Years ago, George Vandeman wrote a little book entitled What I like about . . . that highlights various beliefs of other Christian denominations that harmonise with Adventist theology. I’ve thought about that book a number of times when I’ve interacted with non-Christians. You see, there are aspects in non-Christian faith communities that I “like”.
. . . it doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate aspects of other faiths, and even be challenged to live out our faith more fully by them.
Let’s start with Muslims. I particularly appreciate that Muslims generally take the prohibition on idols seriously. I always felt a twinge of embarrassment when Muslim representatives visited the General Conference and I had to explain that the statues of angels and Jesus in the foyer were not in fact graven images. My explanation sounded uncomfortably similar to the one I’d heard Catholics give to explain their images. Yes, I’m aware that the ark had cherubim and that Moses made a brass snake, and hence not all images are idols. But when we cross the line into making statues of Jesus, it feels uncomfortably close, doesn’t it?
Not only do Muslims generally avoid images, but they have developed the most beautiful, intricate art and architecture in its place. As much as I love Western art and architecture, there is nothing in either sphere that, in my view, surpasses the Islamic aesthetic; witness the Taj Mahal or the Alhambra.
Buddhism also has facets I “like”. I particularly appreciate the Buddhist focus on quiet contemplation. Our worship has become increasingly frenetic, but Ellen White calls us to contemplation, stating:
“It would be well for us to spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ. We should take it point by point, and let the imagination grasp each scene, especially the closing ones” (Desire of Ages, p 83).
When was the last time we did that? Would we even know how to sit in contemplation for an hour, letting our imagination wander over the life of Christ? Sometimes the voice of God doesn’t come in the wind and fury. Sometimes quiet meditation reveals far more than listening to rhetorical fireworks. In the spiritual realm, silence really can be golden.
Not too far removed from Buddhism is Hinduism. Central to its understanding of the way the universe operates is the concept of karma. Of course I don’t believe in karma—bad things happen to good people and vice versa—take for example Job. And we are saved by grace through faith, not by good works. But if we take Jesus at His word in Matthew 25, it’s hard to ignore what separates the sheep from the goats. According to Jesus and James (the epistle, not the editor), how we treat the poorest, most needy, the most desperate in this world, is a critical indicator of whether we are genuinely living in Christ’s grace. I sometimes wonder if we have become so preoccupied avoiding legalism that we’re in danger of neglecting the practicality of true religion.
While serious abuses often accompany animism, I appreciate that it generally involves a high degree of respect for the cycles and forces of nature. Modern society has largely lost this respect for God’s creation. Rather than appreciating the immense responsibility humans have to pass on an earth to future generations that is as good as the one we inherited, we are focused on extracting the highest economic value in the least possible time. Everything from our consumption patterns to our energy use is unsustainable, yet we march on as if destroying the planet we live on is the natural order of life. We have largely forgotten that Revelation tells us God will “destroy those who destroy the earth” (11:18).
Of course, for all the aspects we may appreciate about non-Christian faiths, there are many with which we fundamentally differ. And there is no room for syncretism in Christianity as salvation comes through the sacrifice of one Messiah. However, it doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate aspects of other faiths, and even be challenged to live out our faith more fully by them. That was certainly my experience when I visited the Sikh Gurdwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi and was shown its kitchen with pots as large as small cars. The scale was astonishing. The reason? Any hungry person in Delhi is welcomed for a free vegetarian meal at the Gurdwara. Now that is the kind of practical religious service we all can be inspired by, or, at the very least, “like”. Particularly if we’re hungry.
James Standish is editor of RECORD.