By: Ron Low Kheng Onn, October, 2018
It has been said that one should have at least a Master of Divinity (MDiv) if one were to advance on to further studies in CPE. Ministering to others of differing faiths means having a compassionate understanding of such faiths, many of which may challenge or contradict our own spiritual beliefs. Granted that this logic is sound, but what of those who may not yet have the opportunity to gain a MDiv? What might then be a ‘proper’ perspective on one’s own religion and ministering to people of other faiths?
This brief reflection assumes that pastoral givers reading this comes from a Judeo-Christian religious background, the foundation for many perspectives to pastoral care. This reflection also summarizes some of my theological struggles as an evangelical Christian in my journey into CPE since 2012.
- It’s a relationship with God
If religion is understood to be the sum total of rituals, creeds and beliefs that govern our behaviour, then Christianity is all these but above all a relationship with God that transforms our lives for the better such as loving God AND loving other people. It is a sad observation that many who profess to be Christians could be the most judgmental, unkind and narrow-minded people around. They may even be very knowledgeable about the Bible and spiritual matters but are extremely unlike-able. By comparison, some of other faiths may seem far wiser and compassionate.
I conclude that people who profess to be Christians may just be Christians in name only but are either lacking a relationship with God or lacking a holistic growth in their spirituality. Jesus himself warns against false Christians: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). John says, “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
A relationship with God means he can be both active in our lives (we can detect his involvement in our lives) and interactive with us (we can communicate with him and he with us). I think of a friend who was on her way to a career in music in the USA, but had fallen in love with a man who was bound for Africa as a bible translator. As she sought guidance, she read Jesus’ words “You follow me” in John 21:22, and concluded that it was God’s will for her to give up her dream and follow that man to Africa. Her parents did not take kindly to her decision. One week later a visiting speaker spoke on John 21, and challenged the audience with these words, “Perhaps there are some parents here whose children have been called to missionary work, but you are not willing to let them go with your blessings.” This was too much of a coincidence and the family had peace that it was God speaking and being involved in their lives.
- It’s all true – not a blind faith!
I must quickly add that people of other faiths could have equally spectacular instances of spiritual intervention. I read of a man who had trouble with his wife and subsequently his relationship with his children. He had many vices and could not hold on to a job for long. Then someone invited him to a prayer meeting whereupon he began to pray fervently several hours a day. His life began to improve – he was reconciled with his family, he landed a good paying job and he began to experience freedom from vices. This kind of testimony sounds very much like those commonly heard in evangelical circles, but this man had not become a Christian. He had become an adherent of a Buddhist sect. Thus apparent relationships with a supernatural power is not unique to Christianity. However, only Christianity is deeply rooted in history. Hinduism is so ancient its origins are lost in antiquity; take away history from Buddhism and Islam and these faiths will not be badly affected. If history is removed from Christianity however, then it is reduced to fable and it loses credibility.
This is because one of its unique claims is that the Creator of the universe has visited us many times, with the most spectacular being his coming into this world as a human being himself. The theologian C. S. Lewis sums it up this way, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” I am aware this is a vexing topic for both believers and non-believers. See for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis%27s_trilemma.
The topic of the deity of Jesus Christ brings joy and hope to many, while it provokes vehement denial or even violence in others. The former usually leads believers to see life and reality along the lines of ‘true’ or ‘false.’ Perhaps a striking example is seen in two domes of similar sizes in Jerusalem: the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which sits on the site of the alleged tomb of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Muslim Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount a short distance away, upon which is inscribed a verse from the Quran denying the deity of Christ. Both claims cannot be true at the same time. Despite the world’s post-modern philosophical leanings, to say that all religions lead us to the same god is a travesty of logic. This is especially so in our time of history, where one religion implies another is false, while the other declares the other (together with its adherents) must be destroyed.
I hold to the deity of Jesus Christ, but even so I could choose to respect the beliefs of others. I believe that since it is the supernatural power of God that convinces one of the deity of Christ, I can leave the work of conviction to God. In the meantime I can respect a fellow human being as one who is made in the image of my God. For the God I believe in “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” I can choose to imitate the big-heartedness of this God.
- All truth is God’s truth
The evangelical Christian believes that the Bible is the inspired word of God; hence all truths necessary for spiritual understanding have been revealed in the Bible. This does not negate the fact that it requires diligence to understand the Bible correctly and thus ongoing study will be a lifelong pursuit of the follower of Christ. It is not necessary to think that the Bible is the only source of wisdom. Indeed, the wisdom books of the Bible seem to draw partly on the wisdom of the ancient civilizations and encourages readers to ponder deeply instead of simply taking things at face value. This is because the Bible can be seen as Jewish meditation literature. For a quick introduction, see for example https://thebibleproject.com/videos/bible-jewish-meditation-literature-h2r/
This frees me to explore all of God’s world, including the beliefs of other people who do not hold to Christian beliefs. Since God has made himself known to others through many ways, I can expect wisdom to be found in diverse places. A well-made movie, a story from the Mahabharata and even someone’s experience – all these can be places where I can learn something that adds to my wisdom. As such nothing needs to be taboo to me unless it is evidently something that is not life-giving to me.
- We are not all there yet
It was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher who reportedly said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Our human experience is bitter sweet – we all go through experiences where we become broken and wounded. Our hearts are filled with the same longings for happiness and fulfilment. This is our common humanity, even as I believe all human beings are made in the image of their Creator, whether they believe in him or not. It is our common humanity that can become a bridge where I can walk across and connect with my brother or sister.
This does not mean everyone is ‘safe’ for me. The ancient tale of Cain and Abel informs me some people choose to kill and destroy. Cain, the Bible says, “was of the evil one and murdered his brother.” Yet the same Bible tells of the Apostle Paul who was transformed from persecutor to proclaimer of the gospel. There was also the apostle Judas who became a traitor. Thus everyone is on the move in a human journey – perhaps towards life or towards perdition or swinging this way or that. As a pastoral care giver I choose to be both wise and compassionate, believing that by doing so I hope to nudge people towards life. The 1985 song Say You, Say Me has these words:
As we go down
Life’s lonesome highway
Seems the hardest thing to do
Is to find a friend or two.
That helping hand
Someone who understands
That when you feel you lost your way
You’ve got someone there to say,
“I’ll show you.”
My baser instinct rebels against having compassion for others, but compassion will be a benchmark of my faith: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
Ron Low served as a missionary in the Philippines for 19 years. He and his wife Sharon now reside in Malaysia happily assisting others in their journey into self-awareness and spirituality. Their three children have flown the nest. Ron has a Master of Divinity from the International Graduate School of Leadership.