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Question of Other Faiths
The Bible contains several different answers. Each continues to have its partisans today. The first response is to be as separate as possible from non-Christians, as if they were unclean. A few Christians, mostly certain Anabaptist communities, practice this shunning. In a missionary faith like Christianity, these folk are true contrarians. The vast majority of Christians believe we should relate to others of different faiths by asserting the superiority of our faith over theirs. This is also the preponderant opinion of Scripturehardly surprising, as it tends to be every faith community’s typical approach.
This assertion of superiority can take several forms. In its most extreme guise it is war, practiced, alas, with depressing frequency by Christians as well as others for as long as there have been humans. The usual way that Christians have behaved is to try to convert others, using coercion a good deal of the time, but more often resorting to preaching, apologetics, and service projects like building schools and hospitals.
The special case, of course, has always been the continued existence of Judaism, and how to deal with it. Despite Paul’s eloquence in Romans 9–11, the usual way until very recently has been to see the Jews somehow as failed Christians, “gangrenous members of the Body of Christ,” as one medieval author put it. More or less brutal persecution has been the typical response of Christians when we have held the upper hand politically.
A third approach, also affirmed throughout Scripture, is to see God at work in other people outside the Church. There are so-called righteous Gentiles described in both testaments. Paul’s comment about them in Romans 1 and his approach to the Athenians recorded in Acts 17 are examples of drawing out the theological implications of their existence. Perhaps the most striking case is found in Matthew 15:21-28, with its parallel in Mark 7, the story of the Canaanite woman and how her faith opened the eyes of Jesus himself.
As with the previous answer to the question of other faiths, this discovery of God at work outside the boundaries of Judaism and Christianity has elicited different approaches. Since the Enlightenment there has arisen a particular answer, call it “universalism”, that finds many adherents among contemporary Western Christians. This holds, using various arguments, that all the major religions, not just Christianity, are valid paths to God. Interfaith dialogue in this view is to develop new approaches based on blending the various points of view into a new higher synthesis.
The driving force behind this universalism is of course the horror of religious war, the utter blasphemy of killing another in the name and for the sake of the God of love. Almost equally blasphemous is coercing someone to convert to another religion. The special case of the persecution of Jews by Christians should hold an especial horror for us Christians, since we worship a Jew as the ultimate self-revelation of the loving God and yet have slaughtered Jews for well over a thousand years in the name of Jesus. The complete madness of this is the special case that proves the general theory: wars of religion are the worst form (if there be one) of war.
There is therefore an urgency to interfaith dialogue, which is to defuse the causes of religious wars. While there is always a component of political and cultural will-to-power in any given religious war, the competing claims of the religions provide at least the gasoline on the fire, if not the combustible material itself, of the conflict.
The present global situation therefore requires interfaith dialogue. On what basis should Christians address people of other faith today?
The strength of universalism is its appeal to the immoral consequences of holding mutually-exclusive, absolute, faith claims. Clearly our overriding goal as a species should be to arrive at a common understanding that killing in God’s name is the most final form of the rejection of God. But the univeralist position has a number of problems that precisely prevent it from achieving this most urgent goal.
The first is the peculiar form of the claims of Christianity, namely, our reliance on one man as the definitive self-revelation of God to humanity. Those Christians who reject universalism do so for good reason: if no one comes to God but through Christ, then to assert otherwise is to deny the essential identity of Christianity. The problem of the salvation of non-Christians traditionally has been resolved by appealing to what some have termed “the cosmic Christ,” that all people eventually must deal with him. C. S. Lewis strikingly portrayed this theology in The Last Battle, the concluding volume of The Chronicles of Narnia. Universalist Christians who find this dissatisfying tend to drift off into various syncretisms that try to rescue appealing characteristics of Jesus after denying the classical credal affirmations about him.
A second problem is also very basic: if all religions are paths to the one God, how do you know this? It is the height of arrogance to assert to believers of other faiths that their religion is as good as mine. On what new revelation therefore does this assertion of the relative value of each tradition rest? This question if raised at all is usually answered with some blend of various religious teachers’ sayings. Few theologians have actually tried to address it systematically with any coherence. Univeralism’s apologetics rest on the moral outrage caused by religious war. While outrage calls for change, it cannot by itself form the intellectual foundation upon which the correct changes may be founded.
It may well be that re-appropriating the classical tradition, rather than drastically altering it, will provide a firmer foundation. If Jesus himself had to learn a lesson about faith from the Canaanite woman—the worst of all possible Gentiles, in ancient Israel’s view—then perhaps we too can allow the Spirit to guide us further into the truth. From this point of departure we can affirm with the Apostle that God’s Spirit is not confined to the Christian Church. Thus there are clear and positive lessons to learn about Christianity from other faiths, as well as wars to avoid.
With this in mind, consider again Jesus, whose first disciples sang that he counted equality with God, and therefore superiority to humanity, not something to be greatly valued, but poured himself out into the form of the least valued among humans, a slave (Phil. 2:6-7). In the climactic verse of Mark’s gospel this Jesus said that he had not come to be served, but to serve us (10:45). And he demanded of those who wish to follow him that we also learn to serve one another and indeed, the whole world.
Engaging people of other faiths is therefore not to be done as an exercise in the superiority of Christianity. Not only does our chequered history give the lie to any such claimsthey are also fundamentally incompatible with being Christian. It is not in our strength but our weakness that we may speak of Christ to others. He demands not pride, not an imparting of our imagined riches, but an admission of our own poverty before God and others.
No one can go to war who is coming from this position of servanthood. On the contrary. In the strange reversal that characterizes the action of the Spirit, those who seek to be warrior-conquerors are weak, and the ones who cling to the powerless Jesus are the truly strong. This provides us with a coherent position from which to address others that avoids the hollow claims of Christian superiority, the unselfconscious arrogance of universalism, or the belittling of the grounds of Christian faith.
There is a single word that describes this attitude, which was attributed to Jesus himself: humility. It does not come naturally to us anymore than to other people. But without it, we are no followers of Christ, and we therefore have nothing to say to, and learn from, people of other faiths.
Time is a-wasting. There are new wars in the offing, new fires whose tinder is the competition of religions including our own. It is not, as a recent book claimed, that Christianity must change or die. It is that Christianity must be faithful to its true essence or else die. That has always been the struggle of every new generation of Christians. In our generation, however, the whole world conceivably might die along with us. The way forward is for the humble only.
There is no other answer.
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.