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Christianity and World Religions
Wrestling With Questions People Ask
By Adam Hamilton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2005 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Questions People Ask
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." ... There, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
(Matthew 2:1-2, 9b-11)
At some point in our lives, each of us will be confronted with the claims of persons of other faiths—coworkers, neighbors, friends. Our children will study other faiths in school, have friends who are of other religions, and live in a world that is increasingly diverse.
We live in a world that is very different from the one in which most of us grew up. Many of us went to school without having a single Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu classmate. Some Americans grew up never knowing any Jewish families because there were no synagogues in the small towns in which they lived. It is not that way anymore. Our society is more religiously diverse than ever. Yet many Americans know very little about Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and even Judaism. But the likelihood today is that one of your neighbors, one of your coworkers, or one of your children's teachers at school is a person of another faith.
In addition, our world is divided and even at war along religious lines. Muslims are in conflict with Christians. At the time of this writing, in the territory that separates India from Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims are engaged in a conflict that has nearly resulted in nuclear war. In the tinderbox we call the Holy Land, Muslims and Jews continue to engage in armed struggle for land both claim as their own.
In light of these facts of modern life, it is essential that Christians seek to understand the faiths of others—to know how these faiths are similar to and different from their own faith—and to use that understanding to build bridges with others so that we might grow in our faith, seek peace in our world, love our neighbor, and find positive ways to share the gospel.
Jesus Christ told his followers to go into the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:16-20). How can we as Christians do that effectively with persons of other faiths if we have no idea what they believe? How can we share Christ in a sensitive way if we have no idea what someone else's idea of truth is?
In this book we will be examining Christianity and four of the other major world religions. If we are honest, the thought of contemplating the claims of other religions makes most of us a bit nervous. It is threatening to our own faith. What if the other religions are right? Many of us are Christians, frankly, because our parents were Christians. We did not necessarily choose Christianity; it chose us. So, when faced with the claims of another religion, we feel some uncertainty. Can my faith withstand a serious consideration of another's religion? What if my picture of God is wrong? What if I cannot demonstrate the ultimate truthfulness of the gospel? As a pastor, I feel the weight of these questions. I do not want to do anything to undermine your faith; my hope is to help you grow in faith. Yet I believe that if Christianity does offer us the truth about God, it can withstand a serious study of other religions. If it is not ultimately true, then our task should be to discern what is true and pursue this truth.
I approach this study as a Christian. I recognize that I cannot be completely objective, no matter how hard I might attempt to be. I approach my own study of the world religions with an effort at being open and understanding, and with a willingness to see truth wherever it may be found. But my starting point, and the lens through which I see the world, is my own faith in Jesus Christ and my Christian experience.
Studying some of the major world religions raises a host of questions that we will wrestle with throughout this book. In this first chapter, we will focus on four key questions:
(1) Why are there so many different religions?
(2) How should Christians view other religions?
(3) How is God at work in other religions?
(4) What is the fate of those who earnestly pursue God through other religions?
With regard to this last question, I will point toward some conclusions, while inviting you to think carefully about this issue for yourself. I am inclined to be a bit more agnostic on this question than some Christians on either the right or the left; yet I have leanings which I will share, inviting you to push back and formulate your own views in the light of Scripture and the nature and character of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
After considering these initial questions, we will explore four major world religions, one per chapter: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism. In each chapter I will provide a historical context for the religion; present some of its basic stories, traditions, and beliefs; and describe differences between that religion and Christianity. In the final chapter we will attempt to distill the essence of Christianity, as I understand it.
Before beginning, I will make a disclaimer. In preparation for this book I spent considerable time studying the four religions. I took courses. I carefully read books; websites; and, especially, sacred texts. I visited mosques, temples, and religious centers to ask questions and to attend worship. I had the blessing of interviewing a leading figure of each faith in my own city, whose wisdom I drew upon and whose words, with permission, I have quoted. But I will tell you without hesitation that this preparation in no way qualifies me as an expert.
