I Have Called You Friends

A recent afternoon adventure took me to a Hindu temple for the first time, namely, the Siva-Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Maryland.

The one thing we never talked about in seminary was how to appreciate another’s religious tradition. Well, that’s not entirely accurate; we were taught to appreciate it in order to dismantle it and win people over to evangelical Christianity. And here I was, watching men and women and children worship in an effusive whirl of saris and songs and delicious food.

And I, doing my best to be reverent and not knock anything over, found myself joining in silently, using what prayers I knew: “Come, Heavenly Comforter and Spirit of Truth, blowing everywhere and filling all things…” And there was joy, and beauty, and a tasty meal afterwards.

Because Abraham’s kids all live on the same block, it’s easy enough to engage in those conversations that drag us into the realm of the spiritual; it’s easy to live on the borders of faith when we all claim religious descent from a tribe of kooky Levantine nomads. What about those traditions that are simply not-of-this-floodplain?

The impulse of conservative religion is to dismiss another religion’s traditions as “demonic idol worship,” or perhaps with the more genteel othering of “false teaching.” On the other hand, the impulse of liberal religion is to blur the outlines of each tradition’s understanding of the deity. “Jesus Christ was an avatar of Vishnu,” one well-meaning ecumenist may say; “Allah is another name of Yahweh,” says another.

Perhaps the same Christ who says “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” also dances on the back of ignorance, or brings mountains of medicine (his own flesh and blood?) to heal those to whom he is devoted. But Christ is not Shiva nor is he Hanuman, and I have no desire for him to be because Siva and Hanuman deserve their own share of the collective unconscious’ airtime.

On the contrary, however, that’s not to say that those traditions don’t give me new ways of imagining Christ, or of understanding his work in the world. In that sense I’m not a theological liberal, because at the end of the day Christ remains unique, but I’m not a theological conservative either, because I would hope that I have the openness of heart as a follower of Christ to be able to embrace other people for whom the Christ I know and follow is still a stranger–even with enough humility to learn from their traditions.

Perhaps there are many paths to the Christ who is reconciling the world to God in his body. But that is not for me to say, because at the end of the day the language I have been given for the divine is that of the Christian story in which Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” That’s what I speak in; that’s what I know, what fits like a beloved pair of jeans. But neither is my faith threatened by the faiths of others; in fact, the devotion of another can (and does!) fan the flame of my own devotion to Christ.

For me, Christ is a scrappy Jewish peasant with a penchant for wonderworking, who gave his followers his very life in a sacred meal and called them–called us!–his friends. The greatest goal, the uttermost thing, “the only thing worthwhile,” says St Gregory of Nyssa, “is becoming God’s friend.” And Jesus has called us friends. Not devotees or followers, not servants or disciples, but friends.

That being the case, I think it only fitting that those of us whom Christ called friends in turn go outside of the perimeter of the Christian tradition to find those other people whom God is calling into friendship with God, with enough openness to embrace God’s friends wherever they can be found. That, friends, is sharing good news: “you are a friend of God.”

As a Christian, I’ve got no issue attending a seder or sharing prasadam–whatever is offered as hospitality is offered to the Christ who “plays in ten thousand places,” and whose capricious weaving together of all creation means he might show up here and there in naught but calligraphy, or elsewhere with breasts, or perhaps a tail or blue skin, or even on a chalkboard somewhere as a mathematical formula. A shocking suggestion, perhaps–but is it so shocking that the trickster Holy Spirit would use whatever means are at her disposal to make friends with all people?

Maybe we should be shocked at the work of the Holy Spirit.

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