Why should a Christian support interfaith dialogue? After all, isn’t faithfulness to Christ the central commandment of individuals who say that they are Christian? How can one be faithful to Christ while respecting other religious traditions and spiritualities?
Few questions are more important for Christians in the United States at this time of growing pluralism. Since the 1960s, the percentage of Americans who have faith or spiritual identities other than Christianity has grown substantially. In a recent survey of 35,000 Americans, 5.9% of the respondents had religious commitments which are not Christian. Perhaps even more striking were the people who referred to themselves as atheists, agnostics, or individuals professing “nothing in particular” when it comes to faith. They represent more than one-fifth of the survey participants. Things have changed. (Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015)
While it might seem that faithfulness to Christ means separation from persons of other faiths and none, that might not be so wise. Certainly, such an approach of exclusion might make sense if one were to draw from selected Biblical texts. After all, in the Gospel of John, the words of Jesus are pretty direct: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (14:6) Luke’s admonition in the Book Acts only adds flames to the fire. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (4:12)
Decades ago, I first learned about interfaith dialogue through (surprise, surprise) interfaith connection. I was a graduate student taking ministry courses with a wide assortment of young peers and one older gentleman who was the rabbi of a large Reform Jewish congregation in Chicago. It was from this kind rabbi that I first heard a Hebrew prayer. It was also from him that I learned a powerful message of grace.
As was the case with many Reform congregations of the time, this rabbi’s community was being threatened by a decline in membership due to inter-marriage. More and more of his young congregants were marrying persons outside of the Jewish faith. Most commonly, the spouses were Christian. Once the knot was tied, a high percentage of those formerly observant Jews disconnected out of a desire to avoid conflict with their spouses.
The rabbi decided to embody the Jewish tradition of love, compassion, and kindness. He invited the non-Jewish spouses to become co-members of the synagogue. He also created a special gathering for these spouses and their Jewish partners to be with other people with the same multi-faith family dynamics. The results were immediate. People flocked to his congregation. The expression of gratitude was beyond anything he could have imagined. Without intending this act as a form of proselytizing many spouses felt so loved and accepted that they converted.
I have never forgotten that story or the person who told it. It says so much to me that this rabbi chose to get a “Doctorate in Ministry” at a Christian seminary so that he could explore his own faith tradition in the context of an interfaith community. Today, that seminary is far more interfaith in its student body. I think that is a gift to Christians and others. Why?
First, as Marcus Borg suggests, “the heart of Christianity” is compassion. The Jesus tradition asks for love of neighbor and enemy. In the passage which many of us hear only at weddings, we are reminded in I Corinthians 13 about the centrality of love. “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” No matter our faith (or lack thereof), we are human beings with life stories, traditions, and families. We are all doing our best to make sense out of our lives. Not to embrace one another in the fullness of our lives, including our faith and philosophical traditions, is to send a message of exclusion.
Secondly, Biblical texts can mean different thing in different contexts. For instance, consider the John 14:6 passage. On the face of it, one would think its meaning is non-negotiable. It’s telling Christians in no uncertain terms that there is only one way to God. All others are wrong. But that’s not the only interpretation available. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, author of Living Buddha, Living Christ, offers another approach. As he suggests, the “way,” the “truth” and the “life” of Jesus are all associated with compassion. From this Vietnamese monk’s perspective, compassion really is the only way. That insight comes from someone who knows the alternative. After all, Hanh experienced the devastation of the Viet Nam War up close. He had colleagues who considered renouncing their vows of peace to live lives of violence because they were so enraged by the suffering they saw when bombs were dropped and grenades thrown. But Thich Nhat Hanh saw a better way. And he came to know many Christians who shared this commitment. They pointed to Jesus as the source of that call to peace while this gentle monk turned to Buddha. Hanh suggested we would be better off living in a world where our common commitment to peace could be nurtured rather than being undermined by doctrinal disputes.
Finally, as a Christian who sees the Holy Spirit as alive and well not only in Biblical history but also in the present, I find in the Bible a sign pointing toward new life. In my scriptures the “conquest narratives” of Joshua and Judges are followed by the Book of Ruth. I love that fact. After all, Ruth, who becomes the great-grandmother to King David, comes from Moab, considered an enemy. The message is suggestive. Perhaps the nature of divine love reaches out to encompass more than we might imagine. Paul’s outreach to various gentile communities in the New Testament offers a similar kind of model of divine generosity and compassion. (By the way, that generosity was not limited to early Christians. Many first-century common era synagogues had gentile “God fearers” associated with them.)
I have not seen that blessed rabbi from my Chicago days for decades now. But I was blessed to know another in Springfield, Missouri for more than 20 years. Rabbi Rita Sherwin taught me Hebrew from the same Hebrew prayer books that the youngsters in her congregation used. She also instructed me through her example on the subject of love, kindness, generosity, sensitivity, and interfaith outreach. For all of her years in this overwhelmingly Christian town, she invited Christians to the Friday evening Shabbat services. Over the years, I have been a guest in that sacred space on several occasions, and I was most honored when I got to be present at the retirement dinner the Temple arranged for her and then at the installation of her successor, Rabbi Barbara Block.
I can’t imagine my life without those people and the experiences they have brought. The Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based organization, holds an annual “It’s Better Together Day.” Their point is simple. We need one another. Our spiritualities, faith traditions, cultures, and philosophical perspectives are gifts to be shared.
Don’t take my word for it. Discover what I have discovered for yourself. Reach out to someone of another spiritual tradition. If that person is a part of a religious community, ask if it might be acceptable to attend an event associated with that person’s fellowship or congregation. Educate yourself. There are many books – from non-fiction to novels – which can give you a sense of another tradition.
And remember. We live in a pluralist age but that doesn’t mean that we can’t find some essentials. Love is better than hate. Reconciliation is preferable to conflict. Respect builds bridges. Compassion allows us to live together. Certainly, there are faith and identity differences. But that reality does not have to lead to separation and contempt. There is a better way. It is the way of peace and mutual respect. May we all choose it.