How Learning from and Respect for People of Other Faiths Enhances Mine

As Teaching Elder at Campus Cluster of Assembly Mennonite Church, Goshen, I gave this sermon on Jan. 23, 1994.

What a tame title! How about: “For God’s sake,” =Trust the Truth of other Faiths Too.” That phrase does not express swearing. It comes from the depths of my regret for how often Christians fail God by failing to respect and understand people of faiths different from their own. As is known, “the truly spiritual and the church may not always be related.” Let’s try to expand interreligious insight depth today.

We might, “for God’s sake” review Frederick Faber’s 140-year old hymn (“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”) that we just finished singing. Recall verse one—“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” plus those that begin “But we make God’s love too narrow” and “For the love of God is broader.” Think of the widest expanse of sea, far beyond human sight. Like that endless view is God’s mercy toward all. Even we have hope! And what is your perception of freedom? God’s kindly justice goes beyond our limits of freedom. God’s love and heart-tug reach far beyond what our minds comprehend. Keep in mind, “for God’s sake” and theirs that God loves people of faiths other than ours infinitely more than we do! We falsely limit God’s love to our narrow scope, our zealous demands, our western experience with primarily Christians. “God, have mercy!”

In Delhi last June I entered a handicrafts shop and paused. On prominent display were symbols of three major faiths: a large brass goddess form, her arms and legs more than two each. Hindus see that form as welcome support for diverse needs. Second a large Buddha form of some heavy metal sat posed in worship. The third object was an inlaid, wooden depiction of the Lord’s Supper, probably three by five feet.

I could not ignore the religious connection. Can you image seeing three large reminders of the sacred on entering a local Montgomery Ward store? Here, the religious simply does not pervade life as in India. You must believe that, if you hope to learn from Indians. A fine video titled “India: The Empire of the Spirit” portrays that eternal quest, that search for unity in diversity, that plea to be rid of desired, en route to salvation. A person’s last name often indicates a religious link; marks on the forehead or head gear might indicate a person’s loyalty.

Earlier, when daughter Lynda and I were in Delhi, Hindu parents of a Goshen College student we know well took us to four temples. In several of them people offered puja (worship) alone. In one, group worship markedly increased momentum. All who stopped by knew how to enter into the rituals: to chant or sway, to offer a donation at the altar, or to receive the blessed water or pinch of food. Lynda and I watched from the back. Were we not on “holy ground?”

In Allahabad (note that the city name begins with Allah), John and I visited a Roman Catholic Father as he prepared o meet the next day with leader of different faiths—to pray. A few months before, just sixty miles away, a noted Muslim mosque had been destroyed, prompted by a more radical Hindu faction. In the aftermath, thousands of people died and property burned in riots in Indian cities. India bled. India cried. India asked tough questions about using religion for political purpose.

Now, Father Bhatt—who with others had dispersed supplies to the helpless during two weeks of curfew—gathered people to pray to the One God known by varied names and forms. “For God’s sake,” feel the courage. See why that which is common to religions must emerge. For the priest to have insisted that all confess that “Jesus alone is Lord” would have utterly squelched that sacred joint venture.

Look at the emblem distributed as you arrived. Symbols from ten World religions appear there. Do you know them? Do you thank God that followers in each of them pray? Note the flying pigeon with an olive leaf of peace, and the handshake of human solidarity. Do you join together toward the One Truth, via many symbols?
At the center is the flame of light which stands for Ultimate Reality revealed in different ways. Directly above it is the OM symbol of Creator Brahma, of Hindu faith. To the right continue the Crescent with star of Islam, the Dharma Chakra wheel of Buddhists, the Jewish menorah, the Bha-Kua symbol of Taoists, the gateway Torii of a Shinto shrine, the Sikh rod-circle-swords, Zoroastrian fire, Jain swastika, and Christian cross.

Phil. 4:8 is worth pondering in light of multi-faiths. “Finally, friends, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Do we credit “such things” in events like these?

A couple stories from A. Wingate’s book Encounter in the Spirit prompt my further questions.

