In his visit to India, Dr. Howard Thurman sat often with Gandhi. In the midst of one conversation, the Mahatma asked him: People have done, and continue to do, horrible things in the name of Christ. Violence is perpetrated on the weak, the poor are abused, the disadvantaged marginalized. Why do you come to me professing the faith of Christ, when it stands for such abhorrence?
Indeed, why? I think it important first to separate the faith from the man. The man is not altogether responsible for his faith; it is a gift. And, just as any other gift, it may be abused, misused, or altogether discarded. But the amazing character of faith itself, that great gift, is such that its light is never fully snuffed out. There is enough capacity in us to put it to good use, but not enough to destroy it.
It is important, however, to recognize how easily we may abuse faith. For our own ends, ends terminable and without much great import but temporary satisfaction, faith is often employed in countless “projects.” This is not pure faith, but adulterated faith. Indeed, it is not really faith anymore at all, for a faith that is true faith is not used as a weapon or tool, but it absorbed. It roams free and does as it wills, according to the will of the one who gave it to us.
Which is why we must not call Christianity by the same name we call Christians. Dr. Thurman knew this well, enough to respond fully to the Mahatma that the deeds of Christians over the many centuries are not excusable because of their faith, nor entirely justified by faith, but are the acts of fallible men both absorbing and abusing that great gift from their God.
The extension to other traditions is not so far afield. I do not go into a Jewish synagogue and confess a new faith; I do not chant with Hindus in the temple and adopt a new God. The experiential nature of interfaith community is such that we must immerse ourselves in the other so that we may come to understand, not so that our faith may be changed. That is to say, the power of God to do what he wills is beyond us; I believe that faith will act as it is meant to, and is not in danger of being ruptured because it experiences new articulations and expressions of belief. Quite the contrary, I think to feel, to hear, to see, to know these others expressions is to inform our own faith. For as we all confess, we cling to a belief in what is unbelievable, and profess in simple words what is beyond complexity. We are short the precise elements that would reach our faith, our God, full-fold. And if our expression is enriched by others, why should we condemn them? We are no more claimants to the truth than they; and rather than pretending one is right and the other wrong, we would do us both a justice by preserving the truth of each.
I mean to say that faith is not stagnant, nor can it be expressed in one way only. We are all human beings, and yet eminently different; the same can be said of our beliefs. All Catholics do not profess precisely the same faith, but all are Catholic. What is different within the religion that enables diversity in community? Why indeed can that same balance not exist on a grander level—among religions?
You are tempted, I know, to return to ultimate questions, claiming that there cannot be communion. Yes, there are disagreements, but I reiterate that the goal is not conversion; it is understanding. It is knowing the roots of a people who believe and practice their belief in a certain way. It is admitting to the cultural, historical, economic, sociological, and deeply human influences which drive the development of a religious tradition. So often we read a line or two of a sacred text, and take umbrage and what it seems to mean to us. But we forget we are creatures in context, as those who drafted the lines we read. Not only are the lines themselves taken out of context, but so are the people who wrote them. And ourselves, for that matter—unwilling to recognize that where we stand in our faith is in no small part the work of the world in which we have lived and the lives we have led.
I am indeed Christian, and I cling to Christian faith because it is what resonates within me. But I do not pretend to have the answer about all answers, nor do I hope that the indelible truth of my convictions will someday be brought into the wide light to outshine the mockery of other so-called truths. Let us reach for common ground before we reach for difference: We are one people, one race, searching deeply for meaning in the context of our existence. There is, you’ll find, much to say in the same language about what we reach for.
So I call you not to put away your faith, but to hold to it, and open your minds and hearts to the possibility of understanding the faith expressions of others. It is no easy thing to take the truth you think you know, and pair it, face à face, with those so seemingly at odds. But if you give yourself the benefit of patient observation and open-hearted participation, you may come know why this people reaches toward a god in this way, and the other reaches in that way.
You may even, dare I say it, come to reach differently yourself. And let us not assume, from any point, that we reach and have answers. If we had them, my friends, we wouldn’t need to reach for anything, and the questions of truth and rightness might be far more easily settled.