What Are You Wondering About Today?

Interfaith-Friendly Christianity

Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama, 1968. Copyright of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with permission.

Jesus, following the law of his people, instructed his followers to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

But then he upped the ante by telling the story of the good Samaritan — in his society, the Samaritans were the social outcasts. Yet here was a parable in which the social outcast was a better neighbor to a man in need than the community and religious leaders who didn’t want to get involved.

The message is simple: Our neighbors are not just the people who look like us, act like us, or enjoy as much (or as little) social prestige as we do.

Two thousand years later, the world has become a global village, and many people find that their neighbors — literally as well as figuratively — include people of different nationalities, different ethnicities, and increasingly of different faiths.

How do we love our neighbor when our neighbor doesn’t believe the same way we do?

In the past, many Christians would have seen non-Christians as targets: targets for evangelism. If a Buddhist or a Muslim lived next door to you, your duty would have been to witness about Jesus to them, invite them to church, inform them that they were going to hell if they didn’t accept Jesus as their personal savior. Needless to say, not only did this kind of aggressive evangelism rarely (if ever) succeed, it also was pretty much a flop in terms of love as well.

As an elderly pastor I know likes to put it, “You can’t love somebody if you’re putting all your effort into converting them.”

Francis of Assisi said “Preach the Gospel at all times, but only use words when necessary.” In other words, if we want to share Christ with others, let’s do so by loving them. If God wants them to become Christians, they will. But that’s not our job. Our job is to love. Not convict, not judge, not argue, not convince. Simply to love.

So: how do we love people whose faith is not our own?

On the simplest level, we just be good friends and neighbors. We help each other out. We borrow and loan stuff when necessary. We get together for dinner, to watch a game, to celebrate a birthday or other milestone.

But sooner or later it’s going to go deeper. “I’m sorry, I can’t come to your party; it’s Ramadan and I’ll be fasting until sunset.” “I can’t help you move on Sunday — I’m expected to sing in the choir at church.”

What do we do then? Do we take the time to get to know what our respective beliefs are? How they are different — and how they are similar? Do we risk discovering how our values might be different — but also how they might be the same?

Welcome to our world. Interfaith dialogue is no longer just something that theologians or college professors do. We are all neighbors, we are all encountering people who adhere to other faiths. We have to learn how to live together, because the alternative — violence — doesn’t work for anybody.

Several Christians have become well-known for their interest in interfaith exploration. A famous picture depicts Thomas Merton, toward the end of his life, talking a walk with the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Merton, a twentieth-century Christian mystic, is renowned for his interest in Buddhism, but also other faiths — Judaism, Islam. And he’s hardly the only one. Bede Griffiths and Henri Le Saux (Abhishiktananda) were European Benedictine monks who moved to India and set up Christian ashrams that integrated yoga and meditation with Christianity. In Japan, the Jesuit William Johnston explored the relationship between Christian mysticism and Zen. Cynthia Bourgeault draws inspiration from Sufis; and various other Christian writers and teachers have engaged in some form of interfaith dialogue — Raimon Panikkar, Sara Grant, Mary Margaret Funk, Paul Knitter, Francis X. Clooney, Thomas Ryan, J.-M. Déchanet, John Main, Susan Stabile, Ruben L. F. Habito, Willigis Jäger… the list goes on and on.

These Christians all have found that their faith, as Christians, is enriched — not damaged, not watered-down, not compromised — but enriched, when they engage in dialogue and even interspiritual practice with the wisdom of other faiths. This is true whether the “partner faith” is Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, or lesser known traditions like Neopaganism, Native American Spirituality, Anthroposophy, and so forth.

I think this is one of the towering challenges — and invitations — of our time. How do we maintain fidelity to our “home” faith (which, for me, is Christianity) while engaging in a spirit of hospitality and neighborly charity with the people, ideas, and practices of other faiths with which we come into contact? There’s no one right answer to this question — some people may feel very little desire or inclination to engage with interfaith dialogue, and I think that’s fine, as long as it does not mean being unfaithful to the command to love others. But then there are those (myself included) who feel very much drawn to get to know the practitioners of other faiths, and the wisdom that drives their beliefs and practices.

