Twenty-first century America is more pluralistic and religiously diverse than any previous time. Although some studies indicate that religiosity in the U.S. has greatly declined, our awareness of the existence of different religions has grown and our personal interactions with folks from other faiths have increased. We, more than any other generation of Americans, are conscious of other religions, though some religious groups are more knowledgeable of other religious groups, and we are often misinformed about other religions. Such misinformation contributes to our seeing them as either a threat to our way of life or as a misguided people in need of salvation.
To be sure, not all religions are the same. There are significant differences about how we understand God, how we understand humanity, and how humans respond to God. These differences do not need to be pushed aside; indeed they should be embraced. Despite these differences, however, at the heart of the major world religions is a yearning to relate to something beyond the material world, beyond our human existence. The human desire to know and experience God, or an Ultimate Reality, is also a desire to know ourselves and to know how we are to live as humans are intended.
Likewise, at the heart of these religions is the desire to create a more compassionate and just world that battles against the powers of evil and oppression. Certainly all religions have adherents who have used their religion as a pretext for carrying out evil, but as we cannot prove that one religion is more evil than the others, so we cannot prove that one religion is morally superior or truer than the others.
In applying this idea to our Christian faith, we must recognize that to be a follower of Jesus is not a position of certitude from which we claim to have the eternal truth. Rather, it is a position of humility and a life of discipleship through which we live out the eternal quest of seeking the truth. Being Christian is not about forcing others to view Jesus as the only way to experience God. Being Christian is about being in a relationship with God and living as a person of love, goodness, and justice; virtues which other religions also seek.
Indeed, we can be faithful to our Christian faith, along with its traditions, and not only coexist with people from other faiths, but more importantly, work hand in hand with all people who seek for the common good of all humanity, even though we may disagree on what that common good is. Doing so seems to me to be the more authentic way of being a follower of Jesus as we seek to emulate his humanity.
If the above is true, then why am I a Christian? I can only answer from my perspective, but perhaps some of you will share these ideas with me.
First, I am a Christian because for me Jesus presents an authentic way of being human. The Gospels present Jesus as the Son of Man, the Human One, the one who models for us the way of God. His life was devoted to liberating those who were oppressed, to challenging the political and religious powers that oppressed people, and to seeking God through the practice of the spiritual disciplines of worship, prayer, and reflection.
For me, Jesus’ teachings resonate with my mind and spirit as that which is true, without my feeling the need to argue that another person’s experience and understanding of God and religious truth is false.
Second, I am Christian because it offers to me a community of faith in which I find meaning and direction. Humans are social beings who seek community, and those who search for meaning in God are also seeking meaning in human relationships. Indeed, while we can experience God as individuals, we more truly find God in the relationships we build with other human beings, perhaps even with those who experience God quite differently from the way we experience God.
Whether I decide to be Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, or any other brand of Christian, I am making a choice to be a member of a community where my faith can be nurtured in loving relationships that challenge me to live out my faith. This is not to say that the choice of a faith community is made haphazardly, as if I am at the local fast food joint choosing which value meal I want.
No, choosing a faith community is like finding a spouse with whom you connect on various levels, some not even measurable. It is a sense of intuitive peace that you feel when you know you want to commit the rest of your life to this person.
Could I find these things in other religions? I am sure that I would, particularly if I had been born and raised in a different religious tradition. But instead of shopping around for another way to know God, I prefer to explore more deeply how I can know God through my own practice of following Jesus, even if I horribly fall short.
What then is the purpose of evangelism? Christianity has always sought new believers, following the missionary character of Israel’s God and the commands of Jesus. My view of Christianity’s relationship to other religions is not necessarily mutually exclusive to a belief in the missionary purposes of the church, as long as we have a proper understanding of evangelism.
Simply put, Christians are not called to covert people to their particular religion. Rather, Christians are called to bear witness to the love and character of God in the world that we find definitively expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and we are called to invite others to follow him. But, in order to be honest and genuine with those we encounter from other religions, we must also witness the love and character of God in people of other faiths.