I never would have suspected the two kinds of consistent reactions I get when I share about my field of study. The one kind, and thankfully the most often one, is a mix of shock and befuddlement. When further explanation is given this usually turns into a statement along the lines of “that’s really cool.” The other type of reaction I get is much more serious, being overtly rooted in a mistrust of my entire academic field. This usually produces the question “how do you protect your heart?” Both these reactions stem from simply not knowing what inter-religious means, along with any philosophical underpinnings it might have. In part this is due to the relative newness of the field on the academic stage, but more in part due to our church’s view that engaging with other faiths theologically is to be avoided.
To be fair, we sometimes work alongside other faiths in terms of parking lot rental agreements or court cases for and about religious freedoms. But to be clear, the missing piece that would not only enrich our church’s spiritually but also establish the SDA church as a community with an important and worthwhile voice beyond its own self-centered concerns is pluralism. To move past Adventist-centered “issues” to see wider social-religious problems and opportunities, along with hopefully fully recognizing our place among them.
Through inter-religious methodologies, which benefit all who are involved, we can begin to answer the question: how do we live well in a religiously diverse world? (And everyone becoming Adventist is not the answer.) To live well does not mean making other faiths look bad for our own self-gratification/edification. It also does not mean forced agreements at the expense of a faith tradition’s integrity. More so, it is not a search for syncretic amalgamation, while also not being a platform for debate. Notice yet where a lot of my conversations with church members have led to? The centric concept that is placed between the various faiths to bridge them is inter-faith dialogue.
Suzanne Watts Henderson notes:
“…pluralism goes beyond mere diversity (a fact) to include deliberate engagement (a strategy) across religious and philosophical difference. That means noticing some similarities, yes, but also naming and claiming our worldview with its distinctive features. It means valuing conversation without resolving tension, contradictions, or even heated disagreement. It means listening well and being willing to ‘unlearn’ what we’ve always known to be true — especially about others.”
Historically no religious tradition has been a singularity, an island unto its own self. For example, the creation poem of Genesis 1 was written as a polemic toward the normative worldview of that time described in the Epic of Gilgamesh. One part of the epic sees creation as a result of a violent conflict between the first gods and their offspring: When the children scattered their parents’ blood and limbs about, the world came to be as it is. Now imagine the shock of difference between this and the Hebrew God who created the world out of love, not out of war? More so, the Christian Bible as a whole references over 35 sources from neighboring cultures; clearly the biblical scriptures were far from being written in a vacuum. This highlights that faith formation has always been developed in dialogue and reference to contemporary religious counterparts. Therefore, and even for today’s age, spirituality and its application have to be envisioned and understood in an inter-religious framework.
The idea of dialogue, as Leonard Swidler states it, “…is a conversation on a common subject between two or more persons with differing views, the primary purpose of which is for each participant to learn from the other so that he or she can change and grow.” In his Dialogue Decalogue: Ground Rules for Interreligious Dialogue, Swidler lays out ten guideline points. I would like to showcase three of them as starting points for our church:
1. Each participant must define himself.
We love our Christian jargon, often described as “Christianese.” Just as it is like with actual languages, there is also a difference of meaning among differing faiths which may appear to use similar concepts. For example, the Hindu concept of ātman which is not the same as the Christian views on soul. To swap these two words is to override the significances found within each word along with the conceptualization and context backgrounds they originated from. We can find this also with Islam’s view of Allah “the God” compared to Christianity’s view of a Trinitarian God. Also, while this shows that we need to acknowledge difference, both these examples can also provide an excellent starting point into learning about Hindu and Islamic perceptions.
2. Each participant must come to the dialogue with complete honesty and sincerity; dialogue can take place only on the basis of mutual trust.
