“Interfaith Issues for Global Mennonites and Brethren in Christ”

Mennonite World Conference Workshops, July 2015
With Youth at Messiah College and with Adults near Harrisburg, Pa.

Introduction to Interfaith Issues

During this workshop we will talk about religions. We will look distinctly at three Asian religions—Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh. Religion is a very personal matter; it expresses a way to be. Religio means “to bind”; religions are meant to bring people together. Each adherent knows about her or his own faith—its past strengths and errors. Each conveys how religion gives meaning for personal life. To talk with other Christians—Protestant, Roman Catholic or Orthodox—is INTRA religious exchange. To heal intrafaith conflict, calls us to respect, listen, avoid demonization, confess and forgive, discern, and serve together. To converse with people of other living faiths or world religions is INTER religious exchange. As we Christians today honor and take seriously people loyal to Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh faiths we do not mean to value Judaism and Islam, Shinto, Tao or Parsi insight less. I value where religious pluralism exists, where multi faiths daily live together, where Christianity is less prominent but valued for what it offers. I have lived in India multiple times where about 3% of the population is Christian.

We as Christians have a strong Jewish base. Our mentor Jesus valued his Jewish heritage which he hoped to reform. Christianity would not exist without Judaism. But few of us live daily alongside Jewish believers. We hardly recognize their scrolls or sub groups like Orthodox and Reformed. Whether as an active resistor of injustice or through my claim to the One universal God of varied names, I believe that Jesus taught through parables and direct action about God’s Way of welcome. Jesus ever-pointed a way to God who includes other Ways into a broad kin-dom of faithful followers. Jesus best conveys for me what God is like or how God cares for all people. Yet, I expect to learn from people loyal to other living faiths what gives them meaning, how their terms for the Being whom I call Creator, Yahweh or God might be Allah, Krishna, or Guru Granth Sahib.

Then together we who are committed to diverse religions choose to work toward a safer, more just world. The loyal Hindu Gandhi stated: “We should, by living the life according to our lights, share the best with one another, thus adding to the sum total of human effort to reach God.” Each religion reveals Truth; no one faith group has a monopoly of it. To expect people of other religions to share their Truth helps it to happen. In that process our measure of Christianity’s Truth grows.

I believe that the One God created and values difference. Consider the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). Those of a dominant language and symbolic tower were intent to control all, to compete with God even. Valuing difference, God scatters their united but false power over the face of the earth. Then, the Spirit of Pentecost (Acts 2) brought scattered voices together; people understood one another. Unity returns through verbal exchange, through God’s gift of difference, with no intent for one to dominate.

Difference is to be welcomed not feared, fear known as xenophobia. Difference is good: of language, race, nation, sex and religion. Religious pluralism reflects God’s will to save all. I am not God so I try not to limit the paths or expressions of grace by which the Divine cares for people. Not needing to judge another’s path, since I am not on it, I trust God to know all religious journeys. I try not to determine or limit God’s power and Wisdom to judge people of living faiths. At Hindu temples in India, I observed without trying to intrude. Rather than judge what I failed to fully understand, I pondered: Why did they tap a bell on arriving to worship? Why did they ‘baptize’ an image with milk or honor holy men clad in ashes? Recall too that religions much older than Christianity taught what we call “the Golden Rule.” Hinduism counseled “Do not to another what is disagreeable to yourself.” While Judaism affirmed “What is hateful to you, do not to [another],” Buddhism taught “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find harmful.” Learning about other religions involves claiming what is common as seriously as what differs among us.

To engage with people of other religions requires being truly informed about them. I offer a measure of such information here. Being alert to possible types of exchange across religious borders matters. Not meant to promote Syncretism, which compromises beliefs on combining then from two religions, or Synthesis, which combines parts to make a whole, we encourage Symbiosis, where people with different views teach each other features of faith. I wonder why we fear worship alongside a neighbor or stranger whose rituals differ. Do we aspire to limit God to hearing one faith, ours only?

Let’s think about difference, sameness and diversity. “To know one religion is to know none” was stated long ago by German Max Muller who knew a great deal about world religions. A wise approach to religion will find our being “religious interreligiously.” That approach avoids arrogant or unfair, negative attitudes toward others. It encourages our saying “Explain what has meaning for you; let’s teach each other.” It combines personal conviction with genuine openness to another’s belief. It expresses or confesses what you believe in a way that invites a hearer to listen and learn. It means to be informed about others’ scriptures, rituals, stories, and worship patterns. Unity does not mean sameness; it emerges through God’s gift of honoring difference. We Mennonites do not only duplicate beliefs or actions; we retain what differs among us while learning and exchanging our variations.

Preliminary Introduction to three Asian religions

I first highlight a few ideas from Mennonite writers in my self-published book of 2015 titled Mennonites Encounter Hinduism: An Annotated Bibliography. (Abbreviations refer to General Conference, Mennonite Brethren, or Mennonite Church Mennonites.)


