FOLLOWING CHRIST ON
EASTERN ROADS L O V I N G O U R G L O B A L NEIGHBORS STARTS WHEN WE R E C O G N I Z E G O D ’ S I MAGE—AND PRESENCE—IN THEM, B E T H E Y B U D DHIST, HINDU, OR MUSLIM BY PAUL-GORDON CHANDLER
(Editor’s note:We appreciate the way the following reflections invite Christians to seek to understand and enter into relationship with the adherents of other faiths, looking for commonalities, acknowledging their strengths, and learning from them. Since Christ is the Truth, all other truth is indeed compatible with him. At the same time, we believe that Christians must continue to understand and proclaim clearly the ways that Christ points to a significantly different reality than those proclaimed by other religions: that Jesus is true God and true man, the only way to salvation, and that God is Trinitarian. After we have listened humbly and learned carefully about what is good and true in other faiths, we must continue with gentle boldness to invite everyone to taste of Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life” for one and all.)
saying, while reflecting on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, “If I wasn’t a Christian, I think I would be a Buddhist.” Huston Smith, a renowned scholar of world religions and a child of missionaries to China, shares in one of his books about his first meeting with the Dalai Lama. “No one I know who has been in his presence has failed to be impressed,” Smith affectionately writes. “...But the way he impressed me was almost the reverse of my expectations...For it was not as if he wore a halo...Almost the opposite; from the moment he clasped my hand with a firmness...it was his directness, his utter unpretentiousness, his total objectivity, that astonished. I do not believe that before or since I have been in the presence of someone who was as completely himself.” The late Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk whose life and writings have deeply impacted Christians across the globe, developed a genuine interest in Buddhism in the later part of his life. Among other things, he was attracted to Buddhism’s long and persevering traditions of compassion and nonviolence and its indictment of ego-centered thought, reminding him of the goal of Christ’s humility. Merton initiated some of the first Christian-Buddhist dialogues. In turn, as a result of the witness of his life, the Dalai Lama said of Merton, “This was the first time I have been struck by such a feeling of spirituality by anyone who professed Christianity. As a result of meeting with him, my attitude toward Christianity was much changed.” How can the lotus—Buddhism’s symbol of spiritual life —encounter the cross? First, it is important to remember
The lotus and the cross
Albert Einstein once wrote, “Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things... as a meaningful unity.” Over the last few decades, many in the West have become deeply interested in Buddhism, and many Christians have been drawn to various aspects of it. Perhaps this interest is best explained in the words of St. Ambrose, a fourth-century Christian bishop of Milan: “...all that is true, by whomever it has been said, is from God’s Spirit.” I recall Frederick Buechner, the bestselling novelist and Presbyterian pastor, once
that in exploring other faiths, we can grow deeper roots in our own faith; moving out to meet others in the midst of their spiritual experiences allows us to return “home” to our own faith’s depth and heritage in a transformed way. A true understanding of Christian faith entails receiving as well as sharing. Christ himself walks the Buddhist road, and surely we will find him there when we ourselves venture out. Karl Reichelt, a Norwegian who operated a unique ministry serving Buddhist monks in China and Hong Kong in the 1920s, believed that Buddhism found its fulfillment and ultimate revelation in Jesus. In order to present a Christ that walked within Buddhism, Reichelt modeled his Tao Fong Shan Christian Center on Buddhist monasteries, adapted Buddhist symbols to Christianity, and developed a liturgy based on Buddhist worship structure. He also adopted the style of a Buddhist monk, and his Christian witness focused on building on every area of affinity with Buddhism that he could. Consequently, his approach was far-reaching—to temples, monasteries, and lay Buddhist societies. However, his deepest influence was on the individual Buddhist monks who passed through his center. This is powerfully illustrated in the story of the Buddhist abbot who became a follower of Christ, a man Reichelt wrote about in The Transformed Abbot (Lutterworth Press, 1954). As a Christian, Reichelt was well ahead of his time in his perspective on other faiths. On a trip in Southeast Asia some years ago, I met two Buddhist monks. They were studying sacred scriptures in a Buddhist