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Who is my Neighbor?

“The problem of acceptance with regard to other religions is closely related to the problem of the acceptance of diversity within the House of Islam itself.”1 

The preceding quote by Vincent Cornell, one of the West’s most prolific scholars of Islam, is one I’ve been pondering since first coming across it, precisely because this sentiment is just as relevant for Christians as it for Muslims. 

It is no coincidence that the very Christians who treat terms like “pluralism,” “multiculturalism,” and “interfaith” as dirty words are often the same ones that seek to cut other Christians off from the body of Christ – His Church. These Christians accuse Catholics of “worshipping” saints and the Orthodox of “worshipping” icons. Denominations that do not adhere to their particular biblical interpretation are frequently called “heretical” and accused of “watering down” the Christian faith. The Christians that claim these things typically do not belong to any specific denomination or tradition and are loosely identified as “fundamentalists.” As Jacob Prahlow states here, these Christians already “have all the answers.” Thus, any talk of dialogue or coexistence, either with other Christians or those of other faiths, falls on deaf ears. 

As Diana Eck articulates in her book A New Religious America, “for many Americans, religious pluralism is not a vision that brings us together but one that tears us apart.”2 We look nostalgically on America’s founding as a predominantly “Christian” nation, but fail to realize that this country was built by many Christianities, not just one. This means that our diversity has always been our strength, not our weakness. 

From my own personal experience, engaging in the academic study of Islam has greatly enhanced my understanding of certain Christian doctrines. Examining the Islamic concept of tawhid (“oneness” of God) has helped me to better grasp the Christian concept of the Trinity. Reading the beauty and brilliance of Sufi literature, especially Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, has led me to learn more about the Orthodox Church, which is steeped in a similar form of mysticism.

Learning about other faiths can teach us something about ourselves. It can also enhance our own faith, not by pointing out the faults in others or tearing down their beliefs, but by forcing us to ponder the things we believe more thoroughly. 

Of course, pluralism does not come without problems. Some in the interfaith movement adhere to a definition of pluralism that claims something akin to “all paths lead to salvation.” Indeed, this definition of pluralism does “water down” the Christian faith and reduces what makes each faith tradition distinct from the others. A proper definition of pluralism must allow each religious community the opportunity to retain their unique identity and beliefs.

With both the benefits and potential pitfalls of pluralism in mind, we must ask the question: how should Christians respond to pluralism, both within Christianity and regarding other faiths?

The answer to this question can be found in the teachings of Jesus.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus responds to the question of “who is my neighbor?” with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This parable tells the story of a man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite both purposefully cross to the other side of the road to avoid dealing with the situation as they walk by, but the third man to pass by, a Samaritan, stops to help the man going so far as to take him to an inn and pay for his stay. The man who helps his fellow man earns to the right to be called “neighbor” in the eyes of Jesus, and thus in the eyes of God (Luke 10:29-37). 

To understand the importance of this parable, one must understand the religious rivalries of this particular time in history. The Samaritans were a group despised by the dominant religious establishment in ancient Palestine. The Samaritans had their own house of worship outside of the Jerusalem Temple and used a different version of the Torah which included a slightly different rendition of the Ten Commandments.

 In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches us how to respond to religious pluralism. We as Christians must ask ourselves “who are today’s Samaritans?” Who in our society worships in a different house, use a different set of scriptures, or even interpret the Bible differently, yet are ridiculed or made to feel unwelcome? We must remember that those people, whether Mormon, Muslim, or even other Christians with whom we disagree, are indeed our neighbors. 

Pluralism does not mean we all have to agree or that any of us have to give up our deeply held convictions, it simply means loving and respecting our neighbors in spite of our disagreements.

It also means refusing to bear false witness against our neighbors. When we disagree, we must do so theologically and in good faith, not by distorting or lying about our neighbor’s beliefs or culture.

Let us remember the two greatest commandments according to Christ: 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

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Chris Smith

Chris Smith

Chris is currently employed as a library specialist for Middle Eastern language materials at Duke University. Prior to that he spent two years as a teaching assistant and Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He holds a M.A. in Religion from Wake Forest and a B.A. in Global Studies and Religious Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill. Chris has two daughters and currently resides in Chapel Hill, NC.

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