Emory Report

 June 23, 1997

 Volume 49, No. 34

Christians should risk relating
to people of other faiths

In a shrinking global community where the world's cultures and religions are rubbing elbows, Christians are asking themselves how to relate to others and still remain true to their faith, said Thomas Thangaraj, a professor of world Christianity at the Candler School. That's the buzz at nearly every church Thangaraj has visited lately, and it's one reason he wrote Relating to People of Other Religions, subtitled, "What Every Christian Needs to Know."

Thangaraj has participated in many interfaith dialogues but always finds his fellow Christians the most ill-at-ease in such settings. "They're not sure whether it's compromising their faith to engage in conversations that are not aimed at conversion," he said, a concern he has wrestled with in his own life.

"What is it about my Christian upbringing that creates barriers to relating to people of other religions?" Thangaraj asked himself in the book and, by extension, his readers. He explores the question through a conversational, first-person narrative, which relates an ongoing dialogue with his friend, Ganga, a Hindu and fellow academic. In the opening chapter, Thangaraj accompanies Ganga to a Hindu temple only to find himself feeling profoundly uncomfortable about even addressing God in that setting. Ganga, on the other hand, feels perfectly at home in a Christian church.

One factor in Christians' discomfort, said Thangaraj, is the self-imposed separation undertaken by many Christian groups. A native of South India, Thangaraj's ancestors were converts to Christianity who destroyed their Hindu shrines and built Christian churches in their places; some Christian groups in India even moved to new locations and built "Christian" villages.

Another factor, he said, is the Christian church's historical emphasis on Biblical texts promoting separation from other faiths. An example is Paul's warning to early New Testament Christians not to be "mismatched with unbelievers." Often overlooked are texts such as the story of Babel in Genesis, or Peter's declaration in the Book of Acts "that God shows no partiality, but in every nation everyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to [God]," which Thangaraj calls "a powerful affirmation of variety and difference."

Describing the book as "both an external conversation and a conversation within myself," Thangaraj presents six ways Christians relate to people of other religions, then considers the advantages and drawbacks of each. A chapter titled "We Know and They Know Not," discusses Christians who see other religions as erroneous and therefore feel compelled to invite others to renounce their faith traditions and accept Christianity. In "We Perhaps Know; They Perhaps Know; Who Knows?," Thangaraj explores the attitude of Christians who are skeptical about the role of religion in society and choose to relate to others purely in secular terms.

One of Thangaraj's options suggests a dialogue or togetherness among people of different religions "that is active and proactive." We all need to know more about each other, he said, "because our knowledge of the truth is only partial at best." For those who would argue that Christianity has a particular corner on truth, Thangaraj points to Christianity's turning away from its emphasis on human domination of nature to embrace perspectives borrowed from Native American religions and Hinduism that have helped society deal with environmental concerns.

"There is a clear agenda in the book but no pronouncements," he said. "All six options are alive today in some form. If people choose one of the options, I just want them to be clear about what it means. Hopefully, people won't see the six options as leading to only one way of looking at things. I don't want people to choose one of these options, but to construct one on their own."

In this way, said Thangaraj, everyone benefits. Historically, "religions have been more creative and constructive in the company of other religions than in a hegemonic situation," he wrote. "We have not done well either in conflicts or in separation and isolation."

Whatever combination of approaches Christians choose in relating to others, Thangaraj stressed the importance of an attitude of "gentleness and reverence," to which he devotes the book's final chapter. Even in this last prescription, "you have to find your own way," he said. "But I do want to leave readers with a sense of wonderment at how to do this. Most Christians have lost their sense of wonderment. They've lost the joy of not being sure."

-Elaine Justice

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