We asked Tom Wilson, author of Hospitality, Service, Proclamation: Interfaith engagement as Christian Discipleship, why he takes interfaith engagement so seriously.
1 – It is a normal part of my Christian life. Christians celebrate Holy Communion, albeit in different ways, and with different understandings of what is going on, because Jesus told us “do this in remembrance of me.” Christians baptise, again at different times and with different understandings of what is going on, because Jesus told us to go and baptise. Christians build friendships and talk about their faith with those of all faiths and none because Jesus told us to love our neighbours, and he defined “neighbour” to mean anyone, friend, foe or somewhere inbetween. For me, interfaith engagement is just part of being a Christian.
2 – It helps me grow as a Christian. I have been asked all kinds of challenging questions that have deepened my faith. A Hindu once asked me, “How can you expect to make spiritual progress when you participate in killing?” He was talking about eating meat, and his point was that if you are prepared to kill living beings in order to satisfy your physical hunger, what does that say about your spiritual attitude to living beings? Now, I don’t think Christians have to be vegetarian, but I do think Christians have to think carefully about what God’s charge of stewardship of the earth actually means, and this question was a prompt for me to reflect further. Another time, a Muslim asked me why I celebrated Christmas, noting that Jesus had not told us to do so. This was a helpful reminder of the need to separate commercial, customary Christmas, from celebrating the birth of the Messiah.
3 – It forces me to be clear about exactly what is unique about Christian faith. It makes me come back, time and again, to Jesus, who he is, what he said, what he has done. I do not just mean a trite ‘the answer’s always Jesus’ approach borrowed from Sunday School, but rather a mature, considered, continual reflection on how it is that God can take human flesh, live among us, experience human life and yet be without fault or blemish. I talk more about Jesus in interfaith conversations that I do in most other places.
4 – It is imitating Jesus’ love for the world. God so loved the world John 3:16 begins, and interfaith engagement is one way of me demonstrating that love. When I support my Muslim friend as she tries to run a community event, or help my Hindu colleague develop skills in project management or explain safeguarding to a group of Buddhists who do not know where to start in developing a policy, my motivation is that God loves these people and he calls me to love them sacrificially. Ours are divisive times, and Christians ought to be leading the way in providing prophetic challenge to the spirit of our age. Of course, this is never simple, and there are all kinds of geopolitical issues that make it much more complicated. But fundamentally if we say we love our enemies then we have to live that out, or else our faith is just as resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. I think it is important to be motivated solely by love, with no ulterior motive or expectation of conversion as any kind of ‘payment’ for our loving service of the world.
5 – It enables me to think through clearly the ethics of evangelism. There are good ways and bad ways of sharing the good news of Jesus. Bad ways include material inducement, emotional manipulation, only speaking of the gift without the cost and many more. Christians who have dedicated their lives to working with those of other faiths have to develop a keen ethical sense of what is appropriate and what is not. The guidelines produced by the Christian Muslim Forum are a great place to begin to think about this.
6 – I see it in the Bible. Jesus is forever crossing boundaries of faith, whether it is in his healing of the Centurion’s servant or his time in Samaria. The Prophets likewise did not just speak to God’s people, even if they did so reluctantly, Jonah being the obvious example. Other Prophets, such as Elijah or Elisha, were sent beyond the boundaries of ethnic Israel, reminding us that the Spirit blows where he wills, and our duty is to follow his lead, not to try and contain him.
7 – Its good fun. I have learnt all sorts of things about myself, about the world, about other people through interfaith engagement. I have tried all kinds of interesting food, visited lots of fascinating places within the UK, and overseas, and grown in my understanding of myself, my faith and the world in which I live. I know Jesus better because I see him at work in the lives of people of all faiths and none, and that draws me in to follow where he leads.
Tom Wilson is the Director of the St Philip’s Centre, based in Leicester.
Hospitality, Service, Proclamation is published this month. Visit our website for an exclusive pre-publication offer.