Learning one’s faith in a multi-faith world

/ 23 February 2013

I am often surprised by the knee jerk reactions I get from some of my colleagues in various theological settings to the notion that I think it’s crucial to teach other religious traditions in the process of teaching Christianity. These colleagues seem to assume that my interest in doing so implies that I have a less than faithful investment in witnessing to Christ.

Once in a while I come across someone who is open to teaching across Christian traditions (that is, they want to pay attention to the ecumenical nature of Christian faith), but they are still nervous, if not openly disdainful, of attention to other religious traditions.

Such constraint in imagination boggles my mind! Particularly when it interferes with our students’ ability to live generously in the world we currently inhabit.

Today I ran across this essay, published nearly four years ago, which articulates better than I can why my fearful colleagues need to let go of their fears. Thatamanil observes that:

Putting Christian traditions into conversation with Buddhist and Hindu traditions generates in my students an interest in homologous phenomena in Christian traditions. Indeed, it is often the case that it is precisely by introducing the role and meaning of meditative disciplines in other traditions that one can generate in students a desire to investigate Christian traditions more carefully in search of intra-Christian resources.

I’ve had this experience over and over again. When my students engage in conversation with young adult Muslims, it is most often my Christian students who are drawn into deeper study of their own tradition. They are trying to figure out how to explain what they believe. Far from being a risky endeavor, a well constructed exploration of another tradition - particularly if that exploration is done in a generous spirit of honest curiosity and mutual respect - deepens one’s own commitment, at the same time as it also deepens one’s respect for the other tradition.

We led a project at Luther last year as part of the ATS CHAPP grants, and in that project we emerged with three main findings:

  • that Christian practices of hospitality – especially understood in terms of presence – are fundamentally about openness
  • that learning takes place far more efficiently and effectively through engagement with, rather than teaching about
  • that learning in the presence of other faiths can deepen one’s own faith, while inviting deeper respect for other faiths

I need to remind myself — and my colleagues — that some of the most potent stories we have of Jesus learning (and yes, Jesus learned) come from his encounters with people of other faiths. The story of the Syrophoenician woman, for instance, is a good example of Jesus learning from someone far outside of his community.

My prayer this morning is that we might all learn how to learn from and with each other — particularly when the “other” is considerably different from “us.”