As I was reading the chapters of Love Wins for this week’s post, I couldn’t help but think of them in light of the declaration of the impending judgement day which Harold Camping and his followers believed was to be yesterday. I admit, I got caught up in all the talk of Camping and his group’s rapture awareness campaign that was swirling around the internet and in the media (in fact, the bench by our house had been painted with the question “Have you heard the awesome news? Judgement Day is May 21!”)and I was fascinated to see how Camping and his followers would come to terms with the fact that May 21st turned out to be just another day. Camping’s steadfast certainty that he knew exactly what G-d had planned, including who would be “saved,” stood in striking contrast to Bell’s comfort with his uncertainty in how G-d operates as he writes: “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from G-d forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.”
Being Jewish, I have long been comfortable with, and even enjoy the fact that, G-d is beyond our fullest comprehension as humans and we do not know definitively what happens after we die as accepting this is part of our tradition. So naturally I am not scandalized by Bell suggesting this as some in the Christian community might be (I imagine Camping would feel terrible uncomfortable with such as suggestion). As a non-Christian, I don’t have a horse in this theological race, but how Christians understand the concepts of heaven, hell and salvation does have practical implications for me as someone who lives in a pre-dominantly Christian community and who works to build understanding and respect among Christians and people of other faiths and beliefs.
When a Christian conceives of heaven and hell as something “over there” as Bell puts it rather than a condition they can actively work to create here, I find it can lead to that person disconnecting from the larger community of which they are a part. This is especially true in an interfaith context. In my work as the director of an interfaith organization, I work to build understanding, respect and relationships (not agreement, I might add for the record) among people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures. It’s vital to the health of our diverse and increasingly interconnected community and world that people of different faiths and beliefs have opportunities to learn about each other’s beliefs and identities so that we can stamp out stereotypes and discover issues of shared concern on which we can work together. I have found it far more challenging to meaningfully engage Christians who subscribe to a more theologically conservative and traditional view of heaven, hell and salvation, not per se because of the beliefs they hold, but rather because the certainty of those beliefs leads them to dismiss the value of engaging with others who do not share those beliefs and who are not interested in adopting their views. The problem with this is that while theologically it might make sense to isolate yourself from someone whom you regard as having rejected the truth, practically it doesn’t. We all live in the same community and let’s face it, it’s getting harder and harder to stay in our segregated bubbles. Each day our bubbles are being bursted by people of different faiths, beliefs and cultures moving into the house next door, enrolling in your child’s school, or working in the cubicle next to you. And if you don’t take the time to build relationships with them, your community suffers.
So I guess the real question I am pondering is about the possibilities and limits of interfaith dialogue. Is it possible to bring Rob Bell and Harold Camping to grab a beer together and have a truly meaningful exchange? Can you build an authentic relationship with someone who has a totally different worldview than yours and still be true to what you believe? Are there ways of meaningfully engaging someone who is focused on “over there” on the here and now without diminishing or disrespecting their faith? I have my thoughts on this but I’d sure love to read yours. So don’t be shy, please comment!