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Cosmic crucified or one ultimate reality? On becoming a committed pluralist.

Twenty-one years ago, Mark Thomsen invited me to be a presenter at the ELCA's annual summer Islamic study program for missionaries. Thus, began a friendship and collaboration that included my service on the Board of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Americas Division for Global Mission (ELCA/DGM), and culminated with my teaching the Religions in Dialogue course, developed in the 1990s at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) by Dr. Yoshiro Ishida, Chao Than, and Harold Vogelaar, and then continued by Vogelaar and Mark Thomsen. During these past two decades my own response to religious pluralism has been influenced by Thomsens vision for global mission, a vision both shaped by the cross of Christ, and deeply respectful of the diverse cultures and religious traditions he encountered.

Mark Thomsen, global mission, and interreligious formation

From 1957 to 1966 Mark Thomsen served as an American Lutheran Church (ALC) missionary in Nigeria, where he developed a way of interacting with Muslims in Nigeria that influenced his later guidance of the global mission, first in the ALC (1982-1987), and then in the newly formed ELCA (1988-1996). Thomsen ensured that graduate scholarships were available to international leaders and teachers, and that every new ELCA missionary called into Muslim contexts would be prepared to engage Muslims in those new contexts. The missionary preparation took place in graduate study programs, where many earned advanced degrees in Islamic Studies, and through annual summer Islamic study programs at LSTC and Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In both 1993 and 1994, Thomsen invited me to present a segment on women and family issues in Islam. Not only did those experiences begin my long-term involvement with DGM, they also introduced me to Harold Vogelaar, and his colleague, the Muslim scholar Ghulam-Haider Aasi, who in 2007 became my co-teacher.

In 1997, I began a six-year term as a member of the Board of the ELCA's Division for Global Mission. Mark Thomsen had clearly influenced the direction of the ELCA as the denomination engaged Islamic contexts through many global partnerships. Thomsen's respect for religious others, including Muslims, became apparent as I worked with fellow board members and the Associate Executive Director, the late Will Herzfeld, to craft the Divisions language about the theology of interreligious engagement in global mission work. Both Thomsen and Herzfeld helped shape the ELCA's 1999 planning document, Global Mission in the Twenty-first Century. Subsequent executive directors, Bonnie Jensen and Rafael Malpica Padilla, have maintained the approach summed up in the section "Goal 1--Program Objectives," which reads in part:
   Share the good news of Jesus Christ
   with those who acknowledge no faith,
   people of living faiths, adherents of
   various ideologies, and those who have
   become inactive in or have abandoned
   their Christian faith.... Build relation
   ships of respect, listening, understanding
   and sharing of faith with Muslims.... Build
   relationships of respect, listening,
   understanding and witness with
   Hindus, Buddhists, Confucianists and
   other faith traditions in Asia as well as
   among modern secularists. (1)


The concept of "witness in dialogue" is not unique to the ELCA, but what is significant and formative for me, is the conviction that such dialogue includes the potential for transformation among all who interact. Illustrative are these points on the dialogical nature of Gods mission in Global Mission in the Twenty-first Century.
   In a world of religious pluralism, the
   Christian community is called to witness
   to the God made known in Jesus
   Christ.... Christians around the world
   live in daily con tact with people of diverse
   faiths. The mission of God calls Christians
   to develop relationships and enter
   into mutual conversations with these
   people.... Christians will respect others
   and allow them to speak for themselves
   in interpreting the meaning of their religious
   faith Christians will be open to
   being changed--to expect that their faith
   might be strengthened even when they
   do not embrace the other person's faith.
   Within these relationships, Christians
   have the privilege of witnessing to Jesus
   Christ as God's ultimate and life-giving
   word for the universe. (2)


Engaging Thomsens Christology and vision for interreligious relations

Being part of the ELCA's global mission efforts to shape such dialogical engagement has been one of the key elements in my own continuing project of being a Lutheran professor of biblical studies and Islam who seeks to learn from people of other religious traditions and of no religious affiliation. Even before I began teaching LSTC's Religions in Dialogue course, Thomsen invited me to critique and review the manuscript that became his 2003 book, Christ Crucified: A Missiology of the Cross for the Twenty-First Century. I was honored to contribute this review for the book's promotion: "Christ Crucified presents the insightful and incisive perspective of a person who has direct experience with global mission, interfaith relations, and the theology of religious pluralism. Thomsen's cross-based missiology is a welcome theological guide for Christians who wish to be in a relationship of witness, dialogue and service with the neighbor who is also religious other."

