Editor's Note: Kirby Godsey's book, Is God a Christian? is currently being featured in the Patheos Book Club.
Opening conversations with people of other faiths is becoming increasingly urgent in a world where people act out their religious prejudices by killing innocents and engaging in other terrorist acts of wanton human destruction. The recent tragedy in Norway reveals the horrors that can be done in the name of faith. Such episodes cause all of us to shudder, wondering how our distorted and sometimes twisted confessions of faith can contribute to such malicious, even psychotic behavior.
The church cannot afford to brush aside these episodes, shaking our heads in disbelief. We, the Christian church, this community of devout believers who believe Jesus is the way, must enter this treacherous territory of confronting the evil that is being sown abroad in the name of God. If we fail to speak, we become complicit in contributing to the abuse of religion and failing to take responsibility for the evils being perpetuated in the name of the faith we affirm.
At the outset, we should set aside the notion that our own faithfulness can be demonstrated by rejecting the legitimacy or integrity of other faiths. The plurality of faiths will not disappear if we simply ignore them. It is foolish to think that God has taken up residence only in our own religion and acts with anger or judgment toward all others. Such a myopic view represents a religion that has been overtaken by narcissism.
God is the God of all people. God's light shines upon all people. As Christians, our confessions should not be used to assert any limitation on the will or the voice or the intervention of God in human affairs. Insecurity in our own beliefs is the chief culprit that causes us to feel that we need to overturn the validity of another's faith in order to be sure of our own. While we can only speak from where we stand, we should leave every other believer free to do the same. We are neither wise enough nor good enough to judge the faith of another.
Christian belief, then, is not about claiming absolute certainty or giving unencumbered allegiance to the doctrines of our faith. Belief is not a set of facts to affirm, but a commitment to make. When we say "Jesus Christ is Lord," we are not stating a fact; we are making a commitment to follow Jesus. As followers of Jesus, our commitment to Jesus as the Christ becomes the defining center of our lives. The integrity of that commitment, however, is in no way dependent upon the invalidity or the lack of integrity of someone else's religious commitment. Our aim should not be to wage war among competing commitments. Both reason and good faith point us in a different direction. Grace will be more powerful than war. Thoughtful conversation will be more productive than religious bullying.
If we are to cultivate serious interfaith conversations, we should realize that understanding begins with listening, not talking. If as congregations of faith we are confident and committed in our own belief, how do we begin to reach out to neighbors who embrace other faiths? If we are able to convert our anxiety and distrust into friendship and understanding, we will have taken a giant step toward peace and building a framework for hope in the world. Jesus embraced and affirmed the worth of people whether they followed him or not. Passing baskets of "loaves and fishes" was not preceded by an altar call. We should feed one another and ask questions later.
Reaching out to people who belong to radically different faith traditions can be done in some very practical, down-to-earth ways. We have to keep reminding ourselves that reaching out does not mean abandoning our convictions. Quite to the contrary, it means actually practicing good faith. Again, being Christian is not about affirming the facts of Jesus, it is about following the acts of Jesus.
So, how can we begin earnest interfaith conversations?
- We can begin by listening to the stories that give rise to our faiths. All of our faiths are built around stories that lie at the foundation of our traditions. We can gather in small groups around dinner tables, or coffee shops or in fellowship halls, and there invite one another to tell the stories that illuminate and inspire their faith—the story of Abraham, the story of Jesus' feeding the multitudes, the story of Muhammad's life in Medina, the story of the young prince Gautama. Listening respectfully begins to reduce the fear and anxiety of confronting religious experiences that seem strange to our ears. Every religious ritual has a story behind it. Listening to one another's story will be a powerful force in achieving respect and understanding.
- Every religion has a collection of sacred literature and sacred places. We should read one another's sacred literature and talk about the literature that we hold sacred. It will be inspiring to read the Bhagavad Gita. It will be inspiring to read Confucius' Analects. We should invite other believers to read aloud to us from their literature or scripture which they hold to be sacred and tell how those of sacred texts actually shape and influence their life and behavior.
- Interfaith conversation can and should be built around families. Though not all, most of us are Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Hindu because we grew up in that tradition. We all have a history. Beginning to understand one another's history and the religious events that color our lives will contribute to building relationships of trust. If we can connect families, love and grace toward one another will follow.
- Pain and suffering are universal human phenomena. We should ask our friends of other faiths to speak to us of how they cope with suffering. We should ask them to share painful events and speak of how their faith helps them understand pain and suffering and even death. Every faith believes that life is more than about living until we die. The struggle with suffering and coping with loss is an experience common to us all and an important context for achieving greater appreciation for another faith.
- Every religion of the world reaches out to provide hope for its believers. This hope may be for salvation, for liberation, for deliverance, or to experience a sense of enduring peace. We should explore the hope that permeates the life of other believers. The yearning for hope lives within all of us and is the rich soil for interfaith conversations.