Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Can Christians Be Interreligious?

Too late. We already are. 

You have a brother- or sister-in-law who is Buddhist. An uncle who is Muslim. An auntie and some cousins who are Jewish. You work with a Sikh. Three of your neighbors are Hindu. The rest of your cousins are not religiously affiliated, while your grandparents and parents are Anglican and Baptist Christians.

If this doesn’t describe you, give it a couple years. The U.S. has been religiously diverse for a long time, and we’re all starting to see and experience it in very real ways. When I officiated my brother’s wedding, I was a Christian minister in front of a group of “nones,” Muslims, secular Jews, Buddhists, Catholics, and Protestants. If I were to write up the experience as a case study for budding religious leaders, it would be titled: “How to make 99 mistakes and still enjoy a gracious and joyful event.”

My church doesn’t have a stance on interfaith or interreligious relationships. This, from a denomination that has many papers and policies and Authoritative Interpretations and a constitution. But now we’re in the midst of very practical needs for a stance. What guidance or resources might our congregations and members need for relating to people of other religions, including no religion at all? Religious diversity is right up against all of us in some way or another. Workplaces are inclusive of other faith traditions. Our families include people who belong to other religious traditions.

Last week, I was part of the PC(USA) General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations consultation on creating an interreligious stance (more about this event here). I sat in a small group with a certain head of communion, the president of a seminary, a retired parish pastor, and a mission co-worker. Many of us have significant professional experience working with practitioners of other religions. We shared stories of religiously diverse families. One of us lives as a religious minority.

The consultation findings and conversations will be written into a proposed policy. What follows are my own reflections.

As a Christian, we are called to do and be many things. The Gospel of Matthew calls us to make disciples of all nations. The Pauline letters urge a gospel of accommodation and hospitality, rather than assimilation into one way of being Christian.

There are multiple contemporary approaches to religious diversity. One believes that Christianity is the only true religion. There are plenty of Christian traditions that believe their strand is the only way for a person to be assured of their salvation. A very different approach assumes that at their core, all religions are the same; dig deeply enough, and you find a philosophy of loving one’s god and one’s neighbor. Another holds that regardless of belief, it is behavior that matters; you just have to be a good person. Karl Rahner believed that even though people may not have been exposed to Christianity, they act in ways that demonstrate they have accepted Christ, and are therefore saved through Christ. A pluralist attitude is to hold that all religions are valid in their own ways, and believes in the importance of engaging across religious traditions with respect and hospitality. 

Within my church, you would see people who hold to each one of the approaches described above. I lean pluralist, guided in part by a desire to remain in relationship with members of my family, and in part due to what I have learned by being in relationship with people of other religious traditions. I would never evangelize to one of my family members who is a committed member of another religious tradition. That means the Muslims who go to Friday prayers, the Jewish Unitarian atheists who faithfully attend their local UU church on Sundays, the Buddhists who belong to a temple and attend weekly, the “nones” who have great reasons for believing what they believe. I do and have evangelized family members who show interest in the Christian faith, and are not committed to one religion or another.

You may think my approach makes me a terrible Christian. Since I don’t know the mind of God, it might. But I think we of different religious traditions can hear each other better because we let our lives speak, to add onto a book title by Parker Palmer. I have long since ceased to be worried about the salvation of anyone. It’s a delight to be a Reformed Christian. Reformed Christians are those in the tradition mainly shaped by John Calvin and the like. A major tenet of Reformed theology is the sovereignty of God. God does whatever God wants to do, regardless of what we want God to do. Calvin wrote about predestination, a doctrine that upset me until I actually read Calvin’s Institutes. There are churches that believe you just have to work harder to ensure your own salvation, and exploit people’s desperation to be saved. I understand predestination as a way to comfort an anxious people. God has already decided on our salvation, and we can’t do anything to change it. So stop worrying already! Live your life!

Because I have stopped worrying, I believe I can relate to people of other religions without the urgency of needing to ensure their salvation (because it’s not up to me). I believe there is gracious space to witness to my faith and learn about theirs. I think of “witness” as a way of living my life so people think that I make being a Christian look good. Not because I’m so good, but because Christians have a lot of recover from. Our history of cultural domination, religious intolerance, aggressive missionizing resulting in the decimation of cultures, tearing families apart, Christian theological rationales for invasion of other people’s lands and theft of resources, theological rationales for the mass trafficking and enslavement of human beings, and a lot of other really terrible un-Jesus-like things might make it hard for people who are not Christian to trust us. (A friend once said he was surprised to learn that despite my status as a Christian minister, I’m not an a***hole.)

We have much to gain by relating to people of other religious traditions. We who are Christians can be Christian and can also listen well, offer and receive hospitality, and work for a world in which no religious person is persecuted for her or his difference. We can disagree with integrity, engage in dialogue, and learn from the wisdom of other traditions, while offering what is the wisdom of our own faith. We can work together for a better world, with less hunger, less oppression, and less hate.

And if you, like me, believe Christians have more to learn, here are some places to start:

Your local mosque, temple, gurdwara, synagogue.


  1. I too lean pluralistic, except I think it can be healthy for religions to critique each other (from a humble vantage point). I'm sure Christianity could learn a lot from Buddhism and Islam, and visa versa, etc.

    1. Yes! WJK has a book coming out in early 2014 called What Christians Can Learn From Other Religions. http://www.thethoughtfulchristian.com/Products/0664238378/what-christians-can-learn-from-other-religions.aspx

  2. One of the books that I've found helpful in this area is: "Relating to People of Other Religions: What Every Christian Needs to Know " by Thomas Thangeraj. He helps connect different ways of approaching interfaith work to different scriptures and theologians.