Living in an area where one is in the religious majority changes the way you see the world. In America, those of us who are Christians often feel like the world is changing, and not in a way that is positive for us, but the truth is we are still part of the largest religious segment in our culture. Often, one of the most difficult things for a member of the religious majority to do is to accurately understand the faith of religious minorities. I see this happen all the time in the US as Christians struggle to understand those of other faiths. When I travel overseas I see the same scenario play out, only in those cultures it is someone else’s faith that often struggles to understand my own. In a US context, this is often played out as Christians attempt to understand Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and so on. However, nowhere is this lack of understanding more prominent than Christian’s relationship with Muslims. This lack of understanding is problematic for Christians, in particular. As followers of Jesus, it is vital that we rightly understand and portray the faith of those we disagree with. There are two significant reasons why this matters.
It matters, first of all, because we are Christians. Our faith calls us to love those who are not like us, and even those who are against us. This is a distinguishing characteristic of Christianity. When we fail to rightly understand others, we fail to show Christian love by believing something about them that is not true. We fail to view them as God’s image bearers, as part of God’s creation, by not working to rightly understand who they are and what they believe. Beyond that, our integrity is at stake as followers of Christ. Perpetuating mischaracterizations of others may be popular on social media, but it fails when held up to the test of Christian character. Secondly, however, this matters because we are not just Christians, we are Christians who are on mission. Make no mistake about it. We desire every person on the planet to hear the message of Jesus’ gospel, and to believe in Christ for salvation. In fact, we believe this is the only way to be reconciled with God. We believe in the freedom for every person to believe as they wish, but we also desire to have the freedom to share Christ with them so that they might believe. When we fail to rightly understand those we disagree with, we impair our ability to be on mission and damage the possibility of leading others to faith in Christ.
So that begs the question, in a world that is swimming with misinformation, how do we rightly understand what others believe? Let me suggest four simple ways that have helped me.
1. Don’t use the media as the primary source of your information.
It amazes me to see Christians who loudly reject mainstream media portrayals of their own faith but who are then quick to embrace the same mainstream media portrayals of the faith of others. If, for instance, the media regularly gets it wrong about Christianity, why would we think that they’re getting it right about Islam? Stop using news channels, Facebook, Twitter and the like as your source of information about the theology and practice of those with whom you disagree. Your tendency will be to embrace anything you read which feeds your impression of their faith, and this will regularly be inaccurate. A helpful test as to the accuracy of reported information is this; if a majority of those who embrace the faith in question, disagree with the popular portrayal, the portrayal is probably a mischaracterization.
2. Read liberally from those who are in that faith.
Often, when we desire to learn about those of other faiths, we will look to find an author from our faith writing about other faiths. This is probably not the best option. As Christians, we would be suspect of a Mormon, or Muslim, authoring thoughts about Christianity. Just so, we ought to consider that those who are in another faith are probably the most appropriate experts about their own faith. Even better, however, would be to get a copy of that faith’s holy book, and study it yourself.
3. Attend a service or two of the faith you are trying to understand.
As I was trying to understand Islam better, one of the healthiest things I did was to begin attending a Friday prayer service at the local mosque. I obviously didn’t participate in their prayer time; I would sit in the back and just watch, but those who were part of the mosque were incredibly gracious and welcoming. I continue to learn more during these opportunities than I could in just about any other setting. If you want to understand another faith, and the faith allows visitors into their gatherings (and most do), attend a few and listen. You might be surprised what you learn.
4. Befriend and learn from those who are in that faith.
Finally, the best way I know to rightly understand the faith of those we disagree with is to become friends with those who are in that faith. This has been one of the healthiest exercises in my Christian walk. Like Jesus, who consistently spent time with those who were outside his faith community, we ought to be quick to be friends with others who might not agree with us. My experiences, gathered around a table, learning from those who are in another faith, have been among the most helpful and instructive times I have experienced. I am rarely more encouraged than these interactions with those who believe differently than I do.
As I have tried to rightly understand those who I disagree with, I have found that it has helped me to love others the way Jesus loves me, without condition, in every state possible. What’s more, it has opened up innumerable opportunities for me to share the gospel of Jesus. As I show genuine interest in their faith, those who I spend time with have, in turn, shown genuine interest in my faith. What is more, they trust me to share with them my faith, understanding that I’m sharing with them as a friend, not just someone who wants to sell them a bill of religious goods and services. Finally, let me encourage you to clearly call out other followers of Christ who are spreading mischaracterizations about other faiths. It is harmful to our collective witness, and does violence to our faith, to treat other faiths dishonestly. It is not a threat to our own Christian faith to stand up in defense of those who may disagree with us, in fact, it is often exactly the opposite. We can regularly be like Jesus when we are willing to defend those who may rarely agree with us.