At the Name of Jesus

Jesus Mosaic, Hagia Sophia, IstanbulAt one of the workshops dealing with the issue of Episcopal identity (as part of the recent NAES Biennial Conference 2012), a member of the audience asked the assembled panel a challenging question following their respective presentations. “How is it that none of you (three) ever mentioned the name of Jesus in your presentation?”

There were a variety of answers.

One panelist spoke of how in his school the name of Jesus was a part of every chapel prayer. Another mentioned that his school was not used to hearing the name of Jesus attached to prayers, and such a reference might be a turnoff to those members of the school community. Another panelist mentioned that he had been thinking just that thought and found it ironic that up to that point Jesus Christ had not been mentioned.

I am glad the person in the audience asked such a question, if for no other reason than it set me to thinking about the degree to which we do or do not use Jesus’ name in our speaking about the religious mission of our Episcopal schools.

Like the word, “Christian,” the name of Jesus is presumably at the core of why we do what we do and at the same time somewhat of a problem to both those deeply committed to the mission of a school as well as those dubious of it. Since that Biennial 2012 workshop, I have found myself asking a number of questions about how we do or do not use Jesus’ name, and what that tells us about the state of Episcopal schools.

To be sure, in a great many of our schools Jesus’ name is used with great regularity as a matter of course in prayer and in speaking about the Christian faith. In other schools, the name of Jesus is used cautiously, even sparingly, over concern that it might serve as a lightning rod or a source of confusion for a school community that is highly diverse and potentially ambivalent about the Christian heritage of the school. It is not uncommon for me, for example, to talk with some school chaplains who question the school’s avoidance of the “J-word” in the service of inclusivity. It would be helpful for many schools, I believe, to know more fully what a symbolic sacrifice this entails for many chaplains.

To be sure, it is a delicate issue, and I offer to the reader four questions that might help further the conversation on the matter of how we do or do not use Jesus’ name.

Are we prone to using Jesus’ name as a litmus test? If not praying in Jesus’ name, or not mentioning the name of Jesus with some frequency, is viewed as a sign of spiritual ambiguity, is not also the use of Jesus’ name as a singular yardstick for measuring the spiritual depth of a school community a means of doing what we human beings are always prone to be doing—making God serve our own ends? I wonder if the reign of Christ is best served by keeping score in this way. Naturally, the centrality of Christ to our faith necessarily keeps us attuned to the presence or absence of Christological references in our worship and conversation, but should Jesus’ name be used in a way to judge the spiritual authenticity of a person or place?

Is the reluctance to use Jesus’ name in the service of inclusivity a fair way to enter into the dialogue that needs to take place over religious diversity in our schools? Am I holding something back regarding my religious convictions when I do not pray in the name of Jesus when I am in “mixed company,” be it in a school chapel or offering grace at a banquet? If so, then is such holding back an honest way of encountering those who do not believe as I do? Am I covering up differences—important differences that are germane to the interreligious conversations that need to take place—by praying in such a way that is not at the core of my belief? What’s more, is praying in the name of Jesus, for example, necessarily a roadblock to the growth of a non-Christian’s understanding of his or her own faith?

What is the role of the “privileged” position of Christianity in this dialogue and the use of the name of Jesus? In so many of our schools, Christianity is undoubtedly the “state church,” occupying a unique, even privileged, position. That does not mean that other faiths are not respected or that groups other than Christian ones are not encouraged to live out their faith. But what is the unique role of the privileged place of Christianity, if that be the case, in fostering a hospitable environment in which those of other faiths can feel welcomed and affirmed? Does the place of Christianity in the religious mix of the school call me to be more cautious, more caring about the manner in which I talk, preach, and pray than it might be of others?

Are there thoughtful and faith-affirming alternatives that we Christians in pluralistic school environments might use as an alternative simply to using or not using Jesus’ name in prayer? I am obviously getting beyond my own realm of expertise here, but I wonder if there are not some creative ways that faithful Christian ministers have been able to remain openly faithful to their own convictions on Christ while being cognizant of the presence of non-Christians in their midst? Is it, in other words, merely a standoff between Jesus/non-Jesus, or are there some third ways?

One recent Sunday in church I felt uplifted by the singing of one of my favorite hymns, At the Name of Jesus (King’s Weston), as well as the skillful way the preacher spoke of our call to “love Jesus.” It obviously touched something at the core of my faith. At the same time, I was also aware that how we talk about our faith in a school environment may often be quite different than the way we speak about our faith in church. It touches upon the challenge Eboo Patel speaks of in his latest book, Sacred Ground: how do we develop, “a vocabulary that helps people stay grounded in their own tradition and relate positively to those from other traditions”?

Fortunately, I believe that Jesus is more of an asset than a liability in this way, but as with anything sacred that name can be prone to distortion, be it in avoiding it or wielding it without wisdom and discretion. This is by no means the first context where “Jesus” has been posed as a problem—we have been dealing with the “problematic” side of Christ for centuries. The challenge is to seek Jesus in the midst of the solution, a solution that a good many of our schools are genuinely seeking, rather than assiduously avoiding.