Reverend Brian Shivers Interview — Dynamics of Interfaith
Rachel Koehler interviews Rev. Brian Shivers of 2nd Presbyterian Church as part of her “The Dynamics of Interfaith” podcast series.
Reverend Brian Shivers is at Second Presbyterian Church, and he gives a great theological perspective on how to approach interfaith dialogue and maintain the distinct qualities of different faiths. He also discusses how encounters with other faith traditions have strengthened his particular practice and understanding of Christianity.
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- Reverend Brian Shivers Interview — Dynamics of Interfaith
Reverend Brian Shivers interview
Rachel: Today we have Brian Shivers. Welcome, Brian. If you wouldn’t mind starting by just telling us a little bit about yourself and what brought you to the CIC.
Brian: Sure. I have lived in Indianapolis for almost thirty years. I was born and raised in Marion, Indiana, which is a smaller city in Green County about sixty miles north of Indianapolis. I moved down here for a job at Second Presbyterian Church here in town. I started working with the CIC following my ordination in 2011. [I] really was drawn to it because of some important conversations that I thought they were having as an organization that was just starting out in 2012, I believe, and I wanted to be a part of these conversations. I felt like there was a lot of important work being done around what does it mean to live in a pluralistic society and how do we honor those voices, elevate those voices, make sure that voices other than just those of the dominant culture are listened to and heard and valued. I think that the biggest piece for me was education around other faiths and so all of that stuff drew me in. I’d also done some reading and some work with Eboo Patel from Chicago who founded the Interfaith Youth Core there and was really drawn to his work. He self identifies as an American Muslim, though he’s from India. His work has been transformative not just in the Chicago-land area but all around the country. He is an interfaith pioneer for sure and his work really pushed me into understanding that part of my own Christian faith has to be about interfaith awareness. I can’t just live in my Christian bubble and I have to learn about other faiths. One of his lines that really impacted me at a conference I was at where he was the keynote speaker. There were a lot of young people around and a young man who is Muslim asked him, “Sir, are you asking me to not be a Muslim?” And Eboo said, “I’m actually asking you to do the exact opposite. I’m asking you to be the best Muslim you can be.” Then he singled out a young woman who is Jewish in the audience and [he] said: “and I’m asking her to be the best Jew she can be.” Then he pointed at a Christian young person and said “and I’m asking him to be the best Christian he can be, because only in elevating the best of what it is that our faith traditions hold can we do this work together. We will begin to understand the value of one another’s faith systems if we are working toward being the best of what our individual faiths are.” That’s what I really appreciate about the CIC. That it’s not just honoring, not just getting to know one another on a personal level. It’s actually celebrating the best of the faith traditions, pushing each individual back into their own faith system, to understand the best of it, too. I think the other thing that draws me is I work with young people a lot so people from the age of middle school through college and that’s my primary programmatic responsibility in the church. What I’ve said often is young people live interfaith every day they live in a big city. So helping them not just ignore the faith questions, but to actually have those conversations with their friends, to deepen their own understanding of what it means to be a person of faith, and also to understand their own faith better. That’s why, and once I got involved really deeply in interfaith work my own faith has grown by my interactions with my friends from faith traditions that I don’t think I would’ve ever had friends in.
Rachel: So you see your religion informing interfaith and the importance of this happening?
Brian: Yes. I do. I think that one of the misunderstandings from my perspective of the beginning of Christianity is that it was this really clean, very isolated, almost came out of nothing. I know roots in Judaism, but almost just magically appeared with the person of Jesus and we forget that it had a cultural context. We also forget that it had a deep, deep, Jewish roots Jesus was born, lived, died as a Jew. So in its own identity, it is interfaith and there are these amazing stories sprinkled throughout especially the Gospels of these incredible interfaith interactions that happened that we kind of have sanitized because we want to see them only through the lens of “well this person then became a Christian” and never says that. So there are incredible interactions including right at the very beginning with the birth narrative of Jesus. The wise people that come to visit Jesus and Mary and Joseph, when Jesus probably was around two years old, it never says they become followers of Jesus. They are Zoroastrians. They probably come from Persia. So they go home as Persians or Zoroastrians who have met Jesus as an infant. So if we can stop being threatened by the existence of these other faiths and understand that there are some really cool stories within the text. One of my favorites is a God-fearing Roman. What does that mean? He comes to Jesus because he knows Jesus can heal and he asks Jesus to heal and Jesus does because of the man’s faith, but it then never says that the man then became a follower of Jesus. It’s just this healing that is in the middle of the text. So likely, he continued to do whatever it was he was doing that was God-fearing.