My most intensive encounter with Thomsen's Christology and vision for interreligious relations, however, has been teaching his book, Jesus, The Word, and The Way of the Cross: An Engagement With Muslims, Buddhists, and Other Peoples of Faith. Between 2007 and 2012, I co-led the LSTC seminar Religions in Dialogue with Dr. Ghulam-Haider Aasi, and Zen Buddhist leader Sevan Ross. Forecasting the seminar's dialogical atmosphere is this email I received from Thomsen, as I prepared to teach the course for the first time:
   It has been fun to be a participant in
   this class. Participants have been honest
   and there has been real integrity in communications
   and relationships. There
   has also been humor and passion and
   I believe that has been the strength of
   the class. Perspectives may be different,
   values may be shared, debates and jokes
   may be part of the discussion, academics
   are always part of the mix; however, we
   are always close friends. Hope you have
   a great experience.


In the seminar we read and discussed excerpts from two of Thomsens works: Christ Crucified and Jesus, the Word, and the Way of the Cross. (3) As my Muslim and Buddhist colleagues and our students considered Thomsens concepts and arguments, I too pondered what was most helpful and what was most challenging. Our occasional Unitarian Universalist students understandably resisted presentation of Christian truth claims as normative and sometimes perceived Thomsens work to have that tendency, at least in subtle, underlying ways. On the other hand, final papers by several Lutheran students expressed appreciation for Thomsen's theology of the cross and in so doing revealed what they had gained from reading Jesus, the Word, and the Way of the Cross. One summarized the importance of the crucified Christ as the basis for all Christian theology, and as a message of vulnerability leading Christians to love and serve rather than to dominate. Too often in the centuries after Constantine and especially in the West, organized Christianity has exerted power and force over vulnerability. A second student learned from Thomsen an ethic of servanthood rooted in God as taking flesh in creation and Jesus as suffering servant, an ethic that replaces pride with humility and sacrifice for the good of others.

Although our Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim students have differed on their acceptance of Thomsens ideas over the years, most have appreciated the distinctions he has helped us to see. For example, his chapter on "Engaging Buddhist Peoples" opens with an excellent analysis of the points of contact between Buddhist notions of dukkha (suffering) and Christian understandings of sin as "centering ones life in self." (4) This section also contains a very helpful comparison of the notions of salvation in Christianity, success in Islam, and enlightenment in Buddhism.

In addition to the very valuable insights into the Christian faith Thomsen has given our seminar students, his work has also raised questions about interactions between committed Christians and religious others, specifically Muslims and Buddhists. His chapter on "Engaging Muslim Peoples" prompted us to contemplate whether "merciful justice" and "sacrificial love" characterize the central ways God deals with humankind in Islam and Christianity--and whether j ustice and grace are the best lenses through which to compare Muslim and Christian views of God. Thomsen's discussion of how Muslims and Christians view the unity and oneness of God includes what for me is his most challenging assertion: "Christians affirm the same unity within the reality of God; however; they see the one God through the window of Jesus the Cosmic Crucified." (5) A close analysis of Thomsen's Christology is not the goal for this brief essay. But my personal grappling with the seemingly exclusive nature of this claim is one of the clearest examples of how teaching in Mark's shadow has moved me along the path toward committed pluralism.

On becoming a committed pluralist

Just a few years after accepting Mark Thomsen's invitation to introduce outgoing missionaries to my understandings of women and family issues in Islam, I spent my 1996 sabbatical year, and at least the next decade, researching the many Christian theologies of religious pluralism. I not only read such scholars as Alan Race, Paul Knitter, and S. Mark Heim, I met most of them at meetings of the American Academy of Religion and at the 2002 International Scholars' Jewish-Christian-Muslims Trialogue conference in Skopje, Macedonia. My Religions in Dialogue students and I have welcomed Thomsen's clear summary of these approaches in Jesus, the Word, and the Way of the Cross. (6) Thomsens brief outline of his own inclusivist orientation does begin to raise the difficulties of imposing Christian theological categories on the larger question of how to combine one's own faith commitments with an appreciation for others' ways to God and/or ultimate reality. But as one of our Unitarian students put it, "We UU kids are sick of being 'saved' by others in our seminary classes." To that my Buddhist colleague, Sevan Ross, quickly replied, "There is no dialogue unless we see the other's way of life as legitimate." We cannot assume a common vocabulary. Sevan concluded with a short sentence that has also been an important part of my journey toward committed pluralism, "We need to bring our own unknowing to dialogue."