monastery at the time, and among their texts was the New Testament. On their own, without any “Christian” influence, they came to a belief that this Christ they were reading about was truth embodied and decided to become his followers. Reading on into the Book of Acts, they realized that new followers of Christ were “put into water” (baptized). Believing that to be an important initiation rite for Christ followers, they went into the nearest town and stopped at the first place they saw the word “Christ”—which happened to be a church. They knocked on the door and told the priest they had come to be baptized.The priest was, of course, taken aback to see two Buddhist monks asking to be baptized. Nevertheless, after hearing their story, he baptized them. Today those two men continue to live as Buddhist monks, albeit monks who follow Christ, wearing their incandescent saffron robes and shaven heads and going from monastery to monastery telling other Buddhist monks about Jesus. In thinking about the cross and the lotus, Christians need to remember that genuine spirituality, such as that exhibited by these two Buddhist monks, is often the most important point of contact with those from other faiths. Whenever this exists in someone, it affirms their being on the path toward
spiritual progress and development and therefore potentially toward an openness to examining the way of Christ. And from my own observation, God more often than not seems to work through irregular channels to bring this about. Just as the beauty of the lotus flower emerges from dark and muddy roots, God communicates in paradoxical ways to individuals in what may seem like the most unlikely places. The Buddhist scriptures proclaim, “It is a Buddha-making universe”—meaning that the nature of reality itself is to enlighten and set free the whole creation, down to the last grain of sand. And for followers of Christ, we see the ultimate purpose of God as enabling all people to fully reflect the “image of God” in which they were created.
Christ flowing in Hindu channels
India is a fascinating place—steeped in religion and all things spiritual. It is a wonderful place to talk about the person and teachings of Christ. In the last decade the Western world has seen a resurgence of interest in the spirituality of India—from the many Indian gurus that have come to the West and attracted substantial followings, to the Dalit mass conversions in India from Hinduism to Buddhism and, in smaller numbers, to Christian faith. It is within this context that many Indian followers of Christ are living reminders that following the way of Christ among those of other faiths requires genuinely respecting them. St. Paul’s experience in Athens is a helpful starting point. He did not criticize the Athenians for their enthusiastic polytheism. Instead, he began by praising them for their religious and spiritual zeal; consequently, they responded with an openness to listen to, and consider, his beliefs. In his excellent book, Christianity Rediscovered (25th anniversary edition, Orbis, 2003), Vincent Donovan, a Catholic priest who worked with the Masai in Kenya, says to the Masai, “Everyone knows how devout you Masai are, the faith you have, your beautiful worship of God. You have known God and he has loved you....” His approach to the Masai reminds us all that God has created this world and is already present and working within God’s creation. And as Christians, it is critical to never assume we are taking God with us, but rather to discover “the God who is already present” and share how we have come to understand that God more fully through the person of Jesus Christ—just as St. Paul explained to the Athenians that this “unknown god” whom they worshipped, whose shrine had been built hundreds of years earlier, is actually knowable and is the God of creation. Donovan, like St. Paul, uses the imagery of the national god of the Masai as really being the high God of all creation. God always goes ahead of us, and is both already there and being experienced. The role of followers of Christ is never
minister.This relationship made him one of the very first Arab Christians capable of acting as a bridge between Christianity and Islam. In old age, he became a monk and wrote the firstever Christian treatise on Islam.While he did not agree with all of Islam’s theological tenets, he nevertheless applauded the way Islam moved the Arabs away from idolatry and polytheism and wrote with admiration of its single-minded emphasis on worshipping the “one true God.” Students of history know that a kinship between Muslims and Christians has existed over the centuries. Indeed, during Islam’s expansion in the Middle East following Mohammad’s death, many Eastern Christians welcomed the Arab Muslim armies as liberators, as they were oppressed by the Byzantine Christian West. When