Proselytizing in a Multi-Faith World
Five years ago, I found myself sitting in an interfaith meeting. Gracious people from different religions and denominations had gathered at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's headquarters in Chicago to plan the ongoing work of congregational research. The goal of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership was to bring together participants from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Baha'i, and Orthodox churches to research and compare our findings.
I was unsure whether I belonged at the meeting. In one session, the facilitator explained that the research should lead to cooperative resourcing to help all of our congregations. He suggested we could jointly create, publish, and distribute resources to help congregations in faith development and growth.
At the appropriate time, and with my best smile, I raised my hand and said something like this: "I appreciate the funding that allows us to survey our churches, and I think it is helpful to use similar questions and metrics for better research. But I am not here to form a partnership to help one another. I want to help the churches I serve, and part of the reason they exist is to convert some of you."
I paused, smiled, and worked hard not to sound menacing (it was probably too late). Some participants in the room looked at me as if I had just uttered a string of profanities. Others nodded in agreement. Then the Muslim imam seated next to me said, in effect, "I feel the same way."
Though the imam and I were in a minority in that group of predominantly liberal Protestants, we represented the movements among us that are actually growing in numbers. Both he and I believed in sharing and enlarging our faiths. We did not think we were worshiping the same God or gods, and we were not there under the pretense that we held the same beliefs. In other words, our goal was not merging faiths, combining beliefs, or even interfaith partnership.
The imam and I had a good laugh after the meeting. At the same time, we acknowledged that we were not of the same faith and, honestly, that we would each be overjoyed if we could bring the other to the truth—not just our truth but the truth, as we firmly believed it.
Without using the word, we were acknowledging that in such a context, we are multi-faith. When people of different faiths are found together, in a conference, neighborhood, or nation, they are best described as multi-faith, representing different faiths.
Worldwide trends indicate that multi-faith is both a current reality and our future. The number of people who claim adherence to the major world religions is growing. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and other post-Enlightenment thinkers predicted the death of God and the decline of religious belief over 100 years ago, but their predictions were premature. In fact, secular thinking has long embraced the idea that religion was the socio-political problem, not so much the solution.
If anything, "God is dead" has been replaced with "God is back." Economists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, an atheist and a Roman Catholic, wrote a fascinating book in 2008 with that title. In it they noted that while statistics about religious observance are notoriously untrustworthy, most surveys seem to indicate that the global drift toward secularism has halted. Quite a few surveys show religious belief to be on the rise. They reference one source that says that "the proportion of people attached to the world's four largest religions—Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism—rose from 67 percent in 1900 to 73 percent in 2005, and may reach 80 percent by 2025."