In our seminar the following year, my Muslim colleague Dr. Aasi further highlighted the problem of language: "Muslims and Christians cannot talk without a God category; Buddhists cannot talk without a human category." But of course this distinction goes beyond language to ontology, and to what one knows, or believes, about the nature of ultimate reality. Until I taught Religions in Dialogue, most of my encounters with religious others had invited me to expand my notions of monotheism. Over the years, the words from our brilliant and humble Buddhist colleague have challenged me to think deeply about what is "really real" and how my Christian understanding of a creating and suffering God fits into that reality.

For the privilege of such rich inter-religious teaching moments I am indebted to Mark Thomsen, who years ago gave me the opportunities of working with ELCA missionaries, LSTC students, and Buddhist and Muslim co-teachers. With those students and colleagues, I have grappled with the various Christian theological models for engaging interreligious others, models effectively summarized and critiqued in Thomsen's appendix to his 2008 Jesus, the Word, and the Way of the Cross. Thomsen's analysis of the limitations of such models has contributed to my own preference for developing an "orientation for traveling with religious others" more than a position on religious pluralism. (7)

More challenging has been the process of developing my own alternative to Thomsen's "Cosmic Crucified" for teaching about the Christian way to God and/or for sharing the good news. Team-teaching with a Buddhist and a Muslim, and being in lifelong friendships, especially with faithful Jews and Muslims, have made me aware both of the barriers created by Christian terminology and of the need to articulate honestly why I personally come to "ultimate reality" through the grace of a God who suffers with and reconciles all of creation.

A few years ago, The Christian Century published a print and online conversation titled "The Gospel in Seven Words." (8) Entries included Martin E. Marty's "God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow," Walter Brueggemanns "Israel's God's bodied love continues world-making," and Beverly Roberts Gaventa's "In Christ, God's yes defeats our no." I shared a dozen or so more examples with our LSTC students and invited them to develop their own "gospel in seven words or less." Having reflected on Matt 1:22-23 and Acts 1:6-11, I offered my own abbreviated gospel in terms I hoped could be a bridge at least to other monotheists and an invitation to shared action in the world: "God is with us; get busy!"

And that brings me to my final lesson from Mark Thomsen. His approach can broaden interreligious engagement beyond theological dialogue to shared praxis and friendship. Thus, despite my developing discomfort with some of the theological categories we tend to use in these discussions, Thomsen's practice of mission offers a way to overcome them. Some of his key statements in Jesus, the Word, and the Way of the Cross suggest a willingness to move beyond the particular Christian lenses for mission: "Centering in God will mean centering in God's human family," and "Many biblical passages indicate that the culminating feast and banquet will be much more inclusive than some Christians might expect." (9) It is my hope that my own ongoing search for new and broader interreligious vocabulary, insights, and practices will build on Mark Thomsen's legacy and lead to new ways for being both committed Christian and existential pluralist.

Reflections from our Buddhist and Muslim colleagues

Sevan Ross has headed the Chicago Zen Center in Evanston, Illinois, and now serves the Zen Buddhist community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For many years, he co-taught LSTC's Religions in Dialogue seminar with Harold Vogelaar, Mark Thomsen, Ghulam-Haider Aasi, and me. Dr. Aasi is currently Adjunct Visiting Professor of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at LSTC and has been team-teaching courses there since 1990. He has taught also at Catholic Theological Union, and has been Associate Professor of Islam and History of Religions at the American Islamic College in Chicago.

Reflections from GhulamHaider Aasi

About thirty years ago in the fall of 1984, Dr. Harold S. Vogelaar, a staunch and longtime missionary, while visiting LSTC called on us at the American Islamic College (AIC) in Chicago to start a Christian-Muslim Dialogue at the institutional level. The AIC had then just started its own academic undergraduate program. In fall of 1983 I arrived there as Assistant Professor of Islam and History of Religions. This was the heyday of Christian-Muslim dialogue, in particular in the United States, and the adherents of both traditions were searching for respectful ways to share views of their faith traditions through dialogue and mutual understanding.

Dr. Vogelaar's subsequent visit and proposal to start the Christian-Muslim dialogue by engaging willing Muslim and Christian religious institutions in the Chicago Metro area led indirectly to formation of the Conference for Improved Christian Muslim Relations, held from 1985 to 1999, and the Council for the Parliament of World's Religions, from 1988 onward. His efforts also fostered a great cooperation between the AIC and LSTC that continues to this day.

In 1988, I was asked to team-teach a course on Religions in Dialogue, first led by Dr. Yoshiro Ishida at LSTC. The course had begun with Buddhism and Christianity, and then Islam was added. When in 1990 Dr. Vogelaar joined the LSTC faculty as Professor of Islam and Christian Muslim relations, I was asked to teach such courses with him.

