Chaim Potok wrote in 'The Book of Lights' about two American rabbis, both army chaplains, in Japan during the Korean War. They passed a Japanese man praying devoutly beside the roadside shrine. One rabbi said to the other, 'Do you think our God is listening to this man?' He went on, 'If our God is not listening, what do we mean when we say "God"? And if he is listening, what do we mean when we say "we"?'
'God is dead, Marx is dead, and I don't feel too good myself!' In a pluralistic culture we are more aware of others' beliefs.
A missionary in Nigeria visited a young man in back street of Lagos. On his bedside table were the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the Koran, three copies of Watchtower (magazine of the Jehovah's Witnesses), a biography of Karl Marx, a book of Yoga exercises, and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie.
These days we travel more, TV shows documentaries of foreign cultures, students study abroad, multiculturalism in the West is here to stay...
Intolerance is increasing too. Militant Hindus have a motto 'Save India from Christian imperialism!' Many Moslem countries make it a punishable offense to proselytize. Then there's Lebanon, and Iraq, and Sudan... Religion and politics can be volatile subjects, particularly when they mix.
Something else is new. People (to paraphrase T.S.Eliot) have left God not for other gods, they say, but for no gods; and this has never happened before. It is possible both to deny gods and worship gods - gods like rationality, money, power, sport etc. And it will all lead to an age advancing progressively backwards...
Of all the world's religions, Christianity has the greatest number of followers (33%), followed by Islam (18%), Hinduism (13%), and Buddhism (6%).
What is religion? Definitions are legion: 'what we do with our solitariness'; 'how we relate to others'; 'our answer to fear'; 'an ultimate attempt to enlarge and complete one's personality by finding the supreme context in which we rightly belong'. Everyone is religious, in some sense.
Although Freud termed religion 'mass neurosis' -- religious believers were infantile, unable to break outgrown ties with their parents -- Carl Jung said of his patients over thirty-five, 'all have been people whose problem in the last resort was that of finding a religious outlook on life.'
There is an increasing hunger for religious reality. 'Baby-boomers' and Gen-Xers are not in church as often as their elders in a previous generation, but they claim to be as religious. They read Shirley Maclaine and play around with the New Age movement. In a noisy world people searching for 'God who is Sound and Silence' as the Maitri Upanishad puts it are going in larger numbers to Buddhist monasteries and Hindu ashrams -- places of quiet serenity, simple life-style, meditation, brief talks and questions. More young people are reading the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the Chinese I Ching, or do Yoga, transcendental meditation or Zen courses.
Take Gandhi for example. Let's ask the hard questions in order: Was Gandhi a Christian? No, as we saw in the movie, Gandhi, although he admired Jesus, he lived and died a Hindu. But E. Stanley Jones said of him: 'He taught me more of the spirit of Christ than anyone in East or West.'
A harder question: Is Gandhi in heaven? Christians offer three broad answers: (1) Conservative Christians have their doubts. The principle of Karma (cause and effect - paying off your own guilt) is poles apart from grace (God's free forgiveness, which you don't deserve). Augustine's theology inspired western Christians to believe that those outside the church are dammed. A more refined view might be Karl Barth's 'Religion is unbelief', or Hendrik Kraemer's conviction that non-Christian religions were not means of salvation in any sense.
However, others would argue, what kind of God would organize for most of his human creatures to burn in hell forever - many of them because, by accident of birth, or the disobedience of the Christian minority to evangelize, they had never heard the gospel? Is he not the Father of Jesus, who prayed for those who crucified him? Does he not want all to be saved and come to know the truth (1 Timothy 2:3,4)?
(2) More liberal Christians would answer: 'Be tolerant. There's value in all religions. They all lead ultimately to God. Of course Gandhi is with him!' The problem with this view is its failure to take seriously the question of truth. If the original Christians were 'liberal' there would have been no mission, no universal Church.
