What the study of other religions has done to my Christian faith

Derek Christensen
Sunday, 26 April 2009



The very first time I ever gave a sermon was in 1960. I was a first year student at University and one of the subjects I was studying was philosophy and this passage caught my eye because we had studied the Stoics and Epicureans in class. So nearly 50 years later I come back to it but for a very different purpose.



Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and after receiving instructions to have Silas and Timothy join him as soon as possible, they left him. While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, "What does this babbler want to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities." (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?) It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means."


Acts 17:15-20


Had interesting time last term – teaching World Religions to a 5th form class at Kings College. Friend was appointed assistant chaplain but didn’t start till this week so was asked to help fill in the gap.


I have always had a fear of the school classroom, and the thought of being locked up for 24 spells of 50 minutes with a bunch of rich and privileged 5th formers was a scary thought – adult education, that’s my life but once they go into short pants, then I opt out. But I now have an official certificate to say I was a registered teacher – for all of 10 weeks.


But it was a great experience and I have formed a very favourable opinion of Kings – treated me well, welcomed me and the class was a lot of fun.


I want to talk with you about the subject of world religions. I have taught it for the last 15 years and the more I teach it, the more I believe it is a valuable part of the way Christians handle life round about us.


Paul in Athens was deeply interested in the religious opinions of those there, the philosophers, the various schools of thought and he could handle the interaction with them.


So let me spend a few minutes sharing something of my own journey in this subject.


Let me preface with a few remarks:


1) Today it is trendy to engage in dialogue, to exercise tolerance and to explore the fascinating world of other people’s beliefs. And the media has a love affair with people who opt out of Christianity and into other belief systems, no matter how weird they are, like the article in the Herald a few years ago about a top business entrepreneur who went to live on Waiheke Island and spent significant time trying to listen to the wisdom of an ancient American Indian spirit whom he believed to be dwelling in him.


Christians on the other hand are in trouble for still wanting to convert others. This is seen as intolerant, uncool and decidedly anything but post modern.


And the other big thing is dialogue – sitting down with people of all sorts of beliefs and sharing those beliefs on the premise that all of them are equally valid.


Well I don’t know if I am going to disappoint you or reassure you but at the outset I need to say that I remain a convinced Christian of a totally orthodox variety. I remain committed to sharing my faith with others. I have been deeply involved in the world of missions at both local and international level


2) Let me add something else that is also important.


Baptists began with a desire for religious freedom. Their origins lay not in the method of baptism they practised, which didn’t change for quite a while after their founding, but in the reality of religious restrictions in the England of King James – Authorised Version James. A small group went to Holland and formed a church there under the leadership of John Smyth and when he died, a congregation came back and formed in London led by Thomas Helwys. Now he was a brave man because he dared to say that even the King was subject to God and for that was thrown in the Tower of London where he died. But he also believed in religious tolerance, that everyone should have the right to believe as they chose.


He wrote a famous statement to the effect that Jews, Papists, (Roman Catholics), heretics, and Turks (by which he meant Muslims) all had the right to hold to their faith without being threatened with violence or coercion.


So here I am, a convinced evangelical who still believes in evangelism, a conservative believer who still believes in God and the Bible and the resurrection and miracles and all the rest, wanting to tell you I have also learnt something from teaching about other religions.


The Bible brings the whole thing to a head in the passage in Romans 3 which in effect is asking, “What is God going to do with those who have never heard the good news?” And I am really swinging it round the other way to ask, ‘Do those who have never heard, offer any challenge to people like me who have heard?’


So I had better get on with it.


Four things I want to share with you.


1) Other religions all demonstrate the incredible drive inside us to discover the ultimate truth about human life and about what controls and affects life.


It fascinates me just how many ways there are globally of describing what people believe about God. And yet all of them point towards this incredible desire to find Him. There are very few societies in the world with no belief system at all and the modern fad of atheism, hitting the best seller lists at the moment with people like Richard Dawkins, is outside the mainstream of human history. So when I meet someone who has a totally different way of explaining things, I share with that person a common desire to find the truth – which means I need to respect and acknowledge that for them and just how important it is. I cannot spray about words like ‘ignorant’ and ‘primitive’ and ‘darkened understanding’ just because their search has taken a different track to mine.