spending time among Christians in the Middle East, we become aware of how much of the early Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition formed the foundation for the basic practices of Islam. The Muslim form of prayer, with prostrations and bowing, comes from the ancient Syrian Orthodox Christian tradition and is still practiced today.The month-long fast of Ramadan is an Islamization of Christian Lent, and some Eastern Orthodox churches still practice an all-day fast. The architecture of the earliest minarets—square instead of round —came from the church towers in Byzantine Syria.The same could be said about their pilgrimage, creed, and prayer five times a day facing their holy city—all having Christian origins. If Christians from sixth-century Byzantium were to return today, they would find much more that was familiar in the practices of Muslims than in a contemporary American evangelical church. Most Western Christians have lost the understanding that our faith is Middle Eastern in origin, and thereby lose out on their rich historical heritage. What we so critically need today is to build upon any kinship and proximity between Christians and Muslims. What Muslims need from Western Christians is love.We must be involved today in an effort not to conquer them, but to show them the love of Christ through goodwill, appreciation, and friendship. As my friend Christine Mallouhi says, now is the time to “wage peace” on Muslims. For they, like us, are made in God’s image. ■
to bring in an opposing God, bigger and better, but rather to share that the existing God may be beautifully experienced through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. In regard to Hinduism, Sadhu Sundar Singh, the mystic and Sikh follower of Christ in the early 1900s, had an interesting personal perspective. “Hinduism has been digging channels,” he wrote. “Christ is the water to flow through these channels...there are many beautiful things in Hinduism; but the fullest light is from Jesus Christ.” As Christians living among those of other faiths, our goal should be to respect the other and to learn about that faith, studying its holy books, and, when appropriate and/or asked, to share about how we have understood and experienced God ourselves in the person and teachings of Christ.
Bringing the Salaam of Christ to Islam
Salaam is the Arabic word for peace, and I profoundly believe that a peaceful approach to the Islamic world is Christ’s way forward. I grew up and have spent most of my life in the Muslim world, so I am encouraged by the many Christians in the West who are openly and genuinely interested in learning about Islam and seeking to understand Muslims. At the same time I am disturbed to see a wave of Western Christians who demonize Islam, with supposed experts popping up to lend their views but only creating a fear that results in many viewing Islam as an enemy and vice versa. There is a quickly growing discord between Christians and Muslims, with many Christians portraying Islam as “the last great enemy to be conquered.” The images are often militant, from capturing Islamic strongholds to reclaiming the land. While this kind of discourse is usually meant to denote the spiritual realm, the images they project of Islam, particularly of its relations with Christianity, are often unbalanced, one-sided, and can even be mythical, presenting Muslims as dangerous people. The oft-held idea of conversions taking place by the sword from the Middle Ages on is, for example, an inaccurate depiction much propagated in anti-Islamic literature. My experience of living among Muslims is that the majority do not see themselves in any holy war against the West; they are peace-loving and incredibly hospitable, gentle, and faithful friends. With global politics what they are, there has never been a greater need for us to recognize what we have in common with Muslims and build on those commonalities. St. John of Damascus, one of the greatest theologians of the seventh century, can serve as an initial guide. Born just after the death of Mohammad, he grew up a Syrian Christian in the Islamic Arab court of Damascus, where his Christian father was chancellor. As an adult he was an intimate friend of the Caliph, for whom he worked as finance
Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler is the rector of the Church of St. John the Baptist/Maadi in Cairo, Egypt. Raised in Senegal and a graduate of Wheaton College, Chandler was president of the Christian relief agency Partners International and US CEO of the International Bible Society. He is the author of God’s Global Mosaic (IVP, 2000) and Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road (Cowley Publications /Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). A version of the Islam section of this article appeared in the Anglican Digest (2004).