(3) Is there a way between these two extremes? Yes, the more cautious say 'Only God knows: our eternal destiny is in his hands alone'. With evangelicals like Howard Guinness (The Seekers) or JND Anderson (Christianity and Comparative Religion) they ask: Does God 'accept' only people within the 'covenant community' - whether Jewish (in the OT) or Christian (in the NT)? No: what about Melchisedek, Rahab, and Cornelius? Certainly Jesus Christ is unique, and Divine: he alone was God in human form. We are not to take everyone's views, mix them up, and get an identikit picture of God. Jesus is the only way to God. But that may not mean that only Christians are saved (see Romans 2:11-16).
Roman Catholics, at the Second Vatican Council, moved from extra ecclesiam nulla alus (outside the Church, no salvation) to 'The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in other religions.' Devotees of non-Christian religions may be 'implicit believers' or, in Karl Rahner's phrase, 'anonymous Christians'. Hans Kung says these religions may provide ordinary, whereas the Christian Gospel provides extraordinary means of salvation.
Don Richardson (Eternity in Their Hearts), says God has revealed himself to more people than we might imagine. The one invisible God is resident in many folk religions. Christianity doesn't replace this revelation, he says, but completes it. Pachacuti, King of the Incas, led a religious reform in the 1400s encouraging his people to worship Viracocha, the Creator, rather than Inti, the sungod. His hymns to Viracocha sound like the Hebrew Psalms. When missionaries came to the Santals in India in the 1800s, they found a tradition about Thakur Jiu, 'the Genuine God'. Many became Christians. The Chinese had Shang Ti, the Lord of heaven. The Karens of Burma believed in Y'wa, the true God.
Non-Christian religions are a testimony to people's search for God. They may be far from the God of Jesus, but God is not far from any one of them. God cares for all his human creatures with a love we who are biassed in favour of those who are like us can't imagine. His rain falls on the just and the unjust...
All religions have good and evil elements. As novelist Mary McCarthy observed: religion makes good people good and bad people bad. Christians have burnt heretics, Jews robbed Palestinians of lands and homes, some Hindus still burn widows (sati), tribal witchdoctors put curses on people, Moslems wage religious wars. (An eminent Egyptian scholar said privately to Hendrik Kraemer: 'I no longer believe in Islam but, if anyone were to attack the prophet publicly, I would kill him!'). Never forget that Jesus was rejected and sent to his death by people who belonged to a highly moral and spiritual religion. But, you say, well, Christianity has sanctioned evil, but in essence it is good. True: people from other religions say the same of their faiths too.
Christianity, said Karl Barth, stands as much under the judgment of the Gospel as other religions. Roman Catholicism will be judged for the Inquisition; and the Protestant John Calvin for standing by as Geneva burned the 'heretic' Servetus...
Will everyone be saved? George Macdonald says all answers to such a question are deceptive. Two things are certain: all who are saved are saved through Jesus Christ. And a merciful God can handle the judgment of his loved creatures without our help! Jesus said everyone's going to be surprised at the last judgment. We should aim to be secure in our own faith, and be open-minded about matters that are God's prerogative.
So why evangelize? To get them into heaven? Yes, but there are better motives: the glory of God, obedience to Christ, and sincere love for others. Although Christ is not known everywhere, he is everywhere. We are called to make him known, not to make him present.
Some don'ts and do's in evangelism: Don't major on the faults in other religions: the faults in your own are bad enough. Don't argue: you may win the argument but lose the person: today the world is a conference table not a lecture hall, so learn to listen as well as you talk. Above all, be compassionate: Jesus preached judgment on Jerusalem when it rejected him, but he also wept for the city. Share your faith, as a beggar sharing bread with another beggar. Ask 'What are my friend's felt needs?', and start there. (An African proverb says 'Hungry people have no ears!'). Invite overseas students home: perhaps your family could 'adopt' one. (Most in the Book of Acts were converted while away from home). Teach English to someone.
And, beyond all that, remember Jesus' approach to Nicodemas. This cultured man wanted to talk about the contrasts between Jesus' teaching and that of Judaism. The conversation started courteously enough, but very soon Jesus said to him 'You must be born again!'
That is still the essence of the good news - even for the very religious.