I remember it like it was yesterday; cracking open that old Baptist hymnal in the summer of 2007 to the first hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” (Robinson and Wyeth, 1759). “Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace” is how the first verse begins. The final refrain ends in resounding fashion: “Take my heart Lord, take a seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” It was the summer after my sophomore year at Northern Illinois University (hereafter NIU), and I was working for the pastor at a small Southern Baptist church just outside of DeKalb. Reading the words of this famous hymn, I suddenly felt the “call to ministry” that I had heard other Christians talk about—an unexplainable certainty that I had been set apart to serve God vocationally. As soon as I graduated from NIU in May 2009, I started drawing up plans for a new church that I would plant in a strip mall just across the street from NIU’s residence halls. Over the next two years, I saw the church grow from 5, to 15, to 30, to 75 students, and I had the privilege of baptizing 12 of them in a horse trough as students walking to their classes looked on with curiosity. Some even stuck around to watch, and joined in with applause as students were raised one by one from the water and embraced by their parents and friends. It was the most meaningful and thrilling work I had ever been a part of in my life. Like never before, I sensed that my purpose in life was coming to fruition.
In 2012, I had the chance to plant another church. This time, it would be on the campus of the College of DuPage, a large community college located in the Western suburbs of Chicago. In conjunction with planting this new church, I worked remotely on a master’s degree program in theology from a Southern Baptist seminary in Kansas City (Midwestern). At the time, I expected that this degree would enhance my knowledge of the Bible and sharpen my preaching for a lifetime of ministry. But when my church planting funding from the Southern Baptist Convention began to phase out in July 2012, this degree helped me secure a job that would change the course of my personal and professional life.
One day, I overheard someone mention that the College of DuPage was offering Old and New Testament courses. “I could teach those,” I thought. I was also eager to get more involved on the campus where my new church hosted services on the weekends. So I applied to be an adjunct professor. Thanks to a friend who was willing to recommend me personally, I received an interview just a few weeks later. I didn’t know what to expect; my resume was saturated with teaching experience, but only in Christian ministry settings. I hoped that it would be enough to teach Old and New Testament. However, it came as a complete shock when, as the interview came to an end, I was offered two sections of world religions to teach that upcoming fall. I hadn’t given non-Christian religions a second thought since I took a world religions course myself as a sophomore at NIU. Trying my best not to seem hesitant or apprehensive, I agreed. I also suspected that the opportunity would be a stepping stone to teaching Old and New Testament eventually. What’s one semester of world religion, anyway?
Well, one semester of world religion turned into two, then three, then four, and now it has been fourteen semesters of teaching what has become my favorite class. I did eventually get the chance to teach New Testament (once), but to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. Here’s why: in ways that I could have never possibly imagined or expected, studying and teaching the religions of the world strengthened my faith. Encountering the beliefs and practices of other religions prompted me to ask questions and explore contours of my Evangelical tradition that I never would have otherwise. For example, studying the divine embodiment of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism) prompted me to investigate how the divine embodiment of Jesus Christ was both similar and different. Studying the Jain doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) inspired me to revisit passages in the Bible that discuss creation-care. Studying the Dao De Jing (Daoism) gave me a fresh curiosity for biblical poetry and wisdom literature. I could go on. This interreligious learning didn’t just produce new questions and possibilities; it also illuminated problems within my own tradition. Allow me to give an example.
In the summer of 2015, thanks to a generous grant from the Office of Global Education at the College of DuPage, I was able to visit West Bengal in India. I stayed at an ashram on the banks of the Ganges River with a guru who ascribes to the Nimbarka tradition of Hinduism. During my visit, I was struck by the level of devotion he demonstrated toward his sisyas (disciples) and their spiritual development. Anywhere he went, his sisyas came along. He drew teaching moments out of everyday events and circumstances, and his sisyas hung onto his every word. When they ventured outside of the ashram together, he never postured himself above them in public. On one occasion, they all piled into the backseat of a taxi until they were virtually sitting on top of one another. Even though it would be a 45-minute drive, the guru didn’t seem to mind. Granted, the Nimbarka tradition ascribes to gurupasatti, the belief that one’s salvation is found in the guru alone. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder why I had not seen a similar kind of devotion from many Evangelical pastors toward the disciples in their “flock.” The New Testament Gospel narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) describe Jesus spending nearly every waking moment with his disciples as they traveled through Judea and Samaria sharing the Gospel. His teachings incorporated familiar cultural imagery or phenomena that they happened to encounter along the way. Furthermore, in Paul’s New Testament Epistles (letters), one discovers an impressive level of devotion shown by Paul toward his disciple, Timothy. His final letter to Timothy before his martyrdom in Rome begins in powerful fashion:
To Timothy, my beloved child: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. For this reason, I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control (2 Timothy 1:2-7, ESV).