Rachel: I like that interpretation. It is really interesting.
Brian: It’s interesting trying to read the text without these lenses that we bring. It’s impossible to do but trying to at least acknowledge the lenses that we bring and say “okay, what actually are the words that are on the page” and let them speak for themselves. You start to see some that are amazing. The transformation I once thought happened, didn’t actually happen in the text.
Rachel: Looking at some Christian exclusive claims where it’s like “this is the way to get to Heaven or the afterlife,” how do you reconcile that with the conversion in evangelical peace with interfaith?
Brian: My own personal faith roots, I would say I have a checkered religious past. I grew up until was I thirteen as an Assembly of God person. My grandfather was an Assembly of God pastor for sixty years and I was in the Assembly of God church until I was about thirteen. Then my family stopped going to church for a short time and then ended up going to Wesleyan Church, which is so far theologically removed from those roots in Pentecostalism and the charismatic Pentecostalism. To then go to Wesleyan church, which is the holiness movement branch off of the Methodist Church. That’s really where both of those have incredible importance to me and my own faith development and learning about what it meant to be a person of faith. I’m very careful as I talk about that because I honor those faith systems so deeply in my own faith expression. As I started getting older, I realized that certain things for me, just as a human, my own personhood, didn’t fit anymore. When I went to college I started working at a Presbyterian church and I found a faith home. I really felt like this made sense to me with its emphasis on God as the primary actor, our call is a response to that activity. God is acting on our behalf always, even if we don’t acknowledge it. It’s all very theocentric, God being the primary mover. That all plays actually into this understanding that I’ve gained over the years of interfaith work and what does that statement that you used, Jesus is the way, actually, mean? I think Richard Rohr who’s doing a lot of incredible work around this right now and helping people understand that there’s an idea of Jesus as the person, but also what does it mean if when we declare Jesus as Christ. That’s not his name, that’s a title that’s given to him. Christ as an idea that’s bigger than just Jesus.
Rachel: I’ve heard something similar to that.
Brian: He calls it the Cosmic Christ. He’s not the only one that talks about this, but what does it mean that God has always been acting for the salvation of humanity. That in the person of Jesus what we see is that story enfleshed, literally, in a way that had never been enfleshed before. Jesus didn’t come just to save those who would give assent to Jesus’ Christness, but Jesus came as an expression of God’s desire to save all things, not just one individual human. That’s a broader view of what it is that Jesus came to do; not just humanity, you think of all creation. God’s salvific act or God saving, that was a really deep theological word there. God saving all of things, instead of just God saving Brian Shivers. My salvation is tied to yours and is also tied to the Earth and is also tied to people who live around the world. We are being saved together.
Rachel: So you could find Christ in other religions?
Brian: Sure enough. Actually one of my favorite interfaith stories is around that very thing. We had a CIC board retreat and I was seated at a table with Doctor Patel, a different Patel than the one I mentioned earlier. Doctor Patel is Hindu and said to me, “in my tradition we have a story about Jesus,” then he said, “but I don’t want to offend you.” I said, “I want to hear.” He ended up telling me this beautiful story about southwestern India, in a very small part of India. They have a tradition that after the story of the Gospels end, that Jesus didn’t die, that Jesus moved with his family to southwestern India and was basically a shaman. They have temples in southwestern India; they have Jesus as an avatar. He’s called Jesus Christos. So he’s called Jesus the Christ. One of the beautiful things about that is it actually deepens my understanding of Jesus in a way that I’d never understood Jesus before. I’d never heard that story. I said, “Thanks. You’ve actually helped me. You didn’t offend me, you helped my faith develop even deeper.” The understanding that anywhere there is mercy, anywhere there is justice, anywhere people are serving the poor, helping the needy, that text that Jesus reads from Isaiah in Luke chapter four where he stands up in the synagogue and says blind receive sight, the good news is preached to the poor, seeker of the Lord’s favor. Where that passage is enfleshed, I believe there’s the Christ.
