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Sharing or Foisting?

At one time or another, most of us have encountered a religious proselytizer. It is usually an unpleasant experience. So much so that many people practically run away when they think someone is about to try to convert them. Back when I “got religion” after many years of agnosticism, even my friends were so nervous that I would harangue them with my version of “gospel truth” that one of them actually said that my “religion was all right as long as you don’t talk about it!” I hastened to assure them that I was not going to try to convert anyone, but I could not really blame then for being worried. I too had been accosted by well-meaning but infuriating zealots.

So when I heard that our pastor was going to lead a session on “sharing our faith,” I was skeptical to say the least . Was he going to tell us to foist our faith on everybody? I was somewhat relived when he said we should start by finding out what the other person needed, rather than with our own agenda, but I ended up still unsure of whether his bottom line is to turn people into Christians. Mine is not. But it once was. I still remember an incident many years ago in Minneapolis, where my family used to spend a lot of time. When we went there, we would attend a Methodist church across the street from the apartment where we stayed. I knew that Minneapolis has a significant Native American population, so one day I asked the pastor of that church whether he had had any experience ministering to them.

His response was a real shock. He said that when he counsels Native Americans he encourages them to explore their own spiritual traditions. How was this possible? How could any Christian minister tell people to embrace another religion rather than preaching the Christian gospel to them? As my own approach to spirituality evolved, I finally got his point. Why should we expect one size to fit all? Why should people from different backgrounds and cultures be comfortable with the same religion? I now take an interfaith approach to religion. My motto is now “many paths, one destination.” I do believe that human beings have spiritual needs, but I would encourage everyone to follow a path that works for them, not necessarily the path that works for me or anyone else. I am trying to transcend the limitations of any one religion and open myself to the spiritual richness available in the entire range of human religious experience.

So, getting back to the issue raised by my own pastor, should religious people try to share their faith with others? It may depend on what we mean by “share.” If we mean simply relating our own experience in case it resonates with someone else, fair enough. It is when someone tries to foist his or her beliefs on others, to present his or her religion as the only valid path to God, that I get really nervous. I have no monopoly on the truth, nor does anyone else. We benefit no one by pretending that we do.

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