VIEW VIDEO We’re continuing our discussion about religion and whether it is a force for good or evil. I thought it would be appropriate, before we went much further, to tell you how I came to believe in the Christian god. When I was a teenager, I began researching all the religions of the world—Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, even the Native American traditions. I discovered how long each religion had existed, giving extra weight to those that had been around the longest, wanting to make sure I didn’t hitch my wagon to a falling star. I studied the sacred scriptures and stories of each tradition to see which one seemed truer than the others, then interviewed persons from each religion, seeking their perspective. I then prayed to each god to determine which one seemed more inclined to answer my prayers. After all that, it was clear to me the Christian god was best, so I became a Christian at the age of 16.
No, I’m just kidding. My mother was an enthusiastic Catholic and my father was an indifferent Baptist, so I was raised Catholic. But if I had been born in Indiana a mere 300 years earlier, a mere blip on the cosmic scale, I would have grown up worshiping the manitou spirits the Miami Indians of this area venerated, since our religion is generally predicated on the place and time of our birth, and not the result of a conscious decision we made as children.
.Indeed, I can’t remember any child in our church leaving the Catholic faith to become a Hindu, and believe me, I would have remembered that. It would have been the talk of the town in Danville, Indiana in the late 1960s. For while it was emphasized that a relationship with God was desirable, it was also understood it was the Christian god we served. Yes, we were taught God was the creator of all people, but we were also taught our Christian god was superior. Superior to the Hindu gods, superior to Allah, superior to the Native American spirits. It wasn’t enough to believe in God, one had to believe in the right god, which coincidentally just happened to be our god. Just think of our good fortune! Social scientists tell us there are over 4,000 religions in the world, and you and I had the good sense to be born into the right one.
Let’s suppose a Baptist missionary from Alabama traveled to a remote African village determined to bring its people to God. Upon arriving, he discovered the Muslims had gotten there first. He found the villagers engaged in prayer, giving faithfully and generously to the poor, professing their faith in God, practicing hospitality, fasting as a spiritual discipline, and planning a religious pilgrimage to the birthplace of their religion’s founder, much like the Alabama Baptist might travel to Bethlehem. Do you think for a moment the missionary would have raised his arms in joy and said, “I came here to tell these people about God, and it turns out they already know God.” Of course not. Wouldn’t he more likely tell them they found the wrong god?
He would make every effort to persuade the villagers they worshiped the wrong god, because we are never content for others to be in relationship with God, we want them to be in relationship with our God, read our scriptures, tell our stories, obey our leaders, embrace our faith, and denounce their own.
I remember hearing a sermon once where the minister told a story about a missionary who converted a young man in a faraway country to Christianity. When the villagers learned about the young man’s conversion, they murdered him, which the minister seemed to think was wonderful. He applauded the missionary’s courage and the young man’s faith, and I’m sitting in the pew thinking the young man would still be alive if the missionary had stayed home instead of traveling halfway around the world to tell someone they were wrong.
Religions do a good job connecting people with God, as long as it’s their God. Annie Dillard tells a story about a priest who felt led to go preach to the Eskimos about Jesus, so off he went. He told them all about Jesus and heaven and hell and when he was finished, an Eskimo elder asked him,
“If we had never heard of Jesus, would we have gone to hell when we died?”
The priest thought for a moment then said, “No, not if you hadn’t heard.”
The elder said, “Then why did you tell us?”
Our task as Christians is not to rack up the highest number of converts we can or make Christianity number one on the world stage. We are not called to push and shove our way to a place of power and prominence, to be first, front, and center. Religion is not a competitive sport with only one winner. Our task is to remember that there is an Inner Dimension to life, that people are more than consumers and cogs in an economic engine, that we were not created to satisfy the vain and voracious appetites of the rich and powerful. Our task is to remember that all people everywhere possess an inner worth and value far beyond gold. The Light which enlightens all the world shines in us, just as it shines in the Hindu, the Buddhist, the pagan, the Muslim, and on and on, no more or no less. It is our task to seek that Light, to celebrate that Light whenever and in whomever we encounter it. It is never our task to tell the Light, “You can not shine in that person; you cannot be present in that religion.” It is only our task to recognize the Light when it shines among us, and to follow that Light as faithfully and joyfully as we are able. This is what Jesus did, which is why others said of him, “Did not our hearts burn within us when he was near.”
There is, as has always been the case, much darkness in our world today. There is also, as has always been the case, many, many, many people of Light. God has graciously seen fit to spread them throughout the world. When we deny that Light in others, we simultaneously deny it in ourselves.