Having just returned from DAI course facilitation in Kathmandu, Nepal, I’m thinking a lot about the need for Christians to know how to engage in conversation with people of other faiths. Nepal (formerly called the “Hindu Kingdom of Nepal”) is full of images, temples, altars, and symbols of their dominant religion – Hinduism. But the shrines, stupas and prayer flags of Buddhism also prevail – both because legend says that Siddartha Gautama (the Buddha) was born in Nepal and because many refugees from Tibet live in Nepal.
But we don’t need to go as far as Nepal to realize our need to know how to converse with people of other faiths. Our neighbors include Thai Buddhists with altars in their homes, practicing Hindus, and Japanese people with a Shinto “god-shelf” that honors their ancestors. One of my physicians is Moslem and our pharmacist is Sikh, from the Punjab area of India.
How can we prepare ourselves for interaction with people of other faiths – especially given the fact that such interaction may take us into new areas of understanding, worldviews and even spiritual warfare?
As a general guideline, we try to avoid the two-fold extreme attributed to Martin Luther (and reiterated by C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters). He said that we give the Devil the victory when we respond to evil either by giving him too much credit or by denying that he exists.
In the same way, we give the evil one the victory in our response to people of other religions when we shy away from them in fear of encountering evil forces or we run headlong into a spiritual battleground naïvely thinking that the spirit world is not real.
Because Jesus is greater than any of these evil spiritual forces, we don’t live in fear (I John 4:4). But because our encounters with other faiths may take us into confrontation with the “doctrines of demons,” we go out with wisdom and discernment (Ephesians 6:10-18).
1) Get prepared. Encountering other faiths may be uncharted waters for us, but many helpful resources exist. Ajith Fernando’s Sharing the Truth in Love uses Paul’s message in Acts 17:16-34 as a model for engaging people from other religious worldviews. Neighboring Faiths by Winfried Corduan explains other world religions and then concludes each chapter with a “So you meet a [world religion adherent]” which outlines helpful steps to take in conversation. Even The Complete Idiot’s Guide To World Religions (Toropov and Buckles) serves as a helpful resource because it explains terms, traditions, and basic belief systems of other world religions.
Background research provides the foundations for understanding, but this preparation needs some interactive reflection with our own faith. It’s helpful to ask questions like:
- Are there commonalities of concepts and beliefs that can be a bridge to discussion about Christian faith? Muslims believe that Jesus was virgin born and that He’s coming back to judge the world. Buddhists believe that unrestrained desire causes the suffering we experience. Where do other faiths intersect with Christianity and what are the differences?
- What do similar words mean? Balancing the search for common ground, we need to ask if the religion uses familiar Christian words but in radically different ways. Hindus speak of avatars as “incarnations” of the godhead and Buddhists might refer to Boddhisatvas as “saviors,” but deeper research reveals that these words carry different meanings. Hindu incarnations do not become fully human, and Buddhist saviors do not die for the sins of others. When a Muslim says God (or Allah), they believe in a transcendent deity, but they do not believe that God is immanent; they think it blasphemous to call God our “father.”
- What attracts adherents? Christians – especially in the Western world – tend to separate religious conviction from ethnicity or political ideology. Not so for Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Moslems, and many others. Understanding religious belief as religion alone is not adequate. Other peoples’ worldview – culture, ethnicity, history, and politics – are intertwined. We need to understand this in order to understand their loyalty to their faith as well as the challenge it is to them to consider Jesus Christ and Christianity.
2) Learn to ask questions. Like Christianity, most other faiths have a wide variety of application beyond the textbook summaries. When we ask questions, we communicate a level of respect for them as individuals. And often we find that they are delighted to explain what they believe and what it means.
We ask questions because the real, day-to-day beliefs of my Muslim neighbor are quite different than the Shiites of Iran featured in the news. I need to discover what he really believes before I can address some aspect of the Gospel to his life.
Unfortunately, many Christians simply preach at people – before first discovering what the person actually believes. Perhaps people of other faiths will not hear our message about Jesus Christ because we demonstrate an unwillingness to listen to them.
3) Exercise caution with involvement. If our Hindu coworker agrees to come to church with us, does that mean we should go to her temple? Do we bow with the Moslem to pray or go with our friend as they offer incense at a statue of the Buddha?
Generally speaking, all outreach involves our going into the world of another – just as Jesus left heaven to come into our world. But we go into these worlds with caution because we are not just entering into spiritually “neutral” ground.
Some Hindu deities may just be the product of human imagination, but others certainly represent the demonic. We need to be cautious not to engage in the recitation of “mantras” or other prayers we cannot understand. In Kundalini Yoga, for example, the participant is encouraged to empty his mind while chanting an assigned mantra. What they don’t tell us is that this mantra is the name of a Hindu deity – so we’re emptying our minds while calling on the name of a Hindu god or goddess!
A second area of caution pertains to worship. The degree to which I enter my neighbor’s world must never compromise my commitment to worship the Lord God exclusively. I can go with my friend to his mosque, but I don’t join in an affirmation that “Mohammed is the prophet of God” because that phrase for the Moslem sets Mohammed above Jesus Christ. I can act respectfully in a Hindu Temple, but I never bow or light incense. And I must be aware of how my behavior appears to my friend: if I participate with my Asian friend by visiting a gravesite, am I honoring the deceased or am I seen as worshipping his ancestor?
4) Be prayerful. We need to ask God for discernment because we’re entering unfamiliar territory. We need to ask God for protection because He is greater than any evil spirit, but the evil spirits are greater than us. We need to ask God for grace – so that we respond as Paul did in Acts 17: even though his sense of the spiritual darkness caused his spirit to be “vexed” (Acts 17:16-17), he still constrained his spirit and reasoned with the people. And we need to ask God to let the Spirit of Christ be so present in us that the evil spirits – like the demons of the New Testament – cannot stand His presence.
5) Go as a team. This is not an arena for “Lone Rangers.” When we enter into the engagement of people of other faiths, we enter a world of conflict. At the least, there is philosophical and theological conflict, and at the most, we enter a world occupied by spirits of darkness and deception. Prepare and pray with others. Go together, ask questions, and return to debrief, gain understanding, and plan for responses. Enlist the support of other believers as we move into another person’s religious world. Going and praying together as a team offers important protection. Taking initiative on our own without letting others know what we’re doing may expose us to potential spiritual danger.