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November 29, 2010Culture

Multifaith and the Global Faith Forum, Part 3

The Global Faith Forum 2010 was an opportunity to move from a conversation about other faiths, to a conversation with one another. This was a gathering unlike most of you have ever been to, where leaders with different faiths and worldviews came together to talk about how we can better understand and communicate with one another in the 21st century. From the website,

The Global Faith Forum brings together distinct and conservative bodies of faith for greater understanding, while facing our differences with grace and humility. Muslims, Jews, and Christians hold different beliefs about who Jesus and God is.

Below you can listen to my talk from the Forum, but I'm continuing this blog series (you can go back and read parts One and Two) by breaking down that talk so we can work through the ideas together.

GFF - Thu Evening Keynote from Northwood Church on Vimeo.

In Multifaith and the Global Faith Forum, Part 2 I argued that an interfaith approach to different religions is impossible because we all make absolute truth claims that conflict with one another. We looked at the four world religions that represent approximately 75 percent of the world's population, and saw that "according to the four largest world religions God does not exist, God is one with creation and takes on millions of forms, God is one, and God is trinity—One God in Three Persons."

Today I'd like us to work our way into the issue of coexisting with other religions while maintaining fidelity to the truth of God's word and his command to love our neighbors.

So, how do religions that are mutually exclusive exist side by side peacefully? In the spirit of multi-faith dialogue I would like to propose four foundational commitments that the followers of the world's religions could agree to make:

  • We commit to letting each religion speak for itself;
  • We commit to talking with and about individuals and not generic "faiths";
  • We commit to mutually respect the sincerely held beliefs of people in other religions, and
  • We commit to granting each person the freedom to make his or her own faith decisions.

What would that look like in practice? I would like to consider each proposal in depth.

First, in order for there to be healthy multi-faith dialogue, we must allow the followers of each of the world's religions to speak for themselves. Otherwise we are not responding to the actual beliefs of people but to caricatures of those beliefs—and there are plenty of those.

A friend of mine living in India had an interesting conversation with a Hindu about Islamic faith and practice. In all sincerity the Hindu stated, "As you know, Hindus worship cows and therefore we do not eat beef. Similarly, Muslims do not eat pork because they worship pigs." All of us know how false—even offensive—that assertion was.

What happened? How did this man get it so wrong? His mistake was trying to interpret what he saw in Islam through his Hindu worldview and he missed the point entirely. By thinking he understood Islam, the Hindu had actually insulted Muslims. Had he understood his error he would have been horrified—he was not being malicious; he was just ill-informed.

When we assume that we understand the worldview of another better than they understand it themselves, we get into all kinds of trouble. The same problem often occurs when some Muslims have tried to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. Across the globe Christians are often accused of worshipping three gods—God the Father, God the Mother and God the Son. In reality the idea that God would have a physical relationship with a woman and produce a child is as offensive to Christians as it is to Muslims. But instead of asking Christians what they actually believe, many people are content to get their understandings from non-Christians rather than going to the source.

Any good researcher will tell you that examination of the primary sources is vital to good research. If someone wants to understand Judaism, he should read the Talmud and visit a synagogue. The same applies to someone who wants to learn about Hinduism — talk to Hindus. Read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. To find out what is important to Muslims, don't watch biased news reports (whether liberal or conservative), but talk to your Muslim neighbors. And to understand the message of Christianity, read the Bible and meet with followers of Christ.

That is why, on a recent trip to London, I preached at Westminster Chapel on the need for Christians to be on mission to reach out to their neighbors. I brought pastors to help plant churches in communities of people without Christ. But, we also took the time to visit the largest Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) in England. I covered my head as a sign of respect, listened to the leaders, Granthi, as they read from the Guru Granth Sahib and prayed for those I met. It matters to learn from those of other faiths. And, we should not be afraid of this. If we believe (as I do) that we have found the truth (or in my case, the Truth has found me), then a mutual search for truth will lead people in the right direction. We ought not fear such.

But getting the facts straight is not enough. We would all benefit from gaining an understanding of the basic principles of cross-cultural communication—not misunderstanding (or misrepresenting) what others mean and how they came to the decisions they have made.

We need to learn to see the world as followers of other religions do. This is not as easy. And it does not mean agreeing with them or adopting their religion. But judging another culture using one's own patterns of "good" and "bad" leads to all sorts of misunderstanding.

So, in summary, to engage in multi-faith conversation is that we learn about each person's religion and culture from original sources. We should not learn from people who speak as if they know but in reality do not.

Jump into the comments to share your thoughts. Up next, how do we commit to talking with and about individuals and not generic "faiths?"

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Multifaith and the Global Faith Forum, Part 3