Text: Romans 8:12-17
It is being called Berlin’s House of One and the idea came from the Christian side of the triangle. The idea: the world’s first house of prayer for three religions—Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. The structure will be built where the first church in Berlin, dating back to the 12th Century, was once situated. Saint Peter’s Church was badly damaged at the end of World War II as the Red Army liberated Berlin. What remained was destroyed in the period after the war by the East German authorities.
Then, six years ago, archaeologists uncovered remains from an ancient graveyard and it was decided that something should be done to resurrect a community and its place of worship. The project, which was initially planned to be a single-faith building, has expanded to the present three-faith plan. Pastor Gregor Hohberg, a Protestant parish priest, says “each faith will keep its distinctive ways within its own areas. Under one roof: one synagogue, one mosque, one church. We want to use these rooms for our own traditions and prayers. And together we want to use the room in the middle for dialogue and discussion and also for people without faith. Berlin is a city where people come together from all over the world and we want to give a good example of togetherness. It was not always the Berlin way.”
The architect, Wilfried Kuehn, points out that each of the three areas in the House will be the same size, but of a different shape. In describing the structure he says:
Each of the singular spaces is designed according to the religious needs, the particularities of each faith. There are for instance two levels in the mosque and the synagogue but there’s only one level in the church. There will be an organ in the church. There are places to wash feet in the mosque.
Kuehn and his team of architects researched designs for the three types of worshipping place and found more similarities than expected. “What’s interesting,” Kuehn says, “is that when you go back a long time, they share a lot of architectural typologies. They are not so different…”
In the past, different faiths have used the same buildings but not usually at the same period. Mosques in southern Spain became cathedrals after the Christian conquest. In Turkey, churches became mosques. In Britain old Welsh chapels have sometimes become mosques as areas change—and Brick Lane mosque in the East End of London started as a church in the 18th Century, later became a synagogue before turning to Islam, and has now become a place of worship for the newly arrived Muslim community.
But that’s different from the three faiths worshipping as neighbors under one roof.
Maybe you are asking the same question that many people have asked when hearing about the House of One. “Is the House of One aiming to create a single, standardized religion?” Here is how that question is answered on the House of One website.
No, our intention is quite the opposite. We do not want to standardize the religions and we are not seeking any kind of lowest theological or ethical common denominator. The architecture of The House of One is a clear expression of this. The three separate holy rooms will allow each religion to observe and nurture its own practices in a manner fitting with our times. However, by coming into contact with the other two faiths and with society as a whole, each religion will gain an outside perspective on itself that will deepen and enrich its identity.
It is the last half of this last sentence that I now want to focus on, “each religion will gain an outside perspective on itself that will deepen and enrich its identity.” As I have preached these past two Sunday’s on the theme of transcend and include my purpose has been to begin a dialogue within our church on how to deepen and enrich our identity as Christians while transcending our Christianity identity to include the wisdom teachings of other faiths.
What has struck me in beginning this conversation, first with the young adults and now beyond, is the fear of what we might lose if we really dig into inter-religious dialogue. And so I want to address this question of how we become an inter-religious community without losing our identity.
Being grounded in one’s identity is critical in matters of faith and life. Knowing who you are in this ever-changing world is not easy. Knowing what you believe and why you believe what you do is even harder in a culture that is constantly shifting. I just read a report this week in which the headline was “America’s Morals Are Shifting To The Left.” While I might think that is a good thing, others, I’m sure, will read that headline and be overcome with fear. The fear of loss in identity, the fear of not knowing where the boundaries are, the fear of living in a society that no longer values what they value, the fear of losing one’s footing, of not being grounded, of not knowing what to count on.
So how does one stay grounded when it feels like everything around them is constantly changing and shifting? In part, being grounded is about feeling secure in one’s own identity. And that means that as we engage in inter-religious dialogue we need know that we have, to some degree, a basic understanding of our own faith as Christians—what our own scriptures teach, how we understand and interpret those scriptures, where and why we might agree or disagree with our sacred text, and what Christian tradition has taught verses what the Bible actually says. As I say that, I recognize how intimidating that can be. Not everyone who desires to call themselves Christian wishes to be a biblical scholar. And for certain, it is not on my bucket list to learn Hebrew and re-learn Greek in order to read the text in its original languages. (I will continue to trust the commentaries.) And I am not advocating you put it on your bucket list unless you are just dying to do so.