  1. “From the Hadith—traditions about the prophet Muhammed) The prophet Isaac asked Allah to show him a man who walked close to God. He had looked to every corner of the earth, and never found one. “Go to the countryside, and I will guide you to one,” instructed Allah. And so off he went, and all he was shown was a man tending two swine. “Why this man, doing this poor and unclean task. If he were a good Muslim he would have nothing to do with pigs!” said Isaac puzzled. But Allah replied: “You asked to see a man who walks close with God. This is he. His parents committed some grave sins, and then died. But still their son remains devoted to them, and tends them day by day.”
    [Can you receive the details of this story? How do you deal with cultural or religious ideas very different from yours? What biblical stories do you associate with swine? Are they more acceptable than this one? What resembles a text about “doing for the least”?]
  2. Guru Nanak (founder of the Sikh religion, an offshoot of Hinduism that also borrowed from Islam) had concentrated on the love of God, which united all. When he died, the Hindus and Muslims both claimed his body, and brought flowers. It was decided that whoever’s flowers remained fresh over night could claim the body. In the morning, the body had gone, and both sets of flowers remained fresh. So, one group was given the shroud, the other the bier (coffin). This showed how he was a saint beyond religions. It is the sort of unity that comes from sainthood rooted in the love of God.
    [What story of a dead body gone in the morning comes to mind? What if Christians and Jews had more fully shared Jesus’ sainthood? How have Christians impeded further sharing?]

The Kudzu comic strip in the Christian Century magazine recently posed a question from a theologian.
“Dear Preacher, How do you define ‘God’?”
And the reply:
“Dear Theologian, The Holy is greater than the sum of its parts.”

That idea links with today’s teaching, right? For Christians to learn from other faith’s parts can be instructive. To admit that we do not have full truth is healthy. To know what worthy truth we indeed have discovered and choose to share is also healthy. So will others share their truth; that fact we must expect, request, and hear.

Let’s note major features—similar and distinct—about world faiths. Exchange about both kinds of features can strengthen personal insight. What do faiths have in common? How does value for the common shape people’s approach to that which differs? How does respect for that which is distinct hold integrity for sacred being, both personal and another’s?

Recently, while talking about faith with a good friend, he said, “You know, Hinduism as I know it, is also monotheistic.”
I replied, “I believe you; help me understand further.”
Although his family has chosen from among Hindu options, he experiences—beyond Ganesh or Hanuman—the One, Ultimate God.

Are we ingrained to think that only Christians know God, or “have a longer handle on” God because of Jesus the Christ? Does that conviction hinder our learning more about God through others? Openness to learn does not require that we “water down” or deny Jesus the Christ as our prime channel for knowing God. But dare we declare that our choice is decisive for all others?

Those prone to argue, rather than focus on what’s common first, might hasten to say, “but Jesus said, “There is no way to the Father but through me.” That claim is how many Christians are particular. But to insist on the particular can stifle being mutual. Jesus clearly claimed being the Way, Truth, and Life, but the writer John, not necessarily Jesus could have confessed the other exclusive phrase. That reference to Father totally offends Muslims, for example. To make God so familiar is spiritually painful for them. Further, Muslims have such an intense monotheistic view of God that our Trinity threesome seems unfaithful to their One God.

So, do we choose to first offend, or first name what we believe in common as a framework for valid, distinct belief? The single-eyed Christian will restate, “You must believe in Jesus Christ,” period. The dual-visioned will confess reasons (plus the leap-beyond-reason) to hold Jesus sacred. A radical human representative of God, Christians believe that he chose to live and die on earth and then was freed to rise on behalf of humanity. That confession will combine with a sincere offer for a Muslim to claim why s/he believes that “There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is the Messenger of Allah.”

Christians who wish to understand Muslims will need to accept that Muslims view God’s word in Jewish and Christian scriptures but that it was fulfilled only in the Qur’an. We need to accept that Muslims revere biblical prophets from Abraham to Christ but contend that Muhammed was the last and greatest, or Seal of the Prophets.

What options exist then for such distinct beliefs? Both or either group could insist that the other must accept their particular view. Or, knowing what is distinct, both can seek together to give central focus to common bonds—who or what God is, how people are best neighbors, why each person deserves self-worth. Either can choose what I call to “let God” or to try to “be God.”

What do I mean by that distinction? Based on accurate information given by each believer and with respect for the integrity of each, I “let God” when I expect God to further enlighten each person in the process to Truth. I welcome that invitation from God to grow in faith rather than try to be God by requiring the other to choose my distinct view. And I trust the other to take that same vulnerable posture. Further, I refuse to yield to the temptation to “water down” the other’s distinctness or to subsume it within mine. Either tactic shows resistance to hearing the other or to altering my Insight. What a “heyday” God could have, if we were to truly “let God.”!

So, what are other common features among faiths?

