Managing Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.
Having once been an atheist, my first exposure to Christianity and the church after conversion was in what many would call a very “conservative”, “mega-church.” Because I had been an atheist for most of my adult life up to that point, I had very little experience in relating to people of other faiths. To be frank, I had never even considered such issues. This all changed one night while I was attending leadership training classes at my church and in a lecture on Christology, the Pastor and teacher of the class began talking about John 14:6. I will never forget what he said: “Now the Dalai Lama might be a great man, he may have great ethical teachings, but unless he accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and personal savior, his fate will be just the same as the rest of the unbelievers. The Dalai Lama will end up in hell.” At that moment, I remember shifting uncomfortably in my seat and my eyes going wide. It was as if a bolt of lightning had stricken me. There for the first time, as a Christian and a theist, I was confronted with the issue of exclusivism. Those words just didn’t sit well with me. Was that really the case? How did he know for sure? That one sentence sparked my foray into the study of comparative religion because I felt an overwhelming need to learn for myself what these other religions taught rather than simply accepting someone else’s view of them.
Now I must emphasize that my experiences at my old church were very positive and I still worship there from time to time. But the issue of exclusivism was something I had to confront head-on with my faith. Were these “conservative”, exclusivist views creating an “us” versus “them” mentality? How were we to love our neighbor as ourselves if we were looking at them as if we were on top of the mountain and everyone else was somewhere down below?
For the next ten years, I went on a journey of learning and experience. I immersed myself in sacred literature, studying the scriptures, the writers, the mystics and the saints of the world’s great religions. I had the opportunity to travel extensively and experience many of these belief systems and cultures first-hand. And while on this journey, I found many beautiful truths that enhanced not only my relationship with God, but my understanding of the nature of reality, and my appreciation for others through the assimilation of their cultures and belief systems. It increased my love for humanity and my love for religion as a whole.
But during this journey there was one pervasive question lurking just underneath the surface that kept nagging at me. I had felt a distinct calling into Christian ministry. I was working on my undergraduate degree in Leadership and Ministry, and I was planning on going to seminary and pursuing ordination in my particular denomination. How would my love for comparative religion be a part of that calling? Would I be able to integrate it into my ministry work, or would I have to abandon it altogether?
The answer came to me very abruptly one afternoon when I was at a book store. I was combing through the religion section when I saw several books by the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton. I had heard of him before; I even owned a couple of his books. Truthfully, I had found him dry and boring. I was about to walk away when a particular book caught my eye. It was called “Mystics and Zen Masters.” I was very surprised. I thought, what was a Catholic monk doing writing about Buddhism? Curious, I bought the book and I ended up being so captivated by it that I finished it in one sitting. In Thomas Merton, I found a kindred spirit, and in examining one key relationship of his, my path became clear.
In October of 1968, Thomas Merton traveled to Asia to attend an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Christian monks. During his two month long Asian pilgrimage, he visited Dharamsala, the home of the Tibetan exiles for eight days, and he had three famous meetings with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was a monumental occasion for its time, and those meetings deeply impacted both men.
Thomas Merton wrote of the encounter, “It was a warm and cordial discussion and at the end I felt we had become very good friends … I feel a great respect and fondness for him as a person and believe, too, that there is a real spiritual bond between us.” The Dalai Lama was equally influenced by their meeting, saying “I always consider myself as one of [Thomas Merton’s] Buddhist brothers. So … I always remember him, and I always admire his activities and his life-style. Since my meeting with him … I really follow some of his examples … So for the rest of my life, the impact of meeting him will remain until my last breath.”
In learning about the special friendship of Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama, I realized that God was trying to tell me something. God was calling me to follow in the footsteps of these great interfaith pioneers. They have shown me what is possible when we actively seek out relationships with those who are different than us. Not only do we become bridge builders across communities and peacemakers amidst cultural divides, but we also learn from one another. My relationship with God has been enhanced by my travels and my contact with other cultures and belief systems. Indeed, this is a core truth that I have learned in my study of comparative religion and my experiences in interfaith dialogue. While the ultimate goal of religion may be to connect with a divine or transcendent reality, the diversity in the expression and experience of that reality is a unique part of what makes us human. Thus, the more we seek to understand one another, the more we will come to understand our own humanity.
 Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1973), 125.
 The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics, edited by Donald W. Mitchell and James Wiseman, OSB (New York: Continuum, 1999), 260-61.