Thursday, August 4, 2016

Jacob Dharmaraj: An Office of Christian Unity & Interreligious Relationships or a Research Institute?

Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.

It is encouraging to know that the Council of Bishops (COB) is in the process of moving the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships (OCUIR) to Washington D.C., and hiring six new staff. COB’s tacit acknowledgment that the old model was procrustean and needed restructuring is indeed admirable. Unquestionably, our denomination needs clarity in our understanding of Christology, missiology, and ecclesiology in the context of interfaith or multi-faith relations, which COB strives to address. Just like great apps such as “WhatsApp” or “Yelp” and others enhance our daily social interactions with our peers, a great missional and theological app can enhance, inspire, and illuminate our ministry of witness.

Since the emerging new world is remarkably similar to the Greco-Roman pluralistic domain, it offers new challenges every day in our collective struggle to witness our faith in Jesus Christ. With the ostensible questioning of traditional religions by modern scientific, philological, and archaeological discoveries, and by application of various theoretical apparatuses such as deconstructionism, phenomenalism, etc., the foundational beliefs of Christianity have been challenged to the core. Christianity’s relationship with people of other faiths and the Body of Christ has to be clearly defined in today’s context. We sincerely hope the creation of this office will lead us to the next higher level.

Nonetheless, I had a question while I was reading on-line the purpose of the office and the responsibilities of the staff. The program responsibility of this office in Washington D.C., at least theoretically, comes close to the very purpose of the mission board. Let me clarify.

Anyone who is committed to Christian mission will undeniably agree that mission and evangelism are two sides of the same coin. Mission lays out the road map and evangelism connects all of us with the Author and Creator of all. I believe that the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) has got the expertise, experience, and potential resources in working with ecumenical groups and interfaith communities. By theoretical definition of mission, the functional role and responsibilities of this office come close to the mandate of Global Ministries. If we house the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns under Global Ministries, our denomination will reduce the replication of our missional tasks.

Mission Conferences Speak
Let me submit one historic reference. The global ecumenical mission conference held in Jerusalem 1928 was dominated by the debate between Hendrick Kraemer and William Hocking about ministry with people of other living faiths. This debate spilled over to the ecumenical Conference held in Tambaram, India in 1938 in which Karl Barth, E. Stanley Jones, and others continued the conversation. These and all the subsequent ecumenical mission conferences held in the 20th century discussed and deliberated the church’s interaction with people of other faiths under the umbrella of mission and evangelism, but never as an isolated task.  This office in Washington D.C., can be justified to function apart from Global Ministries only, I submit, only if it were to be established to function as a Think Tank.

Research Institute Model
As a Think Tank and under the governance of the bishops, this office would be able to produce quality resources which will equip our constituents to know what they believe and why they believe. It will help us overcome the sophomoric spasm of multiculturalism and ecumenism, and nurture an informed religious community that is equipped to rethink in knowledgeable ways. Most importantly, this office would help all of us focus on the challenges we face as a denomination rather than the progress we have made; it will take us from the present-day corrosive culture of consultancy to the primary goal of finding answers. Lastly, it will be multi-disciplinary, and where appropriate, it will be multi-theological.

On the other hand, if it were to function as a program office, it will look for answers outside the problem and will continue to impose externally formulated ripostes. The Think Tank model will also help us come to grip with the problems we face, identify the questions and assumptions we have, and most importantly enrich us to articulate theology from the core of our Christian convictions.

If we want people to join the United Methodist movement in the transformation of the world, we need to be intentional about developing intellectual leadership and put together a team that would better communicate what we are and who we are. It is not just enough to minister with the poor and marginalized. We must develop and cultivate scholars and intellectuals who can minister to the movers and shakers of our society which include the intellectuals and affluent from all religious backgrounds.

As COB strives to re-ignite the engine of the denomination’s mission with people of other living faiths and create a public theology, and as it is committed to move past education for maintenance to education for mission, we request the leadership not overlook the rich resources readily available within the diasporic community among us. They will be an asset and strength in our missional engagement, as they know many languages, several cultures, and various sacred scriptures of major world religions. Our sacred history itself corroborates the necessity of engaging the diasporic faith community as our society becomes multi-contextual and pluralistic. For example, the Septuagint, commonly known as LXX or the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, was translated from Hebrew to Greek for the scattered Hellenistic Jews. They recruited and engaged seventy scholars from the diasporic community. Can our beloved United Methodist Church and COB have such a grand vision for our larger society and tap the untapped rich resources that are readily available among us?

In the final analysis, the unanswered question is this: Is the Office of the Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships envisioned as a programmatic office or a research institute? The answer determines where it should be housed: GBGM or the COB.