How do Christians approach other faiths?
This morning we have a strange story before us. Magi come from “The East” to bring gifts and honor to the Infant Jesus. We’re used to thinking about “three kings,” but the text doesn’t give a number. We settled on three because there were three gifts. Since one of the gifts was gold, the magi became kings. But the text uses a simple word “magi” as in “magic.”
My good seminary friend The Rev. Matthew Wright pointed out in the weekly email to his congregation that “Magician” is a word often used in Scripture for condemnation. Magicians, astrologers, practitioners of sorcery were “outsiders” to good Jews.
So today we are confronted with a surprise. These magicians recognize the true light. They follow the star and it leads them to the infant Jesus. Not only that, but they know that Herod, the leader of the Jewish people, is not to be trusted. These magicians are able to discern truth. Matthew’s story would have surprised Jesus’ religious contemporaries. God’s people were suspicious of outsiders.
Which brings me back to my initial question: how do Christians approach other faiths?
Perhaps some of you were brought up in a Church tradition that taught “exclusivism.” The idea is probably the best known Christian opinion. Exclusivism holds that no one outside the Christian faith can be “saved.” Exclusivists tend to have a very “after-life focused” vision of salvation as well. Christians go to heaven. Everyone else goes to the other place. Some versions of Christianity even teach that you must ascribe to their particular brand of Jesus-following if you’re to hope to see the inside of the pearly gates.
When I was in college, one of my theology professors, a particularly wry-witted nun and Pauline scholar sent us home with a final paper. I don’t remember the assignment exactly, but I remember the topic a friend chose to write about. This 19 year old college freshmen was going through a particularly evangelical season, and he had been arguing with the professor all semester as she brought an academic approach to Scripture. For his term paper, he argued that Mother Teresa was in hell. The writer he cited claimed we knew this, definitively. My friend showed me the paper when he got it back. I’d never seen someone write “F” in bright red all the way across a cover page before. I believe she also wrote the words “lies and heresy” across the front.
Now, that may seem harsh, and it was. He ended up re-writing the paper on a completely different topic with academically rigorous sources and passed the class. But I tell the story to illustrate a point. Perhaps the most loudly heard voices in Christianity have held similar opinions to my friend and his paper about Mother Teresa. The “exclusivist” vision of Christianity has held sway.
I’ve not had the chance, but someday I’d like to sit down with an exclusivist and ask “What do you do with the Magi?” How do you account for this story in the Gospel? These mystical heretics from the East that come to pay homage to Jesus are but one moment in Scripture that make me uncomfortable with the exclusivist claims.
Karl Rahner, the German Catholic theologian, had another approach. Rahner coined the idea of the “anonymous Christian” in response to the old question: “What about someone who dies having never heard of Jesus?” Rahner replied that it was possible for someone to live a Christ-like life without using Christian language. Since Rahner’s time, others have applied this formula beyond Rahner’s original question about someone who hadn’t heard of Jesus. They see this way of thinking as an “Inclusivist” way to look at faith. We don’t have to feel bad for our good Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu friends. If they live good lives, in the end, God will count them as unwitting Christians, and explain it all to them after they die.
Now, I’ve just given you a summary, which is dangerous to do with a German theologian. Rahner’s own brother said that it was better to read Rahner in English translation than in the original German, because then at least one person had already struggled to interpret Rahner’s dense text. But the summary, I think, is fair as one approach from Christians to those of other faiths. Do we see good people of other faiths as wrong in their choice of language, even if their actions are ethical?
I raise the question about other faiths today partly because we are performing the second half on an inter-religious wedding. Brian and Meg were supposed to be married by a priest and a rabbi together, but then the priest wasn’t able to attend. Now, this is an atypical couple in many ways. Most people don’t get married during a Sunday service. Most brides who show up pregnant try to hide their bellies.
