Dear Donagh,

….Could you explain the relationship between the Christian religion and other religions in a way that I could understand?  I've tried to read a few articles in magazines but I was lost after a few lines.  I'd like to know the answer to this question because most of my friends think all religions are the same, so they don’t take any of them seriously.  I don’t know if I take religion seriously enough, but I'd like to know more.   Sandra.

Dear Sandra,

When one religion meets another it is a bit like the early stages of a courtship – that is, if the two like each other at first glance.  When a young man meets a girl that he likes there’s a sort of glamour about her that her brothers and sisters don’t see at all.  He says some silly things to her like, “Where were you all my life?”  It’s fascinating for her too: she never saw herself like that before.  (I hope this doesn’t trivialise it, but we’re all children at heart, especially when we’re out of our depth.)  Then as they get to know each other a little, it’s no longer just the sheen on her hair, or the way she flicks it back; it’s what she says.  He hangs on every word – which is good for her too, because she hears herself speak with a freshness, a kind of joy and freedom, that she probably doesn’t experience at home.  If they persevere they may even come to know each other as deeply as any man and woman have ever known each other –   which, I suppose, is never total.  The deepest form of love may well be an acknowledgement of the mystery of the other.  Someone once said that he loved his wife, not because she was like him but because she was different.   

I don’t think it would be a good thing if all religions were rolled into one ball – any more than if the differences between men and women were somehow abolished.  We can dream about being one: the ancient philosopher Plato had a fantasy (because he didn’t take himself as seriously as Aristotle took himself) that originally man and woman were a single being that later differentiated into male and female.  It’s a sort of biological fantasy, but it expresses a spiritual truth: we can become one – in love.  Love doesn’t try to rub out the differences; instead it cherishes them. 

So when we listen carefully to different religions in conversation, we are eavesdropping on some kind of love-story (or perhaps to a raging row).  They may not use the word ‘love’ very much; they may talk about oneness or ‘being one with’.  But we don’t interrupt them and explain them to each other.  When Dogen Zenji said, “To study the way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self,” and then Meister Eckhart, a century later, says, “Begin with yourself and forget yourself,” we can be reasonably sure that they have hit a common chord.  There may be no end to how far that can go, but we’re not at the end; we’re only at the beginning.  A friend of mine says that Buddhists are the first real strangers that Christians are listening to. 

Many Christians would just cut short the conversation by asserting that ours is the only real religion.  They could say this only by ignoring the fact that Jesus praised the faith of pagans (Mt 7:10; 15:28; Lk 7:9); and held out more hope for Tyre and Sidon than for Chorazin and Bethsaida (Lk 10:13, 14).  Jesus doesn’t do much for our ego, not even when we try to paint it Christian.  To give a full answer to your question how Christian and other faiths are related, one would have to know all faiths in depth.  No one does.  One would have to be above them all in order to see them all.  No one is.  In the years when I was reading students’ essays I used to be amused at the postures they assumed – I mean their mental postures.  They gave the impression of inhabiting some region above the clouds, looking down on fields of learning from a totally neutral position, passing timeless judgments, and settling all unfinished business forever.  We all begin that way, but as we grow up we have to move downwards: to the humble earth (and not all of it but just the patch we know a little about).  No one can see the whole truth; we are all looking from somewhere.  When I began to write books years ago I set out with that consciously in mind.  I always kept four questions before me: 1. Where am I? (on an unlocated cloud? or in my native village? or in some modern city…?).   2.  What time is it? (the present? or some other century? or in some timeless zone?).  3. How am I occupied? (am I writing from experience? or just weaving words to other words?)  4.  How am I preoccupied?  (what is driving me to write? what fire is burning in me?).  It was an attempt to keep things on the ground.  When we look at other religions and other ways of living a spiritual life, I think the same counsels are helpful.

No one can pretend to adjudicate between different religions.  Far from knowing them all from the inside we barely scratch the surface of our own.  Does this mean we can say nothing at all about other religions or other ways of doing things?  No, we can look at all of them, but we look at them from inside the one we inhabit – not from above the clouds.  It is a legitimate point of view, if we acknowledge it explicitly. 

But what about Jn 14:6, you might ask!  In that text Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Some would like to see this statement as condemning all non-Christians to outer darkness.  The context in which to see it is the opening chapter of John’s gospel: “All things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being” (Jn 1:3).  If all things came from God through him, then it makes sense to say that all things return to God through him.  This is the Christian understanding of the Word made flesh.  This is a practical ‘how to’ for disciples of Jesus.  I think it is useful to think of the New Testament as a ‘how to’ book.  The Christian faith is a way of living before it is a way of thinking.  Christians were known as “followers of the Way” before they were called Christians.  Its purpose is to show disciples the way to live with this revelation of God in Jesus.  When someone is showing us how to do something, we are not satisfied by absolute statements about the grandeur of the enterprise; we expect practical guidance.  So Jesus is the way.  Where does that leave people who are not Christians?  They too come to the Father (because Christ died for all), but how they come is not for Christians to figure out in practice.  The focus of John’s gospel is always the Christian community, not humanity in general.  Nowhere, for example, in his gospel does he quote Jesus’ saying about loving your enemies.  If asked about it, no doubt, he would have quoted this saying (he would have no choice in the matter), but it was not his preoccupation.  So in regard to other religions Christians have to ask themselves: 1.  Where they are themselves? (situated inside their own faith? or sitting on a cloud?) 2. What’s the time? (the Now? or some past century?).  3. How are they occupied? (living Christ’s way, or just arguing about it).  4. How they are preoccupied (with God's kingdom, or with some power game, or the numbers game). 

I feel sure that the analogy of love (even if I put it just in terms of courtship!) is better than any analogy of power and precedence and absolute claim (different forms of war).  Egos are weakened by love, but strengthened by war.  Especially in war they give us a false clarity, which is always less helpful than love – even if love often baffles us and knocks us off our secure perch.  It can never be a good thing to forget that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8, 16), and “greater than our hearts” (1 Jn 3:20).    


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