Settling in for the imminent departure of my flight, I mused on the irony of my position. Crowded into a seat with the window to my left and a young burqa-clad woman to my immediate right, I wondered how much transparency there would be in either direction. The weather was overcast and soon the world outside would be shrouded by a soft veil of clouds. And to the right? Ordinarily, for me, an enjoyable activity on longer flights is probing the openness of a neighboring passenger to engage in conversation, beginning with trivia and in some cases evolving into a deeper discourse of life values and worldviews. In this case, however, the young woman’s veil, whether self-selected or societally imposed, signaled a desire for privacy.
Before buckling for takeoff, my neighbor knelt in front of her seat and engaged in a private ritual of prayer. Later, when the meal was served, I too would bow my head in an equally private act of devotion, giving silent thanks for the food and adding petitions for safety in travel and for blessings on family members at home.
My fellow passenger and I were both religious. But how much did our worlds have in common? How similar or dissimilar were our religious views and expressions? These questions barely begin to unveil the queries and the mystery that lie beneath our coexistence in a multi-faith world.
As Christians, we are increasingly confronted with urgent questions concerning how to interact and engage in contexts of religious diversity. What does it mean to be a Christian in a world where we live with, work with, go to school with, serve in political or neighborhood groups with, and share hospital space with people of other faiths or no faith at all? How do we balance maintaining respectful space for the beliefs of others with the calling to participate in bringing in Christ’s kingdom? Simplistic answers do not satisfy in our increasingly complex interfaith exposure and experience.
When Jesus summarized for his disciples the expectations that God has for his people, he reminded them to love God above all and to love their neighbors as themselves. That summary of God’s will for our lives provides a challenging framework within which to develop our perspective on multi-faith issues. Far from being a simplistic formula, it establishes challenging parameters within which Christians can explore questions about interfaith engagement.
Love God Above All
Christians are confronted with a high standard in the charge to love God above all. In its original covenantal context, that commandment prohibited the Israelites from equating their God with the gods of the nations. It established a policy of religious exclusivity in their devotion. They were not free to choose their religious expression from a list of vying options. The God of Israel was God alone, and they were to accept, honor, love, and serve him within the boundaries of his self-disclosure and revelation.
The expectation to love God above all continues to define elements of exclusivity in Christian devotion. The New Testament further develops that dynamic in ways that delimit the Christian life.
Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). That observation has profound implications for followers of Jesus with respect to other contemporary religions.
For Christians, loving God above all means accepting God in biblical, trinitarian format—not as a concept of divinity that can be redefined or reinterpreted in ways that conflict with sound biblical interpretation. The expectation to love God above all sets boundaries. It precludes making our God equal with other gods. It eliminates the conclusion that non-Christian religions could ultimately bypass Christ as the way of access to the Father. For Christians, there is one triune God and one way of salvation.
Love Your Neighbor
While the biblical guideline to love God above all is inherently exclusive, its counterpart, loving our neighbor as ourselves, introduces components of compelling inclusivity. That inclusivity is of equal importance in establishing our attitudes and actions in multi-faith contexts. So when it comes to interfaith engagement, it is important that we also pursue the implications of this part of God's formula for our lives.
Genuinely loving our neighbors as ourselves is a difficult and demanding expectation. Many of us feel a subtle fear or disquiet in the presence of ethnically or religiously diverse neighbors. Whereas a degree of comfort derives from similarity of background and from shared values, adding religious diversity complicates societal interaction. We are inclined to love ourselves, but we need to be urged to love our neighbors. From a theoretical perspective it helps to have a worldview that prods us to do so. The Bible does, in fact, press upon us precisely such an outlook. At the foundation of that biblical worldview we may identify numerous teachings, including the following:
- All people are created in the image of God. The Bible recognizes the sanctity of all human life, regardless of the religious choices people make. Viewing all human beings in conjunction with the image of God puts the brakes on attitudes of disrespect, disregard, or disdain. Our neighbors may not yet have been recreated in the new image of Christ, but they have an inherent dignity that comes through sharing in God’s image expressed in the human race.
- As followers of Christ, we are called to be passionate about justice. From the vantage point of that worldview, it is but a small step to respect and defend the rights of others. Though we may be predisposed to prioritize our own rights, a renewed outlook in Christ causes us to reevaluate that perspective and to become advocates of justice for others—even those who don’t share our religious ideals. On a university campus, for example, Christian students should understand that if they are offered designated prayer space, a similar privilege ought to be offered to students of other religious backgrounds. And supporting equal rights for prayer space is not incongruent with Christians praying that other students would one day join them in their Christian devotion.
- The biblical commandment to love our neighbors compels us to get to know, understand, and appreciate them. We cannot love those we do not know. Educating ourselves—not begrudgingly but eagerly—about the lives and religious expressions of others helps us to do away with our misconceptions and prejudices. That means, for example, we need to do more than read the novels of Afghan-born American novelist and physician Khaled Hosseini and conclude that we have had an adequate introduction to Afghanistan. We need to actually get to know our neighbors. We honor them when we learn from them and let our lives be shaped in positive ways by their influence.