But what I am advocating for is that each of us become familiar with our Christian heritage and to feel secure in articulating our affirmations of faith—what we believe about our faith at any given time. This does not mean that we have to be Christian historians or biblical scholars. But what it does mean is that we have some understanding of the basic tenets or doctrine of the Christian faith as taught in Christian tradition; and furthermore to be able to speak to where we value those and/or depart from them. Notice, I didn’t say what all Christians hold as the tenets of our faith, or what Pullen Church values as the teachings of our faith, or what Nancy Petty believes about what it means to be a Christian. I will confess and profess to you that my own personal theology has significantly departed from the traditional doctrines held within our Christian tradition and those taught by our church fathers. But it is important to know what has been taught about Christianity through Church tradition because that is often how others see us and not as we see ourselves.
Time will not allow me to discuss the basics of Christian belief this morning—maybe that is another sermon series. But you already know the basics—Christian theology and Church tradition has taught that Christians believe in one God who is the creator of the world and all that is in it; that Jesus is the Son of God who came into the world to save and redeem humanity from its original sin. Christians believe in justification by faith—that through their belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and in his death and resurrection, they can have a right relationship with God whose forgiveness was made available once and for all through the death of Jesus Christ.
Knowing that these are the doctrines of our faith and believing them are two different things. But there is power and security in knowing them, as a part of our own tradition and Christian identity, when engaging other people of faith in dialogue about religion. To be able to say, “This is what my religion has taught or teaches but this is what I believe and here’s why I believe what I do” is empowering. It grounds us and removes some of the fear that we often feel in religious conversation. But it is work, and it takes us engaging in our own sacred text. It also will require us to engage one another on how our scriptures have been interpreted and misinterpreted and to be willing to challenge our own Christian tradition.
For example, if we don’t believe, as it has been taught by the Christian church, that Jesus was being exclusive in John 14:6 when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”; and if instead we believe that Jesus is ONE way, a way that we have chosen to follow—then how do we give witness to this new understanding and interpretation of scripture: that John 14:6 is not about being exclusive of other faiths but is an affirmation on one faith? In inter-religious dialogue how do we redeem this one verse that has divided Christians and people of other faiths for centuries? What might it mean to Muslims and Jews for Christians to repent for how we have used this one verse to harm people of other faiths and to say we understand it differently from how our church fathers and some of our Christian brothers and sisters understand it? Or what might it mean that if you do believe that Jesus’ intent was to be exclusive and that Jesus is the ONLY way to God, what might it means to be willing to sit down with people of other faiths and listen, really listen, to why they have chosen their path?
Being grounded in one’s own faith allows great freedom to engage in dialogue with people of other faith. But I want to be careful here. Being grounded in your faith doesn’t mean that you have to have all the answers, or that you have to know what you believe about every aspect of your faith or that you can win the sword drill in Sunday school class. It actually means just the opposite. Being grounded in one’s own faith opens up the heart and mind to explore, to imagine, to live into the questions of faith without fear.
Paul writes to the Romans, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption…we are all children of God.” Such beautiful words. Here is what this means for me in the context of interfaith and inter-religious work – the spirit frees us. The deeper we go into the spirit, into our experience of faith, into relationship with God, the more we are freed for experience and for relationship. I will say again, our faith does not free us from but it frees us for. Paul’s words are not the words of one who seeks to separate and exclude, but one who has already transcended and included the single biggest barrier in Jewish religious community at the time – the one between Jews and non-Jews, a barrier that would have been, for Jews at the time, considered biblical, righteous, even required. Paul’s words calls us to transcend and include, to trust God, to know that we can not be lost when we act out of the desire and even the compulsion to seek and to live the love of God.
There is a quote I think of when I am faced with an exciting but scary opportunity. It has sat on my desk for over twenty years and it says: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” I would ask us, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, what would we do if we knew we could not lose one iota of our Baptist-ness or Christian-ness if we sought to be an inter-religious community? What would we offer Muslims if we knew that relationship and understanding could only make us more faithfully Christian? What would we be willing to do, if we knew we were safe in our understanding and relationship with God? I wonder…would we choose freedom and receive that spirit of adoption that sings:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.