better?” I inquired for elaboration. “Yes,” he clarified, “which religion is better?” My initial impression was that he was ready to consider converting to Islam. However, as a visitor I knew I could not trust first impressions. I knew one has to question one’s own inferences.
REFLECTION: The puzzling phrase in question for me in this case is the question posed by the congregant following the sermon: “Which religion is better?”
Let us start at the bottom of the grid and address the contextual and cultural factors in this case first, since they are important to understanding the case. First, the temporal situation in which the event of this case takes place is a pastoral encounter. This is one of those short encounters following worship. On top of that, I am a guest preacher in this congregation and at this church only temporarily, with little chance for subsequent follow-up with my speaker. I inhabit other roles besides preacher; I am a guest in the village, and I am a teacher accompanying students from other island nations.
Second, several cross-cultural factors frame this encounter. Fiji is marked by racial, cultural and religious diversity. In this case, the speaker and the listener (me) are both residents of Fiji, but the speaker is an indigenous resident of this rural village and I am an immigrant of European decent living in a city on a different island. Within the national context of Fiji, there are economic and political tensions accompanying its religious diversity. Muslims in Fiji are a part of the East Indian settler community which also includes many Hindu. Muslims are typically of a laboring class on this agricultural island and are often renters and laborers in the sugar cane fields. Indigenous Melanesian Fijians are a land-owning class whose lifestyle may be associated closely with the land or they may derive income from leasing their land. Politically, there have been tensions between the Indigenous and the East Indian communities with regard to blue laws protecting Sabbath observance on Sundays and with regard to the question of whether or not the Constitution should declare Fiji a Christian nation. These questions had made it difficult to even establish a national Constitution.
POSSIBLE MEANINGS THE SPEAKER MIGHT BRING
Now let us interpret the encounter in the case by starting at the top of the grid. What are the possible meanings the speaker might be intending by his question? The speaker, of course is an Indigenous Melanesian Christian who is Methodist. While much of the sermon attended to statements about Jesus, it is noticeable that this congregant’s question does not refer to Jesus explicitly. Therefore his question may simply indicate his interest in the relationship between Christianity and Islam more generally—an interest perhaps stimulated by the sermon and indicating a desire to discuss the topic of interfaith relations further. Perhaps his interest is heightened by the Fijian social situation and the tensions between the different religious groups. He may be interested in the implications of interfaith dialog for the government. Or he may be curious about the relationship of both cultural groups to the land.
The question may arise from a more personal level. The speaker might be considering converting to Islam, changing his own religion. (That is what the preacher originally suspects, according to the case.) Conversely, he might be interested in converting others to Christianity or perhaps engaging in more mutual interfaith dialog. He might even be suspicious of the preacher, testing the preacher’s own commitments to Christianity. Short of suspicion, he may simply want to reinforce a sense of communion between them. An important element to his question might be the need to sense common identity and mutuality between guest and host, between preacher and congregant. The question might not be an inquiry into how “true” the religions are in any objective sense outside of actual community, and it might be the community itself that is of greater concern.
POSSIBLE MEANINGS THE LISTENER MIGHT BRING
What are the possible meanings I the listener might hold? I may be more immediately puzzled in this encounter by the word “better" than by the multiple nuances attached to the word “religion." This is not my kind of question. The question of “better" to my mind might pertain to historical accuracy, to reliability concerning spiritual matters, or to the capacity of the religion to draw one closer to God. Since my sermon focused largely on the way Jesus is portrayed in the Koran, “better” might refer to a better Christology. Which religion describes Jesus most accurately, reliably or helpfully? At a personal level, as the preacher I would be wondering about the implications of this question for my preaching. Was I so muddy in my delivery that I left more questions than clarity? Conversely, was I so persuasive of the merits of Islam as to convince him to consider shifting his religious allegiance?
What are the possible similarities between us as speaker and listener? While we have different cultural heritages, we have much in common. We have a common interest in religion, in religious expression, and in the meaningfulness of worship. We both seem to have an honest desire to serve God. We also share a desire for God to bless Fiji so that there would be flourishing among the people and on the land. Also, though we are talking together about the Koran, we are both Christians and Methodists. Among the possible respective interpretations listed above, two matters of interest or concern seem quite similar. The first is an interest in the very subject of a comparison between Christianity and Islam. The second is the matter of the relationship between the two of us. Different though we may be culturally, we may both want to affirm that we are participating in the same religious communion.
What are the possible differences between us? We have many cultural differences, not least of which is our respective first languages, which shape our thinking and communicating when we meet. On this particular subject of the relationship between Christianity and Islam, though, I suspect contextual factors play a major role in our respective consideration. The speaker lives closely to the local realities of the relation between the different religious communities in Fiji. This involves both ongoing cooperation in life together in Fiji and levels of estrangement from one another politically, culturally and economically. Also Fijian soldiers are frequently deployed in peace-keeping missions in the Middle East, so he might have more direct familiarity than I do with ongoing tensions between religious communities in the Middle East. While I too live in Fiji, my thinking about the relationship between Christianity and Islam might be shaped more by an understanding of European history and the Crusades as well as ongoing contemporary conflicts around the world. Though I am the preacher on this occasion, the question is admittedly more academic than immediate for me, and shaped by my reading on the subject.
My possible responses to his question include the following options. I can opt to answer his question by declaring one or the other religion as the “better” one. If I name Christianity as the better of the two, that might reassure him but also might reestablish a kind of cognitive equilibrium cutting short his thinking about the subject and our conversation together. I can try to explain myself further regarding my theology of the Trinity or my Christology or my understanding of the two religious traditions. Though I have already asked one clarifying question, I could turn the conversation further in his direction by asking him about his own thoughts, beliefs and commitments. I could shift topics of conversation toward tangents such as the need for national unity or interfaith relations. Finally, I could address the matter of common identity by affirming my own Methodist identity.
MOST GENEROUS RESPONSES
Of these possible responses, which might be most generous to the speaker? Two in particular strike me as generous. To affirm our common identity as Methodists and to engage him in further conversation on the topic are both responses that take him and his question seriously and respectfully. Each has a slightly less generous downside. Affirming our common Methodist identity could be done in such as way as to undermine any growing inter-religious good will. Explaining my own thinking further honors his question but focuses more on me. Therefore, asking him further about his own beliefs seems to me the more respectful way to continue the conversation, so long as I don’t dismiss his request for my further opinion. On the face of it, other options—such as shifting the topic or ending the conversation abruptly with a decisive answer—seem less generous.
The difficulty in choosing a generous response in this case lies in the immediate context and the temporary nature of this relationship. It is difficult in any conversation in a receiving line after worship to go into much detail on the subject. This is one of the frustrations of being a preacher. A good sermon does raise questions, but only some congregations provide a regular forum in which these questions can be further addressed. In Fiji, when a group of visitors are staying in a village, there is usually more time for fellowship and conversation during the visit, but not so in this case.
In conclusion, then, my initial choice would be to affirm our common Methodist identity but to do so in a way that keeps the conversation alive for subsequent attention. I would want to say something like, “Oh, I myself am a Methodist and I believe that we are a truthful religion, but I also have a lot of respect for Islam and I wish God’s blessing for all Fiji’s people--Christian, Muslim and Hindu.” I would hope he would receive this response as a generous one in answer to his question, and I would hope, too, to have further opportunity to converse and to explore together during the course of the visit.