The Authentic Voice of God: A Pentecost Reflection
“We engage in interreligious relationships out of gratitude for the gifts we have received from a generous and loving God. We engage in such relationship also with the expectation of the gifts we will receive from our religious partners. Even as we affirm our own Christian witness and conviction, we acknowledge with humility that there is much of the mystery of God unknown to us.”
– Adopted by the United Church of Christ General Synod Twenty Five, July 2005
Over the past two years, I have been blessed to serve in an Interim capacity as Dean of the Chapel at nearby Rollins College here in Winter Park, Florida. The church where I serve as Senior Minister, the First Congregational Church of Winter Park, founded Rollins in 1885. Long ago, Rollins broke its ties with the Congregational Church and began to grow into what it is today: a truly exceptional secular, multi-cultural, multi-faith private college.
Now that the Interim period is over, the college set upon forming a search committee to find an individual to become the new “Dean of Religious Life.” This is a departure from what has traditionally been the “Dean of the Chapel” since the 1930’s. This new position will be a focal point for developing Interfaith programming, classes and service opportunities for the Rollins community along with community partners of all manner of faith traditions in order to meet the needs of all of the various faith traditions that are now part of Rollins.
When the Search Committee announced the final two candidates last week, one of the finalists identified as a Zen Buddhist. I felt that this was a brave and wonderful choice by the Search Committee, and very much in keeping with the theology of the founding denomination of the college. The United Church of Christ is a member denomination of the Interfaith Relations Committee of the National Council of Churches, and is on the forefront of Interfaith dialogue and relationships.
When this candidate was announced, there was backlash from some students and their families, staff and faculty that a non-Christian was being considered for the position. A petition to remove this candidate was posted online, citing things such as the following:
“The fact that this candidate has made it so far in the hiring process shows a lack of respect towards the history of this institution and the wishes of the founding members. The Dean of Religious Life is responsible for the religious and spiritual needs of the Rollins community, and so should then reflect the Rollins community. The Zen Buddhist candidate does not accurately represent the background and beliefs of the vast majority of the student body of Rollins College and she certainly does not represent the culture and history of the college itself.
The serious consideration of a Zen Buddhist as the Dean of Religious Life is in complete opposition of Rollins’ founding. Rollins College was conceived of, proposed by, and founded by the Christian Congregational Church. This action marks an attempt to make a significant and fundamental change to the character and culture of Rollins College, and is an action that can not be taken lightly.
Speaking on behalf of the Rollins community, this petition calls for the withdrawal of the Buddhist candidate from the consideration for the position of Dean of Religious Life.”
What struck me immediately about this petition was a complete lack of understanding about the church and the denomination that founded Rollins. What has become the United Church of Christ is a denomination rich in the history of giving the authentic Voice of God the chance of being heard from people whose culture and society would have sought to keep silent; particularly women, African-Americans and the LBGTQ community.
We were the first mainline Protestant denomination in the US to ordain an African-American in 1785, the first woman in 1853, and the first openly gay man in 1972. We have always sought to allow the Voice of God to be heard from all of God’s people, and most certainly that ethos holds true in our current age as pertains Interfaith dialogue and our continuing work in that arena.
The issue I take with the dissent over a non-Christian as Dean of Religious Life is the inference that somehow a non-Christian can’t maintain the vitality of the Christian population at Rollins. The Jewish population made no such petition, neither did the Muslim population nor any other faith tradition at Rollins. Only the Christians.
Rollins is not a Christian College and is a secular home to a wide variety of world religions and spiritual practices. The center of spiritual life on campus, the Knowles Memorial Chapel, needs to be an authentic, safe and welcoming space for the entirety of the Rollins community and give equal value and care to all of the faiths represented on campus. This may offend some, but the Christians aren’t any more important than anyone else at Rollins, and at a secular multi-cultural college why would they be?
Sadly, the petition also symbolized the idea that the authentic Voice of God can’t come from anyone other than a Christian; something the founding church of Rollins would strongly disagree with.
As the quote from our 2005 General Synod profoundly states, “Even as we affirm our own Christian witness and conviction, we acknowledge with humility that there is much of the mystery of God unknown to us”– a diplomatic way of saying that we don’t have a monopoly on Truth just because we’re Christians. If Rollins is indeed to stay true to the theology of its founders, the exploration of a non-Christian as the Dean of Religious Life is in perfect keeping. To state otherwise is a fundamental misunderstanding of the church that founded Rollins in the first place.
Yesterday was Pentecost, and I thought a lot about this in light of the Pentecost story. After the Holy Spirit rushes like a wind upon the disciples and they are heard and understood to be speaking in the various world languages of the residents of Jerusalem, the disciple Peter quotes the prophet Joel and reminds people of the following words:
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” — Acts 2:17
God says through the prophet that the Spirit will pour out on ALL flesh…that’s everybody. Not just the Children of Israel, not just the followers of Jesus…ALL flesh.
Therefore, God’s Spirit is poured out to all peoples, and the Authentic Voice of God is heard from the mouths of ALL of God’s children: the people of Israel, the followers of The Way, the followers of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), those who follow the Buddha, the Krishna, the Earth Mother, as well as those who follow nothing at all yet still live each day in compassion and care for their world and those who live in it.
The minute we start to think that God’s Voice can’t be heard as authentically from one person just because they are a woman, a child, a person of another race or ethnicity, a different sexual orientation or gender identity, or another faith practice other than one’s own, we suffocate the Spirit of Pentacost and prevent the opportunity for ALL of God’s children to prophecy, to see visions and to dream dreams.
May we always seek to be a brave, bold Pentecostal People with eyes open enough to see, ears open enough to hear, and hearts and minds open enough to receive God’s Voice from ALL of God’s People.