Over the last couple days, I’ve been watching The Story of God on Netflix, and enjoying it immensely. The series is hosted by Morgan Freeman, who travels around the world to speak with representatives of different religions in order to find out what they think about things like the soul, creation, the end of the world, the nature of God, and how we as humans relate to God. He explores the world’s major religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.), but he also features ancient faiths that no longer exist (e.g. Egyptian, Druid, Mayan, Aboriginal, Aztec). He puts them all in dialogue with one another and explores their relevance to contemporary discoveries in fields such as neuroscience and artificial intelligence. He does a marvelous job of treating every religion fairly, asking good questions, and allowing his interlocutors to simply speak on their own terms.
One of the things I really love about this series is that it highlights both the similarities and stark differences between the world’s major (and minor) faiths. As you watch this, it is made abundantly clear that deep within human beings and their respective cultures there is a longing for an encounter with the Divine and the hope that things can be better than they are. At the same time, when you watch this program, you see that the religions of the world really are not all the same. There are some very common similarities, yes, but you can’t say they’re all saying the same thing without doing serious damage to each faith’s particularities.
As I’ve been watching this show, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about how Christians can dialogue with all these different faiths in a constructive way. Unfortunately, I think when we talk about other religions in some Christian circles, we often tend to caricature them or talk about how we can “disprove” them. We want to evangelize, which is a good thing, but we sometimes approach these encounters as if they are a war, rather than a conversation about good news.
I think Christians can sometimes be afraid to appreciate the truth or beauty in other faiths. This is understandable. After all, we believe in one God who exists in three persons, and that Jesus is the perfect revelation of who God is. We hear Jesus’ words that nobody comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6), and we see that the Bible has plenty of negative things to say about idolatry and the false gods of the ancient world. Since we believe in the truth of our faith, we see other faiths as either deceptions or seriously misguided. To appreciate their beauty or the insights that they may have, could run the risk of falling into deception, which is something we rightly want to avoid.
However, I think that it is a very good thing for Christians to have an accurate picture, not a caricature, of other faiths. That is something that only comes by listening to a faith’s adherents speak on their own terms. This is something that every good missionary knows. You cannot effectively speak to people about Jesus, if you do not know the questions they are asking, the problems they are facing, and what they already think about God.
Furthermore, it is not a bad thing to recognize and appreciate the beauty and truths that other religions can grasp. In fact, I think this is a very biblical idea. One of my favorite passages to illustrate this is Paul’s speech to the Athenians in Acts 17:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[c]
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17: 24-31).
Notice how well Paul balances his conviction about the exclusive revelation of God in Jesus with appreciation for the Athenians attempts to find God. He does not tell them they are wicked idolaters or try to disprove Zeus’s existence. He commends them for their efforts and says, “God has made us inherently religious. We’re all looking and groping in the darkness to find God. Now here is what you have been looking for.” He even cites one of their poets for discovering the profound truth that in God we “live and move and have our being.”
This morning I was thinking about this as I was reading my Bible, and I happened to be in John 12. Jesus has come into Jerusalem and is being very clear about his mission and impending death. He tells everyone, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31-32). This means that the cross is the judgment of the world whereby Jesus conquers the power of the evil one, and through this, will be drawing everyone to himself.
This got me thinking, are we aware of the ways Jesus is drawing people to himself? Could it be that in the some of the truths that the world’s religions share, those can function as avenues that Jesus is using to draw people to himself? Can we see other faiths, not as mere caricatures, but as expressions of the universal human longing to know God, which is met and fulfilled in Christ?
This documentary has been challenging me to see and appreciate the beauty in the different religions of the world. As a Christian, I’m committed to the belief that Jesus Christ alone is the perfect revelation of who God is, and the world’s exclusive savior, but at the same time, I have been challenges to appreciate the best of how human cultures have attempted to find God. I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive.