There is much in the Bible, The Book of Confessions, Book of Order, and documents officially adopted by the General Assembly that leads these institutions to embrace religious diversity.
In John 20:19-29 the risen Jesus appears to ten of his former disciples. Later those disciples tell their story to an eleventh disciple, Thomas, but he refuses to believe that Jesus has really risen from the dead. Jesus eventually appears to Thomas and he proclaims faith in the risen Christ.
As we think about embracing religious diversity at Presbyterian-related colleges, one particular verse from John’s story is especially interesting. After the disciples tell Thomas they have seen Jesus and he refuses to believe them, John 20:26 says, Eight days later, the disciples were again in the house and Thomas was with them.
Consider this compelling scene. According to this story, for eight days ten of Jesus’ disciples had one distinct and particular religious perspective, while another, Thomas, had a radically different view of things.
But, according to John 20:26, they had stayed together for a week!
The atmosphere on our campuses is a little like that scene at the beginning of John 20:26. There is not unanimity about fundamental theological truths. That single verse includes three features that help us consider embracing religious diversity at Presbyterian-related institutions.
First, all eleven disciples act with humility. Neither Thomas nor the other ten tried to impose their particular perspective on the others in the story. They seem to have remained appropriately humble in their mutual attitudes.
Humility is an important feature of the Presbyterian Church’s approach to interfaith issues and it should always be part of our understanding of religious diversity on our campuses. In Micah 6:8, the prophet summarizes the behavior God expects from people of faith, calling them to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”
In 1999, the 211th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church adopted two papers that are useful for understanding the Presbyterian approach to religious diversity: “Building Community Among Strangers”, and “Presbyterian Principles for Interfaith Dialogue.”
Humility is an important part of embracing religious pluralism on Presbyterian-related campuses.
The behavior of the disciples in John 20:26 is also characterized by hospitality. Thomas and the other ten had stayed together and welcomed each other in spite of their different experiences. There is nothing in the story to suggest that either party expected the other to abandon its particular perspective. Despite their genuine disagreement, Thomas hadn’t left and the other ten hadn’t banished him.
Hospitality is another important part of the Presbyterian Church’s understanding of interfaith relations. From the call in Deuteronomy 10:19 to love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt to the exemplary behavior of the sheep in Matthew 25:35 (“I was a stranger and you welcomed me”), the Bible consistently calls on people of faith to exhibit hospitality.
The Confession of 1967 states that Christians must approach all religions with openness and respect.
“Presbyterian Principles for Interfaith Dialogue” declares that:
We respect both others’ God-given humanity and the seriousness of their spiritual quests and commitments.
Finally, John 20:26 suggests a situation characterized by honesty. Neither Thomas nor the other ten had equivocated about their understanding of the truth. While welcoming interaction and not trying to impose their perspectives on the other, both Thomas and the ten were honest about their own faith, about the particular way that they understood things.
Such honesty is also an essential feature of the Presbyterian Church’s understanding of religious diversity. “Presbyterian Principles of Interfaith Dialogue” states:
We recognize the integrity of others’ religious traditions yet we avoid any attempt to create some new religious community by merging our separate identity with theirs.
This is a commitment to remain honest about our own religious commitments even as we engage others with humility and hospitality.
One final quote from “Presbyterian Principles for Interfaith Dialogue” serves to sum up the claim that the Presbyterian Church calls Presbyterian-related colleges and universities to embrace religious diversity.
Immediately after the sentences quoted earlier about relating to people of other faiths with “humility, openness, honesty, and respect” and respecting “both others’ God-given humanity and the seriousness of their spiritual quests and commitments,” the paper concludes:
It is our Christian faith in the triune God and our intention to live like Jesus — not our cultural standards — that require this of us.
We don’t simply tolerate or accommodate other religions because it is politically correct: our Presbyterian faith leads us to engage other people of faith with humility, hospitality, and honesty.
Not only are Presbyterian-related institutions not turning our backs on the Presbyterian Church when we work to embrace religious diversity on our campuses, it could be argued that our failure to address and engage persons of all faiths would be at odds with the commitments and policies of the Church to which we are related.
John Williams is college chaplain and director of church relations at Austin College in Sherman, Texas.