But Meg and Brian are a-typical in other ways as well. It is rare that you find an inter-religious couple who so consciously practice their faith. When they started coming to Holy Communion, Brian and Meg were intentionally alternating weekends worshiping twice a month with Central Reformed Congregation, and twice a month with us here. Brian volunteers with a program for kids in the judicial system in St. Louis. He listed me as one of his references. I had a good laugh when one of the volunteer coordinators called me to ask about Brian. I had to say, “No we don’t let Brian teach Sunday School.” Then I had to quickly qualify: We didn’t ask him to teach because it would be a little awkward for him, as a Jew, to have to explain Christian teaching to the little ones. I gave him a glowing reference.
Knowing practitioners of other faiths, like Brian, I simply cannot identify with the exclusivist claims that some Christians make. I also have a hard time with Rahner’s idea that good people are really Christians anonymously. I find that pretty presumptuous.
Partly, I’m less anxious about the question of other faiths because the Christian teachers I have learned the most from have tended to emphasize salvation as a question of the here and now more than “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.” Howard Thurman, sometime chaplain at Boston College where he taught a not-yet Dr. King, argued in his seminal book “Jesus and the Disinherited” that a religion focused on the afterlife does little to change the circumstances of people who live with their “backs against the wall.” He saw in Jesus a revolutionary figure interested in turning over the status quo in this life. Salvation was a much a question in the here and now as in the afterlife.
But the question of other faiths still beckons. My mentoring rector in Washington DC, The Rev. Luis Leon used to say: “I am a Christian because it is in Christianity that I have seen the light shining the brightest.” Those are carefully chosen words. We could use more carefully chosen words coming from Washington. There is an emphasis on subjectivity in the sentence: “Christianity is where I have seen the light shining the brightest.” There is also an acknowledgement that I have seen the light shining in other places.
Many of us have wonderful interfaith friendships. I have been privileged to attend Friday Prayers in Istanbul’s blue mosque with Turkish Muslim friends. I’ve whirled with Dervishes in Tribeca. I’ve danced with neighbors Simchat Torah as the scroll of Scripture surrounded the synagogue. I’ve sat silently for Zazen in a Buddhist Temple in San Francisco. I’ve even shared a feast with self-identified pagans for Samhain. I’ve been privileged to catch glimmers in many faith traditions.
Among the many deaths of 2016 was a scholar of world religions: Dr. Huston Smith. His book “The World’s Religions” is widely assigned by professors of religion, and it is good enough to read even if you’re not in college anymore. He studied and befriended people of other religions across his life. He famously introduced the Dalai Lama to the West. Smith said he remained Christian. For him, “God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus.”
Smith’s work helped us see a way of being Christian that did not study other faiths for the sake of forming good arguments against them. Huston Smith gave us permission to be dazzled by other religions. For him, faith was a journey, an adventure.
These magi are adventurers, journeyers. You get the sense they’re working on a hunch by following this star. You know the old joke about the wise men, yes? How do we know there were three wise men and not a wise woman? Well, if there had been a woman they wouldn’t have arrived so long after Christmas. They would have stopped and asked directions. The joke betrays scripture a bit, because sometimes the detours are the important parts of the journey. Without detours, you miss the adventure.
Encountering the magi, these mystical figures from the East, I ask. How do you approach those of other faith? Do you hope to prove them wrong? Do you come with fear? Or do you come, like the magi approached the baby Jesus? Can you encounter another faith with a sense of adventure?
Turn the question back on Christianity. Is your faith an adventure? We live in a time of growing “secularism.” That is to say, more and more people are leaving “the church” leaving “the faith.” I suspect that for many of them exclusivism plays a role in the decision. Fewer of us want to be part of a club that doesn’t admit Jews, Muslims, people of other faiths. We’ve seen too much light in our neighbor’s practice to shut them out.
I wonder as well, if we saw faith less as a series of rote beliefs and exercises, could it be more compelling? What if our faith looked more, felt more like the faith of the magi? Could we set off, dazzled by the light, not exactly sure where the journey will lead? Do we dare to offer our gifts, to open our hearts, to follow a star that will lead us home by another road? This year, will you come on an adventure of faith?