I recently read Miroslav Volf’s recent release “Flourshing” (which I have reviewed here). In the book he explored, among other things, ways that people of various religions can respect one another while remaining exclusivist (believing their religion is the one true way) in their beliefs. This is an important topic in such a religiously volatile time. Volf wrote briefly about four ways in which we can approach people of other religions with respect while not changing our beliefs in the process.
1. “First, we respect a religion by honoring its integrity. Instead of denigrating another religion by destroying its holy sites, burning its holy books, or insulting its founder, we help preserve and protect those.” (123)
Most of us probably think, ‘No problem here – I’m certainly not out to burn religious sites or books.’ But it strikes me as quite common amongst certain religious people to insult the founders of other religions. Please note that Volf is not saying that we have to agree with doctrines that other religious leaders or founders espouse. Good dialogue always has disagreement, even sharp disagreement, but insult and disagreement are two different things. Insult leads to hostility, never to peace. If we decide that a relationship with the “religious other” is a bridge worth burning, perhaps it is only a matter of time before we believe their books and sites are worth burning too. But is it realistic to think that we could help preserve and protect their writings or sites? John Ortberg, in his book Who Is This Man? writes that “Until the fourth century, the church was not in the book-burning business; only barbarians did that.” Not only were we not in the book burning business, but we thought it important to save books that were religiously contrary to our view for cultural purposes. Ortberg again writes, “For many centuries, monasteries were the only institutions in Europe for the acquisition, preserving, and transmitting of knowledge. The single greatest preserver of pagan classical documents was followers of Jesus.” If we really believe what we confess, we don’t need to be afraid of other people’s beliefs. If we love our neighbors as ourselves, we must not mock things that are important to them even if we believe that they are wholeheartedly wrong.
2. “Instead of distorting another religion by spreading false information about it, we endeavor to know it accurately – for instance, engaging it, we tarry in the posture of ‘non understanding,’ open to learn from those who study and practice it – and speak truthfully about it.” (123)
Again, most people would not confess to openly spreading false information about another religion. But there is a little thing called Facebook that might contradict our grand opinions of ourselves. I have, unfortunately, read many misleading, or blatantly false posts, blogs, articles, etc. on Facebook about “those Muslims” in recent years. I read an article, for example, about 2 Muslim men who randomly threw acid on the face of an innocent woman. The article seemed suspect so I did about 30 seconds of research and quickly realized that it was false. I appeal to Christians to stop doing this. Again, debating is not off the table. We should, however, know what we are debating about. Coming against injustice (on Facebook or otherwise) is not off the table, but we need to remind ourselves that if we falsely call “injustice” (even unintentionally) it is we who are committing an injustice.
3. We don’t rush either to simply contrast another religion with our own or to declare that its adherents are unknowingly our own coreligionists…instead we honor both the commonalities of another religion with our own and its differences.
In other words, we don’t rush in and say “See! You’re actually just a Christian!” (“anonymous Christians” is the term Volf uses) or, on the other hand, fail to recognize any similarities that might exist (like the golden rule) because we want to prove that we are different. Bottom line – listen!
“Finally, in evaluating a religion we judge fairly – for instance, we don’t compare our own religion at its best with another religion at its worst.” (123)
I will never forget the long plane ride to Greece shortly after 9/11 where I sat next to a man of a different religion who drilled me the entire trip about my religion. He mocked the food I ate. He asked me to show him my passport and compared my practically stamp-less document with his well inked version. He said I was young and ignorant. He insulted me when I told him that I couldn’t read the Bible in it’s original language. Still, none of this rattled me. Then he insinuated that all Christians were like the priests who had been found out to be child molesters in the scandal within the Roman catholic church. Generalizing all Christians based on this terrible stain (we have other stains too!) in our history is what finally got under my skin. If I don’t like being categorized by our terrible moments in history then I must also refuse to categorize people of other religions by the worst moments in their history as well.
It’s interesting that some version of the Golden Rule is common to most religions. Volf draws particular notice to Jesus words “in everything.” In Matthew 7:12 Jesus says,
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
Volf writes that “‘Everything’ includes witness” (117). If Christians truly believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then it follows that we should tell people. We are expected to witness. But Golden Rule witness means that we must ‘witness to others as we would have them witness to us.’ I find Volf’s 4 thoughts on respecting other religions a helpful guide in such an endeavor.