What does it mean for Christians to encounter adherents of other religious traditions? Living in an ambulatory, pluralistic world such intersections are inevitable. While these encounters were less frequent in the past due to more limited mobility, this is no longer true. We can circumnavigate the globe quickly and with relative ease via commercial air carriers. In addition, social media has created the possibility of communicating with the vast majority of people on the planet. Given this reality, it is vital for Christians who serve or intend to serve in ministry—along with any others who have the slightest evangelistic bent—to prepare themselves for such conversations. This course, Christian Encounters with Other Cultures, attempts to address this opportunity brought to our doorstep.
One of the primary course aims is to acquire and/or deepen our understanding of other religious traditions.
Derek Cooper’s book, Christianity and World Religions: An Introduction to the World’s Major Faiths, provides an overview of several major religious traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Judaism, and Islam. While the study of each of these faiths is obviously introductory, it furnishes a foundation for the weekly forum discussions. In addition, the weekly essay assignment requires students to compare some aspect of these traditions with the Christian faith in order to find places where common ground exists and where distinctive differences are present.
For example, the initial forum asks students to “discuss an interaction they have had with a person or persons whose formation was in a non-Christian religious tradition. Or, if you have had no interactions of this kind, describe a concern you would have about such a conversation.” This exercise allows students to draw upon their previous experience and use it as a starting point in order to become more comfortable talking with individuals from different faiths.
Two other forum topics further illustrate how course participants are given opportunities to develop confidence when facing these sorts of settings.
For instance, in one forum students evaluate the Hindu caste system and then address the following question: “What kind of hope can the gospel of Jesus Christ offer…to those living in the lowest (i.e., ‘untouchable’) echelons of the caste system?”
In another forum students reflect on “the high regard for elderly members of society” that Confucianism, Daoism, and the Christian faith share and how this view “stands in sharp contrast with contemporary Western culture.” Pressing this point, they are asked, “What can contemporary Westerners, including Western Christians, learn from Eastern philosophy about our treatment of older persons?”
The preceding examples also relate directly to the second aim of the course, which is to cultivate the ability to converse graciously with followers of other religious traditions.
In order to accomplish this objective, we challenge each other to listen carefully to the beliefs and claims of others as well as recognize our own limitations and weaknesses so that we might display a humble spirit in our conversations, a point that is repeatedly underscored by both Cooper and Duane Elmer in Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility.
As previously mentioned, the principal way we nurture this attribute is via the forum discussions where students relay their own encounter experiences—both failures and successes—and respond to each other in respectful, but provocative dialogue. Moving beyond the recognition of our personal limits, it’s also critical to admit that the Christian faith entails its own set of challenges, especially for people who haven’t had much exposure to it. To summarize the preceding, not only do we learn about what to say when Christians and disciples of other faiths intersect, we also learn how to conduct ourselves during these conversations.
The course culminates with an assignment in which students are expected to delve more deeply into one of the major faiths previously studied. Based on personal interest, they select, read and analyze one Oxford A Very Short Introduction on one the world’s great non-Christian religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, or Islam.
In this analysis students are asked to write a creative composition, approaching it in whatever way they want. For example, one possible strategy is to craft an essay that identifies and describes the chief tenets of the selected religion, followed by a presentation that outlines a hypothetical conversation between a Christian and an adherent of that faith—an approach which Cooper routinely models with his examination of the world’s major faiths.
A second option is to focus on a specific aspect of a particular religious tradition. In this case students would perhaps review and reflect on the faith’s: presuppositions; approach to missions; theology of creation, holiness & righteousness, evil & sin, suffering, death and the afterlife, or salvation; code of ethics; or cultural influence and intersections with other religions.
Another strategy might be to describe and analyze one or more of the faith’s traditional practices such as: public and private rituals; forms of prayer; expectations for tithing; view and use of icons and sacrifices; hymns and music employed in worship; reading of scripture or other revered documents; proclamation and its role in the proselytizing outsiders.
Irrespective of the strategy students ultimately choose to approach this project, they are tasked with comparing and contrasting the faith’s beliefs and practices with Christian faith and practice. Simply put, it’s essential to identify whatever common ground there might be as well as to delineate areas where the Christian faith is distinctive and posit how it offers a more complete revelation of God’s will.
C. S. Lewis once remarked:
“I couldn’t believe that nine-hundred and ninety-nine religions were completely false and the remaining one true. In reality, Christianity is primarily the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, but also the fulfillment of what was vaguely hinted in all the religions at their best…And it should (at least in my judgement [sic]) be made clear that we are not pronouncing all other religions to be totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected” (God in the Dock, 54, 102).
I concur. Lewis’s premise reinforces the paramount goal of the course, Christian Encounters with Other Cultures—learning not only what’s true in other faiths and fostering the ability to talk humbly with our religious and non-religious neighbors, but also pointing all people to Christ in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19).
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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others. Austin Grad — one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas — is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.