I cannot recall exactly when and where I first met our kind and generous colleague, the late Rev. Dr. Mark Thomsen. But by early 1990, when he would arrange annual summer Islam study seminars for the ELCA's overseas missionaries, he would lead a Bible study on selected themes and always assigned me to present Qura'nic texts and commentary on the same themes to highlight the strong similarities and distinctive features and emphases of both scriptures. During his leadership in DGM of the ELCA, there would hardly be any workshop session or discussion on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations to which I would not be invited along with Dr. Vogelaar.

I cannot say how much Dr. Thomsen had developed his understanding of the Qur'an and Islam from the teachings and prolific apologetic works of late Anglican Bishop Dr. Kenneth Cragg, but one surely cannot miss Cragg's deep influence on Harold Vogelaar and many other missionaries who have been engaged in Christian-Muslim dialogue. (10)

A very remarkable difference in Thomsen's approach to Islam, however, was that he always respected and took seriously Muslim scholars' understanding of the Qur'an and Islam, rather than arrogating to himself to interpret the Qur'an and Islamic sources. Like all great Christian theologians and missionaries who engage themselves in dialogue with Islam, in the Qura'nic call for pure and pristine Tawhid, and in the Qur'an's sharp critique of the church's doctrine of the Trinity, Thomsen also resorted to paradoxical formulas in his apologetic theological response to Islam. (11) As the comprehension of the Trinity for any reflective Muslim is a "stumbling block," to use the Christian term, for Thomsen comprehending the Qura'nic view of a merciful and just God had proven the "stumbling block." However, one thing that distinguished Thomsen from many a Christian missionary was his attitude of utter humility and his frank acknowledgement of how the early church had developed its dogmas in the historical context and in response to the challenges of Greco-Roman ideologies and mythos. He would not shy away or be dismissive of Christianity's failure throughout history to practice its faith ideals of offering the other cheek and loving the enemy. Thomsen was a strong critic of the church's misuse of the cross as the symbol of power and principalities, and of exploitation of the cross as a tool for the Crusades, colonization, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, slavery, and current urges toward imperialistic designs and the war on terror by the West. He was ever critical of those missionaries who, more often than not, served as agents of Westernization and colonization. He would challenge them to carry their cross and wash the feet of the marginalized and serve the deprived and destitute. For him, mission was a life of witness to faith in the "Cosmic Crucified" and to finding the grace of God in suffering.

In his later years, when taking care of his granddaughter, who never stood or walked due to illness, Thomsen would pray for those who suffer. He would ask how anyone could appropriate the grace or salvation of God for himself or for his faith community at the expense of God's universal grace. If my memory does not fail me, he titled the Global Mission Event one year as "Dare to carry the Cross!" to remind all missionaries that their vocation is to serve those who are suffering.

I have never seen him as distraught and frustrated as when his grandson was called to join the American army in Iraq. Being a faithful and conscientious Christian, Thomsen had all along spoken against the so-called war against terror. Yet, when he found his own grandson as a soldier on the ground, he would always pray for all the victims of war and for the veterans who were thrust into war. He strongly believed in nonviolent, just, and peaceful solutions for all conflicts. His role in encouraging the ELCA to be vocal against the occupation of Palestine and to engage with Christian-Muslim relations based on justice and peace, with due and proper understanding of the issues involved and standing always for the truth, was exemplified by his own life and practice.

I personally found him a graceful and upright Christian. He was offered the award of "Upright Person of Ahl-al-Kitab" by the Islamic Foundation North in Libertyville, Illinois. These verses translate: "But they are not all alike; among the followers of earlier revelations there are upright people who recite God's messages throughout the night, and prostrate themselves before God. They believe in God and the Last Day and enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong and vie with one another in doing good works, and these are among the righteous" (Q 3:113-14).

Reflections from Sevan Ross

I had the honor of teaching with Mark at LSTC for over ten years. I shared with him one specific arc--the course LSTC calls Religions in Dialogue. A professor from LSTC, a Muslim professor, and a Buddhist teacher all shared the teaching duties. So already, we come to the first rule of "engagement" action: put everyone in the same room, equal time, equal footing. Right up front there is the recognition that these traditions have all spread widely and have provided spiritual guidance over a very long time to millions of people.

Rule number two: do not set the other tradition's representative up simply to provide some straw man argument. I was very concerned when Mark called me out of the blue many years ago and asked me to substitute for the Buddhist teacher who had then been his partner in the course. I still remember hanging up the phone after saying that I could step in and saying to someone who lived at the temple, "Well, this here might be a big mistake."

