A newsletter for friends of the Global Mission Institute, Luther Seminary

Global Vision - Spring 2011

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Three Luther Seminary Students Participate in Global Interfaith Dialogue

by Grace Alworth, M.Div. Junior

Through their participation as writers in an interfaith dialogue blog, three Luther Seminary students are actively living out the call to love their neighbors as themselves.

They have joined their neighbors from a multitude of faith traditions in a conversation to shape and understand each other's beliefs. Kari Aanestad (M.Div. middler), John Klawiter (M.Div. intern) and Paul Joseph Greene (Ph.D., second year) are serving as representatives of a Christian voice in this interfaith dialogue on the State of Formation blog
Aanestad and Klawiter both bring a Lutheran voice to the conversation. Greene, who grew up in the Catholic church, brings the perspective of a self-described "religious refugee." Greene describes his faith as, "informed by the Christ and the Buddha, the Tao and the Philosophy of Organism, the passion for authentic understanding of the nature of divinity and the nature of creation and a deep concern for the devastation that vacuous materialism and rampant consumerism are perpetrating against persons, communities and our biosphere."

The State of Formation blog, sponsored by The Council for the Parliament of the World's Religions, the Journal for Interreligious Dialogue, Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School, is an attempt to facilitate a conversation between "emerging religious and ethical leaders" representing voices from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, atheism, and more. The three Luther Seminary students are part of a team of approximately 50 total bloggers from across the world.

Below, Aanestad, Greene and Klawiter share thoughts on how writing for the State of Formation blog has impacted them and their ministry.

How did you get involved with writing for the State of Formation blog?

Kari: As soon as Chris Stedman, [a friend of mine and the managing director of State of Formation] said to me (that the blog was about) "emerging religious leaders tackling pressing ethical issues of our pluralistic world," I was hooked. I had been itching for an opportunity to use my writing to more deeply engage the content of my seminary coursework in light of social trends and dilemmas discussed in the mainstream media.

John: I went to Melbourne at the end of 2009 with President Bliese and four other (Luther Seminary) students for the Parliament of the World's Religions (PWR). This was a great experience because it allowed me to be in conversation with so many different perspectives. (After) coming back from the PWR, I wanted to plug into more interreligious dialogue, but with three kids and a busy schedule, it's not easy to make it to events around the Twin Cities. Because I attended PWR, I received an invitation to apply to write for this blog. Writing on this blog allows me to talk about the topics that are interesting and pertinent around religion and social issues.

Paul: I got involved when Dr. Paul Chung, associate professor of mission and world Christianity at Luther Seminary, generously suggested the opportunity to me and encouraged my application. With great gratitude I applied, and even made it onto the executive committee with Kari Aanestad.
My academic and personal interests lie primarily in the areas of religious pluralism and a social ethics of justice and mercy, all of which are means of expressing the sublime and breathtaking inter-relationality that composes our entire cosmos and endears us to the heart of divinity. I cannot imagine a better fit for me than the State of Formation blog, where the two main areas of concentration are interfaith dialogue and ethics.

What do you hope to accomplish by participating in this discussion?

Kari: I (hope to) be able to more deeply engage in contextualized issues related to ethics and theology in conversation with voices from (both) other religious and non-religious traditions. I suspect that the future of not only our church, but also the wellbeing of interfaith and intercultural relationships worldwide, will be intimately shaped by our ability to share our stories with one another and our willingness to hear the stories of the other.

John: I think it's very important to be in dialogue with others in such a pluralistic society ... Accepting, acknowledging and befriending people of other religions are (all) way(s) to plug into the world around me. I've found that (writing for State of Formation) has helped me in preaching and teaching at my internship congregation, as well as in understanding the importance of explaining theology to people new to the faith. It is affirming to hear positive voices from diverse faith groups, knowing that most of us aspire to similar goals in our interaction with the world around us.

Why is interfaith dialogue important in today's world?

Kari: We are in a global world. Our interdependency upon each other demands greater and deeper understanding of our neighbors. Interfaith dialogue is important because the mutual sharing of values and traditions helps build and inform relationships cross-culturally and inter-denominationally. The quality of these relationships will continue to play a key role as our world is faced with global issues.

John: Because there are so many voices in the conversation, we need to have unity on the issues. If the religious community can come together and speak out on the social issues with a unified voice, we won't see each other as just Christian, Muslim, Jew or atheist, but as humans yearning for a peaceful world. This isn't to say that we should all just get along and that we can't disagree, but, as Lutherans, we lose nothing by speaking out against the intolerance of Islama-phobia. We lose nothing if we stand up for our neighbor and engage in dialogue, instead of remaining in our shell (of) fear (based on ignorance of other religions).

Paul: The task before us is to build a vibrant, creative, pluralistic, cooperative human community. The task for us is to grow up. We must no longer be contented to hide in our safe enclaves of people 'like us.' In fact, that kind of cowardice is increasingly no longer even an option. As we grow together, it is the height of hubris to imagine, and act, as if some people are worthy of this cooperative human community, and others are to be excluded.

The planet cannot afford for us to leave anyone behind as we face the challenges of the devastation of human communities, devastation of ecosystems, in fact the devastation of the biosphere. We do not have the luxury of categorically excluding people with whom we may disagree. Interfaith dialogue is therefore required, along with its close relatives inter-civilizational dialogue, multi-culturalism and pluralism.

What does this blog bring to the global church?