Since I’m Catholic, naturally I turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for insight. The Catechism speaks clearly about the need for positive inter-religious encounters. It sees part of the mission of every Christian to include “a respectful dialogue with those who do not … accept the Gospel. Believers can profit from this dialogue by learning to appreciate better ‘those elements of truth and grace which are found among peoples [of other faiths], and which are, as it were, a secret presence of God’” (CCC, #856).

Furthermore, a statement on “Dialogue and Proclamation” from the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue gives further detail on why Catholics (and, I would argue, other Christians) ought to reach out to those of other faiths. “While keeping their identity intact, Christians must be prepared to learn and to receive from and through others the positive values of their traditions.” That first phrase is important: inter-religious dialogue is not about abandoning your own faith. Indeed, it requires a sense of being grounded in your own faith—but not an aggressive grounding that seeks to make everyone else just like me; on the contrary, to be truly grounded in my faith means I find my identity through God, and not through other people, and so I am able to relate to all people, regardless of their identity, with love and kindness and compassion and respect.

The Pontifical Council goes on to say “Christians must remember that God has also manifested himself in some way to the followers of other religious traditions.” This recognition takes humility: to give up on any kind of triumphalistic notion that only my religion has “all the answers.” Seeking God through the wisdom of other faiths can be a profound way of deepening one’s own spirituality. As the Pontifical Council puts it, “Far from weakening their own faith, true dialogue will deepen it.”

Many of the Christians mentioned above are widely recognized as contemplatives or mystics — and this points to a simple fact: that contemplative and mystical spirituality often is comfortable, perhaps even prefers, positive and creative interaction between differing faiths. I think the reason for this is simple: contemplative spirituality tends to cultivate a sense of love and compassion, and looks to find the presence of God in all things. It moves us away from dualistic ways of thinking (like “I’m right and you’re wrong” or “my religion is true and yours is demonic”) and toward a nondual recognition of divine love and presence in all people — regardless of color or creed. It’s been said that mysticism is the antidote to fundamentalism; it’s probably fair to say that mysticism is the antidote to religious chauvinism as well.

I love being a Christian — the values of Christ are my values, and I find meaning, purpose and identity through the Word and sacraments of my faith. Obviously, I’ve given much time and effort to studying the wisdom of the Christian saints and mystics and seeking to apply that wisdom to my life and work. But fidelity to Jesus Christ is not threatened by an interest in the teachings and practices of other faiths. Rather, when we keep Jesus’ central commands at the heart of our faith: love God, love neighbors, love yourself (and even love your adversaries), then interfaith dialogue is not a burden or a threat, but an adventure.

So I’m a Christian, through and through — and I’m an interfaith-friendly Christian. How I would have loved to have been walking there that day with Merton and the Dalai Lama. Can you imagine how fascinating the conversation must have been. But of course, that happened decades ago. So now, it’s up to us to carry on the great conversation: to meet, and learn from, and share with, practitioners of other faiths, a dialogue marked by respect and hospitality and love. And in doing so, I believe God is glorified.

About the author: Carl McColman is a Christian author, speaker and retreat leader. He has been active in interfaith work for many years and in addition to his Christian writings, has written a number of books about Neopagan, Goddess, and Celtic spirituality.

Here are a few books for further exploration of interfaith and inter-religious dialogue and interspirituality.

Photo Credit: Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama, 1968. © The Merton Legacy Trust & the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with permission.


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2 thoughts on “Interfaith-Friendly Christianity

  1. Thank you so much for this insightful and much needed exhortation to Christians of all denominations to find inspiration from a broadening discussion with members of other faiths. I spend some time on a Catholic Answers Forum which shall remain nameless and the people at that site seem to think that the Satan is hiding behind every other world religion and any interest in interfaith dialogue, much less learning from another faith puts ones soul in danger of eternal damnation. I have no idea what it is that separates those who find their faith expanded and nourished through interfaith exploration and those who are deeply suspicious and condemnatory of such an enterprise. God Bless you Carl.

    1. Thanks. It could be just a matter of personality: some people are natural seekers, others find such exploration wearisome or even threatening. A discerning teacher during my Lay Cistercian formation once told my class something to this effect, “some Christians are called to interfaith work, and others aren’t. May we learn to avoid criticizing each other.” Wise words indeed.

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