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How Interfaith Relations Have Shaped My Life

“The Promise of Inclusion, The Power of Love”

How Interfaith Relations Have Shaped My Life

by Rob Sellers

As a new university graduate, I was fortunate to spend 11 weeks as a student missionary in the Philippines in the summer of 1967. That first encounter with the beauty of Asia and her people persuaded me to apply for a two-year program where I would live and work in a cross-cultural setting somewhere outside of the United States. As fate, or divine providence, would have it, I was selected and asked to teach conversational English in Indonesia, where I lived in Central Java from 1968-70. Having earned a master’s degree in theology and getting married in 1972, my wife Janie and I began thinking about a career as cross-cultural missionaries. Thus, in early 1976, we returned to Asia to work with high school and university students. After a year in the southern Philippines, where we worked temporarily while awaiting visas to Indonesia, on New Year’s Day of 1977 we landed in Jakarta, the capital city of that vast chain of islands that straddles the equator for 3,000 miles, the fourth most populous nation in the world.

Bhinekka Tunggal Ika – Unity in Diversity

  Merapi Volcano – Photo: Rob Sellers

Merapi Volcano – Photo: Rob Sellers

Concerning his view that places can be life-altering, British academic Philip Sheldrake claims that there is a “dialectical relationship between environment and human narrative.” That was certainly the case for me, because Java, where we lived for almost a quarter century, was not just the geographical backdrop for daily activities, but also an essential actor within my personal drama. The narrative of my life was being shaped by that fascinating tropical island with its multiple cultures and religious traditions. We lived surrounded by beauty – not only volcanic mountains, dense forests, shimmering rice fields, sandy beaches, and coral reefs – but also by the richness of ancient monuments and temples, as well as gracious people whose life struggles and diverse spiritual practices reminded me both of the common experiences of humankind and the rich particularity of place. Over the years, Indonesia’s national motto – “Bhinekka Tunggal Ika,” that is, Unity in Diversity – has became my personal, philosophical watchword.

When I arrived as a young, idealistic American missionary, I knew very little about folk religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and the Islam that most Indonesians practice. While my training had been rigorous and my ministry experience very practical, nothing I’d learned had prepared me adequately for such a multi-layered, religiously pluralistic setting as Indonesia. Where we lived, as in so many of the islands of the archipelago, the earliest practices of animism had in many ways been subsequently influenced by Hinduism and then by Buddhism, later in a much broader fashion by Islam, and finally in some places by Christianity. Remarkably, each of these religions not only co-exist in the same place, but their doctrines and practices also inspire the very same people. Thus it was on Java where I would be convinced of the value and splendor of diverse peoples, cultures, and religions. 

  Prayer at a local mosque – Photo: RS

Prayer at a local mosque – Photo: RS

In this largest Muslim-population country in the world, every neighborhood had its own mosque, where the faithful went each Friday to pray, give alms, and repeat their confession of faith. On I’dul Adha, the Day of Sacrifice that commemorates the story in the Kor’an of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael, I once joined 200,000 Muslims at South Jakarta’s major mosque to observe the slaughter of hundreds of donated goats and oxen so the meat could be distributed to the patiently waiting poor.

Less than a kilometer from the Baptist seminary where Janie and I were professors – and well within the sound of the Muslim call to prayer – stood Gedung Batu. This ancient shrine was built to honor the Ming Dynasty sea captain Cheng Ho, who dropped anchor in the local harbor in 1406 and was subsequently identified by the local Chinese townspeople as the deity Sam Po Kung. Thousands of supplicants came regularly to this grotto to burn incense and pray before one of the brightly painted plaster images, or to sit beneath the huge, orange-blossomed trees in the courtyard and remember and honor departed ancestors. It was for us a serene and lovely place that invited quiet reflection.

  Rice field – Photo: RS

Rice field – Photo: RS

Overlooking this temple complex and dotting the lush, terraced hillsides near our city were dozens of tiny communities populated by simple farming families. Many villagers planted and harvested their rice under the watchful eye of Dewi Sri, the rice goddess, hiding the small ani ani (‘curved blade for cutting rice stalks’) in the palms of their hands in order not to offend that helpful spirit of the fields. One year, along with an Indonesian friend, I made a trek to the rocky, southern coastline of Java to observe thousands of villagers place orchid offerings on the outgoing tide to placate the powerful underwater deity, Loro Kidul, hoping to secure the safety of the fishers who daily go out in pontoon boats to ply the tumultuous waters of the Indian Ocean.

  Borobudur – Photo: RS

Borobudur – Photo: RS

Not far from the homes of these traditional village animists were located two architectural wonders of Javanese religious life: Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world, and its magnificent Hindu counterpart, Prambanan – each a United Nations World Heritage Site and a tribute to the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms that flourished in Central Java more than 1300 years ago. Late one tropical evening, on Hari Waisak (‘Vesak Day’), Janie and I sat cross-legged on the grass with thousands of the Buddhist faithful to watch saffron-robed monks lead a candlelit processional that circumambulated the ascending pathway of Borobudur, commemorating the Buddha’s birthday and his universal message of peace.