- Loving our neighbors involves concrete acts of kindness. The apostle Paul says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all” (Phil. 4:5). In the same vein, Peter urges, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and with respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). Winning the confidence of others through acts of kindness, courtesy, and respect is a helpful step in making them receptive to the good news of the gospel message. We put this into practice when our time, affection, and charitable giving are not reserved for “our own” but are shared broadly with others, including those of other faiths.
- Loving our neighbors also includes not being naive about the total depravity of all people. The Bible teaches that all have sinned and are in need of the redemption that Jesus provides (Rom. 3:23; 1 John 1:8). Recognizing that reality in the lives of others as well as in our own lives is not an act of disparagement. Rather, it is an essential part of our motivation to share the message of salvation. People who are members of other religions are not exempt from the need to receive forgiveness through Christ alone. Like us, they need to come to the Father's love through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the sacrifice of Jesus. Wishing, praying, and acting for less is a failure to truly love them.
Whether our neighbor has no religious affiliation (the so-called “unchurched”) or is part of another religious group, it is important to establish meaningful connections or friendships rather than to launch prematurely into evangelistic speeches. Finding interests in common helps to form the basis for trust and an openness to explore aspects of each other’s world. Once friendship and respect have been established, the discussion of religious issues becomes less delicate and daunting. Perhaps bringing a casserole to the new next-door neighbor should precede bringing a Bible or a Today devotional booklet.
These biblical principles ought to encourage both patience and persistence in our dealings with others in multi-faith contexts. There are times when we must respect communally established guidelines about not proselytizing, such as, for example, in medical or military chaplaincy positions, even while praying for an appropriate opportunity to share the good news of salvation in Christ.
Not only are these guidelines relevant in our personal approaches in multi-faith settings, but they can also assist us in our institutional or denominational responses to interfaith issues. We are challenged to ask ourselves at all levels and in all settings whether our policies and actions demonstrate a genuine commitment to love God above all and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Held together, both principles help to hold exclusivity and inclusivity in a healthy balance.
When it comes to the world of multi-faith experiences, our vision can be clouded or veiled in various ways. But we need not fear our interaction with others in multi-faith contexts. Nor should we choose to adopt a polar approach of either fleeing from others on the one side or engaging them in battle on the other. Loving God above all and loving our neighbor as ourselves helps steer us in the right direction and gives purpose to our interfaith journeys. These principles lead us to embody both obedience and compassion.
Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations
Synod 2009 noted the importance of interfaith connections in our present culture and decided to add an interfaith mandate to the responsibilities of the Ecumenical Relations Committee (ERC). To recognize the fact that interfaith discussions constitute a form of engagement that must be kept distinct from ecumenical dialogue and relations, the ERC proposed a name change that would reflect the two separate mandates. Synod concurred, and the committee was renamed the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee (EIRC).
The EIRC has been charged with the following mandate:
- To compile resources for the Christian Reformed Church that will guide interfaith encounters.
- To monitor and facilitate the interfaith encounters that come through ecumenical activities and within the context of the ministries of the CRC.
- To provide advice and perspectives for the CRC as requested.
- When appropriate, to represent the CRC in interfaith dialogues.
For more information on the interfaith mandate of the EIRC and resources for additional study of interfaith issues, visit Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee (EIRC).
J. H. Bavinck, The Church Between Temple and Mosque: A Study of the Relationship Between the Christian Faith and Other Religions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1982, reprint).
Rebecca Kratz Mays, ed., Interfaith Dialogue at the Grass Roots (Philadelphia: Ecumenical Press, 2008).
Paul D. Numrich, The Faith Next Door: American Christians and Their New Religious Neighbors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Eboo Patel, Sacred Ground. Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012).
Franz Volker Greifenhagen, On the Way to Muslim-Christian Understanding (Camrose, Alberta: The Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life, 2010).
Other articles that may interest you:
Looking Back on How CRC Ecumenicity has Changed, an interview with Rev. Dr. William Koopmans.
- The summary of God’s law suggests both exclusivity and inclusivity, says Koopmans. How can both be true, in your experience?
- What are some ways we can educate ourselves about the faith of those with whom we come into contact in our daily lives?
- How can we show love to our neighbors who have a different faith? Should we try to convert them to Christianity?
- What are the political implications for living in a multi-faith country? How can governments promote the rights of all people to practice their religions?
- Christians support their churches and other worthy organizations with their time and money. Should we also support the work of organizations that represent other faiths?
- Koopmans asks, “How do we balance respectful space for the beliefs of others with the calling to participate in bringing in Christ’s kingdom?” Share your responses to this challenge.