Despite the bountiful resources in the New Testament to support a highly relational model of ministry, I was saddened to discover that a typical Evangelical pastor spends most of his or her time performing tasks in isolation such as sermon preparation and electronic correspondence instead of spending time with people. Most of the time spent with others is devoted to their church’s administrative needs. This leaves only a handful of hours to be present among church members, and these hours are usually dominated by heavily-bracketed visitation sessions that leave much to be desired (Kelly, 2010). As a result, most practicing Evangelical Christian adults have claimed that they do not meet with a spiritual mentor as part of their discipleship efforts (Stone, 2015). Because of my experiences at the ashram, I discovered that something important had been lost in Evangelical Christianity that needed recovery. In addition, I recognized that the guru embodied much of what had intrigued me about Jesus Christ in the first place; I wondered how Evangelicalism might change for the better if every pastor committed themselves to their budding ministry leaders as this guru did his sisyas. Differences of belief aside, was this guru really doing anything differently than the Christ of the New Testament, who devoted his daily ministry to the development of his disciples?
Some Evangelicals might think it strange or even unfaithful that I take other religions seriously, or that I look to my experiences with them as resources for critiquing or strengthening my Evangelical tradition. After all, isn’t the Bible sufficient “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”? (2 Timothy 3:16-17; emphasis mine). I believe it is. However, I also believe that sometimes, it is what is so clearly not featured in Biblical Scripture that entices one to become a more competent student of Scripture. One is driven to ask, “How might the Scriptures respond to this strange or intriguing new idea that I have encountered?” and “How might I articulate the Scriptures in such a way that people who subscribe to this alternative belief would understand them?” To put it more simply, sometimes it is the things we least expect that drive us back to the best parts of our own tradition with fresh ideas to enliven our faith.
There are more benefits to studying other religions: doing so has dismantled many of the fears and misconceptions that I had about them and their followers. Contrary to the norms of my tradition, now I am overjoyed to welcome the followers of other religions into my home and to be welcomed into theirs. I see the Imago Dei (Image of God) in them, despite how the rest of my theology regarding other religions is teased out. This alone is enough for me to listen attentively, take their felt needs seriously, and to treat them with dignity. I am no longer afraid talk about their religious beliefs with them, as I can now engage intelligently with their traditions without the fear of misrepresenting them. On almost every occasion when these conversations take place, I observe that a sense of relief comes over them. They are free to express their most deeply held beliefs, and they are in presence of someone who has studied them and respects them. I’ve found that a genuine friendship is developed a lot faster that way. Many Evangelical Christians would agree that a genuine friendship is the preferred place to start if the goal is to bear a testimony that is “gracious, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:9).
In every world religion class I teach, someone asks me which religious tradition I belong to. I make it a point to share this openly. When students find out that I am an Evangelical Christian, many are astonished. “You’re so fair toward all of the religions,” they typically remark. Almost instantly, I can see that their respect for my religious tradition has grown. A student once told me, “I genuinely had a hard time figuring out which religion you follow. You seem so passionate about all of them!” Anticipating that some students might be unsure if they can still trust me, I proceed to talk about the ways that studying the religions of the world has benefited me as an Evangelical Christian, as a thinker, as a citizen, and as an aspiring scholar. My aim is for them to realize that being committed to a particular religious tradition does not need to be a hindrance to taking other religions seriously. My ultimate hope, however, is that they will realize that being fair and even charitable toward the claims of other religions does not preclude one from being faithful to their own tradition. For me, it is part of what it means to be a faithful Evangelical Christian. When I observe fellow Evangelicals speaking rashly and haphazardly about the claims of other religions and their followers, particularly from the pulpit on Sunday mornings, it makes me uncomfortable. Particularly common are inaccurate (and convenient) generalizations like “all religions besides Christianity believe in a salvation by good deeds,” and even worse, harmful stereotypes like “Islam is an inherently violent religion.” Some might claim that they say these things for the sake of simplicity to get a larger point across. However, I consider instances like these as bearing false witness about others, which God forbids (Exodus 20:16). However, this isn’t just a matter of holiness, but an opportunity to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). Evangelicals are especially sensitive when others (like the “liberal media”) mischaracterize or caricature our beliefs. When we speak knowledgeably, carefully, and fairly about other religions and their followers, we are simply extending the same treatment that we hope others would extend to us.
