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What About Other Religions?
May 5, 1996

ROMANS 2:1-16

What about other religions? We have just sung, Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, a quote from Philippians 2:10-11; but, what about other religions? Not too many years ago, other religions were far away somewhere, hardly part of our daily existence; but, not so anymore. In Livingston, Merced County, there is now a Hindu temple. Sikh students wearing ceremonial knives cause quite a commotion in our schools. Non-Christian Hmongs sacrifice animals. Other religions are now our next-door neighbors. Muslims in the United States outnumber Episcopalians and may soon outnumber Jews. There are now over one million Buddhists and over one million Hindus in the United States.

As I pointed out in the sermon two weeks ago about American Indians, the traditional Christian stance towards religions and people who are different has been adversarial. Pope Alexander VI told the Spanish and Portuguese to convert natives and, if they refused to be converted, conquer, enslave, or exterminate them. Protestant missionaries treated people of other religions as objects to be converted. Believing we are superior, we adopted an adversarial stance. But, we are now neighbors. Protestants and Catholics used to gather in their own neighborhoods and treat the other as adversaries, but, thank God, we have broken through those walls. Now, what about other religions?

In contrast to the traditional adversarial stance, some Christians have jumped to the other end of the spectrum and have adopted a melt-down stance. This popular, secular theology goes like this. You've probably heard it. "There are many roads that lead to God. Christianity is one of the roads. As long as you are sincere and live a good life, one religion is as good as another." This stance melts all religions down into inoffensive mush, with sincerity as the criterion of a true worshiper. But, what about those who are sincerely wrong? I suspect Hitler was quite sincere.

With adversarial on one hand, and melt-down mush on the other, let me suggest an alternative stance for Christians to take toward other religions. For Your Reflection in the bulletin this morning, I quoted Floyd H. Ross who taught World Religions at Claremont Theological Seminary.

The Christian mission today involves bearing witness to a profound search for living truth which can never be confined within any language, theological or nontheological, Christian or non-Christian. Certainly no one of us is qualified to preside in that search. Each can only hope to be a concerned participant.

Ross is assuming that our Christian tradition has no monopoly on either the truth or on God. God is far bigger than our traditions, theology, and experience. Ross urges us as Christians to be participants in the search for living truth. No one of us qualified to preside. Would you agree to the Pope presiding? Or Pat Robertson? Or United Methodist bishops? Or the Ayatolla? No, there is no one qualified to preside, no superior/inferior relationship. We are participants with the great world religions.

But, what about the Bible verses that point us to exclusivism? Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. There is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved. I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me, which is recorded in the gospel of John. John was written almost 100 years after Jesus lived, and probably reflects more of the church's stance at that time than Jesus. I suspect Jesus was not nearly as exclusive as his followers. Remember how disturbed his disciples were about the stranger who was imitating them? Jesus said to leave him alone. Whoever is not against us is with us, Jesus said (Mark 9:40). Jesus also said, (John 10:16) I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.

But, remember what the church was going through when they declared Jesus to be the Only Way. Christians were being persecuted for their faith. They were being forced to worship the Roman emperor. In such a context, there was no comparison between Caesar is Lord and Jesus is Lord.

No doubt the early Christians had no opportunity to know any Buddhists or Hindus, and the Muslim religion was not yet born. The religions of the Roman Empire were Emperor worship and mystery cults, none of which reached the stature of Buddhism or Hinduism. Even so, Paul realized that God was bigger than either Judaism or Christianity. In the lesson read today, Paul wrote, (Romans 2:14-15)

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witnesss.

In other words, because one God created and is creating, people are similar. God's law is written in the hearts and consciences of all people. There is a common ethic in the major world religions. Something like the Golden Rule is taught almost universally, hardly practiced universally, probably as little as it is by Christians; but Treat others as you would like to be treated is taught as the ideal. There are many deeply spiritual non-Christians who live exemplary lives. Mahatma Ghandi, a Hindu, was truly a spiritual giant. We Christians have no monopoly on truth. We Christians have no monopoly on spirituality or morality. We Christians can learn a great deal about God from other religions.

We Christians must renounce the adversarial stance toward other religions, renounce the melt-down-into-mush stance which belittles all religions, and not only participate with other religions in the search for living truth, but enter into partnership with them to save this earth. The global problems that face humankind with the environment, moral decay, injustice, and war take more than just Christians to solve. We need each other. Let's enter into partnership with other religions.

And within the partnership, as committed Christians, we share our faith. Christian missionaries go in the name of Christ to feed the hungry, heal the sick, teach the children, and seek justice around the world. As we minister in Christ's name, we tell our story. We tell them about Jesus, share our faith, tell them how we have found God through Jesus, how we have experienced the love of God through Jesus. As partners with other religions, we don't hide our faith. We gladly share, and we gladly listen to their stories. Together we will enrich each other's experience.

John Wesley, Methodism's founder, once said, If your heart is right, give me your hand. I'm sure he was talking about Christians; but, he like Paul, did not know any Buddhists or Hindus or American Indians. It's a different world today. The globe is small. We are now neighbors, not adversaries.

Don't be afraid of other religions. Don't attack other religions. Don't feel superior to other religions. Reach out in love. Reach out in partnership to tackle the problems that threaten us all. Reach out and share your love of Jesus. It takes strong Christians today to be partners with other religions.

© 1996 Douglas I. Norris