Throughout my life I have found God in places that He wasn’t supposed to be, at least not according to the faith I was raised in. These, often seemingly paradoxical, experiences prepared me to see God in the sacred writings of Eastern religious traditions completely unrelated to Christianity.
During my travels I’ve felt like God smiled while I danced with child soldiers in Africa and got goose bumps singing rock and roll at a Midwestern Bible Camp. When I returned home and began to process these encounters I was confused. I couldn’t reconcile the Scriptures with my experiences.
With a taste for adventure, I wanted to discover just how big God was, but I wasn’t quite sure where to turn. So I looked East and tried to discover what the Asian traditions knew of God, and look for signs of God’s Spirit in their sacred writings. I decided to use the Apostle Paul’s “fruit of the spirit” as my litmus test for the work of the Spirit: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal. 5:22)
So I thought, where better to start than Gandhi? After all, everyone always spoke highly of him. As I read his autobiography I was shocked to hear him speak intimately of his relationship with God: The existence of God is proved not by extraneous evidence but in the transformed conduct and character of those who have felt the real presence of God within. Such testimony is to be found in the experiences of an unbroken line of prophets and sages in all countries and climes.
It struck me that Gandhi was experiencing the real presence of God within, and it had transformed his life. I read on as he exemplified these biblical fruits of the spirit, and even pointed to Jesus as his inspiration. All this was too much to ignore, and I began to suspect that God was at work, even outside of Christianity.
Jesus’ words have helped me to make sense of these faithful people from other traditions. He said, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:16)
Maybe the Spirit of God was calling people of different faiths, and this same Spirit was helping me to see this work. I began to voraciously read the world’s sacred texts. And while I found many important differences between religions (including many things I disagreed with) I found a voice of truth in each scripture.
In the Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu I read words that spoke to the heart of Jesus’ message: The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those who think that they know.
Lao Tzu in 600BC seemed to be speaking of a Master much like Jesus. “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:38-39). The Lao Tzu passage even echos themes found in Mary’s Magnificat, “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the holy; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” (Luke 1:46-55)
I began hearing the voices of God-seekers around the world and I felt my calling was to proclaim the Gospel as standing among and clarifying the other great traditions.
I am now convinced that people of all faiths need to work together to celebrate what God has done in their lives. We will not all agree on theology, but true believers can share the love that God has put in our hearts.
Experiencing the Spirit of God in different traditions has challenged my faith. I now believe that we must celebrate what God is doing in other traditions while remaining faithful to our own convictions. My hope is that Christians can begin to see Sufi Muslims the way Catholics currently see Presbyterians.
We are called to celebrate faithfulness, while being willing to participate in vigorous debate where we disagree. I will end with the words I hear from a Monk on Greek mountain top: “we do not need to speculate on where God is or is not, but only confess where we have seen God and invite others to meet God with us.”