By James W. McCarty III (Ph.D. Candidate, Emory University)
Historically, attempts at ecumenical and interreligious dialogue have focused on finding common ground, shared beliefs, or analogous practices as ways of bridging the divide between communities that have found themselves in conflict with, or at best suspicious of, each other. These meetings often conclude with trite affirmations of sameness or claims that “all religions teach peace” or “each tradition is a different path up the same mountain.” In doing so the assumed solution to conflict is the promotion of generic sameness. This is not unlike well-intentioned attempts at “color-blindness” in American social life that often hinder more than help in overcoming the negative legacy of racism in the United States.
In contrast to this approach, scholars and practitioners have begun to emphasize the uniqueness of religious communities as a resource for mutual learning and social transformation. In its own way, the Christian Scholars’ Conference is an exemplar of this approach to dialogue and learning. A conference born out of the Churches of Christ, a historically insular and sometimes sectarian Christian fellowship, the conference intentionally reaches out to “outsiders” while remaining palpably “Church of Christ” in ethos and the subject matter of a significant number of sessions.
One helpful example of learning across traditions and institutions at the conference was a session, of which I was a part, in which Reformed Church of America-affiliated New Brunswick Theological Seminary’s Anti-Racism Transformation Team initiative was discussed as an example of an institutional way to address racism at Christian institutions of higher education. Another example of such dialogue was a session that occurred in a prison in Nashville, Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, in which a chaplain and residents of Riverbend discussed the possibilities of reconciliation in the context of prison. Finally, a third example of learning across boundaries occurred in a session about Lee Camp’s book Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam—and Themselves. In this session Christian ethicists and Muslim scholars reflected on Camp’s argument about the different ethics of Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad. Perhaps surprisingly, one Muslim scholar said that Camp’s book taught him more about his own faith. In these and many other sessions, the CSC embodied the kind of dialogue that both embraces the uniqueness and independence of traditions and institutions while opening up the kind of hospitable space in which true learning can happen across differences.
The conference is held each summer at one of two Church of Christ-affiliated universities: Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN or Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA. The theme of the conference changes annually. Last year’s theme was “The Path of Discovery: Science, Theology, and the Adademy,” and the theme for this year’s conference was “Reconciliation: At the Intersection of Scholarship and Practice.” The plenary speakers of this year’s conference, showcasing the interdisciplinary nature of the conference, included a theologian, a lawyer and mediator, and a genocide survivor. The highlight of the conference for many was the ceremony in which Fred Gray, lawyer to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and a life-long member of the Churches of Christ, was awarded an honorary doctorate from Lipscomb University, a school he once filed a lawsuit against in protest of the closing of the African-American school Nashville Christian Institute and the transfer of its funds to Lipscomb. Thus, the CSC, at least for one moment and in a symbolic way, embodied the conference theme. Those intrigued by such experiences would do well to attend the conference in the future.