Magazine article The Christian Century

Faithful and Respectful

Magazine article The Christian Century

Faithful and Respectful

Article excerpt

THREE YEARS AGO, on the very first broadcast of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, the PBS program I host, we did a feature on a stretch of road outside Washington, D.C., that has been nicknamed the "Highway of Heaven." Side by side, block after block, is an amazing variety of new places of worship for Vietnamese Catholics, Korean Presbyterians, Cambodian Buddhists, Ukrainian Orthodox, Spanish Seventh-day Adventists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and, tucked away among all the newcomers, American Episcopalians too.

We had reported the location of all these new structures; still, viewers called and wrote asking, "Where is this Highway to Heaven? What country is it in?" We answered, "It is in the United States of America, just outside the nation's capital," and we could have added that there are highways like this now in almost every major American city.

It is true that nine out of ten Americans still identify themselves as Christians, but it is also true that the influences of globalization and the prevalence of immigrants, especially those from Asia and the Middle East, are making the U.S. religious scene stunningly diverse. This pluralism is colorful and interesting--no question about that. But it also raises, for me, perhaps the greatest challenge of all the thousand or more stories we have reported.

How do I remain committed to the truth of my own faith and, at the same time, learn to understand and respect the truths of others? Are there many paths up God's mountain, any one of which will lead to the summit? Is my path better than all the others? Or is mine the only one that goes all the way?

Chaim Potok wrote in The Book of Lights about two American rabbis, both army chaplains, in Japan during the Korean War. They passed a Japanese man praying devoutly beside a roadside shrine. One rabbi said to the other, "Do you think our God is listening to that man?" He went on, "If our God is not listening, what do we mean when we say 'God'? And if he is listening, what do we mean when we say `we'?"

In Christ's Great Commission, he said, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matt. 38:19). That is hardly ambiguous, and millions of Christians believe they must try to convert everyone else if they are to be true disciples themselves. But how can we do this without infuriating non-Christians? How can we be respectful of others and at the same time honor Jesus' assertion, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one cometh unto the Father but by me"? (John 14:6).

Last year the Southern Baptist Convention published a prayer guide to help SBC members convert Jews during their High Holy Days. The SBC explained that it was trying to do what Christ had taught, and that it was motivated by love of neighbor. But Jewish leaders were deeply offended: one of them said he would prefer "less love and more respect." The SBC has also published guides for the conversion of Muslims and Hindus, with similar reactions.

How can Christians carry out their duty to evangelize without provoking resentment, especially in a more and more pluralistic society? I have asked questions such as this of several of the people interviewed on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, and I have found their answers helpful. …

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