August 10, 2021
PURPOSE OF THE PROJECT
Given the multiplicity of religious traditions that self-identify as “Christian” and the resulting astounding number of denominations that have emerged from this multiplicity, it is indisputable that there is no single response to the foundational question of what it means “to be a Christian.”
In an attempt to gain some coherent understanding of this multiplicity, this project will assume that a common aspect of the diverse beliefs about what it means “to be a Christian” held by those in all religious traditions that self-identify as “Christian” is that to be a Christian includes the aspiration to be a “follower of Jesus.” I base this premise on the biblical teaching that God wishes for those who profess to be Christians to be transformed into the “likeness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:18; 5:17).
How have Christians responded to this multiplicity? Some have viewed this multiplicity to be tragic – a denominational splintering of the singular vision for the visible Church inaugurated by Jesus.
Others have viewed this “manyness” to be a gift; believing that each Christian tradition can contribute to a full-orbed understanding of what it means to “follow Jesus.”
This project creates a venue for Christians who embrace these two differing views to present the reasons for their views, seeking to uncover some common ground as to what it means to “follow Jesus.” This quest will require “respectful conversations” about disagreements, which is a rare thing these days.
In our highly polarized culture, to which too many Christians have succumbed, Christians who have a particular view about what it means “to follow Jesus” often fail to listen carefully to the differing views of professing Christians from other traditions about what following Jesus means as a basis for re-examining their own views. Tragically this too often leads to “demonizing” the other, considering him or her to be an “inferior” Christian (or not a Christian at all), which is in stark contrast to a commitment to learn from other traditions.
The contrary strategy to be implemented in this project assumes a more comprehensive understanding of that meaning can be gained if representatives of diverse religious traditions that self-identify as “Christian” engage one another in respectful conversations about their agreements and disagreements about what it means to follow Jesus. Therefore, the purpose of this project is as follows:
To gain a comprehensive understanding about what it means to “follow Jesus” that includes the best insights of representatives of a number of major religious traditions that self-identify as “Christian”.
PROJECT PARTICIPANTS AND ONLINE VENUE
Leadership for implementation of this project will be provided by Harold Heie (See Appendix A for a brief resume).
Dr. Randall Balmer, John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College, will serve as a Consultant for this project, providing “subject matter expertise.” His responsibilities will include assisting in the identification of “conversation partners,” advising relative to “Methodology,” and writing one essay for the book that will emerge from this project,
The first component of this project will be an online conversation hosted on the website www.respectfulconversation.net, which is devoted to modeling respectful conversations among Christians who have strong disagreements about contentious issues (see Appendix A for a listing of the four major electronic conversations (eCircles) that have been hosted on this website, including the four books that have emerged from these eCircles — since July 1, 2015 through March 2021, this website has attracted 99,285 Page Views)..
The following twelve conversation partners have agreed to participate in this eCircle; listed in the order in which a month will be devoted to featuring their tradition, starting in August 2021 (see “eCircle Methodology” below). This order is chronological, from oldest to newest, according to the generally accepted date of origination of each tradition.
The invitations extended to conversation partners stipulated that all who accept the invitation will be expected to abide by the following “Guidelines for Respectful Conversation” throughout the conversation:
It is important to note the demands of the fourth guideline above. It requires going beyond the “politeness” that simply lets the other person speak without interruption, with no intention of re-examining my own beliefs in light of the contrary beliefs of the other, which is ‘weak listening.” Rather, this guideline calls for “strong listening” where I commit to actually re-examining my own beliefs in light of what I have heard the other person say. My own hard-earned experience in moderating small-group conversation about contentious issues is that many conversation partners will exhibit politeness, which is good as far as it goes, but will not take the demanding leap into “strong listening.”
The eCircle for this project will last twelve months, with one month focusing on each of the eleven traditions listed above.
On the first day of each month, the conversation partner for the tradition being focused upon for that month will submit an essay for posting on the website (a maximum of 1500 words in length) that responds to the following Leading Question:
Leading Question 1: What are the various views of those who worship in your tradition as to what it means to “follow Jesus” and what is the primary view?
On the fifteenth day of each month, each of the other eleven conversation partners will submit a posting for the website (a maximum of 1500 words in length) that responds to the following Leading Question:
Leading Question 2: What major agreements and disagreements do you have with the views expressed in the posting of the conversation partner who submitted the first of the month posting as to what it means to “follow Jesus,” and what have you learned from that posting that has the potential to enrich, or possibly provide a corrective, to the primary view of those who worship in your tradition as to what it means to “follow Jesus?”
Readers of this eCircle will be invited to submit comments on any of the postings of the conversation partners. Harold Heie will review all the comments that are submitted, and will approve and post all comments that he judges to satisfy the Guidelines for Respectful Conversation presented above. The conversation partner whose posting elicits a posted comment may exercise the option of posting a response to the comment.
PUBLICATION OF A BOOK
The second component of this project will be the publication of a book, to be edited by Harold Heie, that will have the following tentative Table of Contents and tentative titles for essays.
Tentative Title: Following Jesus: Perspectives from Diverse Christian Traditions
Introduction: The Relationship Between Professing to be a Christian and Aspiring to be a Follower of Jesus – Harold Heie
Each of the following chapters of this book (chapters 1-11 below) will be sub-divided into two parts, The first part will be the first of the month essay posted by the conversation partner representing the tradition being featured for the given month. The second part will be a report, written by Harold Heie, that synthesizes the highlights of the responses to Leading Question 2 of the other eleven conversation partners as gleaned from their fifteenth of the month eCircle postings.
Conclusion: A Comprehensive Christian Perspective on What it Means to be a Follower of Jesus – John Stackhouse, Professor of Religious Studies and Dean of Faculty Development, Crandall University (Moncton, New Brunswick)
Harold Heie will be responsible for writing and submitting a Book Proposal to high quality potential Christian Publishing Houses and for all the follow-up work required to bring this book to publication. The tentative target date for submission of a completed manuscript to potential publishers is November 2022.
Abbreviated Resume for the Project Director
Harold Heie served as founding director of the Center for Christian Studies (now the Center for Faith & Inquiry) at Gordon College and as vice president for academic affairs at both Messiah College and Northwestern College (Iowa), after teaching mathematics at Gordon College and The King’s College.
Heie holds a Ph.D. in aerospace sciences from Princeton University. He has served as a trustee of the Center for Public Justice, as a senior fellow at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), and as a senior fellow at The Colossian Forum. He also served as a co-director of CASA of Sioux County (Center for Assistance, Service, and Advocacy), a non-profit devoted to welcoming, empowering, and celebrating people from all cultures, with a special focus on helping Latino community members to flourish.
In 2011, Heie founded the Respectful Conversation Project on his website, respectfulconversation.net, which is devoted to encouraging and modeling respectful conversations among Christians who have strong disagreements about contentious issues. His website has hosted four major electronic conversations (eCircles), the highlights of which have been reported in the following four books: Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation (2014); A Future for American Evangelicalism: Commitment, Openness, and Conversation (2015); Respectful LGBT Conversations: Seeking Truth, Giving Love, and Modeling Christian Unity (2018); and Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation (2019).