Of Christians and Interfaith Dialogue

How can people of faith be true to the core insights of their particular way of seeking God and respectful of the particular core insights of other faiths?

Here is a picture of children and camel from our Epiphany pageant on Sunday, January 6, and a reflection on life in a pluralistic society.

I have rather assiduously avoided “preaching” on this blog, thinking that for community discussion it was best to focus on community events. Yet the piece on the camel was  rather preachy indeed, and felt right. Preaching this morning I realized why it felt right.

The Christian story of the search of the magi for the “newborn King of the Jews” is an excellent model of respectful interfaith dialog. The magi were probably Zoroastrian astrologers. They interpreted the star as a signal of a new king of another nation, and they went to pay homage. They encountered Herod, a thoroughly Hellenized Jew, appointed by Rome to oversee the lonely outpost of Jerusalem. And moved on, according to Jewish  prophecies and their commitment to following the star, to Bethlehem. They indeed paid homage, and offered precious gifts, and went home “by another way” because either an angel or an intuition told them not to trust Herod. 

They didn’t become Jewish, or decide to stay in Bethlehem and watch the child grow. They didn’t try to convert Herod or Mary and Joseph to Zoroastrianism.  They certainly didn’t become Christian (neither did Jesus—Christianity per se wouldn’t start for at least another fifty years). Yet, their visit and their gifts affirmed and expanded what Jewish Mary and Joseph had understood of their son’s role.

Krister Stendahl was my New Testament professor in seminary. He had come of age as a scholar just after the Holocaust, and was a leader in the movement within Christianity that challenged the bases of anti-Semitism in Christian Scripture and the institutional anti-Semitism that had facilitated the isolation and extermination of so many Jews throughout Christian history.

Dr. Stendahl talked about religious traditions as “love languages.” Interfaith dialogue then is people of one tradition listening in on a conversation of believers in another tradition. They hear how God is addressed, understood, loved, engaged by others, in much the same way as two couples at dinner observe with respect the endearments of the other couple. The couples return to their own homes, richer for watching the others’ interactions but unlikely to adopt the others’ language. By listening to the Zoroastrians’ understanding of their stars, Mary and Joseph are enriched . . . by journeying to see Mary and Joseph and Jesus the magi are enriched.  

Believers then can and should be willing to share their faith—for Christians, as an evangelistic faith—we are urged if not required to do so.  Within Christianity however there are different interpretations of the goal of evangelism. Some believe that Jesus is “the only way” to God, and therefore the goal of evangelism is to convince non-Christians to become Christian. Dr. Stendahl, the Episcopal Church, many Christians and I believe instead that Christianity is one important and life-giving way to God among many other ways. Our witness is meant to share resources of great meaning and value with the world—to model the love we see in Jesus.  In turn, other traditions can help us know our tradition better, can suggest ways to deepen our relationship with God, and to rejoice in the many diverse ways of worshipping and living faithfully.

It is in that spirit that I offer Christian reflections and learn from my interactions with practitioners of many other life-giving and holy ways.

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