My recent conversation with the imam of our neighboring mosque in Fairfax brings back memories of an earlier interfaith encounter in the Philippines more than thirty years ago. My wife Ruth and I, with our three young children in tow, had taken a mission assignment and lived in the town of Los Banos, south of Manila. I became friends with the local Filipino pastor of the Church Among the Palms, a United Church of Christ congregation. Our family worshipped there and I was occasionally invited to preach the sermon.
Because the church was on the agricultural campus of the University of the Philippines and the International Rice Research Institute was nearby, there were frequent international researchers and students who regularly participated in our worship service. One Sunday, after the worship service, a man from Pakistan thanked me for my sermon. He told me that he was a Muslim who had great respect for Jesus.
My knowledge of Islam was so limited that I didn’t even know that Muslims revered Jesus as one of God’s prophets. My religious world was still quite narrow and it felt like a stretch (but liberating) to be actively involved in the life of a congregation from a different Christian denomination. I was still struggling to come to terms with the Catholic version of faith in this majority Catholic country. Many Protestants were sure that Catholics were not true Christians. Many Catholics, in turn, were sure theirs was the “one” true church. Now I had met a friendly Muslim who, at least in some respect, was a fellow follower of Jesus. I didn’t know how to put it together.
I now see that encounter as the beginning of my interfaith journey. Soon afterward, Norman Kraus, a Mennonite theologian who was on a mission assignment in Japan, arrived as a lecturer in the school where I was teaching. He was writing a theology book called Jesus Christ Our Lord that sought to incorporate Asian cultural sensibilities. We had various conversations and he introduced me to the short book Eastern Paths and the Christian Way by Paul Clasper. It became my first primer in interfaith relations.
Clasper identifies three different models for the encounter of faiths. One of the oldest and most persistent is the “dungeon.” People of other faiths are imagined to be living in a dungeon and need to be emancipated by faith in Jesus Christ. In a good sense, it draws on our own experience of faith and wishes to share it with others. (All religions have their own version of this model.) More problematically, it rarely has deep personal relations with people of other faiths. It often leads to a personal crisis of faith when we encounter people of other faith traditions whose lives display deep spiritual and social virtues as deep as or perhaps even deeper than our own.
Another model is the “round table.” It is genial, tolerant, and generally academic. All religions are considered to be basically the same—variations on the same theme. Clasper says that “this itself needs to be stated; because this is already a ‘faith stance,’ an attitude brought to the facts, not necessarily derived from them” (105).
Finally, there is the “friendship” model of passing over and coming back. It implies respect and deep sharing; the desire to understand each other on our own terms and in our own worlds. It involves the risks and rewards inherent in any friendship. Such friendship becomes the door to a promising different world. I will write more about this in a future blog.