Twenty-one years ago, Mark Thomsen invited me to be a presenter at the ELCA's annual summer Islamic study program for missionaries. Thus, began a friendship and collaboration that included my service on the Board of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Americas Division for Global Mission (ELCA/DGM), and culminated with my teaching the Religions in Dialogue course, developed in the 1990s at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) by Dr. Yoshiro Ishida, Chao Than, and Harold Vogelaar, and then continued by Vogelaar and Mark Thomsen. During these past two decades my own response to religious pluralism has been influenced by Thomsens vision for global mission, a vision both shaped by the cross of Christ, and deeply respectful of the diverse cultures and religious traditions he encountered.
Mark Thomsen, global mission, and interreligious formation
From 1957 to 1966 Mark Thomsen served as an American Lutheran Church (ALC) missionary in Nigeria, where he developed a way of interacting with Muslims in Nigeria that influenced his later guidance of the global mission, first in the ALC (1982-1987), and then in the newly formed ELCA (1988-1996). Thomsen ensured that graduate scholarships were available to international leaders and teachers, and that every new ELCA missionary called into Muslim contexts would be prepared to engage Muslims in those new contexts. The missionary preparation took place in graduate study programs, where many earned advanced degrees in Islamic Studies, and through annual summer Islamic study programs at LSTC and Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In both 1993 and 1994, Thomsen invited me to present a segment on women and family issues in Islam. Not only did those experiences begin my long-term involvement with DGM, they also introduced me to Harold Vogelaar, and his colleague, the Muslim scholar Ghulam-Haider Aasi, who in 2007 became my co-teacher.
In 1997, I began a six-year term as a member of the Board of the ELCA's Division for Global Mission. Mark Thomsen had clearly influenced the direction of the ELCA as the denomination engaged Islamic contexts through many global partnerships. Thomsen's respect for religious others, including Muslims, became apparent as I worked with fellow board members and the Associate Executive Director, the late Will Herzfeld, to craft the Divisions language about the theology of interreligious engagement in global mission work. Both Thomsen and Herzfeld helped shape the ELCA's 1999 planning document, Global Mission in the Twenty-first Century. Subsequent executive directors, Bonnie Jensen and Rafael Malpica Padilla, have maintained the approach summed up in the section "Goal 1--Program Objectives," which reads in part:
Share the good news of Jesus Christ with those who acknowledge no faith, people of living faiths, adherents of various ideologies, and those who have become inactive in or have abandoned their Christian faith.... Build relation ships of respect, listening, understanding and sharing of faith with Muslims.... Build relationships of respect, listening, understanding and witness with Hindus, Buddhists, Confucianists and other faith traditions in Asia as well as among modern secularists. (1) The concept of "witness in dialogue" is not unique to the ELCA, but what is significant and formative for me, is the conviction that such dialogue includes the potential for transformation among all who interact. Illustrative are these points on the dialogical nature of Gods mission in Global Mission in the Twenty-first Century.
In a world of religious pluralism, the Christian community is called to witness to the God made known in Jesus Christ.... Christians around the world live in daily con tact with people of diverse faiths. The mission of God calls Christians to develop relationships and enter into mutual conversations with these people.... Christians will respect others and allow them to speak for themselves in interpreting the meaning of their religious faith Christians will be open to being changed--to expect that their faith might be strengthened even when they do not embrace the other person's faith. Within these relationships, Christians have the privilege of witnessing to Jesus Christ as God's ultimate and life-giving word for the universe. (2) Engaging Thomsens Christology and vision for interreligious relations
Being part of the ELCA's global mission efforts to shape such dialogical engagement has been one of the key elements in my own continuing project of being a Lutheran professor of biblical studies and Islam who seeks to learn from people of other religious traditions and of no religious affiliation. Even before I began teaching LSTC's Religions in Dialogue course, Thomsen invited me to critique and review the manuscript that became his 2003 book, Christ Crucified: A Missiology of the Cross for the Twenty-First Century. I was honored to contribute this review for the book's promotion: "Christ Crucified presents the insightful and incisive perspective of a person who has direct experience with global mission, interfaith relations, and the theology of religious pluralism. Thomsen's cross-based missiology is a welcome theological guide for Christians who wish to be in a relationship of witness, dialogue and service with the neighbor who is also religious other."
My most intensive encounter with Thomsen's Christology and vision for interreligious relations, however, has been teaching his book, Jesus, The Word, and The Way of the Cross: An Engagement With Muslims, Buddhists, and Other Peoples of Faith. Between 2007 and 2012, I co-led the LSTC seminar Religions in Dialogue with Dr. Ghulam-Haider Aasi, and Zen Buddhist leader Sevan Ross. Forecasting the seminar's dialogical...