Encountering Other Religions

A few months ago, Emory University had the privilege of hosting Cardinal Walter Kasper for a few days of lectures, discussions, and worship services. Cardinal Kasper is president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, appointed by the late Pope John Paul II in 2001. This means that Cardinal Kasper was in charge of guiding the ecumenical activities between the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations, including all the Protestant and Orthodox churches. In addition, the Cardinal is in charge of Catholic-Jewish relations.

Cardinal Kasper gave leadership to a number of unprecedented and ground-breaking initiatives taken by Pope John Paul II to establish better relations between Christians and Jews. Tension between Christians and Jews has been much too common across the last two millennia, including periodic incitement or justification of horrible violence by Christian leaders against Jewish communities. The most extreme demonstration of this, of course, is the Shoah, or the Holocaust, the plan of extermination systematically undertaken by the Nazi government against European Jews during World War II.

One powerful illustration of the late pope's outreach to Jews happened ten years ago on the first Sunday of Lent 2000 in Jerusalem at the Western Wall, a sacred site in the Jewish religion. Pope John Paul prayed at the Western Wall for forgiveness for all the sins Christians had committed against Jews. He even called the Shoah (or the Holocaust) the Calvary of the 20th century.

The reading from Acts11 provides an interesting perspective from which to view interfaith relations, especially Christian-Jewish relations. The book of Acts offers an account of the origins and expansion of the church. Christianity, of course, rose out of Judaism, and many stories in Acts demonstrate Christianity's deep roots in the Jewish faith. As the church expands, a number of tensions arise. These include the Gentiles' acceptance into the church, which at the time was dominated by Jewish Christians, as well as some Jews' rejection of the gospel.[1]

Stories are told prior to chapter 11 about incredible numbers of Jews responding to the gospel message and becoming part of the church. Our reading for today is a report from Peter to some of these people in the church at Jerusalem. Peter tells them about his encounter with Cornelius, a long story given a lot of weight in Acts, beginning in chapter 10. Cornelius, a Gentile, was a devout man who constantly prayed. During his prayers one day, he had a vision in which an angel instructed him to send for Peter and bring him back to Caesarea where Cornelius lived. Meanwhile, Peter had a trance that convinced him that God wanted him to eat with Gentiles and, specifically, that he should go to Cornelius' house. Food rituals separated Jews like Peter from Gentiles like Cornelius, but both men were convinced by their visions that they were to meet each other. When they did, the "Holy spirit fell upon them" (11:15) just as it had in the story of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts.

With this report from Peter to the church in Jerusalem, the debate over Gentiles is joined. The people in the church asked Peter, "Why do you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Peter's convincing report of all that had happened in his encounter with Cornelius overcame their skeptical criticisms of his eating with Gentiles. They "praised God saying, 'Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.'"

The debate about Gentiles continued in other venues, however, and culminated in a very lively and contentious argument portrayed in Acts 15. Those of us who could easily be characterized as Gentile now take the Gentiles' early incorporation into the church somewhat for granted, but their inclusion was quite outrageous at the time. Those who argued against it had all the weight of tradition and theology on their side. In the end, however, the church decided not to impede Gentile converts. Instead, guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, the apostles and elders spread out across the entire Mediterranean world to preach the good news. The word of God then spread from Jerusalem to surrounding territories and eventually to Rome, the center of the empire.

Alongside the heated and often bitter controversies surrounding the acceptance of the Gentiles' conversions, however, are stories from the book of Acts about repeated frustration over the lack of conversion among Jews. The debates on both topics are often quite fierce. First-century Christians had to come to grips with what Matthew Skinner calls "the painful and potentially embarrassing gradual cleaving of Christianity and Judaism." We Christians readily accept as normal and celebrate that our religion spread so quickly among so many different groups of people across the Mediterranean, as demonstrated in Acts. Many Christians today feel much more ambivalent, however, about the reality that many Jews heard the gospel message in the early days of Christianity but did not become followers of Jesus Christ. Indeed, far too many Christians have used this contentious history and some of the verses from Acts and other books in the New Testament that criticize and express frustration about Jews as a basis for denigrating or vilifying Jews.

