Posted by: smstrouse | September 30, 2010

What Does It Mean to Be a Christian in an Interfaith World?

“I’m worried that I’m betraying Jesus.”  —  Elsie L.

In the days after 9/11/01, many congregations wanted to learn about other religions.  Studies on the world’s religions blossomed everywhere.  Members of Christian congregations met with their neighbors at mosques, synagogues, and temples in an effort to get to know and understand one another.  At my church in Buffalo, NY, we began a study of the world’s religions, beginning with Hinduism.

One night, I invited a Hindu guest to share her story with us. After the session, ‘Elsie’ asked if she could stay and talk to me about something that was bothering her.  She began by stating how much she was enjoying the study of Hinduism.  But she was worried.  On one hand, she appreciated hearing the personal story from our guest, but on the other hand, she thought that by accepting a Hindu’s path as valid, she might be ‘betraying Jesus’. Afterwards, when I reflected on the incident, I realized that Elsie had raised an important issue for Christians today.

And I came to the conclusion that while we need to offer opportunities for inter-faith dialogue, we also need to engage in intra-faith thinking.  In other words, as we learn about other religions, we also must address the question:  What Does It Mean To Be A Christian In An Interfaith World?

There are implications to our willingness to be open to interfaith encounters. As we listen and learn about what others believe, we are confronted with an increasing need to re-articulate our own faith identity.  As we look at similarities and differences among religions, we need to look more closely at our own doctrines, biblical interpretations and worship practices.

Inherent in these challenges is the christological question: in light of our religious diversity who and what is Jesus?  Can our belief in Jesus be taken for granted in our interfaith culture today?  Is it sufficient to recite the ancient creeds, use ‘church language’ such as ‘Jesus died for my sins’ or ‘washed in the blood of the Lamb’ without examining what these words really means in one’s own belief system and life?

Elsie’s concern about betraying Jesus by meeting and respecting a person of another religion confronts us with the challenge. There are several ways we could respond.  We could retreat into fundamentalism (as many do) and simply reject any and all claims of truth from other religions.  We could also drift into relativism (as others do) and simply state that “it’s all the same God anyway, so it really doesn’t matter.” Another response is to refuse to deal with these questions at all.

Some people have syncretized different beliefs and ideas into a non-threatening mélange.  They may, for example, accept the ideas of reincarnation and resurrection at the same time, arguing that not engaging such issues is a lesson learned from Buddhism, that is, we do not need to be concerned with contradictions in beliefs.

While it’s true that there are Christians who are also practicing Buddhists, the fact remains that Christianity does make specific claims of truth. In spite of attempts to downplay it, the exclusionary nature of parts of the Christian tradition is historical fact.

While those of a more progressive Christian perspective might scoff at conservative interpretations and theology, the fact remains that these viewpoints are prevalent and popular, even in our own mainline congregations.  The fact is that we do have Christian scriptures, doctrines, and creeds.  They are clearly evident in our liturgies, hymns, prayers, and Sunday school curricula.  Accepting both the validity of other religions and the exclusivity of our own creates a dissonance that we need to address.  If we do not reject the truth claims of other traditions, we may have a dilemma in accepting our own.  These dilemmas are not solely academic exercises, but very practical issues that need to be addressed, for instance, in our practices of worship, education, evangelism and mission.

We are challenged today to confront these important issues.

Interfaith dialogue is happening all around. Dialogue groups of all sorts of configurations continue to form and meet, and grassroots organizing and cooperation among the traditions flourishes in the arenas of social services and social justice. However, it is still incumbent upon us to address the proverbial elephant in the Christian living room – Jesus Christ.

These are the questions being raised by the Elsies of our churches. These are the issues that need to be addressed. As Christians, we have some serious theological and christological work to do in defining, or perhaps re-defining, ourselves in light of our interfaith world.

Stay tuned for more on how we can address these questions in our congregations.


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