This study should be seen as a beginning guide to exploring the world religions. I encourage you to conduct some research of your own—reading; studying; and, most of all, talking with people of other faiths. In your conversations with people of other faiths, as you seek to understand and demonstrate respect for their experiences and their teachings, you will likely find your own faith strengthened. In addition, your willingness to listen and learn from people of other faiths may lead them to invite you to share your faith with them as well.
Why Are There So Many Different Religions?
Some people look at the multitude of religions and believe their existence in itself offers proof that there is no God; surely, they reason, God would have made clear the one right path.
The multiplicity of forms of religious expression suggests to these people that God must be a human invention. But I see just the opposite in the varieties of religions. For me, the fact that human beings have had religious thoughts, feelings, yearnings, questions, and experiences throughout every culture, continent, and time points to the reality of God. The fact that all these people, independent of one another, have sensed the same thing, though they may speak of their experience of the divine in different terms, leads me to conclude that there is some reality behind these shared common experiences.
As we survey human history, we find that human beings have always had religious needs, questions, and experiences. Whether you live in Central Africa or Central Europe, when you have a loved one who dies, you long to believe there is something beyond this life. When you see something absolutely magnificent in nature, whether you live in Canada or in Saudi Arabia, something inside you wants to cry out praise to the One who created such beauty. When you spend quiet time alone in prayer, whether you are a Jew in Jerusalem, a Hindu in Calcutta, or a Christian in Kansas City, there is a sense of peace that permeates your heart and mind. And there are times when all of us, regardless of where we live, sense that we have received an insight that came from somewhere beyond ourselves. These are nearly universal experiences, all of which point, I believe, to the ultimate reality of God.
Leaving aside, for a moment, the realm of religion, it is not uncommon for two human beings to have the same experience and give different explanations for it. Sometimes their descriptions of the experience may be similar, but their conclusions regarding the meaning of the experience may be quite different. There is an objective reality they both seek to understand, but both are not necessarily correct in their understanding. One or the other may be closer to the truth—or both may have misunderstood the experience. More likely, each of them will be partly right.
After my wife and I go to the movies, we talk about the film as we walk to our car. "Well, what did you think?" I will ask. Sometimes, as I am listening to what she says, I will look at her and wonder, Did you see the same movie I just saw? We saw the exact same movie; but she experienced it in one way, and I experienced it in quite another. In a similar way I believe human beings share common religious experiences; but they see them, or understand them, in different ways.
Why should it surprise us that human beings in different places have come up with different solutions to the puzzle of our religious questions, yearnings, and experiences? From a theological point of view, God is so far beyond our human comprehension (The Bible speaks of God's ways as "unsearchable," a term that could be used to describe not only God's ways but also God's very nature.) that all our language about God ultimately fails to describe God adequately. We do not have the logical categories or the mental capability necessary to comprehend all there is to know about God. The apostle Paul captured this point well when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:9, 12, "We know only in part.... For now we see in a mirror, dimly." Again, the greatness of God and the smallness of our human minds might lead us to expect that different people will understand their experiences of God in different ways and that we will all be a bit surprised when we actually see God face-to-face!
The question of religious differences partly has to do with how God allows us to learn. I believe that in many ways we learn the same way our children learn. Children are not born with all the information they need in order to be functioning human beings. Instead, they have certain yearnings and instincts and will spend their whole lives learning and gaining more information about the world around them. Likewise, when it comes to human beings understanding the things of God, we have yearnings, experiences, and intuitions about God. Then we spend the rest of our lives trying to make sense of these. (If we are atheists, we devote our energy to explaining them away.) The classic definition of theology is "faith seeking understanding"—the lifelong task of making sense of our experiences of God.