John: A voice and a place for the voices to come together and speak out. This blog needs to take on challenges and grow, but it's a starting point for these voices to come and learn about each other in an honest, open and interesting format. It brings together voices, perspectives and opinions that are literally from all over the world.

Paul: This blog may be regarded as a tentative reach into what it means to be church now. It provides a forum for dialogue where we may explore the truth with one another. I think the blog model emphasizes the (bankruptcy) of monologue-preaching, and sets up a sharp contrast to that traditional model. This new model (allows us as people of God) to search, wonder, explore and struggle with the most difficult issues together, instead of expecting that someone else (i.e. priest, pastor, rabbi, monk, scientist, legislator, minister, hierarchy, Book of Common Prayer, creed, Scripture, etc.) has worked out the problems for us and will provide us with approved answers.

To be religious means literally to be bound together, to be interconnected. Authentic dialogue strengthens the bonds of unity while simultaneously encouraging the flourishing of distinctive forms and manifestations—unity does not require uniformity. A blog like State of Formation models precisely this.

What is the importance of the Lutheran voice in this discussion?

Kari: The [blog's] discussion is ultimately concerned with addressing pressing issues in a pluralistic world. I think the Lutheran voice provides a particularly helpful framework in which to understand those issues.  We know the human condition is brimming with brokenness and suffering. Much more, we know what hope is. Our most central claim—that we are in a right and intimate relationship with a loving God by no action of our own—is both humbling and inspiring. The claim challenges us to reevaluate our expectations of our personal ability to effect change. Yet, that claim also inspires us to strive to heal brokenness through love and service to our neighbors, which is done at least in part by engagement in interfaith dialogue.

John: I think it shows the value that we (at Luther Seminary) place on representing our denomination and putting out posts that explain our theological perspective on whatever issue we happen to be addressing. In February, when we had a topic about GLBT (gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender) and bullying each of us was able to take a personal experience and put it in a Lutheran context on how we see God working in our lives and how we should be treating each other. In a blog format that is so diverse, we are representing Lutherans, but in many ways, we are apologists (defenders) for the Christian faith.

What inspires you to think and write about these issues?

Kari: My main inspiration for writing right now is the idea that I, as a future Lutheran leader, will best serve my people if I have an awareness of the meta-narratives coursing through American culture (plus I just really love writing about Lady GaGa and Disney movies ).

John: It's easy to get complacent and settled into a routine as a pastor of looking at the lectionary, figuring out your message for Sunday and doing the day-to-day pastoral duties. State of Formation is a microcosm of the community around me. It provides a litmus test for how people feel about the most controversial or pressing current issues of the day. Through Twitter and Facebook, State of Formation also embraces the connection and importance of social media in the religious realm. People want to talk about this stuff and they want a forum to do it.

Paul: With every fiber of my being I believe what the great American poet, Walt Whitman said in "Song of Myself," where he wrote, "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." (I also believe in) what cosmologist Brian Swimme said in his book The Universe is a Green Dragon, "There is no such thing as a disconnected thing."

When we let the truth of our profound togetherness seep into the marrow of ourselves, we will become the beings we are meant to become, in the manner expressed by the father of Western monasticism, St. Benedict, who said that "our hearts [will be] overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love."  What could be more inspirational than the inexpressible delight of love?  That kind of inspired love leads me to end most of my articles by saying, "Let's become a new creation together."

As seminary students, you are still learning, how is this experience impacting that?

Kari: State of Formation has impacted my training for ordination in two ways. The first is that it has pushed me to discern what my voice is and to what extent my voice honestly represents the Lutheran tradition. The initiative is pushing me to dive deeper into the traditions of my faith, discover the wonderful riches Lutheranism has to offer the world and share them in a way that is both inviting and reflective of my own experience. I have been challenged to give an authentic defense of my faith.

Second, the initiative has deepened my understanding of the expanded theological terrain. Much of my seminary training so far has been catered to a primarily Lutheran audience, which enables me to make certain assumptions and feel comfortable in a certain language. When writing for a theologically diverse audience that includes the nonreligious voice, I am held by my use of language and how I construct an argument. My personal theology does not change, but the way I talk about it does. This initiative has pushed me to be creative in my translation of Lutheranism to those outside of the Lutheran faith.

John: I'm going to be a pastor who emphasizes the need for my parishioners to have an ability to articulate their faith.  By engaging in dialogue with each other and learning more about one another's faith, (I hope that my parishioners) will be more confident and comfortable sharing and learning from those who are of a different faith. I am still learning how to be a minister, I am still learning how to be in interreligious dialogue, and State of Formation is helping me to gain more experience in both areas.

Paul: After seminary, I intend to teach theology, religious studies, or religion, which is what I have done for most of my adult career up until now. I cannot wait to get back in the classroom as a teacher. That is what I love to do, and it is where I am called to plant my happy soul.

The State of Formation blog is a forum where I continually return to (today's) important issues. If I can practice articulating how theology really matters (as a blog writer) on State of Formation, and enter into genuine conversations with people who have radically different world views than mine, I will be a better teacher because I will be better equipped to meet the challenges of my students as we gradually awaken to truth together.

An invitation to join the conversation

State of Formation is expanding Kari, John and Paul's circle of dialogue partners to include people far and wide, whom they would never encounter at Luther Seminary. State of Formation can provide the same service for any student regardless of whether he or she is or is a contributing scholar. Anyone can jump into the conversation on any of hundreds of topics! If you want to be a contributing scholar, please apply! We would love to have you join us.

Fill out an application to become a State of Formation contributing scholar.