One of the greatest shocks a missionary faces when entering a new culture with the gospel is the discovery that other religions can teach us important spiritual lessons. I can still vividly picture the follower of Sufism (a mystical philosophy of Islam) who taught me a good lesson. He stood before me dirty and disheveled in his ochre robe and recounted a disaster that had befallen him. I began to commiserate when he stopped me with a gesture. "Don’t say ‘O no!’" he said pointing upwards, "Say, ‘Yes, Lord!’"
Does Our Faith Measure Up?
Religion is an important part of culture that brings meaning and stability to people’s lives. It is often that satisfaction and sense of goodness within their religion that provides the greatest challenges to the missionary who seeks to communicate the gospel as relevant, necessary and unique. Such challenges force us to reexamine our faith and discover its relevancy and significance in new contexts. A plurality of worldviews raises issues that would not be addressed in a monocultural setting. Without such questions we cannot discover how deep our faith is and what life challenges the gospel can truly answer. Other worldviews and faiths demand that we ask if the needs that our faith answers are the universal and fundamental needs of humankind. Can our faith answer the needs that are addressed in other worldviews and other faiths which are different than the ones we perceive as essential in our faith? Are the answers of our faith sufficient to meet the fundamental needs of humanity? Are the answers of our faith necessary to meet those needs? Are the answers of our faith unique in meeting those needs?
A Christian woman in Pakistan with whom we are well acquainted has a son with severe mental problems. She had visited many doctors and we had prayed with and for her and her son, but without any positive change. One day she declared that she was going to visit a Hindu faith healer. My mouth dropped and I remonstrated with her, "You are a follower of Christ. You need to trust." She stood to her full 5’3" and looked me in the eye. "I must do what I can for my son," she said. I was left struggling for an answer from the Christian faith that would answer that need without disparaging the expression of love for her son.
The challenge of these questions arises when we face the truth claims of an alternate world-view or faith. These claims cannot be refuted by clever logic and yet neither can they be ignored for they conflict with the message of Christ. What is required is an encounter that expresses an attitude of humble belief, not arrogant certainty in our faith. It requires respect and openness to the reality of another’s faith, and yet at the same time maintaining commitment to our own. Our confidence is not obtained by professing an absolutism found in our experience, our understanding or even our belief, but upon the willingness to trust Christ and commit our lives to the gospel. Because we do not have absolute knowledge but are rather called to trust, we are in a position to approach other religions without the arrogance of superiority and knowledge (because we do not have that luxury) and yet without fear because they, too, cannot claim superiority. The importance of what we bring is the confidence of an experience of Jesus that answers the fundamental questions of life. The challenge is to recognize the way in which Jesus relevantly and significantly brings answers to those living within the context of another faith. Humility is required in this process because other faiths "face in different directions and ask fundamentally different questions" (Bosch 1991:485). We enter as guests into another faith in ignorance of the depth and perceptiveness of their understanding of and questions about life.
Relevant and Significant Transformation
Missions cannot be reduced to a non-judgmental study of religion nor, on the other hand, expressed in rivalry with other religions. The gospel is not to be considered one of several competing faiths as if missions can be reduced to a kind of spiritual operation in which other religions are to be replaced with the gospel. Neither is the aim to strip other religions of what is wrong until what is left matches with what we believe. Instead, we are called to share this truth, this salvation, this life which is found only in Christ, with all others. Rather than looking to undo other religions, we look to provide the truth of Christ which answers the mystery and meaning of life by providing relevant and significant transformation. Such transformation occurs primarily in people’s lives and only derivatively in religious expression.
Nonetheless this does not negate the fact that the gospel must confront what is wrong in other religions. Even as we must critique Christianity according to the light we have received from the revelation of Christ, so the same standard must be used in critiquing other religions (cf. Mt 23). Although all religions provide a positive contribution to society, it must also be acknowledged that all religions also play a role in keeping people from Christ and this must be addressed. But the solution is not a simplistic promotion of Christianity as "right" and other religions as "wrong", rather it is recognizing the gospel as that universal salvation which all must experience in order to know the one who is the Truth.
Imagine Such a Love
The key to a mission of transformation among other religions is not an attitude of superiority and condemnation, but love which "must move us to lose ourselves in service" (Kavunkal 1994:93). The essence of the gospel is found in Jesus’ example of service and love. Both the humble obedience of the incarnation and the ultimate sacrifice of the cross are but the grand opening and closing expressions of the one ministry that Jesus lived out in service to humankind. In Pakistan we discovered that arguments against Islam that were perfectly logical to us, were ineffective and dismissed as immaterial by the Sindhi people. But they were moved by the story of the prodigal son. Imagine, could such a love really exist?
- (1) Bosch, D.J. 1991. Transforming Mission. Paradigm shifts in theology of mission. Maryknoll: Orbis.
- (2) Kavunkal, J. 1994. Ministry and Mission: Christological Considerations, in New directions in missions and evangelization 2. Theological foundations, edited by J.A. Scherer & S.B. Bevans, Mayknoll: Orbis, 87-98.