Recently I spoke at a church located about an hour north of where I live. As I drove to the church, I chatted on the phone with my brother who lives in Florida. We were making plans for me to come visit him on the weekend of our birthdays (his is a day later than mine). I mentioned that while I was there, I wanted to attend a training weekend at the local Shambhala Center.
My brother, who is a confirmed agnostic, surprised me with his response. “Are you sure that’s wise?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, now that you have become a full time Christian speaker…” he began, referring to the fact that I had recently left my day job and was now working exclusively as a writer and retreat leader.
“Yes?” I interjected, already suspecting what was coming.
“I’m just worried that there will be a backlash against you if word gets out that you study with Buddhists,” he finished.
I took a breath. Since my brother’s perception of Christianity comes not so much from his experience of the church from the inside, but rather from dealing with overzealous fundamentalists over the years as well as from media portrayals of Christians that emphasize the conservative side of the faith, I could see where he was coming from.
“I don’t think you need to worry,” I said. “Not all Christians are opposed to interfaith dialogue. Many really do see such engagement as positive.” I went on to discuss my involvement in the Atlanta interfaith community, and how I have spoken at churches and seminaries specifically on the topic of interfaith dialogue and its importance. He didn’t seem particularly convinced, so I changed my tactic. “The bottom line is integrity. I’ve been drawn to, or engaged in, some sort of interfaith thought or spirituality since I was in college. It’s not going to change now. I have to be true to who I am, and I have to trust that my work can only thrive if I am authentic like that.”
I drove up to the church, we said our goodbyes, and I went in. The church sponsored a community meal prior to my scheduled talk, and so I joined a table with the senior pastor and several elders, including the woman on the education committee who had arranged for me to come speak.
Their topic of conversation: the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Atlanta. Every one of them had either gone to see His Holiness, or said they wished they had.
If only my brother had been there.
I sometimes wonder if there aren’t two broad types of Christian identity. One is very tribalistic, with a strong sense of boundaries separating “believers” from everyone else, and an underlying belief or assumption that all those who are outside the tribe are somehow not good enough for God: at best, they are struggling through life without the benefit of grace; at worst, they are headed straight to hell, thanks to God’s unremitting wrath toward those who are not among the elect. Certainly, there is plenty of discourse in the Christian tradition, beginning with the Bible itself, that would support this kind of exclusivist interpretation of religion.
But it’s not the only way. Many Christians, who balance their commitment to their faith with an appreciation of science as well as a lively interest in other religions, simply see no reason to endorse exclusivism as a necessary characteristic of belief. In other words, you don’t have to insist that Christianity (or any other religion) is “the only way” or even necessarily “the best way” in order to practice that religion. My devotion for God does not depend on believing that God would be displeased if I studied and practiced the wisdom of other faiths. On the contrary: since I believe God is love, God naturally embraces all that is truly loving in our world, even when that is found in other faiths. Furthermore, I am convinced that to believe in a God who would summarily reject all faiths other than one’s own is to embrace a spirituality grounded in something other than love. The key word, there, of course is “summarily” — since I believe God is a God of justice, naturally God would call humanity away from any form of injustice, including any kind of religious oppression or abuse. But that means God would call us away from oppression and abuse in all religions, including our own. A truly loving God will bless loving faith, wherever it is found, and call people away from unloving belief, again in whatever form it might take. In this way of seeing things, a compassionate Buddhist like the Dalai Lama is far closer to God than a Christian whose faith is defined by how much he hates, for example, gay people.
I am convinced that many, many Christians agree with that last statement, and in general accept the idea that Christians who engage in interfaith exploration actually enrich Christianity rather than threaten it. Why, then, would an intelligent non-Christian like my brother have a hard time seeing this? My guess is because Christians who are open to interfaith dialogue and interspiritual practices are often rather humble and quiet in how they live their faith — qualities which have long been praised as marks of holiness. But our media culture does not reward humility and silence. So a disproportionate amount of attention goes to Christians who make a lot of noise in favor of their insistence that God is all about rewarding the people like them and punishing everyone else.
It is important for any person or community to have appropriate and healthy boundaries, and I understand that religions need to safeguard their identity as much as any other social unit. But it gets tricky when a religion reveres someone like Jesus of Nazareth, much of whose ministry was all about challenging unhealthy or unfairly enforced boundaries. In the New Testament, it was daring for the Jewish Christians to embrace and accept gentiles who felt called to follow Christ. In our day, perhaps a similar kind of holy daring motivates Christians who engage in positive interaction with the adherents of other faiths. And just as there were New Testament Christians who opposed the evangelization of the gentiles, so today some Christians oppose interfaith exploration. Conflict, it seems, has always been a part of religious experience, no matter how narrow (or broad) our religious boundaries might be.
So what do we do? I think the answer is simple, at least for Christians trying to figure out how members of our faith should interact with adherents of other paths. We all simply have to follow our conscience — any other path is simply unthinkable — and then we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us to where we are called to be. And hopefully enough of us interspiritual-friendly Christians will be faithful to our conscience that even outsiders will notice.