  1. That God intends to save from oppression people among all nations.
  2. That doing theology among diverse people must proceed in “cross-reference”—taking into account others’ truth. [Keith Cragg]
  3. That each more likely discovers the best in other religions which followers of each faith then re-discover as best for themselves.
  4. That each credits the other’s spiritual being and welcomes unity in a mystical sense, as a contemplative draws it together.
  5. That each promotes a moral and service approach to the neighbor, pledged to practice love as the key to knowing Truth.
  6. That each faith has a system of myths or story plus rituals to give meaning to life.

Indian leader M. K. Gandhi said: “Religions are many (each with the dear, the true and some error) but Religion is One.” Each faith pursues a sincere search for that which unites and for that which retains the distinct. Each knows that bearing witness to God through being a praying community exceeds the mission to conquer. I ask, “For God’s sake,” will we strive for such common depth?

Indian Christian Samuel Samartha states that all religions face life issues. For example, they seek meaning for transcendence within a secular society. They seek harmony in communities torn by religious strife. They plead for peace in a world capable of nuclear doom. They hope to mend brokenness—human and with nature. In other words, all cope with sin, with being finite.

While religions ultimately worship the One God, they do so through different rituals and diverse hues. Customs vary. Muslims do not have music when they gather to worship; Christians do. Social divisions are accepted by some groups while denied that they exist in others. Muslims claim that the Gospel of Barnabas is nearer to the truth; Christians discredit it because it denies crucifixion. Muslims are publicly called to prayer five times daily; some judge Christians as weak regarding prayer. Muslims use Arabic for formal prayers and to memorize texts; the language itself is thought to be part of God’s revelation. Christians believe that Jesus was the final revelation; Muslims claim Muhammad. Further, Jewish denial of Jesus as the Christ does not mean that they deny God. But non-theistic Buddhists seek instead to know full enlightenment.

How people approach such difference varies. Some insist that no differences matter, since every religion leads to the same goal. Others try to reconcile differences within the framework of one evolving world religion. Others admit and accept differences and give all people of faith freedom for religious self-expression [P. D. Devanandan] How then will each approach this fact: Both Hindus and Christian s accept salvation as the grace of God—Hindus without the historical Christ and Christians through God in Christ.

Attitudes are described in three other terms: Exclusivists believe that only one mode of religious thought and experience (their own) is valid or true. Inclusivists believe that their religious tradition alone is the whole truth but admit that this truth is reflected in part in other faiths. And pluralists believe that while the great world faiths have different ideas of and responses to God, each works to transform self-centered being into God-centered. Much more could be added.

So, how does learning from and respect for people of other faiths enhance our own? Why, “for God’s sake,” do we need to learn and respect?

  1. To be open and trusting of others—rather than prone to argue or “prove” my view—makes me more alert to new insight in the other’s view and more ready to modify and expand my truth.
  2. To learn counters ignorance and misconception. If what we say about another’s faith cannot be owned by her/him, we are likely wrong.
  3. To, in principle, invite insight from rather than thrust personal limits on another sets a tone. Exchange and growth more likely follow.
  4. To grant another space for distinct conviction allows me to hold my own with integrity.
  5. To invite and respond to diverse matters of faith helps to reinforce that spiritual being is a vital aspect of being human.
  6. Occasions to link with diverse people will increase in our world. Human growth in stating belief and acting with integrity corresponds.
  7. To suggest that only one faith is true makes exchange impossible. If all are completely true, then exchange is not needed. [Samartha] Holding truth claims to be “interim and provisional” invites process.
  8. To discover what being authentic means and what being in God’s presence entails gains priority over proving that Jesus is a superior Way. (That stance need not disqualify that, for Christians, Jesus is central.)
  9. To credit the fact that another’s faith means as much to her/him as mine does to me prompts trust. That crediting is needed as much between Christians and believers in other faiths. If we exclude because others do not accept our limits or our freedom about Truth, how do we both retain faith and account for having excluded? “For God’s sake” (plus the sake of personal and another’s faith), to trust is imperative. Will we expect to become stronger through difference?

I refer in conclusion to the only account of Jesus’ youth. When his parents did not locate him among the caravan en route home after attending a Jewish Passover, they returned to Jerusalem. Amazed by his religious interest, they found him with the temple teachers. Jesus sat at the feet of the seated teachers, a learner. He listened to the exchange. Not preaching, he too asked questions, heard debate and followed the probing, counter questions. Through God-given Wisdom, he knew and grew in Truth. Every created child is endowed with religious insight. For the sake of God, neighbor and self, let’s learn to trust Truth, from all whom God imbues.