Peacemaking conference address stirs theological controversy

 — Aug. 16, 200016 aoüt 2000

Some say news reports were ‘misleading’

by Jerry L. Van Marter, PCUSA News Service

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — So what’s the big deal about Dirk Ficca?

Ficca, a Presbyterian minister member of Chicago Presbytery and executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, ignited yet another heated theological debate in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) when he questioned whether salvation comes solely through Jesus.

The capstone of Ficca’s July 29 keynote address at the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference, as reported by the Presbyterian News Service (PNS), was his question: “If God is at work in our lives whether we’re Christian or not, what’s the big deal about Jesus?”

The response — in calls, letters and e-mails to the news service, the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program office, and General Assembly Council executive director John Detterick — was immediate and strongly-worded. “Is this another Re-Imagining?” queried one e-mailer to PNS, referring to the controversial ecumenical women’s conference of 1993. Others threatened to boycott the Peacemaking Offering and still others demanded that Ficca be brought up on heresy charges in his presbytery.

Ficca was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

But two national staff members who helped plan the Peaceamaking Conference — the theme of which was how to maintain effective relationships with persons of other faiths in an increasingly pluralistic world — rose to Ficca’s defense and hinted that PNS reporting may have been partially responsible for the controversy.

PNS reporter John Filiatreau summarized Ficca’s 90-minute presentation in 10 paragraphs of a larger news story on the entire July 26-29 Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference. PNS stands by Filiatreau’s story.

The Rev. Victor Makari, coordinator for the Middle East and the Office of Interfaith Relations in the Worldwide Ministries Division, acknowledged that “trying to condense 90 minutes into a few paragraphs understandably and necessarily leaves a lot unrecorded.” For instance, he noted, Ficca’s question about Jesus “was rhetorical, not dismissive” and insisted that Ficca “went on to express his own credo, which is thoroughly Presbyterian and Reformed.”

Sara Lisherness, coordinator of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program disputed Filiatreau’s characterization of Ficca’s address as “a radical brand of ecumenism.” She said there’s a big difference between ecumenism and interfaith relations and that Ficca’s take on interfaith relations is “cutting edge, not radical.”

The PNS account of the conference was “alarming and disturbing,” according to the Rev. Bill Giles, executive coordinator of The Presbyterian Coalition — a consortium of conservative-evangelical groups in the PC(USA). Giles said that, based solely on the PNS story, he wrote a letter to Detterick charging Ficca with “pushing syncretism and heresy.”

Giles, after hearing portions of Ficca’s address read to him by PNS, said that the PNS story was “misleading,” adding, “We need to see a full text (of Ficca’s speech) and we need to see it fast … like yesterday.”

“A very good, important thing is happening”

As reported by PNS, Ficca told the peacemaking conference that “God is at work in our lives whether we’re Christian or not … Christians through Jesus of Nazareth have access to God in an intimate parent/child way; it does not rule out that other people don’t have other kinds of relationships with God….God’s mission in the world will not be accomplished without the church, but … maybe God’s mission can be accomplished with others beyond the church.”

Makari said “this is a very good, important thing that’s happening. These issues will increasingly press us against the wall because the world is getting smaller and we are in a very close encounter with people of other faiths. It is time for Christians, particularly Reformed Christians to solidify and deepen their faith as a result of these encounters.”

Lisherness agreed. “The issues Dirk raised are important issues and reasoned conversations about these issues are good conversations to be having right now,” she said, noting that, among other things, vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew. “A critically important question is how we retain our identity as Presbyterians and Christians, how we are faithful to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and how we work with people of other faiths.”

Ficca’s address also needs to be understood in the context of the conference’s worship, Lisherness said, insisting that “worship and Bible study reflected who we are as a Reformed Presbyterian people of faith, with never any allusion to any other understanding of faith apart from our Reformed Presbyterian understanding.”

As reported extensively by Filiatreau, the biblical theme passage for the conference for the conference was the story of the good Samaritan in Luke 10. “We focused on the gospel question ‘Who is my neighbor?'” noted Lisherness. “As our neighbors increasingly come from other cultures and religions, the question of how to remain neighbors is critical,” she said. “The good Samaritan didn’t demand conversion but demonstrated love, mercy and healing — that is the good news of Jesus Christ.”

The Peacemaking Program selected the topic of interfaith relations for this year’s conference — only after focusing last year’s conference on the topic of Christology — Lisherness said, “precisely because global conflicts are killing people for their religious identities … and who’s to say we won’t be confronted by some these same dynamics in our own country. As Presbyterians, we need to be at the forefront as American Presbyterians in addressing these issues.”

Makari said he couldn’t fault the critics, though he wished they would read Ficca’s text before solidifying their conclusions. “People are sincere in holding on to the precious salvation they have been given in Christ and in sharing that good news with the world,” he said. “I’m sure their aim is to avoid theological confusion that might hint that anything goes. Theology matters and people want to be sure that we’re not giving confusing messages.”

Makari also said he believes there’s a “subtle anxiety” at work. “Maybe its our Protestant work ethic, but we feel we’re responsible for the salvation of the world. There’s a difference between sharing good news and guaranteeing the salvation of the world as if it depended on our efforts,” he said. “Scripture is amply clear that God is in charge of salvation and our calling is to be willing, obedient and joyful servants at the hand of a saving God.”

Posted: Aug. 16, 2000 • Permanent link:
Categories: NewsIn this article: interfaith, Presbyterian Church USA, salvation
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Catégorie : NewsDans cet article : interfaith, Presbyterian Church USA, salvation

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