Learning to live side by side: Being Christian in a multifaith world

By Richard P. Olson

The need for personal relationships with those of other faiths and a deeper understanding of one another’s faith and heritage grows more urgent by the day.

Persons commit vicious and violent acts, often claiming that their faith motivates them to do so. Suspicion of one another grows, and retaliation takes on various shapes and forms. Public policies are developed based on our worst suspicions of the other — policies about military engagement, immigration practices and more. Persons with certain characteristics and suspected countries of origin are subjected to more restrictions and searches on airlines. Places of worship are vandalized. Students, even grade-school students, and workers are viewed with suspicion and possibly harassment when another public bombing or other attack occurs.

We all need to learn to think clearly about who is responsible for such events and, even more importantly, who is not. As we consider the fast-changing religious scene of our day, we need to explore Christlike ways of relating and conversing with others, be they people of different religious faiths, those in the rapidly growing ranks of “spiritual-but-not-religious” (SBNRs), or other Christians (including other Baptists!), who may disagree quite strongly with our own beliefs.

We need to get to know one another, to form authentic relationships, to build the rudiments of trust. I seek to do so as a Christian, molded by Jesus’ love for me and for the world and striving to follow his example and teachings. As I read the Gospels anew, seeking to see Jesus in his own interreligious world — a brand new vantage point for me — I find passages jumping out at me, leading me to new insights. I now see Jesus teaching, healing and providing food for people from wide geographical areas. He responded caringly to persons from other backgrounds, including a Roman centurion, a Canaanite woman and a Samaritan woman — all from groups with long histories of political and religious conflict with Jews.

I believe and hope we are moving into a new day of interfaith conversation. As these inspiring people show us, it is much more fruitful when persons of varying faith traditions deal forthrightly with our differences as well as our commonalities and what we can do together. I would hope that we would be free to tell each other not only the external details of our heritages but also how these faith traditions enrich our lives, touch our hearts and transform us. As Irenaeus of Lyons said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

Questions to Ask, Steps to Take

When we move beyond polite generalities to more genuine encounter, at least three questions emerge: (1) How should I relate to my neighbors of different faiths, and how do I initiate such conversations? (2) How should I think about these neighbors and their beliefs and practices? (3) What impact does this have on me and my faith journey?

The place to begin is basic: to reaffirm the principle of religious liberty for all in our country — the right to believe and to practice the religion of one’s choice. This also includes the right to choose not to practice any religion as well. This liberty is part of our American and our Christian DNA, especially as American Baptists.

Commitment to religious freedom is an important foundation, but it is equally important to build on that foundation. Intentional dialogue is an important way to start that process of building. As a prologue to such conversations, it is important to learn the scope of the religious, cultural and ideological diversity in our communities. Before we ask and look, this variety may be invisible to us. As much as possible, it is wise for both (or all) faith groups to plan and lead interfaith events and conversations.

Every community has its unique challenges and opportunities, so be sensitive and selective about embarking on any interfaith journey. You might initiate dialogue on an individual level, through informal fellowship with neighbors or meeting the parents of a child’s classmates. Or the dialogue may be more formally designed, such as local synagogue-church events in your community or interfaith conversations at the regional or national level with the denomination. Formally or informally, consider sharing a meal together, and feature foods and table rituals that are distinct to the culture and religion of the host. And around the table, consider beginning conversation with simple curiosity about the other and his or her world, and then progress to such questions as:

  • What is your faith tradition?
  • Do you have a local faith community in which you participate?
  • What are the special holidays you celebrate in your tradition, and how do you observe them?
  • What ceremonies do you have around rites of passage — birth, initiation of children into your faith tradition, weddings and death?

These are but examples of friendly door-openers to deeper discussions and more significant encounters — such as attending worship services of other faiths.

This brings us to the second set of questions: If I have truly and deeply entered into this dialogue, how do I respond to what I have heard? How should I think about my dialogue partners, their beliefs, rituals and practices? What are my feelings? As much as possible, it is important to engage in this interfaith dialogue with an open heart and an open mind. What did I see to admire, or possibly to imitate? Also, what is strange or hard to understand and accept?

Changes can happen when dialogue occurs. I recall taking a multicultural class of students (including several African Americans) to a Friday evening Shabbat service at a Reform synagogue. This was a first-time experience for all the students. The service was in January, near Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the rabbi spoke of King as one of God’s prophets whose message was needed to address the economic injustices of the present day. The service concluded with the cantor inviting us to join hands with those around us and sing “We Shall Overcome.” After the service, we spoke with an informed layperson, who responded to our questions about the worship we had experienced, about Judaism and about the commitments of this congregation.

I saw the students change. Teachable but skeptical students began the evening wondering the reason for the field trip. Afterward, they had a new view and different questions to ponder.

When have you had an interfaith encounter such as my students had? What was your experience of the event? Was it boring and bland, with people speaking in generalities, or was it interesting and spirited, with a frank and lively exchange? Which of the suggestions for growing in interfaith experience have you already undertaken? Which of the other suggestions intrigue and invite you? What are your thoughts about building interreligious conversations and understanding — and why?

Excerpted and adapted from Richard P. Olson’s “Side by Side: Being Christian in a Multifaith World” (Judson Press, 2018). Used by permission of the publisher. To order, visit judsonpress.com or call 1–800–4-JUDSON.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.