Following Jesus: Perspectives from Diverse Christian Traditions
(Prospectus for an online Respectful Conversation Project to result in a book)
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.
- August 2021: Orthodox – Dr. David Ford, Professor of Church History, St, Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.
- September 2021: Roman Catholic – Ms. Christina Wassell, Catholic layperson who does K-12 tutoring and whose pilgrimage has taken her from immersion in two Protestant traditions to Catholicism.
- October 2021: Lutheran – Dr. Mark Ellingsen, Professor of Church History, Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta.
- November 2021: Anabaptist – Dr Michael A. King, President, Cascade Publishing House and former Academic Dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.
- December 2021: Anglican – Dr. Randall Balmer, John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College.
- January 2022: Reformed – Dr. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Emeritus General Secretary, Reformed Church in America.
- February 2022: Baptist – Dr. David Gushee, Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life, Mercer University.
- March 2022: Pietist – Dr. Christopher Gehrz, History Department Chair, Bethel University (MN).
- April 2022: Wesleyan – Dr. Sarah Lancaster, Professor in the Werner Chair in Theology, Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
- May 2022: The Black Church – Mr. Farris Blount, PhD candidate in Practical Theology, Boston University.
- June 2022: Latter-day Saints – Dr. Robert Millet, Professor Emeritus of Religious Education, Brigham Young University.
- July 2022: Pentecostal – Dr. J. Terry Todd, Associate Professor of American Religious Studies, Drew University.
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:
- I will try to listen well, providing each person with a welcoming space to express her beliefs about the questions thar are posed.
- I will seek to empathetically understand the reasons another person has for her beliefs about the questions that are posed.
- I will express my beliefs about the questions that are posed and my reasons for holding those beliefs with clarity and conviction, but with a non-coercive style that invites conversation with a person who disagrees with me.
- In my conversation with a person who disagrees with me in response to the questions that are posed,, I will explore whether we can find some common ground by critically examining my own beliefs in light of her contrary beliefs and the reasons she has for her beliefs..
- Guided by the underlying values of humility, courage, patience, and love, when we cannot find common ground, I will always engage the person who disagrees with me in a way that demonstrates respect and concern for her well-being and does not foreclose the possibility of future conversations.
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 have you learned from the posting of [the conversation partner who submitted the first of the month 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.
- Roman Catholic
- The Black Church
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).
 Some professing Christians will raise their eyebrows when they read later in this prospectus that I have included The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in this project since they do not believe that the Latter-day Saints is a Christian tradition. But Latter-day Saints profess to be Christians. Therefore, all professing Christians need to listen to and carefully consider the views of Latter-day Saints about what it means to be a Christian, with a special focus on what Latter-day Saints believes it means to “follow Jesus.”
 Although I will not be one of the conversation partners for this project (serving rather as the Project Director for this conversation), the interested reader may want to peruse my forthcoming book Let’s Talk: Bridging Divisive Lines Through Inclusive Respectful Conversations for a glimpse of what it means for me to aspire to be a follower of Jesus, drawing on what I believe to be the bast insights from three Christian traditions in which I have been immersed for many years: Pietistic Lutheranism; Reformed and Anabaptist..