Rachel: What are some other stories like that magical story but maybe within your own faith journey and in the CIC that stand out to you?
Brian: Interfaith engagement stories like that?
Rachel: Or any faith-related stories.
Brian: Another one, and I would encourage anyone that lives in Indianapolis to do this, another one from the Hindu tradition. The Hindu temple that’s on the eastside of Indianapolis is one of the most beautiful buildings that I’ve ever seen. It is one-of-a-kind. There is no temple like it in
the world and the reason that it’s so unique is that the people that live in Indianapolis, that practice Hinduism, are very diverse. They represent different regions of Hinduism; they couldn’t just make a temple that represented one of those regions. They had to make a temple that represented all of the regions. Inside the temple, there are small shrines. This is the only temple where you will see some of those shrines next to each other because in other parts of the world there’s no need to have that kind of diversity. The thing that really moved me was the building of the temple was a religious activity. It wasn’t just people building a building. They have artisans come. They aren’t allowed to bring anything to the work site except for their tools. So anything that is used to build the building has to be local. They can’t bring any of the forms that they use for different figures, you can’t bring any of that with them. They have to make new ones because it’s this activity of religious devotion. How that strikes me is it makes me think about my own religious devotion and do I have that same level of religious devotion? Can I say I think I ebb and flow? Sometimes I would say I have a pretty deep level of religious devotion but there are a lot of times where I absolutely do not. That is beautiful to me to have those kind interactions where you see how someone else expresses their faith in such a devoted way. They’re not perfect but it’s a beautiful act of devotion. That word has been, I think, reemphasized to me. I see when I go to a mosque and participate in prayer with some Muslim brothers and sisters. It’s powerful to see that you know this is an activity that they do five times a day and that there’s a physical part. It’s just powerful and it’s not a conviction, necessarily, on my own faith. It’s not convicting me of anything. It’s actually driving me to discover what are the ways that I can also practice religious devotion. The other thing that I would say is I’ve never been to, either here or abroad (I’ve done both) and I’m sure there are places that they not want me there. But I’ve never been to a space where I felt unwelcomed. That is powerful to me. They don’t ask me what I believe, they don’t ask me what in the world I’m doing there, you know ask me. They might ask me why showed up but it’s not a “why are you here” in that accusatory way. It’s in a “why have you come and how can we help you.” It’s just a powerful powerful witness and you think about some of the acts of violence that have been committed against some of our friends from other faith traditions and some of our friends from the Christian faith tradition. Let’s not miss that. There been a lot of those, like Charlottesville. They have a they we have every right to question a white man showing up at one of the religious services and yet they don’t. That is an incredible and powerful witness to me of their own faith and the depth of their own faith. That they can move beyond what might be a preconceived idea of what I might be there to do. To actually just to invite me in to participate. It’s powerful.
Rachel: How have you been able to incorporate interfaith and what you’ve learned into your own congregation?
