More than 100 Lutherans streamed into the basement classroom at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Des Peres Sunday for a Bible study called "Islam Through a Lutheran Lens."
It was a better-than-expected showing, and people carefully balanced their Styrofoam coffee cups as they rearranged extra folding chairs into rows to capture the overflow crowd.
"We're going to be looking at (Islam) though the lenses we have been given through God's word, the Scriptures and the Lutheran confessions," the Rev. Glen Thomas told them. The executive director of pastoral education for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod had taught a similar series of classes in the fall called "Mormonism Through a Lutheran Lens."
"How many people here know a Muslim?" Thomas asked.
Three hands went up. Thomas pressed on.
He explained that the idea of obedience was important in Islam, that Muslims were constantly striving to 'satisfy, or in some way impress, God with holy living." He called Islam a "religion of man," meaning that "the arrow is always pointing toward God."
Christianity, Thomas said, "is the only one of the world's religions that the arrow is exactly the opposite. We realize that there is nothing we can do in order to sufficiently impress God." There's "a huge difference" between Islam and Christianity, he said. "And I'll try to make this contrast clear and consistent as we go."
In a time when disdain for other faiths is commonplace, even blessed in some religious circles, how does a Bible study instructor contrast the teachings and doctrines of another tradition and his own without seeming intolerant? And conversely, can the increased sensitivity to multiculturalism and religious diversity in early 21st-century America gradually diminish the celebration of one faith tradition's distinctive place in the theological spectrum?
"If you're going to take your religion seriously, you should feel it's superior to others. Why else believe in it?" said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "On the other hand, society does require a hands-off attitude toward other faiths in order for us to all live together. It's a dilemma."
Thomas, who was on staff at Concordia Seminary in Clayton for 18 years, said he believes the Bible studies at St. Paul's have stayed on the respectful side of the line. His goal with the classes, he said, is to explain the teachings of another religion and to ask why Lutherans don't believe the same thing.
"It leads not only to a better understanding of what Islam, for instance, teaches," he said, "but a sharper and deeper understanding of our confession of the faith as Lutherans."
The Rev. Dale Meyer, president of Concordia Seminary, said students are taught to be guided by a verse from 1 Peter: "Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you."
Meyer said the curriculum "is intended to give graduates the critical ability to listen, then take what they've been taught and give answer to why we believe what we believe."
Few would argue the right of anyone to explain, defend or promote their own faith. The challenge, said interfaith leaders, is doing so without denigrating someone else's deeply held beliefs.
In September, during the series of classes at St. Paul's on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Thomas said that, as in any church, there are some Mormons who are deeply familiar with their faith and others "who have a superficial recognition and understanding of what it teaches."
"You would always hope that people in that church don't believe some of the stuff that we'll start talking about next week," Thomas said. "And maybe, in spite of being there, have an understanding that their sins are forgiven by grace through faith in Jesus Christ."
Leigh Greenhaw, a former president of St. Louis-based Interfaith Partnership/Faith Beyond Walls, said that while interfaith work "is more honest if people do it from the perspective of expressing what's real and distinctive in their own faith," it's often a difficult prospect for Christians who hold tightly to the idea of exclusive revelation.
"The problem that makes people think they have to deny someone else's faith is the idea of revelation," she said. "If Jesus Christ is the revelation, and you affirm him as such, it means everything else can't be."
Maligning someone else's faith is 'something akin to a lack of self-confidence," Greenhaw said. "If you're so afraid of teaching (a different religion) to someone else, or of learning another perspective, it may be that you're not very at ease in your own."
Eboo Patel, president of Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, which does a lot of work with St. Louis University students, said he tries to get people to recognize characteristics in their own tradition that might inspire them to seek a positive relationship with people from another tradition. He mentioned Nostra Aetate, the landmark document from the Second Vatican Council that outlines the Roman Catholic Church's relationship with other faiths.
"People ought to believe that their own religion is distinctive and unique and fuller than other religions," said Patel. "I would also hope they would know the stories in Christianity — from the Good Samaritan to Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma — that calls them to have positive relationships with people in other faiths."
By definition, every religion believes it is right.
"It would be odd for a Christian to say Jesus Christ is not as important as the Buddha, or for a Buddhist to say we can give up on the Buddha for the light of the Torah," said William Schweiker, director of the Martin Marty Center and professor of theological ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. "We're talking about traditions that by their very nature have to claim to be ultimate."
Even so, Schweiker said, when religious leaders engage in the scholarly work of trying to understand another religion in a house of worship, "an ethical commitment comes into play."
"We have a responsibility to represent the beliefs and practices in other traditions in ways that the people of that tradition would recognize," he said.
He suggested that if a church was teaching a course on Islam, for instance, it might bring in a scholar of Islam — not an imam, or someone who has his own commitment to represent his own faith claims — to teach the basics of Islam. A scholar, he said, shouldn't let personal convictions color his teachings.
That's precisely what St. Paul's Lutheran is trying. In another class under the church's Institute of Theology banner, Russell Dawn, a religion professor at Lindenwood University, is teaching a series of 10 classes called, "World Religions Through Christian Eyes." But it wasn't clear from Dawn's first class earlier this month if bringing in a religion scholar will achieve the kind of dispassionate teaching Schweiker advocates.
"Thank you, Lord, that you have revealed yourself to us," Dawn prayed with the group before class began. "We pray that you would use tonight and the remaining nine weeks after tonight to reveal yourself even more clearly as we study the religions of those who have sought truth in all the wrong places."