*This a personal reflection paper I wrote for my Religion class. I think it poses some big ideas and conversations, particular in terms of how Christianity interacts with other religions.*
I am Brethren in Christ. I was born and raised in a Christian home, and family. Growing up, being a Christian had no real impact on my life, apart from what adults and older Christians told me it should mean. I was not even sure what it meant to be Brethren in Christ, but because that was how I was brought up, I believed it was “right”. I got baptized when I thought I should, and I went to a Christian weekly summer camp for many years. I read the Bible because I was told to. I went to church because I was supposed to. I prayed because I thought I had to. I was a Christian, and lived a Christian life, because I thought that was what was expected of me. In a sense, I was a Christian by name only.
It wasn’t until high school that I began to develop a deeper and more profound understanding of my faith or what it truly meant to be a Christian. It was during this time that my shallow, surface-level faith was challenged. I had issues with friends, my first major break-up, and it was my first real time interacting with people who didn’t share my beliefs. In middle school, I had the tendency to fall in “Bible Thumper” mode, and approached non-believers angrily and with eternal damnation. But high school allowed me the opportunity to engage in, and eventually lead the Christian group at school. It presented me the opportunity to make friends with other students who weren’t religious, or who didn’t share my religious beliefs. It was in high school, I believe, that my identity as a Christian became more personal and more meaningful.
When college started, I was given the opportunity to take an introductory class in Philosophy. This class began the process of developing my new religious identity. It challenged my faith through the lens of philosophy, examining the world without God. The year after, I took a class on world religions. I am fascinated by other religions, and their connections with Christianity. It was in this class that I read the Qur’an for the first time, and was able to examine the religion apart from what I read or heard in the news. For the final project in the class, I went to a Jewish synagogue. Though the service I experienced was a Friday night Shabbat bar mitzvah service (and not an ordinary service), I was introduced to a religion that had ties to my own, but was still very different. The new ideas from this class and the previous Philosophy class caused deep theological questions to rise to the surface; questions such as “Is there a possibility the God of Christianity is historically linked to the gods of other religions?” and “What proof do I have, apart from the Bible, to support my faith and beliefs?”.
I attempted to engage my friends in conversations exploring these questions, but no one seemed interested, and those that did engage with me were unable to separate emotions from reason. Eventually, I became aware of the ignorance of modern Christians. I pride myself in being knowledgeable, in terms of the Bible and general theology, and even in terms of other religions. But in taking this class, Religious Diversity in America, my eyes have been opened to my ignorance. It is not a comfortable feeling when faced with personal ignorance. I am marginally aware of what separates Protestants from Catholics, and I am even less aware of what differentiates Brethren in Christ from the other denominations. When challenged, I know very little theology or doctrine, and I fumble with Biblical information. My knowledge of Christian and Biblical history is greater, but still small. It has become apparent that in my sphere of church and friends, I am knowledgeable, but in terms of the world, I am embarrassingly ignorant.
I am hungry for Biblical knowledge and historical context. I want to know how the Christian story lines up with history. I desire to know the Bible and my beliefs and theology so well, that I am able to stand against any question posed to me. But currently, I am frustrated with the surface-level faith of the Christians in my life. I am yearning to crack open the Word of God and study it with vigor, but my peers aren’t interested in do so, and there is no Bible study group offered at my church that could satisfy this desire. I want to engage in theological and historically religious conversations, but few will engage with me. I am surrounded by stagnation, and very few people are interested in growing.
Coupled with this growing frustration, is an increasing understanding of other religions. I have developed a new perspective on how the different world religions interact and work together. In the past year, I have come to the conclusion that people have the different beliefs they do, because of how they understand the world. I began to understand this concept the best in terms of the most recent political election, but I’m beginning to learn that this concept applies to every aspect of life, including religion. As a Christian, I believe that God created every person with the unique ability to think and understand for themselves, and because of this, people believe different things.
I recently finished Jesus Among Other Gods (1998) by Ravi Zacharias. I have been able to see him speak, and he has quickly become one of my favorite theological and apologist speakers and writers. His words always inspire me to strengthen my faith, and encourage me to wrestle with how Christianity works with, and views, other religions. In his book, he captures my ideas towards pluralism. He writes, “Pluralistic cultures are beguiled by the cosmetically courteous idea that sincerity or privilege of birth is all that counts and that truth is subject to the beholder” (Zacharias, 1998). He also writes, “Anyone who claims that all religions are the same not only betrays an ignorance of all religions but also a caricatured view of even the best-known ones. Every religion is at its core exclusive” (Zacharias, 1998). I am a Christian because I believe Christian doctrine and theology is correct and makes sense. However, in understanding the world, I need to recognize that others hold their beliefs in the same way. I do not personally claim that other religious beliefs are true; I simply acknowledge the beliefs are true to those that believe them.
