Why Inter Faith (A UK perspective)

We all do Inter Faith! – the world we live in

When was the last time you spoke to a person of another faith? And what did you talk to them about?

Just about all of us, and especially those of us who live in London or other cities, meet people of non-Christian faith every day – on public transport, in shops and cafes, in hospitals and GP surgeries, in our block or street………………..and a surprising number of church people have people of other faiths within their own families. So engaging with people of other faiths is a reality for all of us. We communicate every time we share a glance or open our mouths; inter faith isn’t just about going to meetings or taking part in formal dialogue.

For most British churchgoers, especially the majority who are of a certain age, this context is very different from the context in which our parents – and maybe we ourselves – grew up. Some of us grew up in other countries so of course the UK is very different. I wonder if we half-consciously still think of the UK as a place where the norm is white Britons going to the local church? Britain has changed. The people of the old Empire have come back to us. So have other from all over the world. We are of many faiths, many ethnicities, many national backgrounds.

How DO we share our faith with people of other faiths?

There’s a terrible urgency to finding answers to this question. Watch the news headlines for any week and a good proportion of them, both international and national, are linked to issues of faith. Looking back over 2015, we have had to try to make sense of the Paris attacks on 7th January and on 13th November; we have seen Isis spread and grow; there has been a surge of sympathy with and action for refugees from that religious war; we are engaged in bombing raids in Syria; we are all asked to take steps to prevent vulnerable people being drawn into religious extremism.

What can we say? What can we do?

What the Bible says

There’s an awkwardness among many faithful Bible-based Christians about people of other faiths. Doesn’t Jesus say, in his last long conversation with his closest followers, No-one comes to the father except by me? (John 14: 6). Doesn’t that mean that our primary aim should be to bring people into the Christian fold? (for many of us this may be a bit embarrassing, given the admirable fervour with which our other-faith neighbours observe their own faith).

If we need to understand our own context – the world in which we live – we need also to understand the context of the Bible- the world in which the gospel was told and written – so we can apply its teaching faithfully.

But the world into which John scribed these words is even more remote than the world our parents and grandparents lived in.

The Christian faith was very new – it was a couple of generations after Easter and Pentecost – and the new faith was in competition with the rest of Judaism, out of which it grew, and Paganism, out of which it attracted many new believers. It feared, and probably suffered, persecution. It was at this time very much the underdog.

What Jesus says

Those words of Jesus come from his long discourse the night before he died; they are words of comfort and reassurance to the eleven, words that were comforting and reassuring also to John’s community, who were perplexed that Jesus hadn’t yet returned. They were suffering also external pressures; probably they were sorely tempted to renege on the faith and go back to old beliefs and ways.

He (Jesus, and John as he reports Jesus) is saying: Hold fast to your faith in Jesus. Although it may be under attack from within and without, it is the way to God. Have confidence in Jesus! Have confidence in yourselves!

If we hear it in that way, addressed to us believers and not the world in general, then it’s a confidence booster rather than a call to impossible mission. Hold fast to Jesus. He is, for us, the way to God. Despite pressures from outside (for us now the decline of Christianity in the West) and inside (a corresponding loss of confidence) we are called to great things.

Those great things might include the building of trust in a terrifyingly divided world and a panicky nation.  Inter Faith friendship is a contribution to the task of building trust.

 What Jesus did

The stories of what Jesus did tell as much, if not more, about what he wants of us today than his teachings. The story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 can help us.

If you remember, Jesus is crossing hostile territory, Samaria, and takes a rest by a well outside a village while the disciples go off to buy lunch. A woman approaches. Jesus shouldn’t talk to the woman because she is a woman, because she is a Samaritan, and, as it turns out, a woman of loose morals. But he does. He makes himself vulnerable by asking for water. If he drinks out of her (Samaritan) cup he will find himself in a state of ritual pollution. Their conversation is not cosy. She stands up to him: (Why are you asking me for water? What do you mean by this living water? You may be a prophet, but Jewish prophets have the wrong beliefs! I am waiting for the Messiah). And he challenges her, drawing her into a conversation on a spiritual level, showing he knows about her past. Her tone changes, and she becomes an advocate for him. As a result, Jesus’ mission is furthered; he spends two days with the villagers and many people become believers. He hasn’t had this kind of explicit recognition before. She has changed his life as well as having hers changed by him.

What’s going on in this relationship? Jesus is taking some risks He may get polluted; he may call down the anger of the villagers, or his disciples. His credibility may be undermined. He makes himself vulnerable, admitting to his need for water. There’s abundant honesty; the woman is upfront about her reactions to Jesus and he, it seems, is able to more explicit with her, than with his own people, about who he is. There’s openness to change. The woman’s life, and her relationship to her community, changes, once she becomes an advocate for Jesus; and Jesus’ own mission takes off in a way that hasn’t happened up to now.

It’s a good model for inter faith relationships. Jesus knows he can’t be polluted from outside, only from inside. Talking to people of other faiths can’t undermine our own; it can only be undermined by our own faithlessness and failure to love. Jesus allowed himself to be vulnerable; for us, too, it’s OK to be vulnerable; to have needs, not to know, to need to ask questions. We don’t have to have all the answers or do all the giving. We need to be sensitive; but it’s even more important to be honest – and that’s not always easy, because we often do have differing view, understandings and interests. Like Jesus and like the Samaritan woman, we need to be open to change, both in ourselves and in the person we are talking to. Most people say that inter faith friendship helps them to be a better Christian!

Inter faith work is fundamentally about relationship, about friendship, before it’s about anything else. It’s loving our neighbour as ourselves.

Maggie Hindley

December 2015