But after the first three-hour class I felt at home. He let me speak. He gave me enough time to dig down under the terminology, the ritual, the culture, and the assumptions. When I drove home I did not have to pull straw out of my head. And I knew that I was engaging with someone who was so steeped in his own tradition, and so comfortable in his own skin, that he was willing to, and indeed expecting to, go deeper in any encounter with the other tradition. This was new to me, in all my experience in encounters with Christians. It was natural somehow. Not of the head, but of the heart. So how, I wondered, did this man get to this point?

I think we can say that life can be lived either vertically or horizontally. When one lives life horizontally one has many experiences but often these are shallower experiences. We can even say that horizontal living is the result of looking for "experiences" instead of experiencing what you have found where you are. If life is lived vertically, one may have somewhat fewer experiences, but those experiences may really touch one at a very deep level. We might say even that many shallow experiences do not change us much. But deep ones both change and root us. Rooted trees grow high and strong, provide shade and comfort. Shallow roots give way to floods.

Going deeply into ones tradition--so deeply that one is neither threatened by another tradition, nor feels that one absolutely must hold sway somehow in any encounter with that other tradition--this is not in any way a product of some "vision" of encountering or engaging the "other." This is what I would call "fundamental action." We Zen Buddhists might refer to it as "Doing what first must be done." One must DO this. It is not an idea. Go deep. Then you can talk with someone else in comfort, without a plan. We might make this Mark Thomsen's rule number three.

Now that we are deeply rooted and comfortable in our own ground, we will be better able to feel for ourselves how the "other" might engage their own spiritual practice. But, there is yet another subtle but real barrier to be overcome. It is the natural product of our ever-productive discursive mind. Language.

One night in teaching the Religions in Dialogue course we got on the subject of original sin. Dr. Aasi and Mark held forth in turn about original sin. And then Mark smiled his broad and knowing smile and said, "Ok, Sevan, what do you have for us about original sin?" Of course, in Buddhism per se sin doesn't really exist as a concept and original sin is even further out in the Oort cloud, (12) but I pointed out that our problem as humans is that we know what to do but we cannot ever bring ourselves to actually do it. When I finished Mark put his pencil down and he said to the class, "THIS is what I mean by original sin."

What he did in that moment was pull back from any position wrapped around a concept and bound within any of our three traditions. Instead, he created a bridge connecting all three traditions, built of our common understanding of the human condition. And embedded in his declaration was his invitation to others to feel free to find whatever terminology may be needed at any given time to communicate.

Mark well understood that all the terminology, the historical and cultural encrustations, not to mention current social and psychological memes only serve to so engage what we call in Zen "the thinking mind." And in so doing, the thinking mind occupies itself full bore with definitions, vocabulary, concepts, and the like, while the heart goes wanting. Mark brought a Big Heart to the encounter. But this is the last rule in engaging another tradition: go past the language. People are people. And when someone expresses what is in your own heart, no matter the words, hear only with the heart. That is what my friend Mark Thomsen taught me. I prefer to think that Mark never had some "vision" for "encountering" Buddhism. He led with his heart into every discussion. I literally could feel the love. Teaching from deep love, absent a scheme. Sound familiar?

(1.) Global Mission in the Twenty first Century: A Vision of Evangelical Faithfulness in God's Mission (Chicago: ELCA, 1999), 25-26.

(2.) Ibid., 10-11.

(3.) Jesus, the Word, and the Way of the Cross: An Engagement with Muslims, Buddhists, and Other Peoples of Faith (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2008).

(4.) Thomsen, The Word, and the Way of the Cross, 113.

(5.) Ibid., 107.

(6.) Ibid., 145-151.

(7.) See Lahurd, "Holding Together the Gospel and Interfaith Relations in a Lifelong Journey, Currents in Theology and Mission 32:4 (August 2005), 248.

(8.) David Heim, "The Gospel in Seven Words," The Christian Century (23 August 2012) (http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-08/gospel-seven-words) (accessed 27 October 2015).

(9.) Thomsen, 119 and 125, respectively.

(10.) See for example Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret (Oxford: OneWorld Pub., 2000), Jesus and the Muslim (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1985), and Muhammad and the Christian (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1984).

(11.) See, for example Q 4:171.

(12.) The "Oort Cloud" is a body of small icy bodies, which are orbitng the sun at the furthest reaches of the solar system.

Carol Schersten LaHurd

Auxiliary Faculty and Educational Outreach Consultant for A Center of Christian- Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
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Date:Feb 1, 2015
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