I convinced my friend Tess that it’d be a good idea to visit our Stanford friends (that we met at the grad student retreat) for this event. A friend I made, Ethan Kung, PhD in Bio-Engineering, told me he was organizing this event when we met over winter (and then we had a jam session). I managed to snag Ethan’s opening speech:
So what did I learn? I learned to really appreciate a lot of what Islam is about, I learned very little about Hinduism, and I learned to appreciate the complexity in Christianity. If there is anything to take away from the forum, I’d say that Christianity is appropriately complex, and it needs not my zeal to validate it.
Notably, at the end of the opening session, Ethan encourages people to get into small groups with people of other faiths to ask questions about each other’s beliefs. “Wow,” I thought to myself, will people actually do that? ….Well, they did and it was amazing. Imagine an auditorium full of (what I’d presume to be) Stanford students, grad and undergrad, building relationships with people about the things most important to our lives. The most uncanny being that we all come from such fundamentally different walks, and, for once, we didn’t need to agree or disagree. We all shared and inquired out of a genuine curiosity. Well done, Ethan, well done.
I didn’t get to talk to Swami, but I did get to ask Imam Jihad a few questions. Everything said about Islam sounded beautiful, good, and loving. In fact, Imam Jihad even made the comment that Christianity was far too complex for it’s own (observable) good– a point that Stackhouse conceded. Imam Jihad Turk was personable, sincere, and humble. John Stackhouse was well spoken, intellectual, and bold. Swami Vendenanda was soft spoken, monotone, and kind of old. To be honest, by the end of the opening talk, my brain was unable to process a third religion.
I interacted with John Stackhouse on four occasions during and after the 2-day forum: At the opening talk, I ask him: “how is it that a just God can allow those who do have not had the opportunity to know him to not be allowed the opportunity for salvation?” In a response to a commenter from a previous post I wrote:
For instance, tonight, I was at Stanford for a talk by John Stackhouse, who addresses the question of whether all religions are the same (for which he clearly says NO) and what makes Christianity different. This guy has written 7 books, taught at Wheaton, Northwestern, and, currently, Regent College (graduate school of Christian studies). I quickly took the mic to ask him what salvation means to someone who has not had the opportunity to hear the Gospel… I mean I’m sure we could pick Stackhouse apart, but I’m pretty convinced he knows what he’s talking about when he quotes: “anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Regardless, this shows that there isn’t a clear yes or no to what salvation looks like for everyone. As Stackhouse elegantly puts it, “we cannot even convert ourselves.”
At the Q&A, Stackhouse’s most impressionable point was that, we, in the academy, are able to talk about great ideas in constructive dialog about everything except Christianity. I was totally on that page, and had written about it right before this event. I remember sharing frustrations with how especially hard it is to talk to Christians about Jesus. Stackhouse left me with a nice metaphor: even if I have pitcher full of water, if a person only has one glass, then I can only pour out one glass; otherwise, the cup overflows, water spills all over him, and he leaves, annoyed.
Before John Stackhouse’s final talk, “True for You, but not for Me, The Grounds for Christian Belief.” I speak with him one last time to tell him about my “Reclaim” ideas. I often find myself trying to say so much at once. He, of course, is about to give a talk, so I didn’t really get to dialog much with him. In any case, download the talk here and I’ll blog about it when I get a chance (it’s a great and intellectual talk, appeals to the logic-savvy). After the event, I was able to get his card and we exchanged a couple emails.
One of the last things he says to me over email is this:
So here’s what I’m afraid of for you… Passion like yours, without the right channeling, just spreads out and diffuses and you’re left with frustration and the peril of bitterness with little fruit to show for all your effort. That’s why I want to see if you can find a good channel that will take the good stuff you feel and think and put it to the most effective use. I don’t want you to be discouraged! I hate to think of someone like you being discouraged.
These days, I take as much encouragement as I can get, and I appreciate the time that Professor Stackhouse took to listen and respond to me. Not only did he prove to be well spoken, intellectual, and bold, but he is also real, genuine, and effective in regards to what he believes. I appreciate, so much when someone understands and articulates so well, the things that matter most to me.
I end this post with an impactful snippet of Ethan’s opening speech: