Esalen’s Center for Theory and Research (CTR)
Beyond Fundamentalism Project
Directed By Joe Montville
Summary for the January 14 to 16, 2007 Conference Titled:
Abrahamic Family Reunion
Starts with Christian Peace Conference
On January 14-16, 2007 in wind-swept and snowy South Bend, Indiana, the first spin-off event of the CTR/Track II Beyond Fundamentalism project emerged as a success. Hosted by the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, the meeting of nineteen leading mainline and evangelical Protestants and Catholics, clerics and lay people symbolically ratified a strong, new sense of unity and palpable mutual respect. However, we did not begin the meeting assuming this was so. In fact we called the meeting to see if the reported antagonism between the two Protestant camps was as bad as it had been reported in the media. This was one of our key challenges.
But in the course of our two days together, we learned-a key learning-that evangelical Christians were not a monolith. There were large numbers who rejected rigid dogmatism and were open-minded on many political, social, scientific and moral issues. The era of indiscriminate negative stereotyping of “the evangelicals” was over. Protestants-and Catholics-were determined to engage vigorously to promote broad Christian social values like “caring for the least among us,” protecting the planet from human degradation, reconciling with Jews, making peace with Muslims, and showing respect and even affection for all God’s children.
Mainline church members in the Esalen Christian fundamentalism workshop in April 2006, had reported finding considerable common ground with evangelicals on public policy and moral questions in recent meetings. (Peggy Shriver, Esalen participant and former assistant general secretary of the National Council of Churches, later documented an element of this convergence in her article, “Evangelicals and World Affairs,” in World Policy Journal, Vol. XXIII, No. 3, Fall, 2006.) And so the Esalen group recommended that we organize a Big Sur type, friendly encounter between major mainline and evangelical leaders and scholars. It was not meant to be an academic meeting or produce an action program, although several projects resulted. The design of the meeting was to allow extraordinary people to meet, develop friendships and hopefully spawn numerous new collaborations. Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame and adviser to the Beyond Fundamentalism series, had graciously agreed to host and co-sponsor the event with Esalen.
In addition to the lure of a winter meeting in Indiana, a key incentive for the participants was the fact that the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the mainline National Council of Churches, were among the first to accept our invitation. To put this in perspective, the NAE represents 79 denominations with 30 million people. The NCC counts 100,000 local congregations with 45 million people. This is, as they say, a prophetically large number of Americans who through Esalen’s continued good faith relationships with the NAE and NCC could eventually learn of our creative work over the next few years to convince Christians, Muslims and Jews that we are, indeed, an Abrahamic family. Add to that number potentially millions of Catholics with whom we could communicate through the Kroc Institute and the Catholic Peacebuilding Network housed there, Father John Pawlikowski, of the Chicago Theological Union and Professor David Bossman, of Seton Hall University, both of whom are national leaders in Catholic reconciliation work with Jews and now Muslims, and Peter Steinfels, religion columnist for the New York Times and co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture. Father Leonid Kishkovsky, a senior officer of the Orthodox Churches in America, could also be helpful with his community.
Truth be told, there had been a lot of anxiety expressed in the Christian fundamentalism workshop last April about the power of evangelicals and fundamentalists in political alliance with President Bush and the Republican Party engineered by Karl Rove. Some 60 million Americans had read or been exposed to the Left Behind series of novels that depict apocalypse and salvation only for born-again Christians. Leading televangelists and conservative politicians had mocked the threat of global warmingÑor welcomed it as an accelerator of the End of Times when God will separate the Saved and reject the Damned. Social conservatives had pushed hard to limit women’s reproductive rights, isolate homosexuals, and eliminate the wall of separation between church and state. (For an account of the connection between the religious Right and the Bush administration see “A Country Ruled by Faith,” by Gary Wills in the November 16, 2006, New York Review of Books. Readers may also consult the proceedings of the Esalen Christian fundamentalism workshop at esalenctr.org/beyond fundamentalism.)
By impressive contrast, we learned at Notre Dame that there was a new cadre of younger leaders among evangelicals who are fighting for social responsibility, caring for the poor, confronting disease worldwide, and facing the threat of potentially disastrous climate change. The James Dobsons, Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons, and Franklin Grahams of the Christian Right had lost much of their influence. And the November Congressional elections showed significant numbers of evangelicals rejecting the positions of movement conservatism.
Indeed, on January 17, the day after the Notre Dame meeting, Richard Cizik co-lead a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, with Dr. Eric Chivian, Nobel laureate and director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, in which they and 26 other evangelical and scientific leaders released an “Urgent Call for Action.” The statement, sent to President Bush, Congressional leaders and national religious and scientific organizations, expressed profound concern about human-caused threats to CreationÑincluding climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, species extinction, the spread of human infectious diseases, and other dangers to the well-being of societies. At the press conference, Richard Cizik said, “Great scientists are people of imagination. So are people of great faith. We dare to imagine a world in which science and religion work together to reverse the degradation of Creation. We will not allow it to be progressively destroyed by human folly.”
To bring the dimensions of the global challenge home, The NCC’s Bob Edgar reminded the Notre Dame meeting that half of the people who ever lived on Planet Earth are alive today. And that 95% of the manufactured goods ever made were made between 1900 and 2007. He emphasized the need for a “faithful majority” to face the challenges to alleviate poverty, preserve the planet and establish peace in the world. These themes are elaborated in his book, Middle Church: Reclaiming the Moral Values of the Faithful Majority from the Religious Right, which is an encouraging appeal also to “Middle Synagogue,” and “Middle Mosque.”
Among the themes discussed by the Notre Dame workshop were the possible link between some of the more militant Christian fundamentalists and the legacy of unhealed wounds in the relationship between the white North and the white South, certainly from the Civil War, but in fact originating in an almost 300 year tradition of Northern, especially New England, insult and disdain for the South as a culture. We looked at Southern Baptists as a community of human beings, drawing on writings of Bill Leonard, dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University, and heard David Key, director of Baptist studies at Emory University, describe the social and political dynamics of the very conservative Southern Baptist Convention which, while evangelistic, does not count itself in the community represented by the National Association of Evangelicals. On the question of healing wounds in the North/South relationship, Don Shriver, a native Virginian and emeritus president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, explored the possibility of healing the North/South relationship through apology and forgiveness.
We saw two documentary films: one, “The Imam and the Pastor,” on Christian-Muslim reconciliation telling the story of two Nigerian clerics, a Muslim imam and a Christian evangelical, who had fought each other bitterly and then drew on their faith resources to reconcile and forgive. Glen Stassen of Fuller Theological Seminary and Andrew Saperstein of the Yale Divinity School, both evangelicals, provided context through their work of respectful engagement between Christians and Muslims. The other film, “Sister Rose’s Passion,” told the story of a nun from Wisconsin who lead a personal campaign to purge Catholic liturgy and catechisms of anti-Jewish language condemning Jews, collectively and in perpetuity, for the killing of Christ. Both films could have significant impact on Christian public opinion, and both are now available to the NAE and NCC communities for dissemination to their membership. The Kroc Institute was presented a copy of “Sister Rose’s Passion,” to use in teaching Notre Dame students, and it will receive “The Imam and the Pastor,” also.
There will be many more activities that can be traced to the workshop and “corridor” connections made among the Notre Dame participants. All are likely to advance movement toward the Abrahamic Family Reunion. And, not incidentally, our workshop may contribute to healing in the American political community.