Soon, what it means to be Christian in America will be tied up with multi-faith witness.
I remember the experience vividly. I was sitting in my World Religions class at Northern Illinois University, watching a video about the Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca). As the light from the small television illuminated the dark classroom, I was captivated by the images on the screen. I saw men and women, in white robes, climbing a large hill in droves. As they reached the top, they turned their gaze to the sky in pride and wonder, some with tears streaming down their faces. Others began to prostrate together on the ground in prayer.
It was the first time I was exposed to the worship of another religious community. I was surprised by the displays of emotion and passion that they exhibited. In the evangelical Christian spaces that I dwelled in, I had grown accustomed to hearing that other religions were empty of power, unable to give worshippers the fulfillment that they desperately sought. Yet in seeing these vivid images on the screen, I was torn. My paradigm for understanding what other religions offered their members could not account for what I was seeing.
That evening, I got together with my mentor, a staff member of the evangelical campus ministry I attended. I was afraid to bring up my new dilemma, as I didn’t want to give the impression that I was questioning my faith. But I couldn’t shake it from my head; I was eager to get a second opinion about it. After explaining what I witnessed in the video that morning, I blurted out the question that had been troubling me more than anything: what gave me the right to say that my religion was right, and theirs was wrong? After all, I had never personally experienced the kind of emotion during worship that I saw from the Muslim pilgrims in the video.
I don’t remember exactly what my mentor said, to be honest. But I remember how I felt: that the matter was not nearly as important to him as it was to me, and that the answers to my questions were relatively simple and straightforward; it was best that I accepted those basic answers and moved on.
This missed opportunity had instant ramifications. For spring break that year, I led a group of students from the campus ministry to Panama City Beach, where our group’s primary task would be to share about Jesus Christ with other college students who were there to vacation. I don’t remember why, but at some point, I decided that I would devote my time to sharing Jesus with Muslim students. Looking back now, I cringe thinking about the way I treated them. I talked as if we had absolutely nothing in common; instead of listening authentically, I listened for information that I could contest; I asked loaded questions that originated from my naive assumptions. I walked away thinking that I had done my duty as a Christian.
Falling Backwards into the World Religions
A few years after graduating from NIU, I started teaching world religions courses at a community college in the Chicago suburbs. This wasn’t the plan; I applied in hopes that they would let me teach their Old or New Testament courses. But the opportunity forced me to reckon with my illiteracy toward other faiths. For the first few semesters, I was learning right along with my students! I was so insecure about being asked a question I couldn’t answer, that I essentially paraphrased entire textbook chapters in my PowerPoint slides (I wouldn’t recommend it).
Despite these early growing pains, I started to enjoy what I was learning and teaching. Even better, the community college was very diverse; in some classes, every major world religion was represented. This gave me the opportunity to build relationships with members of the religions I was learning about. I’ll never forget when, after class one day, two students asked me to weigh in on their blooming relationship. One was Muslim, the other Catholic. Neither set of parents approved of their relationship; they had been going about it in secret. I had never felt so simultaneously flattered to be asked for guidance, yet unqualified to give such guidance in my entire life! There was nothing in the adjunct faculty handbook to prepare me for this moment. I asked them a couple of open-ended questions in hopes that they might come to some conclusions on their own. In listening to their answers, I got to hear how his Muslim faith, and how her Catholic faith, informed their thinking.
Wrestling with a New Vocation
All of these exciting new experiences were accompanied by new questions that I couldn’t ignore. What did it mean for me, as an evangelical Christian, to enjoy learning about other religions and engaging with their followers? At the time, all I knew was that the evangelical tradition offered two justifications for engaging other faiths: sharing Jesus (evangelism) and arguing for the supremacy of the Christian faith (apologetics). I couldn’t nor wanted to do either of these things in my classrooms. Was it possible to enjoy this new vocation while remaining faithful to my beliefs?
For some time, I wrestled with these questions alone. My evangelical friends, though well-meaning, struggled to empathize with me. There were definitely a few awkward dates with my wife, Brittany. I had grace for them all, seeing that the only real difference between them and myself was that I happened to stumble backward into teaching world religions, and they didn’t. It’s not as if I loosed my own chains and wandered happily out of Plato’s cave. To this today, I am just as surprised as they are by my unusual journey.
