Ever since Paul spoke to the Athenians about the “unknown god,” people have asked how a belief in Christianity’s unique truth fits into a world of many religions.
Today, the unprecedented mingling of cultures and faiths in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />North America makes the question more pertinent than ever. A new awareness of Islam since the terrorist attacks of September 2001 has focused the question especially on relations between Christians and Muslims.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
The relationship is strained. Predictably, when people commit acts of terror and claim religious motives, their faith gets criticized. Jerry Falwell recently said Mohammed was a terrorist. Franklin Graham called Islam “evil and wicked.”
Their comments were an affront to Christians and Muslims alike. We do not have to make other faiths look bad in order to spread the gospel. Denouncing other religions is not a good way to encourage people to follow Jesus Christ.
A better way is advocated by Calvin E. Shenk, one of many writers in an excellent book, Practicing Truth: Confident Witness in Our Pluralistic World (Herald Press, 1999): “Other religions must be approached with caution and graciousness. …Sensitivity, respect and humility in relationships are the conditions that enable others to recognize Jesus as Lord.”
This is not a deceptive strategy of acting friendly so we can lure people into hearing a sales pitch for Christianity. It is simply being honest about the nature of religion as practiced by imperfect people: All faiths, even our own, can be vehicles of both good and evil.
“Human minds are darkened and perverse,” writes Chris Wright in Practicing Truth, “and the marks of satanic deception are to be found in all religions, including many institutional and cultural manifestations of Christianity in history.”
A Muslim can find biblical and historical evidence that Christianity is a religion of violence. A Christian can do the same with Islamic scripture and history. Tensions between violence and peace in both the Bible and the Quran enable followers of both faiths to claim scriptural support for conflicting views of God’s will. Adding to the problem are leaders in both religions who preach ideas that don’t exist in their scriptures at all. When people distort and misuse their own faith, the faith itself isn’t to blame.
How can we sort through the confusion? How can we engage Islam, or any faith, with respect and at the same time express conviction about the unique revelation of God in Jesus Christ?
We can start by recognizing the truths found in other religions. These provide “redemptive analogies, points of contact, bridges or stepping-stones,” Shenk writes. A good example of one who builds these bridges is John Bushi (see “Higher Truth,” MWR, Oct. 21), who grew up Hindu in India and now serves with a Mennonite congregation as an evangelist to Indian-Americans in the Chicago area. He uses selected Hindu concepts as starting points for introducing Christian truths.
Bushi’s ministry affirms Shenk’s idea that God is at work in the lives of those who do not know Jesus Christ as Lord. Shenk writes: “To suggest that Christ is the unique salvation of God does not imply that the witness of God is absent in other religions. …God is wrestling with religions. God is behind the quest for God.”
Will those who seek, find? Christians must do their part. Shenk describes our commission: “The task of witness is to interact with other religions to bring about an encounter with Christ.”
Encouraging people toward this encounter, rather than denouncing other religions, is the best way to spread the gospel in a world where faiths collide.
Paul Schrag is editor of Mennonite Weekly Review, where this article first appeared. You can access the Mennonite Weekly Review online at www.mennoweekly.org.