I enjoy engaging in candid, truth-seeking conversations, especially with persons from other religious backgrounds. Recently I gave a ride to a congenial young Muslim man whom I learned was preparing to become an imam. On the way we had an interesting discussion, which turned to a passage in the Qur’an often translated from the original Arabic into English, “Oh Isa, (Jesus), I will take you and raise you to myself….” Many Muslims hold as a core belief that Jesus did not die but was taken up to heaven without death, and this verse is one often used to assert that belief.
Knowing that the Arabic meaning of this verse literally spoke about death, I asked my new friend why it was translated to state something else. His response to me was, “In this context the word does not mean ‘die.’” When I asked him how this interpretation came to be, he responded that this is how it is understood in Muslim tradition and it is what his teachers have taught him. I responded by encouraging him to earnestly study the translation of that verse rather than simply settle for the traditional interpretation. After all, it would be unfortunate for someone to miss an essential aspect of the gospel because of a dogma.
Of course, it is easy for me as a Christian to question the assumptions and beliefs of someone outside the context of my own faith tradition. I also must be willing to question whether or not I have assumptions that have been handed to me which may color my understanding of the gospel. After all, isn’t the essential challenge of the missionary to convey the transcendent message of Christ to another culture while carefully distinguishing that message from one’s own cultural and traditional impact upon that message? Failure to understand this distinction while bringing our message across cultures will cause our hosts to scratch their heads in bewilderment as we share our wonderful teachings on successful ministry, evangelistic methods, leadership, and other subjects that have captured Western Christian thinking, yet may not address the core needs of others.
I recall a conversation I had with a missionary from another agency while I was serving in Africa. His approach was so rooted in a certain theological distinctive that he was convinced I was a false messenger because we held differing views on predestination and eternal security. I remember thinking to myself at the time, “Did we both come across the Atlantic to argue about these things?” There is a world of hurting people who really don’t care about our finely-tuned theological arguments. But they do long to see the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of those who follow the Prince of Peace.
One of the books that we require our new missionaries to read is Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. This book succinctly addresses our assumptions as Westerners concerning ethnicity, language, individualism, time, relationships, and other areas where we must recognize the cultural “glasses” that we wear when understanding the Bible. I have observed that there are at least two things that help us to appreciate the differences of others, while still being rooted in the essentials of our faith. One of these is exposure to different cultures and religious contexts; the other is simply a broadening of perspective that is likely to come with age and maturity.
My seminary professor – the late Dr. James W. Fowler – greatly challenged me with his research on the stages of faith. In fact, in presenting the latter stages (which he asserts rarely occur prior to middle age) as accompanied by a more expansive appreciation for that which is mysterious and paradoxical, I occasionally wondered if some of his ideas might not be heretical. The fact that I was in my early twenties and in my youthful enthusiasm had an answer for everything gives credence to Fowler’s research, I am sure.
When someone is cocksure of the truth, in their zeal they may behave in ways that contradict the main tenets of the very truth they profess. As Brene Brown commented in her TED Talk on vulnerability regarding the polarization of political and religious perspectives in our culture, “…we make everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion has gone from faith and mystery to certainty. ‘I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up.’”
When we seek to engage persons from other religious perspectives we must, indeed, accept the reality of the inexplicable. In fact, I doubt if genuine dialogue can occur unless both parties are willing to accept the idea that God just might be greater than doctrinal formulations on which we rely. If we accept that possibility, then we have laid the foundation for significant mutual discovery and peace.
Frank Decker is the Vice President of Mission Training and Development for The Mission Society.