Living Faithfully with Those of Other Faiths—An Interview with Dr. Ivan Satyavrata
In this short interview, Ivan Satyavrata (PhD, Oxford Centre for Mission Studies) shares theological and practical insight on how to navigate the potential difficulties of relationship with those of different faiths. Ivan serves as Senior Pastor of a multilingual congregation of about 4,000 in Kolkata, India, whose social outreach provides education and basic health care for over 25,000 children. His interests include Christian witness to people of other faiths and the Christian response to social issues. He has authored two books: Holy Spirit, Lord and Life Giver (IVF) and God Has Not Left Himself Without Witness (Regnum).
Ivan will be teaching Jesus and Other Faiths at Regent this summer.
What can today’s churches learn from the early church’s encounter with non-Christian religions?
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an
answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that
you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” 1 Pet 3:15.
The early church believers were unapologetically Christ-centered, yet shared Christ sensitively and respectfully. Their responses were always reasonable, in that they always tried to affirm common ground and sought to build bridges before they communicated the good news—the unique story of the Christ-event. We see this spelled out most clearly in Paul’s approach to the people of Athens in Acts 17:23: “For as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.” The early Greek church fathers followed the same approach, particularly in their application of John’s logos concept in showing the relevance of Christ to the Graeco-Roman world.
What should be our response to Religious Pluralism?
I think it is essential to distinguish between “religious plurality,” which is simply the social reality of life in the twenty-first century resulting from multiculturalism, the by-product of globalization, and “religious pluralism,” an ideology which sees all faiths as more or less equally true and adequate solutions to the human predicament. Religious pluralism’s powerful attraction lies in its being promoted as the only reasonable basis for global peace in a world torn by conflict due largely to religious dissonance and strife. Despite its emotional appeal, however, religious pluralism is unconvincing logically, empirically, and ethically as basis for life in the twenty-first century. It also represents the greatest threat not just to Christian witness, but also to the survival of the Christian faith itself.
My own life and ministry are nourished by the deep conviction that a robust and vibrant Christ-centred faith enables us to embrace, even celebrate, religious and cultural diversity with greater authenticity than the shifting sands of a “post-truth” religious pluralism.
How should we react when the religious experience of those of other faiths seems similar to our own?
Religious experience in other faiths has no more than formal similarity with Christian experience of God in Christ. Some form of prayer, meditation, subjective experiences of peace or joy, and some expressions of the paranormal may be common to the religious experiences of different faiths. But Christian faith and experience is unique because it is grounded in the Christ-event—the claim that in the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth we have God’s decisive self-disclosure, that in his life, death, and resurrection God has dealt decisively with the human problem of sin, and made a way for all humankind to be restored to right relationship with himself. There is nothing in any of the religions of the world similar to the person or story of Christ. What we may rightly look for and find helpful in engaging people of other faiths is “common ground” or “bridges”—points of contact based on general revelation and our common humanness, as we invite people of other faiths to join us in our journey with Christ—the way, the truth, and the life.
How can I walk alongside those of other faiths who don’t seem interested in Christianity?
We must have conviction, humility, and authenticity. Conviction: be clear about what it means to be a Christ-follower and convinced about the truth and power of the good news of Jesus. Humility: there’s absolutely no room for arrogance if we understand undeserved grace that’s at the heart of the Christian gospel. Our posture: one beggar telling another one where to find bread. Authenticity: we must have a personal relationship with Jesus that’s real and vibrant—manifested in vulnerability, joy and hope that’s real. Without these, … stay away from people of other faiths—you might do more damage to the cause of Christ and cause more hurt than help to the person alongside whom you seek to walk.