A Biblical Case for Interfaith Neighbourliness

As I have said before, I believe that Western Christianity is going through a time of foundational change and reform (see Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence).  This change, or these changes, reach all the way down to our sense of identity as Christians, and some of our very basic assumptions about the world and our relationship to it and to others. 

Some of those assumptions are about the essential nature of religion, and about how our religion relates to others in our very pluralistic society.  As I grew up, I realize that I understood religion to be a “zero-sum game.”  That is, I assumed that the various religions were primarily competing truth-claims.  Each was different, and each claimed to be true.  Thinking of these truth claims as factual claims, I further assumed that only one could be true.  The game was to find the “true” religion over against “false” religions.  I never considered other options – for instance, that religions might be true like poems are true. 

Another way to express the zero-sum religious game is to assume that each religion, since it names God differently, therefore worships a different God.  Again, the assumption (made explicit in monotheistic religions) is that there is only one true God.  So if my God is the “true” God, and yours is different, yours must be false. 

And so is the groundwork laid for “tribal,” competitive religions, evangelism as an attempt to convert, and even violence against those who differ religiously.  In spite of the central Christian command to love our neighbours, zero sum religion encourages us to look down on any neighbour who differs in religion, even to demonize those of other religions, since they oppose the one true God. 

In my own life, these zero sum attitudes towards religion have slowly broken down – because 

they do not conform to my actual experience, and because they do not reflect what I actually read in the foundational text of Christianity, the Bible. 

First, experience.  In high school and university, I shared classes and a small university program with two very good friends.  One of these friends was an agnostic, and the other a Muslim.  So we differed religiously, but I found great kinship with both of these friends in terms of how we saw the world, our sense of morality, our values.  In our conversations, my Muslim friend and I might have differed in our practice and theology, but it felt very much like our experience of God was very similar.  As I have grown and spent more time in interfaith relationships, this impression has only grown.  With practitioners of other religions, it seems that the deeper we go in terms of practice and experience, the more kinship we feel – even though the superficialities of our faiths may be quite different.  So, for instance, the most obviously Christlike character (and the best interpreter of his teaching) of the twentieth century could well be Mohandas Gandhi, the Hindu, or Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist. 

I also have come into relationship with the 12 Steps of AA.  These steps are profoundly Christian in origin, and are quite dependent on what AA calls “the higher power.”  This relationship with the Higher Power is integral to the process of recovery and is very, very practical.  And yet AA assigns no particular theology to the notion of higher power, no set of beliefs other than that your higher power is a source of unconditional love and help.  In fact, as I understand it, AA asserts that theological and religious distinctions do not matter.  This is borne out in the experience of countless addicts in recovery.  If the distinctions that make my religion supposedly true, and yours false, do not matter in recovery, what does that say about the diversity of faiths?

The second way my zero-sum attitudes have broken down is in response to my lifelong encounter with the Bible as a preacher.  This is what I’d like to explore over the next few blog posts.  The deeper I go in exploring the Bible, and being challenged by it, the more I read it in light of my own experience and in conversation with others, the less I see in it the notion of religion as a factual truth claim, and the more I see in it something less arrogant, more profound, and more transformative. 

To be sure, in the Old Testament there is plenty of competition between religions, and the proclamation that God is “jealous.”  At the same time, it contains a wisdom tradition that is broadly shared among religions, and a prophetic tradition that challenges the very tribalism that the competition between religions encourages.  And as I have come to understand it now, the very commandment against idolatry is not really a commandment to turn against other religions, it is a commandment against confusing any human construct – even our own religion – with the truth about God. 

In the New Testament, the character and teaching of Jesus is explicitly against the demonization of any others, and, as I will argue, particular (core) teachings make the zero-sum approach to religious diversity  untenable. 

Here’s a brief overview of what I intend at this point:

  • Overview:  essentially, my theological position here is taken from 1 Corinthians 13:  the primacy of love and the awareness of uncertainty. 
  • Peter and Cornelius, and Paul at the Areopagus:  evangelism that takes into account God’s pre-existing activity within religiously different peoples.
  • Moses, the burning bush, God’s backside, and the commandment against images:  God is really not ours to define.
  • Genesis 1-11: “civilization” is not necessarily an unqualified good.  How much of our religious imperialism is Western capitalistic white Eurocentrism? 
  • Matthew 23: the call to service, not dominance.
  • Idols and false gods – what about the gods of our own creation and toxic religion? 
  • Ruth and the ever-widening reach of God’s love.
  • Jonah:  of what, exactly, did the Ninevites repent?  And of what was Jonah called to repent?
  • And finally, back to 1 Corinthians 13:  the practice of love and humility in an interfaith context. 

As always, I welcome your comments, arguments, elaborations…