Edmund Kaufman (GC) –notes about Hinduism: It has no founder; some of what became Hindu segments came with Aryan invaders into India. (145-46)

I.P. Asheervadam (MB) states how Hinduism grew and that beliefs shifted over five thousand years. Major caste groups plus hundreds of sub-castes caused inequality among Hindus. (78)

Santos Raj (MB) states important Hindu ideas: All religions and faiths journey toward the same God. All ideas reflect partial Truth. Karma refers to a person’s recurring cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (reincarnation) depending on merit gained during a lifetime until released or liberated into oneness with Brahman. (104)

Paul Hiebert (MB) notes three Hindu paths (known as marga) that may lead to God: 1. Karma – path of duty or action (as through offerings, pilgrimage, rituals); 2. Bhakti – path of total devotion or worship; and 3. Jnana (disciplined way of wisdom or knowledge that leads toward enlightenment or inner oneness with God. (140)

Shantkumar Kunjam (MC) explains how Gandhi’s service to common people expressed his sole longing or purpose to meet or merge with God face to face. (68).

Hear more details. Hindus may know awe in expressing OM-M-M or Vac (spoken word), divine energy in steps of sacred dance, or a presiding power in the innermost heart of a Hindu temple. In such, they convey a deep sense of the holy. As we value other religions, holding as sacred what each marks in a distinct way, we learn more of Divine Mystery. In learning, we move toward more wholeness (salvation). Hearing a Hindu friend express intent to pray for me or a given circumstance, I know that goddess Durga may be called on or that a holy Amma figure may hear the details. Power beyond the routine—as with Sophia or shakti—will engage time or place between us. My friend in turn may absorb a measure of trust in the Divine as I grace a group meal. Together we each honor the sacred in the other. She knows something of my conviction that Jesus’ life best informs me of the Divine, and I trust her when learning truth from her sacred stories. We move toward unity since each knows enough about the other to trust the One, Ultimate God.

Regarding Buddhism we briefly compare religion founder Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) with Jesus. Both religions emerged out of former ones, Hinduism and Judaism. Both founders were born without a human father. (Further, Siddharth’s mother died seven days after giving birth.) Siddharth married a noble woman with whom a son Rahula was born. After seeing sights of disease, decrepitude, death, and a wandering ascetic, Siddharth heard a call: “Awake! Arise, and help the World!” Soon he left his wife and child to take on a holy man’s saffron robe.

Both Buddha and Jesus were temped, Jesus before adult baptism and Buddha before enlightenment. Known for teaching, both had a noted sermon: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and Buddha’s Sermon in the Deer Park. Both performed nature and healing miracles, were known by multiple names, and had a strong sense of mission. Both taught: Jesus for three years, dying in his early 30s. Buddha traveled and taught (known as the “wheel of dharma”) for 40 years and died at age 80. After passing through four stages of trance, he is presumed to have attained Nirvana—release or ’heaven.’ Both left instructions, Jesus predicted the coming of a Holy Spirit to guide believers while Buddha anticipated potential Buddhahood for all.

Christians and Buddhists can enrich each other. A Christian might note how very attached to things she is and decide to change. She might examine the Fourfold Truths and ponder anew her neighbor’s suffering. A Buddhist might show devotion to Jesus in addition to Buddha, even though he engages more fully in Buddhist teaching and practice. Sri Lankan Christian Aloysius Pieris notes three levels of religion: 1. Its core experience such as the Jesus story or Buddha’s enlightenment. 2. Collective memory, or the medium used like story, liturgy, or leadership. 3. Interpretation—how followers through time explain the core event. Although religions differ, that fact need not cause conflict. As Buddha awakened into enlightenment, Jesus showed love through the cross. Neither channel is superior; either can lead to salvation (wholeness) or nirvana.

His Holiness the current Buddhist leader and Dalai Lama, was born as Tenzin Gyatso on July 6, 1935. When two, he was recognized as the 14th in line of Dalai Lamas which title means “ocean of wisdom.” The Dalai Lama has stated that one means to work toward harmony among world religions is for people loyal to different religions to “go on pilgrimages together to visit one another’s holy places.”1

Third, we look briefly into Sikhism. Sikhism means disciple. Guru Nanak founded the religion in the 1520s. Nine consecutive gurus led the group before the 10th named Guru Gobind Singh. Late in the 1690s he declared the Sikh community to be known as Khalsa (pure) order, as people accountable to God. Then the Sikh scripture was elevated to the status of Guru Granth which means guru in book form. Not printed until 1865, the text, called Guru Granth Saheb, and script are believed to be sacred; Punjabi is the language of scripture. Five prime symbols for Sikh men to ever-have are unshorn hair, wooden comb, steel bracelet (kirpan) small sword, and shorts.

Distinct details further introduce this religion. The Sikh place of worship is called the Gurdwara. All who attend remove their shoes and cover their heads with a triangular cloth piece. Members on entering the worship space bow to their knees to the Guru, the text. After Sunday worship and daily through the week a meal called langar is shared. Families or by a planned scheme, members will have prepared the meal. They then serve it to all seated in long rows on the floor. Amrit (holy nectar) is accepted at a member’s time of baptism; no particular age determines that rite. Sikhs believe in One Supreme, Eternal, Creator God. Important principles to live by include tolerance, morality, honest living, service, and surrender to God. Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and Christians do not form images of God

Personal photos were shown to those attending workshops on a power point to further introduce these three religions.

“Holy chaos” that engulfs the most sacred Hindu city of Banaras by the Ganges River

Watching an image maker at his craft before entering sacred space in temples