Brian: That is a great question. I think the biggest thing, and I’ll use the most recent example, with the tragedy that happened in New Zealand in Christchurch. I think that you can’t miss the irony. It’s almost like a double tragedy in some ways, but one of the things that we provided for especially the young people of the congregation was ways in which they could act to support their Muslim friends and the Muslim community in Indianapolis. So because of my interfaith work, I know people that are in these different mosques and different Muslim organizations. We were able to give out addresses and contact information for places that we knew that the students could go visit with their families, instead of organizing some big thing to “let’s all go,” which I think is a really powerful statement. I know that IHC and Beth El-Zedeck recently joined one of the mosques in town for a prayer service, I think last Friday or Saturday. What we decided to do was “let’s empower people to do that when they can, with their families” and we will do the other as well. But we wanna make sure that people know you can do this anytime, you don’t need us to organize. We want you to experience your Muslim neighbors in a way that is really authentic and organic for you and your family. There’s also a safety if you go in numbers. If we bring fifteen people with us, I can feel a little less of a risk than if I just go and show up and make myself vulnerable. Which is I think one of the very first steps of interfaith, being willing to step into that awkwardness. To be okay with that vulnerability and because, let’s face it, coming from a Christian tradition, I went for myself. When are the times that I would feel vulnerable for being a Christian in the United States? There really aren’t moments like that. It’s a privilege. In order for me to understand better, I will never understand fully, but in order for me to understand better what it is like to be a person that is not in the majority but is in the minority, I need to be willing to take risks. I need to be willing to be uncomfortable. I need to be willing to step in it sometimes, say the wrong thing, and be corrected and not challenge or not get defensive because I’ve been corrected but to be able to apologize and learn. The next time I know not to say “x,” because that is offensive and learn why it’s offensive. And that’s on me. That’s not on my Muslim neighbor, that’s not on my Jewish neighbor, that’s not on anybody else. Just help me to figure that out. I gotta figure that out. That’s been the model we’re trying to set for people is a step into that comfortableness. Somebody says, “own your awkward,” like step into that and be okay with that and be willing to go in with the sense of humility and learn something.
Rachel: I know I have been angry and frustrated and I know, being a Christian myself, I’m not directly affected as you have said. But the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh and this New Zealand massacre. Do you believe that these instances of going forward and putting yourself out
there is the way forward to eradicate some of this is Islamophobia or anti-Semitism?
Brian: Yeah, and by the way, I will say that my friends at the JCRC will say that acts of anti-Semitism are on the rise around the country. They hear about it around the world, but also here in the United States. To hear about them every day. My friend Lindsey Mintz says she gets e-mails nearly daily about an anti-Semitic act somewhere in the United States. This is not an abstract idea. This is happening to her friends, to her neighbors now. Yes, I do believe that education, getting close proximity is a really important thing. I think it’s an undervalued word and idea in our culture. That the way that we begin to become people who understand others is by proximity, being close to one another. That doesn’t just mean physical closeness, although that’s really valuable, it means also an emotional closeness and an ability to suspend as much as we can. We all come with biases, I know that, but to suspend those long enough for me to hear. All of that is about proximity. Once we can value that as much as we value anything else; it is harder for me to hate you if I see you eye-to-eye. It is harder for me to also generalize you and to generalize “people like you.” I hate that phrase. How can you begin to own “this is a human, I see your face.” When someone says Muslim people, I have faces that appear in my head. Friends of mine, faces, and names. I know their stories. I know the names of their children. I can no longer allow someone to cast hate at groups of people that have people I love, they’re part of the community. I can’t stand by any longer. Lindsey has this line that she uses. I’ve heard her say it probably five or six times where she says “be ready with your story.” What she means is she’s asking people like us, people from the dominant faith tradition. Or the dominant race, for me as a male of that dominant race in the United States, all of those things. All of those privileges. Be ready with your defense. So that when you hear an anti-Semitic phrase come out of someone’s mouth or you see an act of anti-Semitism, you are ready to step in for your friends. She said, “Don’t wait for me to do it because I have to do every day. I live this life. What I need you to do is be ready, to have your story ready. Because if we don’t have it ready when that moment comes, we won’t do anything.” Our silence then becomes complicity. I think that is the motivating factor for me in interfaith work. I also believe it is deeply rooted in my faith tradition. If I just look at the person of Jesus, what did he do over and over again? In the stories that we have from the Gospels, we see him getting close to people. People that were marginalized peoples. As well as people who were hated peoples, that weren’t necessarily marginalized. They were just a hated people group. They were tax collectors and things like that. He drew near them, not just in ideas but actually physically close to them. Drew close to them. Stories of him touching people, those are things that we miss. Recently, I got a chance to hear Barbara Brown Taylor speak. One of the things that she talked about is that we have lost our language about body. Embodiment in our faith and that is such a powerful thing. If we can get back to that, I think we’d also begin to disarm some of this other stuff that’s out there. Again if we’re close, if I can see you eye-to-eye, that makes a lot of difference.
