It didn’t take long for me to start judging the man who was giving the sermon.
Has anyone ever said to you, “Call yourself a Christian?” after you do something bad? he said. It’s happened to me many times. But I’ve never heard anyone say, “Call yourself a Muslim?” or Buddhist, or Hindu.
To Muslims, it’s very important to pray five times a day and go to the mosque on Friday. We Christians aren’t like that. I mean, if you don’t come to church for a while, I might not even notice for a few weeks!
Maybe you should.
Unlike other religions, which are mostly about what you do, Christianity is mostly about a relationship with God.
Plenty of other faiths also care about having a relationship with God. And plenty of church groups place importance on unwritten rules about how to behave. Also, what you do does matter, because your relationship with God should change your actions. So there.
That speaker and I were both failing to regard others as better than ourselves. I was enjoying a self-righteous criticism fest. Which wasn’t an anomaly—I’ve sat in many pews judging the musicians for drawing more attention to themselves than to God; handily forgetting to turn my own attention in the right direction.
But my whiny superiority complex didn’t make that sermon okay. I’ve been to several services where the preacher talked about why Christianity is a better religion than its counterparts. Sometimes this is fairly innocuous, like a sermon I heard a few years ago in which the pastor held up Oxford and Cambridge—look at the Bibles in their coats of arms!—as proof of the wonderfulness of Christianity. It’s good to know and celebrate our religious heritage. But when we start waving it triumphantly as proof of that our faith is the best one, something is probably wrong. Not least because Christians also have many, many soiled rags, and others have their share of victories.
In casual conversations, whether face-to-face or Facebook, I’ve seen many Christians who are more than ready to explain the hope they hold to, but who don’t quite do so with gentleness and respect toward those who have other beliefs. And these Christians are often very kind people who would feel terrible if they realised how hurtful some of their remarks could be—as I’m sure the speaker I was judging would feel.
It scares me to think about all the thoughtlessly arrogant words I must have spoken toward people of other faiths. I’m very good at speaking without being fully aware of what I’m saying. I am also very bad at noticing differences without deciding that some are better and some worse. And I believe that much is true in other religions, but that Christ is the Truth. So how many times have my non-Christian friends felt my condescension during our conversations about faith?
It’s also been scary for me to write this piece. Words that mean one thing in my head may look very different on someone else’s computer screen. Some of the screens on which you read these words will be in places where Christianity is usually discussed in opposition to atheism, like when I was in college in the U.S. Some will be in places where there are many people who believe in God, in different forms. (I’m writing this in Malaysia, where more than half the population started the Ramadhan fast today.)
I have never done a rigorous study of comparative religions, nor even worked through a Christian systematic theology. I am afraid of saying something wrong, or wrongly; and so hurting people I care about, Christian or otherwise. Because I know that I do hurtful things all the time. Like entertaining all those critical thoughts during that sermon. Midway through writing this, I found myself on a Google quest for historic atrocities committed by Christians and historic benevolences committed by other people, so that I could prove to those other pompous Christians that they’re not all that great.
But I keep ending up at the same two things. First, Jesus commanded those He mentored to love one another. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” He said. “By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.”
Second, Brother Alois of the interdenominational Taizé Community wrote this: “What is distinctive about the Christian faith? The person Jesus, and a living relationship with him. We will never have finished comprehending this.”
Humble, open awe is so much harder than battles of wits. And love is so much harder than comparison games. But I want to try, because the person Jesus is so much greater than anything I have ever known.
 In this context, knowing history includes the fact that, for centuries, Oxford and Cambridge were hardly paragons of the racial, socioeconomic, and gender equality that Paul advocated. Oxford did this while holding the motto “Dominus illuminatio mea,” the first words of one of my favorite psalms. So we have both psalm preference and hypocrisy in common.