Monday, September 28, 2009

It’s Really All About God

Review by Nathan Brown

In our increasingly pluralistic societies, one of the most urgent questions facing Christianity—and Adventism—is how we relate to those who believe differently. Too often, the traditional approach seems to have been to dismiss these others—anyone and everyone who does not believe as we do. But our increasing interaction with those of other faiths forces us to re-examine these assumptions. Life is often not as black-and-white as we might like it to be.

Samir Selmanovic is one voice who can help Christians—and particularly Adventists—wrestle with these issues. Writing overtly as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian and pastor, his book It’s Really All About God is published by a large mainstream press, Jossey-Bass, but highlights a number of distinctly Adventist contributions to Christian faith and how these also connect beyond Christianity.

In his introduction, Selmanovic is careful to emphasise the Christian foundation for this project. He acknowledges that some of his friends claim they are able to embrace four faiths—Muslim, atheist, Jewish and Christian—simultaneously but expresses his doubts that this is either possible or sustainable. Instead, he acknowledges that he “would not have become or stayed Christian without the blessings of Islam, atheism, and Judaism.”

Yet, at the same time, Selmanovic maintains that it is his Christian faith that inspires him to seek good in and for other believers. It is precisely because he seeks to follow Jesus that he reaches out to others and has something of value and beauty to share with them. Applying such basic Christian tenets as the Golden Rule, he urges that we use these principles to guide us toward treating other religions as we would like them to treat ours—listening with respect, learning from their wisdom, standing up for their freedoms and serving their needs. Rather than watering down Christianity, Selmanovic seeks a more radical, costly and sometimes difficult engagement with our faith and each other.

Selmanovic has sought to model this approach to those of other faiths in the form of Faith House Manhattan, a multi-faith ministry project he founded in New York City. Described as “an experiment in the kingdom of God,” Faith House seeks to create a space in which believers from the world’s three major monotheistic religions can worship together, learn from each other’s traditions and serve together in the world.

As someone who has spent portions of his life in a number of these faith traditions, Selmanovic is not merely a philosopher or theologian. He grew up in a nominally Muslim family in then-Communist Yugoslavia. When he became a Christian and Seventh-day Adventist while completing compulsory military service, Selmanovic was expelled from his family for a number of years. He eventually completed doctoral studies at Andrews University before pastoring on both coasts of the United States, including ministering in New York City at the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

It’s Really All About God takes its narrative direction from this story, with Selmanovic’s own realisation of God, growth in faith, slowly repairing relationship with his family and life experience escorting readers through a similar journey. As such, the book is part spiritual memoir but with added depth of reflection and engagement with other religious traditions and literature. Appropriately, the narrative climax of the book is perhaps a seemingly small moment bringing together Selmanovic’s family and church family, reading of which is rendered more poignant in light his father’s recent death.

It’s Really All About God is both deeply philosophical and profoundly pragmatic. One of the book’s recurring statements is “Life wins,” meaning that our beliefs or theories about life and God must have practical applications and benefits, or risk fading into irrelevance. Written and published primarily for a Christian readership, It’s Really All About God might have helped some readers by a more direct engagement with some of the Bible references used to launch the “exclusive claims” of Christianity—but Selmanovic’s aim is to outline a vision more than argue apologetics.

Although it’s easy to be distracted, It’s Really All About God is really a book about God—as the title suggests. Any authentic discussion about religion must ultimately be about the God we are seeking to worship and serve, and what He is like. And that is the book’s greatest achievement.

Through his sometimes funny, sometimes moving and sometimes poetic reflections, Selmanovic points us back to a God Who embraces, Who stoops to serve, Who pursues us relentlessly but lovingly, Who weeps at the tragedies, heartaches, fear and brokenness of our world, and Who is truly “our Father” to all His children. This is the God Who calls us to join with Him in serving our world, to value each other and to participate now in the wonderful and mysterious kingdom He offers to us all.

Cross-posted from Adventist Today.