The recent hoopla over using the Duke University chapel for Muslim prayers raises interesting issues, and is just another sign of our highly-religious nation’s deeply troubled understanding of its own convictions. The value of religious principles to our nation’s values is without question and the positive contributions of religion to our nation far outweigh its many failures.
But when “bad” religion still makes headline news in our country, the counter-argument has merit. This recent controversy at Duke amounts to idolatry of brick and mortar and is just more fuel for anti-religionists’ fire.
God forgive us.
Of course, the issue is an issue because of a decade of grotesquely twisted deeds of inhumanity, perpetrated by religious extremists in the name of Allah. No one I know personally, including a half-dozen Imams and dozens of deeply committed Muslims, offers anything but condemnation for 9/11 and the sprawl of deadly attacks in its wake. Worldwide, Muslim leaders condemn religiously-motivated violence as a violation of Islam, as should all people of faith. Without these years of violence a request for a Muslim call to prayer using a university chapel would likely not have even made the seven o’clock news.
But it is in the news and I feel compelled to respond.
The first misunderstanding that should be addressed is the erroneous claim, made recently by a sadly misinformed Franklin Graham, as reported by “Christianity Today”: “It’s wrong because it’s a different god." It is not a different god, Mr. Graham. Muslims don’t pray to Arausio, a Celtic god of water, or Odin, the chief Norse deity, or Mars, the Roman god of war, or any of thousands of other gods in the pantheon. Muslims pray to the same Allah to whom Arabic-speaking Christians pray.
Members of our partner church in Cuba pray to “El Señor” and “Dios.” Are they praying to different gods? These are Spanish words for God – and no one says Cuban Christians pray to “a different god.” Neither should we question that Saudi Christians, or American Muslims, pray other than to God when they simply use an Arabic word. Mr. Graham and so many others need to quit condemning a billion brothers and sisters on this planet for worshipping a foreign deity.
That being said, even the worship of another god should be tolerated by Baptists. In A Plea for Religious Liberty, Roger Williams, the forefather of Baptists in America said: “…it is the will and command of God that... a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations…” Williams believed adherents of other religions were wrong – but he was exiled by other Christians for defending the "liberty of conscience.”
True Baptists still defend that right.
Perhaps the most troubling part of this “scandal,” however, is the issue made of the use of the space itself: the space is “Christian,” so any non-Christian usage would desecrate it. So, the sanctuary is “sacred,” but the basement of the same Christian building is not? Muslim students have prayed in that basement for six years, without protest, but they can’t use a room on the first floor? Of course space is important. Shape and decoration and setting can enhance worship, but what really makes a space “sacred”? I have worshiped on boats and in cars, in hotel rooms and gymnasiums, under trees and on mountain outcroppings, none of which was “Christian” or had any religious symbols. Each was made holy by the presence of other worshipers, and, by Jesus: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be in the midst…” (Matthew 18.20).
When a local Jewish congregation constructed a new worship space, the Roman Catholic Church across town donated its sanctuary during construction, and allowed crosses and other Christian symbols to be covered for Shabbat services. This sign of generous interfaith cooperation made the space no less “Christian” for Sunday Mass just because the Torah had been intoned in the same room 24 hours before.
How silly our arguments become, and how hypocritical they make us look, in the eyes of a world which needs faith at work and not religion defending its turf. Let us give our religious traditions space to breathe free, not confine them in spaces which blind us to the God who is also alive in a world just outside our windows.