Just a passing reflection on the way, it seems to me that the more we become entangled in consumerism, the less we actually deal with ultimate questions – but that’s another question for another time.


2) I am challenged by the way in which almost all of the other religions touch the whole of life in a way Christianity often fails to do.


Most of them offer a way of seeing the whole of life – behaviour domestic and public, worldview, ways of explaining the universe. The older I get the more I am bothered about the fact so many Christians actually live life with a little box called ‘faith’ which kicks in on Sunday and in crisis and the rest of the time it is almost impossible to tell the Christian from the average Kiwi who makes no special claim to faith.


Yes, there are plenty of nominal believers in other religions, of course there are. But the fascinating thing to me is that it is a lot easier to strike up a significant conversation with people of other religions than it is with the average Kiwi or even the average Christian. It is partly western privatism but also a carry over from Christendom, the belief we live in a Christian society when in fact most of the drivers of our behaviour and culture come from elsewhere.


3) I find as I study other religions, it makes me explore and clarify exactly what I believe as I see beliefs expressed in totally different ways – because I cannot challenge the views of another until I am clear about my own.


I am bothered by the way so many people engage in what they think is mission without ever stopping to think about what others really believe. For example people want to rush off to talk with Muslims and explain God in terms of the Trinity when there is nothing more offensive to a Muslim. But ask the average Christian to give a coherent explanation of the Trinity and it is a different matter.


Or again with Muslims, why do we think Jesus is the Son of God when they don’t, when they mention him many times in the Koran and believe him to be a great prophet. It makes me examine why I consider Jesus to be in fact both human and divine.


Or look to the Buddhist and Hindu views of reincarnation. Being Christian means being twice born so how do I explain this to those who expect there to be many thousands of rebirths?


In the class I have been teaching, the students never hesitated to ask, “Why do you still believe in this Jesus?” and I had the freedom to tell them and the challenge to revisit that question for myself.


4) I am challenged by the way other religions incorporate community issues as well as personal, not just as a faith community but as a total society. They easily see the link between their faith and the way their nation lives.


What does it mean to be community? We talk a great deal as Christians about the faith community but we often don’t understand what that means. So when I see the way Islam has used its faith system to rebuild nationhood and unite communities and provide a common path for social behaviour, I am challenged. I strongly disagree with many of the forms this has taken but I also find Christianity weak and insipid so often when we go public. I remember man at airport praying with mat facing Mecca – along with millions of others worldwide and I have rarely seen Christians so natural and unashamed in expressing that commonality.


Or go to a Sikh gurdwara and be invited as of right to the common meal afterwards. Or look at Ratana and see the way in which it expects to have an impact on the direction of the Maori people. Or see the Hindus at Diwali, an incredibly diverse nation but in these moments knowing something of community. I look at the Christian easter and find most Christians making more holiday plans than worshipping community plans and find even pastors now expecting to have the weekend off because everyone else does.


So I have found these and other features to have been part of my journey in looking at other faiths. I have grown in my understanding of the belief systems of others, found them at times challenging and fascinating, far deeper than I ever thought and within themselves, surprisingly consistent.


I have been challenged to re-examine my own faith and have had to go through point by point at times to have a good answer for why I hold what I do.


And if you want to ask the obvious question and ask why I remain a Christian instead of slipping into a blur of smorgasborg beliefs, I have also rediscovered that one at a new depth. And it is a very simple answer – a child’s answer, an obvious answer, yet the answer that Karl Barth gave in the face of a similar challenge. Jesus loves me this I know.


I find nothing like Jesus in any other faith. I find no relationship to compare with relationship with him. I find no blend of both history and faith that matches encounter with Jesus. I find no picture of God anything like that which I find in the Son. And I find no solution to my own human weakness and failure and sinfulness like I find as I look at Jesus.


I am glad indeed I chose to teach this subject because it was left completely up to me what subjects I developed in the curriculum. It has been a great journey and I commend it to any Christian who wants to live authentically in a multicultural setting and who wants to be both challenged and strengthened in their own faith.