This idea is in stark contrast to the pluralistic view I adopted at the beginning of the semester. Diana Eck, in her book A New Religious America (2001), writes, “And I have found that only as a Christian pluralist could I be faithful to the mystery and the presence of the one I call God. Being a Christian pluralist means daring to encounter people of very different faith traditions and defining my faith not by its borders, but by its roots” (Eck, 2001). I agreed with this quote, because I value the diversity of other religions, and I do believe that, by encountering other religions, my own faith is strengthened. However, as the semester as progressed, I have begun to feel the tension of pluralism against my Christian beliefs. I began to question how I could, as a Christian, live with other religions, and not try to share the Gospel and aim to convert. I began to wrestle with pluralism, struggling with the idea of accepting all religions as equal and “right”, for the sake of peacefully living together.
I am a Christian because, apart from growing up in a religious home, no other religion satisfactorily answers the deepest questions I have about life and the universe. Also, I wouldn’t be a Christian if I didn’t believe it was right and true. However, it would be both ignorant and arrogant of me to assume that people that hold different religious beliefs than me, do not view their beliefs in the same way. I am beginning to support the notion of “co-exist”, because I lean towards pluralistic ideas. I have a friend who understands “co-existing” to mean to accept other religions as valid and true religions. But I don’t agree. I see “co-exist” as a recognition of other people and their beliefs, understanding that they hold as true to their beliefs as I do to mine, but I do not recognize those beliefs as true.
The Bible makes it clear that Christians are to share the Gospel, and to aim to convert people to Christianity. I aim to do this, but because I am lean towards pluralistic views, I “co-exist” with the aim to convert. My ideas about sharing the Gospel and “being a fisher of men” has changed. I believe in the importance of understanding people, and taking the time to get to know and develop a relationship with them, before purposefully trying to convert them. I am a huge proponent in silent, or gentle conversion. I believe in relationships over “first impression conversions”, and I understand the power of simply “planting a seed”.
I wear religious shirts, and in my dorm room, I have my Bible and many religious books on my shelf. I have not bring these books to my roommates’ attention, nor have I started religious conversations with them. I have let the very presence of these books alert my roommates’ to my beliefs. One of my roommates recently, simply from seeing these books and having an idea of who I am and where my beliefs lie, told me a story of a religious encounter her sister had. My roommate, at the conclusion of the story, told me that she thought it was something I would like. I had believed that this situation stood as a testament for living my faith, “co-existing” with other people, but still setting the stage for conversion.
At one point in this semester, I believed that these books and this story were enough to live and exist with other religions. But now, I am again feeling the tension of my internal awakenings and new religious beliefs and hunger, against my subtle almost surface-level faith. I hadn’t realized that what I perceived to be “co-existing”, wasn’t truly living and existing with other religions. Apart from writings on my blog and my thoughts, I allow other religions to interact with me, without stepping out of my comfort zone, to interact with other people. I write bold blog posts about my hunger and desire for a renewed faith and about other religions, but in my daily life, God is absent. I do not talk about my faith with my roommates unless they broach the subject. I’m beginning to question why is there a disconnect between my thoughts, and my actions.
My present religious identity has changed significantly. On one hand, I want to learn more about my faith and my God than I have ever wanted before. But on the other hand, my faith is still surface level, not reaching past my comfort zone. Upon self-reflection, I hardly read my Bible, and I hardly pray. My spiritual life is lacking, where in contrast, my desire for a stronger bolder faith has grown. Coupled with that, is an increasing tension between pluralistic views, and a loyalty to my belief in Christianity. I am working to reconcile the idea that other religions are real to those who believe in them, with my desire to live a bold Christian life. I am becoming aware of how my religious and spiritual life has shifted back into the surface-level and comfortable, and I am beginning to address that. In conclusion, I believe that religious beliefs are like all long-held beliefs; they are not meant to be stagnant. They are supposed to grow and be challenged, and I am finding that with my current changing religious identity, my beliefs in God and Christianity are getting stronger.