I tell my story because I know that in many ways, it’s not unique. American evangelicals have few resources to help them determine what faithfulness looks like in a multi-religious society. As a result, they engage in behaviors that frankly make Jesus look bad: they refuse friendship with people of other faiths, listen poorly (or strategically), ignore their felt needs, and spread stereotypes. I once met a Christian college student who told me that his desire was to be a missionary in a predominantly-Muslim country after graduating. I asked him if he’d consider helping me plan an event that brought his fellow Christian students and Muslim students from the community college together to share a meal. When I told him that the explicit purpose of the event was not to convert the Muslim students, he refused to participate. In his theology, there was simply no reason to engage with Muslims otherwise.
It goes without saying that diversity and inclusion is a major part of the student affairs profession—as it pertains to race, gender, and sexuality. Religious diversity, on the other hand, is often forgotten. This has become the norm, despite the fact that most of the major issues dividing the country have religious undertones (Muslim immigration, for example). As a result, students are left to wonder, like I did, where to turn when burning questions arise. This is where Christians in student development can play a major role. They are uniquely positioned to help students develop a basic ethic of care toward people of other faiths, without sacrificing their most deeply held beliefs in the process. Fortunately, this doesn’t require one to have a theology or religion degree.
Exercising a New Muscle
I recently spoke with a young pastor who frequently dialogues with people of other faiths. When I asked her why she thinks many Christians don’t follow her lead, she employed a metaphor for working out and building muscle. For many Christians, exercising their “muscle” of engaging with the “other” is hard enough; what makes interreligious engagement even harder is that many Christians aren’t aware that this “muscle” exists. Though it seems so simple, Christians in student development can begin making positive change by introducing religious diversity into existing discussions on other forms of diversity. The discussion on religious diversity need not look entirely different than discussions on race, gender, or sexuality. Though the answers might vary based on the context, similar questions apply: How do we humanize and dignify others? How do we make space for people we don’t agree with? How do we ensure that students of different identities feel safe, included, and supported on campus? What do students of varying identities need to thrive, and how can we ensure that these needs are met?
Additionally, Christians in student development can introduce four practices that resemble the ministry of Christ:
1. Seek authentic friendship
Authentic friendship with someone of another faith is reciprocal. Both participants give and receive. Authentic friendship requires self-sacrifice. Authentic friendship is honest. There are no hidden motives or deceitful intentions. Hurts, hopes, strengths, and weaknesses are shared by all.
2. Authentically Listen
Authentic listening seeks to fully understand someone of another faith. Authentic listening is not aching for the chance to speak. Authentic listening means valuing their story.
3. Seek their Welfare
Seeking the welfare of your religious neighbors means standing up when they are bullied, attacked, or discriminated against. Seeking their welfare means doing whatever is in your power to protect their religious freedom. Seeking their welfare means being generous and hospitable to their needs.
4. Bear Truthful Witness
Truthful witness speaks and writes about other religions accurately. Truthful witness is fair and balanced about perceived strengths or weaknesses of another faith tradition. Truthful witness seeks to correct inaccurate information.
These are the four practices that Neighborly Faith asks evangelical Christians to adopt while engaging with their religious neighbors. Neighborly Faith is an initiative that I co-founded in 2015 with Chris Stackaruk, a classmate of mine at Wheaton College.
Neighborly Faith exists to help evangelical Christians become good religious neighbors to people of other faiths. It was built on the premise that faithful witness in a multi-religious society cannot be collapsed into evangelism and apologetics. Rather, neighborly faith must be a way of life. We are convinced that if evangelicals and their communities can learn to be good religious neighbors, this would have major impact on American society, and marginalized religious communities especially. Imagine, for example, if evangelical Christians in great numbers resolved to eradicate Islamophobia rather than perpetuate it. This is the future that we pray for.
The hallmark of Neighborly Faith is our podcast. After a few years of talking to leaders, making observations, and trying different things out, we realized that what most evangelicals lack is a role model of neighborly faith that they can aspire to be like. Evangelicals are notorious for being very selective about who they listen to. We’ve been approached a number of times by interfaith leaders who can’t seem to get evangelicals involved in their programs, despite their best efforts. Though we highly respect and appreciate our non-evangelical friends in the interfaith world, we also know that everyday evangelicals will likely respond to their invitations with skepticism. What is required is an evangelical role model who can encourage them to engage with people of other faiths.
Christians in student development can be those role models for their students. However, this may require exercising a muscle that you didn’t realize you had. As American society becomes more religiously diverse, many Christians will find themselves working this muscle more and more. Soon, what it means to be Christian in America will be tied up with multi-faith witness. With faith being a central component of their lives, Christians in student development are uniquely poised to lead the way.
Originally Published in ACSD Ideas on April 11, 2018.