On another occasion, under a full moon, we watched, entranced by the gongs and clangs of gamelan percussion instruments, as dozens of dancers enacted Hindu Ramayana stories on the hand-carved stone terraces of Prambanan

A New Appreciation

Living amid these treasures of religious antiquity, among peoples who practice disparate rituals with amazingly common fervor, gave me an appreciation for the rich diversity in the world. Relating to neighbors, friends, and colleagues of so many ethno-linguistic, socio-economic, and cultural-religious backgrounds reinforced the wisdom of accepting others whose customs, appearance, and beliefs differ from my own. It also prodded me to pursue an intellectual, if not spiritual, path of discovery as I began intentionally to study the world’s cultures, peoples, and religions and to reflect upon how I, as a Christian, can be a person of faith in a pluralistic world.

  Buddhists observing Vesak – Photo: RS

Buddhists observing Vesak – Photo: RS

Gradually, two impressions about these followers of other faiths became very clear. One realization was how truly alike we all were. We experienced the same life passages, shared common joys, endured comparable sorrows, harbored similar dreams, and walked analogous pathways. My other thought was how very different we all were. It was clear that their sacred stories and rituals were not identical with the ones I cherished, but I saw that many of these people gained enormous strength for daily living from their own religions. And I alsobecame aware that the devotion, self-discipline, and genuine goodness of my friends challenged (and sometimes shamed) my own spiritual maturity and moral character. Thus, over time, I began reforming my approach toward people of other faiths.I found that by being humble, open, and teachable when relating to them – by being willing to listen instead of so quick to speak – I could more easily build friendships, learn helpful cultural and religious insights, and earn the right to share with them my faith journey and spiritual experiences.

Sometimes my contacts with persons of other faiths have been lasting and meaningful, like the connections I have formed with my fellow trustees of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. At other times, however, it has simply been enough for me to treat persons of other faiths well, to relate to them with respect, and, in the words of Jesus, in what is called the Second Great Commandment, to “love [my] neighbor,” my non-Christian neighbor, “as [I love my]self.”(Mark 12: 31)

  Man sitting outside Gedung Batu Temple – Photo: RS

Man sitting outside Gedung Batu Temple – Photo: RS

When we express compassion in that way, perhaps the insight will dawn upon us that we are only one part of the Human Family, that our story is only one page in the Cosmic Drama that has been unfolding since the beginning of time. What emotions will emerge in us on this Journey to Become as we begin to feel interconnected with all of life around us, especially with other persons who bear in their very natures the image of the Divine?

While Java was the environment that helped to shape the developing narrative of my life, I was also in the process of developing a working theology of religions, based upon an appreciation of the religious and spiritual differences I saw all around me, and grounded upon biblical and theological investigation. I was beginning to understand myself as a Christian – yes, a progressive one – who does not view persons of other faiths as those who necessarily need to be evangelized or converted. This conviction was based on good biblical evidence, especially the words of the Apostle Peter who exclaimed, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to [God].” (Acts 10: 34-35)

Then, in an annual meeting of our mission organization, a conversation occurred which dramatically marked a redirection of the spiritual journey I was making. A fellow missionary and my job supervisor posed a question to our group: “When you ride down the streets of your city, and you see the thousands of people who do not know Jesus, does it make your heart weep because of their lostness?” Immediately an answer surfaced in my mind, and I went to him after the program and responded. “No, when I ride down the streets of my city, and I see the thousands of people there, my heart rejoices; I celebrate; for I love these people, their language, their culture, and the dedication so many of them demonstrate to their own spiritual paths – religions which have made me a better Christian as I have been observing their lives.”

  Animist village – Photo: RS

Animist village – Photo: RS

The shift I was vocalizing that day on the island of Java I have tried to live out since returning to the United States. I have consistently sought to be accepting and supportive of others with whom I relate, no matter their nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, profession, or age. I have relished and celebrated my opportunities to work locally with my community’s interfaith council, nationally with my own Christian denomination’s outreach to Muslims, as well as in broader ways with the National Council of Churches, USA, and internationally with the Interfaith Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and as trustee and now chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Through all of these enriching programmatic contexts and with every gratifying cross-cultural relationship, I have hoped to be seen as one who graciously makes a place for others.

Looking back at the impact upon my life ever since my first exposure to the religious “other” more than 50 years ago in the Philippines, I confess that without a doubt interfaith relations have shaped my life. Thus it is true that in a very personal and even confessional way, the theme of the 2018 Parliament event in Toronto in November reflects my own story – “The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love.” May this phrase not simply be a catchy platitude for a week in Canada, but the guiding principle that governs every relationship I enter for the rest of my life.

Header Photo: Merapi Volcano – Photo: Rob Sellers