I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility, of contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind’s reaching out for God . . . – Abraham Joshua Heschel
In The Book of Lights, Chaim Potok writes about a Jewish army chaplain in Korea and Japan in the 1950s who confronts challenging questions about the meaning of his faith. In one scene, the chaplain and a Jewish soldier watch an old Japanese man praying at a Shinto shrine. “Do you think our God is listening to him?” the rabbi asks his companion.
“I don’t know . . . I never thought of it,” replies the soldier.
“Neither did I until now,” says the rabbi. “If [God]’s not listening, why not? If [God] is listening, then-well, what are we all about?”
The rabbi’s questions are profoundly important ones for people of every faith. Does God listen only to the prayers of one particular faith? Do we all worship different Gods or the same God in different ways? What kind of God would refuse to listen to the prayers of this Buddhist man?
“If prayer is a human response to God,” asks Lutheran theologian J. Paul Rajashekar in Engaging Others Knowing Ourselves: A Lutheran Calling in a Multi-Religious World (Lutheran University Press, 2016), “then aren’t all prayers offered by people irrespective of their faith convictions legitimate responses to God? Are their responses to God whether in prayer or in their articulation of religious beliefs any less legitimate than our own?”
Despite two centuries of Christian mission and evangelization, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population continues to adhere to other beliefs or no belief. Christians are taught to believe that Christ died for all people, and yet, some Christians continue to struggle with whether God is accessible to those who choose a different path. Does God hear only the prayers of those who accept Jesus as savior? Christians often talk of reaching the unreached. But unreached by whom? Do we assume God is absent in the lives of others?
In December 2015, Lacrycia Hawkins, a political science professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, posted a photo of herself on Facebook wearing a hijab, or traditional Muslim head scarf. “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims,” she wrote, “because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” Although a seemingly innocuous statement – after all, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each espouse monotheism and trace their common lineage to Abraham – Hawkins was immediately suspended from her tenured professorship and later terminated by confidential agreement. According to a Wheaton College press release on December 16, 2015, the professor’s “expressed views, including that Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” conflicted with the college’s Statement of Faith because Muslims do not accept God’s revelation in Christ.
The Wheaton College controversy reflects a long history of Christian hostility toward other religions. That there exist competing belief systems is disturbing to some. But the more we learn of other religions, and the more we engage with and understand people of other faith traditions, the harder it becomes to justify claims of absolute truth. Pluralism implicitly questions the legitimacy of religious claims that there exists only one true way to achieve salvation or enlightenment.
Many religious people are threatened by theological and doctrinal differences and view other faith traditions as in opposition to one’s own faith. This insecurity results in an inward focus that shies away from difficult questions and ambiguous answers. However well we think we know our own religious traditions, we are often wrong in what we assume about others. Religious illiteracy breeds misunderstanding and a tendency to notice only the bad traits of other religions – acts of religiously-inspired terrorism, for example – and the good points of one’s own faith.
Contrary to what the administrators of Wheaton College may think, it violates our monotheistic concept to think there is a Muslim God, a Jewish God, and a Christian God. As Professor Hawkins understood, to accept that God hears the prayers of all people regardless of one’s religious tradition is not to suggest that theological differences are meaningless or insignificant. But differences do not necessarily imply right or wrong. The goal of religious pluralism is mutual understanding, not conversion.
I have suggested in past writings that one’s religious affiliation is mostly determined in the first instance by the happenstance of birth. We typically adopt the religion of our parents. In light of this, how do some confidently claim exclusive possession of God’s truth? Most often, claims of exclusivity are based on Scripture, such as the Christian Gospel John at 14:6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”). Theologians have long debated the contextual meaning of this and similar passages and there is good reason to think the text is less clear than most Bible-quoting Christians acknowledge. Of course, other faiths make their own claims of absolute truth based on their holy books. Because we live not only in a multi-religious society, we also live in a multi-scriptural society. There is not one scripture, but many. How does one properly navigate conflicting claims of scripture? Is one Holy Book necessarily more authoritative than another?
I recently attended a course on religious pluralism at the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia. During one class, we watched a film entitled, The Asian and Abrahamic Religions: A Divine Encounter in America, which explores the surprising similarities among the Asian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism) and the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The film contains scenes of prayer, of worship, of wedding celebrations and funerals in places of worship across the country – in churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras, and many others. In watching the film, it occurred to me that the various religions are simply different human interpretations and manifestations of the divine. Although each faith has adopted different symbols and styles of worship, different words to describe God or the search for enlightenment, all provide a communal experience, a sense of order, an attempt to more deeply understand the world and find meaning in life.
As noted by our professor, J. Paul Rajashekar, a Lutheran theologian originally from India, the specific faith claims of different religions are often based on cultural, linguistic, and social distinctions. Christians often speak in terms of salvation, but this is specifically a Christian term and there is no singular understanding of what salvation means in the Bible. Other faiths use terms such as enlightenment, atonement, harmony and rebirth. Hindus seek spiritual oneness. Sikhs speak of moving from darkness to light. Buddhists strive for wholeness and nirvana. Each religion offers a view of life and a guide to living. In reality, it matters less what one believes, than how one’s faith is practiced in relation to others.
If we allow ourselves to grow and be challenged, there is much to learn from persons of other faiths. To engage in dialogue, to listen and understand what others believe, is to acknowledge our shared humanity. Pluralism invites dialogue and engagement with others. To take seriously the faith of others allows us to explore the richness of our own faith. To ignore or refuse to learn about other faiths is to deprive us of the opportunity to grow, think, and learn. Is this what God desires?
Sometimes we confuse faith with ideology. Pluralism challenges all claims to absoluteness and exclusive truth. It is perhaps why exposure to pluralism, to multi-religious societies, breeds fundamentalism – particularly Christian and Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, Christian fundamentalism is a 20th Century American phenomenon that coincided with increasing religious diversity in American society.
Christian fundamentalists and some conservative evangelical Christians love to cite the Bible in support of their beliefs. But what many refuse to acknowledge is that our understanding of scripture is influenced by 2,000 years of history and how it has been interpreted. The Bible has been translated in nearly 2,500 languages and there are over 900 different English translations of the Bible. Each version contains linguistic differences that deviate further from the original sources. Similarly, religious creeds and doctrines are merely human attempts to comprehend a mystery that transcends human understanding. In the words of Professor Rajashekar, “Some theological questions will always remain unanswered on this side of humanity.”
Perhaps all we can do is search for God’s presence, in whatever form, whatever language, in light of our human predicament. To engage in inter-religious dialogue requires courage and a commitment to more deeply understand our own faith. It requires a willingness to listen to what others believe and profess. Doing so may allow us to better understand who we are and what we believe. As the late Rabbi Heschel advised, “The world is too small for anything but mutual care and deep respect; the world is too great for anything but responsibility for one another.”