Good Questions: Christianity & Other Religions

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Thanksgiving is a healthy time to ponder the relationship of Christianity to other religions, since Thanksgiving isn’t a distinctly Christian holiday – and all religions are big on giving thanks to God. In my Does Prayer Work? video, I point out that we know for sure that Gratitude / Prayer Giving Thanks works – for everybody.

Once upon a time, Christians were sure they were the one true religion, and their job was to “win” the world for Christ. We’ve been humbled, partly by the embarrassing missteps of evangelists, and also by travel and befriending folks of other faiths. Thomas Merton rightly reminds us that the existence of all the religions is a sign of God’s mercy, and certainly of the universal human need for God. Earlier in our series we pondered Jesus as “the way,” what he was and wasn’t saying, and how there’s room even there for people who are repulsed or bored by Christianity.

Once we open up the idea that the other religions have immense value, we might begin to think that all faiths are manifestations of one deep spirituality underneath them all. Maybe; but something out of kilter. Nirvana does not equal heaven, Brahman, Shiva and Vishnu and not Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Islam claims to supersede Christianity, which in turn claims to supersede Judaism. And no other religion has as its centerpiece this business about God taking on flesh, becoming human like us, which to the others is lunacy. So we’re either crazy, or special…

…reminding me of Mother Teresa, laboring as a Christian in a Hindu culture, who said “I love all religions. But I am in love with my own.” Can we love, and then be in love? I won’t repeat here what we’ve covered in earlier emails – but what I am in love with in my faith is this dimension of the humanity of God, God being with us down here. He was, of course, Jewish, and seemed to have a special heart for people who weren’t. What’s lovable about our faith? It’s the love, God’s and ours – and we’re at our best when we love.

Crazy or special, we don’t own the corner on truth. God has strewn truth and wisdom all over the place. And we are wise to think self-critically about differences we notice. We might be appalled by the caste system in Hindu cultures – but we to have our class distinctions, don’t we? We may think of Muslims as militant, but Christians conducted crusades and blessed many modern wars – not to mention the January 6 Capitol invaders praying to Jesus on the floor of the House of Representatives. We have a tendency to view extreme versions of other religions as the real thing, but we never do so with our own!

Other religions can remind us of hidden or neglected aspects of our own faith. People have told me they wish they were Buddhist because of their emphasis on quiet and meditation – but these have always been staples of Christianity, until we got so noisy and busy! The notion of awakening in Zen is a marvel – and very present in our Scriptures. And I’ll never forget Will Willimon’s story from his days as Dean of Duke Chapel. A Muslim student came to him and asked, “Why don’t the Christian students ever pray?” As a Muslim, five times daily he stopped wherever he was and knelt in prayer. He never once saw a Christian student stop anywhere to pray.

Maybe if we lighten up we can discover who we and others really are and what how we might love. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber was once speaking to a group of Catholic priests: “What is the difference between Jews and Christians? We both await the Messiah. You believe he has already come and gone, while we do not. I therefore propose we wait for him together. Then, when he appears, we can ask him, ‘Were you here before?’ And I hope that, at the moment, I will be close enough to whisper in his ear, ‘For the love of heaven, don’t answer.”

And maybe, instead of winning others to our viewpoint, we simply strive to shine, and hope the others will to. Rabbi David Wolpe wrote “It’s not my job to argue the superiority of Judaism, but its excellence.” Didn’t Paul, the consummate Christian missionary, say “If there is any excellence, anything worthy of praise, thin about these things” (Philippians 4:8)?