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A Model for Interfaith Living

As Christians get more and more involved in interfaith activities they may be moved to examine their own scriptures, doctrines, and traditions in order to lay a sound basis for this work. Below is a portion of a sermon I preached yesterday, entitled A Model for Interfaith Living. Very often Christian sermons are based on Bible passages listed in a schedule of readings called the Common Lectionary. Among the Common Lectionary readings for May 25th was the following story about Paul the Apostle visiting Athens and reaching across religious boundaries.

Acts 17: 22-28

So Paul, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by people, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all people life and breath, and everything. And he made from one every nation of people to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your poets have said.”


interfaith leaders
interfaith colleagues at Hanover St. Presbyterian Church

Scarcely a day passes anymore without news of terrorist activity in some part of the world, and much of this is instigated by militants who are using religion to incite hatred. The Faith in Action Committee of Hanover Church noticed that such reports were making some people in our own community nervous, and suspicious of strangers. Might the civility and eventually the safety of our own city be undermined by fear? We decided that we needed to provide a safe place for people from various faith traditions to meet and eat together and talk about what we were experiencing. We needed to ramp up interfaith education, but not merely of the academic sort. We Christians needed to understand better not just what Muslims or Jews or Sikhs or Buddhists believe, but more importantly, how they experience the presence of God. This, we decided, would more likely help us be peaceable neighbors: talking about our experience of the presence of God.

That’s what the Apostle Paul did when he addressed the lovers of philosophy who used to gather in the market place in Athens to discuss the latest ideas. We read about it in today’s passage from Acts. Paul was afire with good news about the resurrection of Jesus, and he felt called to share this good news with everyone, everyone! But notice how he went about talking to those seekers after truth. He didn’t say: “Look here, you poor lost souls. You’ve got it all wrong, and if you don’t see things the way I do, you’re all going to hell!” Some Christian evangelists have spoken that way. But Paul set a very different model for witnessing about Jesus to people whose experience of the presence of God had a different history.

There is a phrase in the third chapter of First Peter that puts in a nutshell Paul’s approach. It says, “Always be ready to give an account to anyone who asks about the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect.” Paul did that so well! He was gentle and respectful. He acknowledged that he wasn’t bringing God to these strangers. They had already experienced the presence of God, although they didn’t have words to aptly describe that experience. Indeed, does anyone? In the presence of God we are awkward stammerers who grasp the all in a mystic moment, but cannot convey what has come over us. That’s partly why Jews have always refused to pronounce the word for “God”. That’s why the ancient Christian monks of the desert wrote about the God of Unknowing. And that’s why the story about Jesus is so very precious. John put it this way in his first chapter: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.” In other words, a most excellent way for human beings to understand what God is like is to get to know Jesus, who was so chock full of God’s spirit!

An account of Christian hope might continue in this way: The sacred spirit which the philosophers of Athens had already experienced even before the arrival of Paul the missionary, that sacred spirit which was so abundantly present in Jesus, continues to be experienced by people today who have been raised in various religious traditions, or even none. That spirit is free, and it blows where it wills, teaches John the Evangelist in his third chapter. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, drew this insight from John’s text: He said, “There is that of God in everyone.” Although we might like to broker sacred spirit, or claim our own unique access to it, so as to warrant a certain theological pedigree, sacred spirit cannot be corralled by our doctrines. That’s what Paul was acknowledging when he addressed the philosophers of Athens and told them that he and they shared a common experience. Paul did not feign respect. He did not talk nice to those guys just to get their ears. He respected their witness because he observed that sacred spirit had already visited them. He was there to share more good news about the ongoing presence of what Christians eventually called the Counselor, the Advocate; but that spirit of God was busy with folks long before Christians connected it to Jesus of Nazareth.

— TCDavis


  1. I continue to admire Tom Davis as a standard bearer of interfaith. It is no coincidence that soon after reading yesterday’s lectionary texts that I came upon this post, which is both enlightening and prophetic. I know you will continue to be that voice in the wilderness that speaks the word of truth. At a time when the vast majority of preachers glean for passages of scripture that justify their “righteousness” in order to keep the church alive, the world need courageous believers who are committed to speak truth to the power of the scripture to heal our world and free it from prejudice.

  2. Dear Jonas,
    Thanks so much for commenting! I miss you, brother, and pray God’s blessings on your ministry at All Nations Presbyterian Church. You too are a standard bearer for the inclusiveness of God’s love.

  3. Hayim Weiss Hayim Weiss

    Dear Tom,

    As I read your post, the more I always look at commonalities among faiths. Faith is not the same as religion. Faith is trust. Perhaps our message of interfaith is really one of inter-trust; that is to say, we need to trust one another and have an allegiance to one another rather than to simply live, work, and play as separate communities with distrust. Only with trust, do I believe, that we can rid our communities of the crime, poverty, hatred, bigotry, racism, and so forth that have plagued us for way too long.

    • Dear Hayim,
      Thanks so much, friend, for your thoughtful comment. I agree heartily! When many people think about interfaith dialogue they think first about comparing and contrasting beliefs. That kind of discussiion often remains cognitive, and leaves out feelings, which is where your mention of trust is so relevant. I could be wrong–I haven’t any sociological-theological studies to back this up–but it seems to me that many people today place more emphasis on spiritual experience than on religious belief. It was not always so, and I don’t know what might have caused this trend; probably a lot of things. At any rate, to do interfaith work effectively, it seems to me we need to share our spiritual experiences. Some folks might talk about those in terms of God, and others, not.

  4. RuthAnnie RuthAnnie

    Reading this on Memorial Day has given me some relief from the turmoil I experience on every patriotic holiday overlaid with songs of “faith”. I n your words I sense the calling of , courage, compassion and creativity, as Vincent Harding puts it. His passing this week has also moved me and with him I long to forward this message to our Elders & Youth who have the most to give and to gain if we were to embrace all that you say.

    Thank you, Tom.

  5. Hello, RuthAnne
    You bring other perspectives to the discussion, given your involvement with the Leni-Lenape people. I wish I knew more about their spiritual experience. So much has been lost from the first peoples of this continent. Thanks for doing what you can to honor and preserve what remains!

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