One of the first hurdles one comes to when thinking about doing interfaith work is fear. People are often scared of what they don’t know, and for many people, the “other” is fearful simply because they don’t know it. This is especially true with religion. Many people are wonderfully committed to their religious tradition, which is tremendously laudable. However for some, that commitment has included a de-legitimizing, or at least a degrading of other religious traditions. This makes a little bit of sense at first glance: Why pick one religion over another, if not for your sense that one is a little better, or offers a truer sense of the divine, or will get you to heaven more assuredly? However, if we dig a little deeper, there are a number of other factors in play, including the impulse to demonize. Not unlike an insecure person who has to put down those around him/herself to make him/herself feel better, sometimes people in one religious tradition can attack another religious tradition simply to puff up their own. Why the need to tear down another religion in order to feel good about your own? I think there are a few possible reasons. But for our purposes, I’d like to focus on the role of proselytizing in religion.
Many in the Christian tradition have been taught follow Jesus’ admonition to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). This missionary impulse has given rise to great and noble deeds as well as horrible and heartbreaking crimes over the centuries. But this “go-ing” nature of Christianity is an essential part of the Christian nature. Anyone who is doing interfaith work, at least from a Christian tradition, needs to come to terms with this reality. Often, when I am introducing students to interfaith dialogue, one of the first questions to come up is “do you try to convert each other?” I find that such an odd question – of course the answer is “no”! But I certainly understand the question because that is what I would have wondered 10 years ago as I contemplated interfaith work. In my tradition, the only reason to get to know a person of a different religion would be to try convert them to Christianity. Adherents of other faiths were to be proselytized because Jesus is “the only way” to God. Now that I have been doing interfaith work for a while, I feel that many who think this way are simply uninformed. They have not met and gotten to know someone from another faith, their theology is underdeveloped, and, mix in a dash of Euro-centric thinking, and you’ve got a recipe for superior/inferior thinking when it comes to religion.
I prefer the notion of “witness” to proselytizing. Speaking as a Christian, I can certainly stand firm in my tradition, and give witness to what I believe God has wrought in making me and church, warts and all, what it is today. But I don’t need to denegrate or prove my vision of God is superior to yours for my vision to be true. And the same is true for you. This is postmodern thinking as well, and I think fits better with what we know to be true epistemologically. Modern thinking argued for one over-arching narrative to be “the truth”. Postmodernity argues that one over-arching narrative is impossible because there is no neutrality when it comes to data. My narrative is different from your narrative, and these “stories” don’t need to be categorized or even ranked. They just are. In the postmodern vision, I can be me, and you can be you, and we can let these narratives compete naturally, without having to force people to believe. Of course there are many critiques of this point of view which deserve to be addressed, but let this original point stand on its own, and we will augment it with further posts.
Now certainly other religious traditions have this impulse to proselytize as well. But it must be taken off the table when it comes to interfaith dialogue and action. We are encountering others as equal human beings in the sight of God, people who are loved equally by God, and people for whom the call to love and serve God is equally applicable. There isn’t time or need to proselytize, or analyze better or worse when you are standing face to face with a fellow pilgrim. There is only the question, “how can you and I better help each other on our journey?”