What are we to make of this reality in the first century as well as its continuation today? Due to globalization in the 20th and 21st centuries, the world is very different and much more compact place than it was in the first century or even in the 19th century, another era when missionaries poured out across the globe. I suspect it would now be hard to find a group of people that has not yet heard of Christianity. But many who hear the gospel of Jesus Christ do not convert to Christianity. Like most Jews in the first century, modern-day Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others know a lot about Christianity but choose not to abandon their own religious traditions for ours.

One reason perhaps is that we Christians sometimes do not offer convincing witness to the love and grace of Jesus Christ. Too often, we are bitterly divided against each other. We engage in sectarian battles such that our divisive and sometimes hateful actions toward each other speak louder than our words about love, grace, and salvation in Christ. Who would want to join such a dysfunctional family? Too often, we provide a counter witness to the gospel.

Another reason, perhaps, is that we see in a mirror dimly; we know now only in part, as 1 Corinthians 13:12 says. The God of all Creation, the God who sent Christ into the world to save us all, is the same God who created the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus, Buddhists and all other religions. Religious diversity has always been part of the natural order, and it remains so today. As Cardinal Kasper has said, perhaps only at the end of time will the reasons for so many different religions be made clear to us all. Until then we Christians will continue to live with the mystery of this remarkable variety at the same time that we claim our own salvation in Christ.

Perhaps a third reason is that God wants us to learn to live in community with each other, growing together in our separate faith traditions. I have had the privilege of being in a number of formal and informal dialogue groups with people of other religions. I engage with them in the only way I know how: as a person who embraces salvation through Jesus Christ. In strange and wonderful ways, my encounters with people of other faiths have revealed Christ's love to me anew and deepened my own convictions as a follower of the gospel. I have rediscovered through these experiences more of the wide wonders and profound mystery of God's good creation.

For example, a Hindu friend taught me an important lesson in evangelism when she implored me to speak more boldly about my experiences of the power of Christ's saving grace. During our conversations, I had honored her religious commitment, for which she was deeply grateful, but I had also failed to express the passion of my own. She wanted to know the fullness of my salvation story, why I need Jesus. My friend is still Hindu, and I am still Christian. Yet, we both grasp more of our own and each other's faith journey because we dared to explore together our different convictions.

From a Unitarian friend helping to raise Jewish stepchildren, I learned the importance of honoring others' religious traditions within families, a process that in this case helped to deepen the faith journeys of the children, parents, and grandparents.

The unceasing prayers, not only of Christian but also Bahai, Hindu and Muslim friends, proved to be crucial during years of our daughter's difficult health problems. These experiences gave me new understandings of intercessory prayer and those wonderful verses from Romans 8 that "neither death, nor life ...nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers...nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God..."

Being open to faith journeys of those from other religious traditions is tender and tough territory today, just as it was in the first century. If done well, the rewards for navigating it can be extraordinary. The practical outcomes for communities are also powerful. We live in a deeply religious nation where Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others share the same neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, supermarkets, and university campuses. Across America, very different faith traditions increasingly bump into each other in small towns and big cities alike. How can we ensure that our inevitable encounters will enrich our communities, not destroy them?

Emory's recent visitor, Cardinal Kasper, says that people of different faith traditions "should stand shoulder to shoulder as partners, and--in a world where the glimmer of hope has grown faint--together...strive to radiate the light of hope without which no human being and no people can live."[2]  

Jesus teaches Christians to love our neighbors, to seek to live in community with them. In an era of considerable inter-religious conflict, not unlike the first century when Paul encountered Cornelius, I hope that pastors and other Christian leaders will model how we can creatively and productively encounter believers of other faith traditions. The health and well-being of our communities, our country's democratic traditions, and peace with justice across the globe depend on it.

Will you join me in prayer. 

God, we discover anew everyday the wide wonders of your great creation and all the mysteries of all the people whom we encounter in our neighborhoods and in our churches and across the world.  Lead us to be open to the experience that Christ can be made anew and afresh in our faith journey through people who are very different from us.  In Christ's name we pray this.  Amen.


[1] Matthew L. Skinner, "Acts," in Theological Bible Commentary by Gail R. O'Day and David L. Petersen, editors. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

[2] Walter Kasper, "The Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews: A Crucial Endeavour of the Catholic Church," Boston College, 6 November 2002.