Finally, when it comes to the history of religion among human beings, as a race we are also growing in our understanding of God. The development of religion has progressed from much more primitive to more sophisticated over time. Even within the Bible itself we see this development. We find that Abraham came from a family of polytheists, yet God was revealed to Abraham in such a way that monotheism took hold among his descendants. Likewise certain ethical imperatives were lost on Abraham and the other patriarchs of the Hebrew faith; but later, in the days of Moses, God revealed and further clarified his will. God seems to allow the human race to develop and grow in its understanding of God over time, revealing himself little by little to humanity.
God's way is, in part, to allow human beings to discover certain things for themselves, learning at times by trial and error. As a parent, I understand how this works—for example, with homework. I think particularly of times when my daughter Rebecca asks me to help her with vocabulary assignments. She starts asking me questions about the meaning of certain words, and I immediately want to give her all the answers; but then I realize she will not learn this way. So I try to give her hints, and I make her look up the words in the dictionary, and I require her to muddle through. I know that in doing things this way she will get things wrong at times. Yet this is how she learns. Even if she makes mistakes at times, she learns from the experience.
Over the millennia, this is how God has allowed humanity to learn and grow as a race, not only in the realm of religion, but in the sciences as well. People once thought the earth was the center of the universe. God did not find it important to correct our faulty understandings. Instead, God let us explore new things and finally discover for ourselves that the earth revolves around the sun. I believe that the same may be true of the development of religion. In looking at God's grace and patience in allowing human beings to seek to know him without giving them all the answers, I begin to make sense of the various religions of the world and the history of religion.
About 3,800 years ago, most people on our planet were polytheists. They believed in a multitude of gods. When they felt religious yearnings, they could not fathom that everything could be created and ruled by one being; so they attributed their experiences to different gods and goddesses. God seemed to be patient, waiting for just the right time to reveal the truth that there is but one God. There is no evidence in the Bible that God was angry with Abraham's father, Terah, for failing to be a monotheist. But there came a time when God finally said to humanity, "Now I want to help you." And just as I give hints to my daughter when helping her with her homework, God gave a "hint" to help humanity discover the truth.
Theologians call these hints "special revelation"—ways that God has directly or indirectly sought to guide our inquiry. Christians believe that among the hints God has given humanity are the Law; the prophets; God's history of dealing with Israel; the Bible in its entirety; and, most fully, God's Word made flesh: Jesus Christ.
As I mentioned above, one of those "hints"— those special revelations—came to Abraham, who lived in the Mesopotamian city of Ur about 1,800 years before Jesus Christ. God said (more or less), "Listen, Abraham, I know your forebears thought that there were a multitude of gods; but all those gods are really just attributes of who I am. So I want you to know there really is only one God. If you believe what I am telling you, I will make a great nation of you and your descendants; and they will be a light to other nations."
In this way, through Abraham, God set the human race on a different trajectory. Even so, the vast majority of the world had not yet heard or understood that there was just one God. What did God think about those people? I believe that God looked at them, recognized that they had not had a chance to hear, and accepted their yearnings on a different sort of level— on the level that a parent accepts the limited understanding of a small child—with patience and a knowledge that one day they would grow up and understand.
About six hundred years after Abraham, God gave another hint. God called Moses up to a mountain and said, "Let me tell you a little bit about what I have in mind for humankind." God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and hundreds of other laws, saying, "Go back and teach my people this, so they know what I have in mind and what is right and what is wrong." Remember, Abraham did not know all those commandments; yet God looked favorably on him. Now, however, the human race had progressed to a point where God felt it was ready for a little more information and was capable of adhering to a higher standard.
Then the prophets came along; and through them God provided more hints, clarifying God's expectations and describing God's heart and character. Christians believe that around two thousand years ago God gave us the clearest hint of all, when God's Word became a human being and lived among us. We believe that, in Jesus, God came to us in human flesh so that we might see and understand God's heart, God's character, and God's will for our lives.
Excerpted from Christianity and World Religions by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2005 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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