Meeting people where they are
Over the last few months or so, and in many different situations, I’ve had the great opportunity to meet with many different people and hold some very interesting discussions, mostly on the subject of faith and spirituality. On many of these occasions, I have faced the personal challenge of formulating dialogue with individuals who come from an entirely different perspective, and have encountered standpoints ranging from Buddhist, to Kaballah, to Secularism. The diversity of these conversations has left me reevaluating a lot of my own thoughts on what it means to be a Christian, and also what it means for the calling I believe I have to help “make disciples of all nations, and baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
I came to faith in Christ initially because I saw something in the love and compassion of others around me which I couldn’t make sense of in worldly terms, and because, I now realise, I was seeing the love of God emanating from the actions and relationships of those Christians around me. When I explored those concepts for myself, I become open to just what it meant to be in a personal relationship with God through this Christ-figure, and have spent the years since constantly articulating what that spiritual transformation means for my life. In the immediate time frame after this conversion experience, however, I was received into a background which placed heavy emphasis on “evangelism,” that is, conveying the love of Jesus to others in the hopes that they will experience the same salvation that we have. As I was taught in the church (from the standpoint of the Bible), Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father, and thus it is by His name alone that one is “saved,” and granted eternal life with God. The urgency, therefore, was to go out and preach the Gospel at every given opportunity, so that people would come to faith and that we in the Church would pave the way for God’s Kingdom to come.
In the time since I have been a Christian, having come from this thoroughly Evangelical background, I have found myself exploring the meaning of these terms, which I am certain must be completely alien to many. Some of the language that we in the Church use has even become cliché to the point of tedium. How am I “born again,” for example? Just what is it that I am “saved” from? I have been saved from Hell, as the popular consensus would have it; saved from the power of the devil and restored into the life that God wants to me to have, rather than a life of darkness. I have found, however, that it is not only an eternity in Hell of which I am in danger, for the demonic has particular power here on earth right now as well. Their traps, I perceive, include poverty, sickness, starvation, famine, oppression, depression, despair, alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, and all manner of ills too numerous to list. The salvation that Jesus offered me those four and a half years ago is too powerful to stop short of a comfortable afterlife, I think. The power and presence of God through what He accomplished upon that cross has to have relevance to the here and now, with the potential for people to find a deep and mysterious liberation from all snares of the powers of darkness at work on this earth today. I often write that I consider salvation to be a very present act achieved by God in our lives, which transforms our hearts, lives, and actions in a way that will continue from this moment until the time the Kingdom comes.
These musings, however, haven’t stopped at either spiritual or social issues, and my recent encounters have brought me back to the question “What about people of other faiths or no faith at all?” After all, according to the Bible, Jesus professes “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, but by me.” What does that mean, then, for these Atheists, Agnostics, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Pagans, Hindus, and anyone else who follows a different (or no) spiritual ethos?
What challenges me moreso, I think, is seeing that people who aren’t necessarily Christians often have a very compassionate heart, and can follow moral practices similar to my own, sometimes putting me to shame. If Christ is power and transformation for the here and now, how is it that someone who is a Buddhist or a Muslim can have just as fervent a faith and as deep a spirituality as my own which is found solely in Christ?
I am always quick to assert that I am not a pluralist, and certainly do not believe that each religion or spiritual path, or even anything we do by our own merits, is equally true, or equally the way to God/Truth/Reality. I have faith in and believe what Jesus says when He proclaims Himself to be the only way to God. However, my own experiences would suggest to me that the salvation He offers is something so deep and mysterious that we human beings will never fully grasp it, and at times I have sensed the power of God at work in places I really wouldn’t expect, even in the lives and relationships of those who don’t have faith in Him. This, I fervently believe, is down to the Image of God which exists within all people, and manifests itself in sometimes powerful ways. I am beginning to realise that God is too unfathomable for me to assign the entirety and monopoly of His work to the religion of Christianity.
In realising this, I am realising moreso what it means to “evangelise,” or to witness my faith to other people. These words sometimes leave a bad taste in people’s mouths due to the connotations of force and aggression they have, as if someone wishes to go out of their way to force their perspective upon others (A trait I have noticed not just from people of the Christian faith, either). For me, however, I feel that it is an integral part of my function in life to let people know they are loved. When Jesus encountered lepers, prostitutes, paralytics, and tax collectors, He didn’t get into complicated theological discussions with them. Instead, He wrapped up divine wisdom within captivating stories to provoke people’s imaginations, or else He simply said to someone who came to Him: “Your faith has made you well.” To me, it all seems indicative of a God who reaches out to people, but meets them where they are before walking with them further. More than this, a God who reaches out to people to ultimately show them that they are loved.
The opinion I take on the matter of Hell is this: It’s none of my business who goes there, and indeed I hope and pray that no one will. I will warn people of it, but my primary concern is showing love to people and being open to God to allow Him to work through those interactions. I have come to feel similarly about my encounters of people with different faiths as well. My hope is that in their search for truth and spirituality, God will show them Christ, but at the same time I wish to have love and respect for them where they currently are in their lives. I will share my faith, but I never want to force it upon others. Similarly, who is to say that there is no wisdom I can gain from someone of a different perspective, even while I am remaining firmly grounded in Christ? If we are humble enough to learn from each other, than it may be that we will all converge closer to God.
I suppose the long and short of it is… I can remain strong in my conviction that Jesus Christ is the only way to God, but also acknowledge that His work will not necessarily be confined to those who directly confess Him. That is far different from me saying that all religions are equally valid. It is saying that my love for God and humanity are too deep for me to claim that I have it all figured out. Until the time when I am no longer finite, I will simply do as Christ is calling me to do: To be obedient to His commandments, and to let people know that they are loved and accepted, no matter who or where they are.