Through all of this, my constant hope and prayer is that more Evangelical Christians would recognize and rally behind this: that it is not by ignoring, misrepresenting, or slandering other religions and their followers that one demonstrates Christian faithfulness and attracts people to our Savior. It’s by doing the exact opposite. I’ve seen this in my own life repeatedly. The labor pays off when students feel safe to ask me questions before, during, and after class on days that I teach Christianity. When I give answers to these questions, my students can trust that I am striving to be even-handed, even when it might appear that my answers are especially charitable toward Christianity. They know that I would have answered questions about other religions with the same level of care and enthusiasm. When their questions pertain to my personal beliefs, I am presented with the opportunity to “give an account for the hope that is in [me]…with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). However, I am careful to do so within my professional parameters and in harmony with the course’s expected learning outcomes. I can show my students that one can be a loyal ambassador of their religion and a loyal advocate for the values and goals of their public institution.
What interests me most in higher education is how environments designed to promote interreligious learning and dialogue (like world religion classrooms) might draw more religious conservatives and benefit from their contributions. Religious conservatives generally bring a passion for their religious texts, a strong commitment to their religious communities and places of worship, and an eye for the eternal over the temporal. They typically prioritize their religious identities over their political identities. Some might see these characteristics as liabilities or distractions in interreligious environments. However, I think they could serve as necessary correctives in interreligious environments that have become exceedingly politicized in nature, where only one side of the aisle is usually present (political and religious progressives). This isn’t to say that religious conservatives don’t have much to learn from religious progressives; they most certainly do. Religious conservatives are often criticized for their lack of concern for social justice, and too often, this critique is valid. I call this critical emphasis on social justice and inclusion the “inter” of interreligious. However, what about the “religious” part? This is where I hypothesize religious conservatives could contribute in meaningful ways. They could help ensure that social justice and inclusion efforts are founded on religious/moral and not just civic/political rationale; that religion is valued for religion’s sake, and not just as a tool for fighting political battles. They could help ensure that religious literacy beyond the lowest common denominators of each tradition remains a central pursuit. Most importantly, the presence of religious conservatives would ensure that interreligious environments are really preparing students for all of the complexities of religious diversity in the real world.
I recognize that all of this will take time. Speaking for my own tradition, it will also require more Evangelical models to rise up and set a course for others to follow. It will require more Evangelical educators to adopt religious diversity as a topic of study and scholarship. It will require more Evangelical student affairs staff to invest in the design and implementation of interreligious programming. For all Evangelicals in higher education (and beyond), it will require us to recognize that how we address religious diversity will determine the notoriety of our faith and message in the years to come. We have made many mistakes in this area; many in our tribe are guilty of belittling or ignoring the needs of our religious neighbors out of fear. However, we have an opportunity, perhaps now more than ever, to ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt and change our course. I never imagined that I would play a role in this. But I’m committed to this pursuit, because I’ve come to realize that a “calling” need not only be to vocational ministry, at least as I understood it back in that church office in 2007. It is what you couldn’t imagine yourself not doing, and where you can have the greatest impact as an ambassador for Christ. I never imagined that it would be teaching world religions and promoting interreligious dialogue. But then again, as Christians like to say, “God works in mysterious ways.”
Kelly, Mark (2010, January 5). LifeWay Research Finds Pastors' Long Work Hours Come at Expense of People, Ministry. LifeWay Research. Retrieved from http://www.lifeway.com/Article/LifeWay-Research-finds-pastors-long-work-hours-can-come-at-the-expense-of-people-ministry.
Stone, Roxy Lee (2015, December 1). New Research on the State of Discipleship. Research Releases in Leaders and Pastors. Retrieved from https://www.barna.com/research/new-research-on-the-state-of-discipleship/.