Interfaith sensibilities: The value of engagement

Urban Shalom is a new Salt&Light series focusing on what it means to be a missional church community in a local urban neighbourhood.

Chng Eu Lee // February 13, 2019, 8:45 am


Photo by Chuttersnap on Unsplash

My experience with working with people from other faiths started in 2005: After the Asian Tsunami, I was part of a team that started work rehabilitating a devastated community in the region.

That experience exposed me to questions like:

  • If I understand God to be working in human cultures and histories, where is the evidence of God working in that community?
  • How should I be faithful to the Great Commission in such a challenging context? 
  • How do I engage with others from a different faith, while still remaining faithful to the Christian faith?

I’m sure such questions have arisen in discourse around interfaith engagements, but living them out amongst my friends there was a unique experience.

Our friends could never fathom why we would spend so much time and resources to help them.

Perhaps one of the most encouraging encounters was when we first started our relief efforts. We were asked, cynically: “Why are you here?” as we were clearly not experienced in delivery aid.

A few years later, that same question was asked very differently. The tone of hostility had become one of incredulity.

That shift in tone was a result of our presence, humility and genuine love for the people. Our friends could never fathom why we would spend so much time and resources to help them, when they were getting almost nothing from others.

Common ground

We must recognise that Christianity is not a religion of the majority in the Singapore context and hence, to fulfil the command to “love our neighbour as ourselves” (Mark 12:30-31) and to bear witness to Christ, we will have to engage the pluralistic society.

We cannot remain in our churches. Christianity is meant to engage the public square and, in our urban society, to seek the welfare of the city – following the instruction of Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7).

Seeking shalom requires us to collaborate with others who are on the same journey to seek peace and justice.

Seeking shalom (peace) requires us to identify and collaborate with others who are on the same journey to seek peace and justice, regardless of faith, world view, religious practices and spirituality.

The following affirmations can help guide our relations with people of other faiths:

  1. We value our common identity as God’s creation in His own image. We are to relate to others and be prepared to give the reason for our hope with humility and respect (1 Peter 3:15).
  2. We believe that God loves all people and wills people to flourish. He commands us to love the other (Romans 13:8).
  3. As Christians, our responsibility is to contribute to the common good of society, regardless of race, creed or gender. (“Common good” is defined as a state of the system that promotes human and social flourishing. It is essential to a well-functioning state.)

Aquinas’ example 

I would like to draw on Thomas Aquinas’ approach and some principles that might serve as a framework for us as we grapple with working with those of other faiths and bearing witness in humility and respect.

Aquinas was a 13th century Dominican missionary who lived a life that modelled a great willingness to become all things to all people in order to save some, reminiscent of Paul.

His mission practice involved entering the story and retelling the story.

Entering the story is an attempt to understand the dynamics of another faith’s theology.

By entering the story, Aquinas enters into another faith’s story of God. He understands their concept of God in their terms and thought forms, using the same sources that the theologians use.

In areas of disagreement on peripheral issues, he chooses not to debate further.

Entering the story is an attempt to understand the dynamics of another faith’s theology; it’s an openness that will lead to being included in their community. 

For us, one might start by using art, architecture, poetry, literature and faith texts to understand another faith’s worldview. This means that we need to take a genuine interest in others, building relationships and even celebrating festivals with them.

It can start with a simple hello, asking their opinion on certain issues and genuinely listening to them and learning what matters most to them.

In retelling the story, the Christian demonstrates that the other person’s argument is mastered, such that it can be recited the same way. It is an affirmation that the story is fully understood. 

Purposeful collaboration

From my personal experience, retelling their story from their perspective strengthens trust and lays the foundation for further theological discussion, allowing us to engage at a deeper level.

Aquinas’ approach offers this whenever we are engaging with others of a different faith: Be firm with our Christian commitments, act on those commitments missionally, but do not let them separate us from those we seek to bear witness to.

The focus is always on a social problem, seeking common ground to collaborate.

Seeking understanding, showing respect and demonstrating love – this framework underpins his success in missions.

A possible application of Aquinas’ principle is in exploring Scriptures together to look for a response to a present reality. Examples of issues that show great promise for collaboration are: addressing the stigma of HIV/AIDS, ending violence against children, maternal and child health, gender-based violence, etc.

Those issues have been the centre of World Vision’s Channels of Hope programme, used globally to address issues of stigma and discrimination through the communities’ own faith traditions.

Often, it is conducted with various faith groups, where each group digs into their teachings and faith traditions. The focus is always on a social problem, learning what each faith tradition and scripture has to contribute, seeking common ground to collaborate.

Narrowing the divide

Engaging other faiths around a common good is a critical step toward building bridges with those who share with us the same convictions on justice, peace and the flourishing of human lives.

Such collaboration is required in a religiously pluralistic society for the sake of promoting the common good and, for Christians, to have an opportunity to bear witness to the Kingdom of God.

Engaging other faiths around a common good is a critical step toward building bridges.

We need to have a clear affirmation of the uniqueness of Christ in Christian revelation and to avoid two different polarities: extreme conservatism that sees nothing good or redeemable in other faiths, and religious pluralism which recognises no differences between Christianity and other faiths.

Somewhere in between is where we should be, but determining where needs further reflection.

May we continue to build link-ways to others we exclude, especially those of other faiths. The goals of human flourishing, community resilience and the space to demonstrate and proclaim the Gospel must surely be the motivation for us to do so.

Some questions to help guide our theological reflections:

  1. What are our prejudices or theological barriers towards working with other faith groups?
  2. Are we convinced that there is a case for working with other faith groups towards the common good? If not, why not?
  3. What are some of the first steps you can take to foster a stronger relationship with other faith groups?
  4. In what ways can churches and Christian organisations support you as you explore working with other faith groups?
About the author

Chng Eu Lee

Eu Lee is living his calling of helping people out of poverty and seeing lives transformed by the power of the Gospel. Since 2005, he has been involved in working in communities affected by disasters and extreme poverty. He is currently working in a Christian organisation that allows him to fulfil his calling.