Rachel: Has there been any pushback within your congregation or maybe within the Christian community as a whole to this interfaith mentality? Or getting to know somebody that’s totally different? I have experienced these extremes, that there are these like exclusive claims like “that’s the other, we’re following the way so we need to stay straight.”
Brian: I haven’t really experienced it in my own congregation but you do experience it. Especially online you experience it. That’s one of the curses of our social media. I think it invites anybody and everybody to have an opinion on everything. Then when you add your voice in, you’re inviting that as well. There have been people who pushed back. I do not have to give up my own understanding, my Christian faith. I don’t have to give up my faith claims about who Jesus is, about what God is doing in the world. I don’t have to get those things up in order to be working in interfaith. I think people misunderstand interfaith work. When they think that somehow you’re being asked to give those things up. That actually is a disservice to true interfaith work. It becomes this wishy-washy, nothingness if we’re not also willing to have the conversations about our differences. That’s the beautiful thing again about the word proximity. In proximity, I can’t just stand at a distance and claim that you were wrong. I now have to enter into a dialogue and be able to understand where it is that I’m coming from. At the end of the day, when we have those conversations, neither of us is going to cast aspersions at the other one’s faith if we’re having these honest conversations. We’re going to walk away from them still fully in our faith systems. There are people that push back on it. There are different understandings. I think one of our conversations in faith communities have to be around truth claims. You can have truth claims without denying the truth claims of someone else. One thing I can never have is your life experience. Even though we come from very similar faith traditions, we are at some point going to have a different truth claim. We can’t have the same. It’s impossible. I think if we just can realize that that’s true in our everyday life, then the threat, the idea of threat, it becomes less. You’re able then to enter into those conversations honestly, with some vulnerability, and with some humility. With the idea that I’m here to, not just defend my faith, which is been something that the Christian church has talked about a lot. How do you defend your faith? What if that wasn’t the conversation anymore? Why do I have to defend my faith? I don’t have to defend it. I can describe it and then I can listen to someone else’s description of theirs. And I’m not threatened by that. I think we’ve got to get to a different place.
Rachel: I like that perspective a lot. I’ve been reading a lot of different theologians on interfaith. They just describe this relative absolute. That your absolute is absolute but it’s relative to everybody else’s.
Brian: I think it’s in how you answer the question “how big is God?” Am I going to be arrogant enough in my belief system that I believe that I have the divine completely figured out. In my own faith, I find that to be a frightening concept to think that I will ever have the divine figured out. I hope that it’s never true. I’m pretty confident it won’t ever be true because the theology is one of those fields that the deeper you get in the more questions have. Which is a powerful thing. I love it. I think it reveals something about what it is that we’re doing. There are more mysteries, it’s like peeling an onion. Once you get in it’s more complex than you ever thought it. I love that about it. The image I that often use is the difference between holding faith with a clenched fist or an open hand. If you hold your faith with a clenched fist, nothing gets in and nothing gets out. As I stand before you I look like I’m a threat. If I can hold my faith with an open hand, it’s not that I’m not holding anything. I’m actually holding it so that I can receive and I can offer. It’s much more generous and if I stand before you with an open hand there’s an invitation. Even in our culture, it’s a handshake. It’s a welcome with an open hand. I think that image for me has really helped me understand that if I can loosen my grip on my faith, so that I don’t choke the very life out of it. Not only did that allow me room to grow, but it also allows me to relax on other people truth claims.
Rachel: To summarize: interfaith to you in a succinct couple sentences, what does that mean?
Brian: Interfaith to me means seeing people for who they are and knowing that their experience is completely different than mine. Also understanding that the God in whom I have come to believe not only loves that but is revealed in it.
Rachel: Thank you so much for being here, Brian.