One of my desires as a Christian contemplative — and as a writer about the mystical life — is to celebrate the orthodox heart within Christianity. By “orthodox” I mean engaging with key elements of Christian tradition, including the teachings regarding the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, salvation and the Passion, the Sacraments as means of grace, and the Church as Mystical Body. I try to safeguard against several forces active in our world today that would pull against such an understanding of Christian orthodoxy, including fundamentalism (the attempt to manage the Christian Mystery by reducing it to a literary formula), skepticism (the attempt to deny the Christian Mystery by insisting that it is inconsistent with science, or philosophy, or psychology), or esoteric speculation (the claim that the Christian Mystery is incomplete without introducing ideas from outside the mainstream tradition, often from ancient non-canonical writings: such as the notions that Christ and Magdalene were lovers, or that Christ was an initiate of an occult order, or studied in India).
Indeed, there is really only one significant way in which I part company with many Christians who see themselves as standard-bearers of orthodoxy. I believe the church has been called to prayerfully discern where God is leading us in regard to letting go of sinful gender and sexual prejudices that the church inherited from the world in which it was born — prejudices that continue to alienate many thoughtful people of good will, and that directly or indirectly oppress nearly all Christians, but particularly women and LGBT persons. (Note that I am not suggesting the church uncritically adopt secular or marketplace values in regard to gender and sexuality; rather, that we discern where God may be leading us in such a way that we may be a forceful witness for God’s love and grace even while the church remains a countercultural organization). I am persuaded that, just as the church was called to repent of colluding with slavery and racism over the last two centuries, so for today and in the future true Christian orthodoxy will do nothing but flourish as the church repents of its sexism, heterosexism, and denigration of sexuality.
I’ll leave that hot potato aside for now, because I want to write about another issue: the question of how Christians ought to relate to faiths and wisdom traditions other than their own. It seems to me that in the church today two basic approaches exist: the “conservative” idea that non-Christians have only one function, which is to be converted; and the “liberal” idea that we should be so eager to learn from other great wisdom traditions that it is okay to uncritically accept whatever values and beliefs we encounter, even when they are inimical to Christian orthodoxy. Put another way, conservatives tend to be hypercritical of non-Christian paths, while liberals often seem to be too uncritical of such “other” traditions. I suppose it’s obvious by the way in which I’m developing this idea, that I seek to walk a third, middle way: in which both individual Christians and the collective Body of Christ seek to remain maximally orthodox while maximally engaged in constructive dialog with adherents of other faiths.
It’s quite a tightrope I’m suggesting we walk here. After all, doesn’t scripture explicitly command Christians to “make disciples of all nations”? On the surface, this would suggest that the conservatives have it right: non-Christians are not our dialog-partners, but rather our future converts. But this is a classic example of where proof-texting can be so dangerous. For doesn’t scripture also insist that Christ commanded us simply to “love one another”? That God requires us to “do justice and love mercy”? Perhaps most important of all, that “there is no fear in love”? All of these aspects of the Christian wisdom tradition would argue against the kind of proselytizing that has too often characterized Christian dealings with non-Christians, where the message is one of fear rather than love, of coercion rather than mercy: “join us or be damned.” I believe that the command to make disciples of all nations is merely a command never to be ashamed of the gospel, to always be ready and willing to accept those who approach the church with an eagerness to walk the way of Christ. It’s also a command for Christians to be themselves (i.e., faithful to Christ) wherever they may find themselves (and by that I don’t think it’s so much that we need to send missionaries everywhere, but simply that we need to be ready and willing to encounter “all nations” in our midst, which in today’s world is pretty much everywhere).
In other words, I believe the overall message of the Bible in regard to how Christians relate to non-Christians involves these principles: be present, be yourself, honor your own beliefs, share them with others as appropriate. “As appropriate” is really key, here: many non-Christians really don’t want to hear about Jesus, and are sick and tired of Christian attempts to convert them. In such contexts, the only loving thing for Christians to do is to refrain from any attempt to convert, whatsoever. We need to love people first, and then share our spiritual enthusiasm later. And what does such inter-religious love look like? Well, for starters it is vulnerable, it is based on listening and gentle sharing, it is open-ended and trusting: it has a non-directive approach to the future (i.e., truly loving religious dialogue has absolutely no agenda to “convert” — its only agenda is to share, to learn, and when appropriate, to teach).
“But wait,” many conservatives will object, “you are suggesting that Christians should encounter non-Christians from a position of vulnerability rather than one of power. That we should listen to non-Christians as much as we speak (witness) to them. Doesn’t this put us at risk of being corrupted by non-Christian ideas?” Well, let’s put it this way. I believe Christians should approach non-Christians as Christ. We are suffering servants, not triumphalist warlords. We bring good news and glad tidings, not a message of fear or intimidation. Most of all, we are lovers of God and trust in God’s grace. Out of this deep center of love and trust, we dialog with others both to celebrate the wonders of God’s multivalent creation and to learn how we may humbly be of service. We do not learn about non-Christian wisdom just to find “errors” that Christianity will “fix,” but rather take a more holistic and transactional approach, trusting that the leadings of the Holy Spirit can move in multiple directions: that we can offer our wisdom to others, even while learning of their wisdom which can help us to grow in the Spirit. Because we dialog in a discerning way, we will not uncritically accept everything that is offered to us by adherents of other paths. But neither will we stand with arrogant pride, insisting that our way is the only way, and therefore alienating those to whom we supposedly are sharing our wonderful good news.
I suppose my model of orthodox/interfaith dialog is a true win-win model. When we share Christ with others in an open, vulnerable, non-coercive way, perhaps we aren’t cutting any notches in our belt for Jesus (!), but we are truly witnessing to the possibility of grace and good news, which in the long run is truly the more Christian thing to do. Meanwhile, if we trust that all wisdom that is grounded in love is itself a gift from God, then we are availing ourselves of many deep wells rich with spiritual nourishment. This is the path that Christians like Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, Henri Le Saux and Sara Grant have walked before us. May we join them in the adventure.
One final comment about orthodoxy: my understanding of orthodoxy as open and inclusive, rather than defensive and armored, comes in large measure out of reading Brian McLaren’s wonderful book Radical Orthodoxy. I think it’s essential reading for thoughtful Christians who seek to remain faithful as we move into God’s future.