By PAUL A. BARRA
COLUMBIA — The big question being asked at the LARCUM conference this year was “How can we be authentic Christians while still being open to ideas of people from other faith traditions?” By the end of the weekend on the campus of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary the question was still largely unanswered.
But it had been discussed.
The featured speaker for the 2002 LARCUM (Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, United Methodist) Conference was the Rev. Elizabeth S. Gamble, a pastor and the associate general secretary of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns of the United Methodist Church. Her theme was Living Faithfully As Christians in a Multifaith World. Gamble said that her assessment of the participants in the conference caused her to alter her planned program to allow for more open discussion time in the two-day conference.
“I saw such richness in faith journeys and experience here,” she said. “It makes a lecturer’s job easier.”
The discussion was frank and intense among the clergy and laity who attended. It was as if they were all old friends, as indeed they may be.
LARCUM dialogues began in 1991, with the four mainline Christian faiths each providing a speaker in rotation. Last year, Cardinal Avery Dulles gave academic, theological lectures. This year’s event was geared more toward fundamentals, according to Bishop Robert Baker of Charleston.
“This was a positive, grass-roots dialogue, bringing up basic tenets of ecumenism. We see a critical need to get beyond criticism of each other,” he said.
The spiritual leader of the Catholics in South Carolina said that Christians generally have gotten past the hurdles that separate Christianity from other faiths and are able now to discuss interreligious issues in what he called a spirit of respect. Some of Catholicism’s greatest challenges, however, are homegrown.
“When we talk with non-Christians, we are not presuming ill-will of that tradition. A major conversion in our religious communities over the past years has been toleration. But there are still some groups in this state who refer to us as the Anti-Christ,” Bishop Baker said.
The dialogue between Christian and non-Christian faiths — known as interreligious or interfaith, as opposed to ecumenical discourse, which means between or among Christian denominations — is relatively new to South Carolina Catholics. Father Sandy McDonald, pastor of Our Lady of Peace in North Augusta, said that he never even met a non-Christian growing up in Camden until he was in high school. Even today, adherents of Christ-centered religions have trouble finding areas of theological commonality with non-Christians because of their belief that Jesus is God and that he saved mankind by his death and resurrection.
“I want direction,” said the Rev. Russell Seabright, a retired Lutheran minister from Mount Pleasant. “Where does the dialogue go after we’ve made these statements about the non-negotiables in our faith? What’s the bridge?”
Carl Evans, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of South Carolina and founder of a multifaith service project of the department called Partners in Dialogue, answered that there is much similarity among religions, including moral codes and belief in a creator.
“The assumption is that once we’ve stated our differences, there’s no place to go. But there is a lot beyond these non-negotiables, there is a lot of common ground. It is on the basis of this common ground that we can talk together and have the opportunity to do something together,” Evans said.
That sort of action among faiths was a theme that many thought offered the best possibilities for interfaith dialogue. Father McDonald cited the case of Mohandas Gandhi, who took what he learned from many traditions in his ministries in Africa and England “and translated that into his civil rights work.” Gamble said that the same held for Thomas Merton.
After Bible readings were critically interpreted by the conference participants, including the story of the woman at the well and the Good Samaritan, Bishop Baker said that Jesus often used outsiders to illustrate his belief system.
“Our redemption depends on how we translate our belief system into action,” he said.
Gamble stated that the biggest obstacle to interfaith communication is the safety in insularity that many people feel. She encouraged instead the kind of relationship that exists among the persons of the Holy Trinity.
“People are not really receptive to change. We’re all afraid of it, and we’re all afraid of hard work,” she said. “But we are a relational faith. If we’re not afraid of our differences, we can learn from them.”
She cited LARCUM as a model for openness among religious leaders, calling it “a great and faithful group.”
Bishop Baker, for his part, said that he was pleased with the role of South Carolina Catholics in LARCUM.
“The Catholic community historically has been in the forefront of ecumenism. That reflects well on us,” he said.