One of the fundamental arguments of inter-religious work is seeing the “Other” as a worthy spiritual partner. This means we have to be open to another’s perspective on our own beliefs and practices. An outsider’s look into our faith is just as valuable, for it points out what we have taken for granted or sometimes even overlooked, and vice-versa. Raimon Panikkar the “father of inter-religious studies” would remind us that to seek out proper relatedness to other faiths means “…trusting in the other, considering the other a true source of understanding and knowledge” within “the common search for truth.”
During the summer just before I started my graduate work in inter-religious studies, my local church hosted a weekend event about Christian-Muslim relations. What I quickly found was not a conference on principles of mutual dialogue or cooperation; rather, it was a means to share just enough about Islamic faith and practices to evangelize Muslims. With no actual Muslim speakers, this event perfectly showcased our church’s current inability to build relations with other faiths. Indeed, the Christian speakers shared we should befriend Muslims, but when we search for relation with an “Other” in an attempt to convert them, it is not truly a relationship, it is a scheme. Furthermore, this is not following Jesus’ command to love others as yourself, because you would not scheme yourself. This underscores Adventism’s main problem of not really seeing other faiths as worthy spiritual partners. Can we ever befriend Muslims without the need to convert them and perhaps even learn from them? Seems not.
3. Each participant eventually must attempt to experience the partner's religion “from within.”
What would be the difference between reading about a dog or cat compared to getting to play with one? Can reading a textbook give you the feeling of a soft cat, or the joy of a dog seeing its owner? That difference is the lived reality of faith. As a small example, I have introduced many of my non-Adventist friends to haystacks, and was even known as the “guy who keeps the Sabbath.” Through my time at a Christian seminary school, I came to be taught by a Sufi Imam, a Buddhist Zen Master, and a Cree Reverend. Additionally, my program’s director is a Jewish Rabbi. During various class times I was invited into a new form of thinking and being which allowed me a very small glimpse into how a Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or Cree person would construct their faith-world view. With these insights I can better maintain, grow, and facilitate mutual caring relations with a diverse set of people within a multifaith community.
My experiencing of another’s faith, not just in intellectual terms, but also in heartfelt response gave me something: it empowered me to become a far better Christian than I could have been without. I was able for the first time to see the beauty of not just these other faiths, but my own. By being invited to take a step out of Christianity (not at all meaning I stop being a Christian), I could look back on my own faith with new eyes. Much like the Earthrise photo taken from the moon during Apollo 8’s mission, I finally saw what I had been “standing on” my whole life. This is what Max Muller means when he wrote “to know one [religion] is to know none.”
This is where we have to return to that “how do you protect your heart” question. My training and experiences have created in me a loving demand whereby I see the beauty in the Other. I defend my heart by opening it, much like Jesus, to encounter the Other wholly and lovingly. Sadly, I am well aware of the irony of the church’s Bible curriculum being called “encounter,” with its core mission to promote Adventism has having the full truth, while postulating all other faiths as “sinful” and “less-than.” This leaves me wondering, can we allow love, the core Christian teaching, to be our universal statement? And as Raimon Panikkar describes “…not starting out by putting [our] ego as the foundation of everything.”
My personal future hope is to start an inter-faith community at an SDA university, to pass on what has been given to me by my graduate teachers: seeing and relating through the worthiness of others and their faith. But until then, we need to be reminded that to fully live out Jesus’ command of loving others as ourselves means relations without schemes. When we do so, we won’t be able to ignore the fact and history of religious plurality in a vain hope it will somehow go away or not affect us. The demands, needs, and opportunities of pluralism are only growing in our ever-globalized world.
Suggestions for further readings:
Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (HarperOne, 2020)
Don Mackenzie, Ted Falcon, and Jamal Rahman, Religion Gone Astray: What We Found at the Heart of Interfaith (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2011)
Raimon Panikkar, The Intra-Religious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 1978)
Suzanne Watts Henderson, New Testament Conversations: A Literary, Historical, and Pluralistic Introduction (Abingdon Press, 2019)
Kevin R. McCarty is a graduate student in Indigenous & Interreligious Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology and Educational Leadership at Trinity Western University.
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