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To See or Not to See

I just don't understand what some Christians are thinking.

Lieutenant General William Boykin, whose promotion and appointment as the deputy undersecretary of defense was confirmed by the Senate in June, has said publicly that he sees the war on terrorism as a clash between Judeo-Christian values and Satan. Discussing a U.S. Army battle against a Muslim warlord in 1993, Boykin told one audience, "I knew my god was bigger than his. I knew that my god was a real god and his was an idol."

In the New Testament, at the end of the book of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations... Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." It is beyond my comprehension how this instruction, among others, has metamorphosed into the type of understanding held by Lt. Gen. Boykin and many other Christians. Most disconcerting is the often-warped Christian interpretation of evangelism and its supposed central role in Christian lives.

At an institution like Duke, ideas are disseminated and scrutinized each day by scholars from around the world. The ultimate goal of this University, like all other havens of academia, should be to provide broad public forum for a multiplicity of viewpoints on all major issues facing our society. Christianity, as it is frequently practiced, runs counter to these ideals. In a world where coming to grips with complexity and diversity of all kinds is to be touted as a supreme achievement, Christianity often attempts to force a homogenized, one-size-fits-all version of reality down our throats.

Within the confines of religious discussion, rationality must generally take a backseat to the principle of faith, which is what distinguishes theological and spiritual dialogue from traditional academic discourse. While the merits of a rational argument can be debated, one cannot argue that Christianity is any more the "right" path to eternal deliverance than Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or any other worldview. But many Christians would have us believe that this is exactly the case: People of all faiths must be "converted" to the Christian way of thinking about the world, and rejection of the Christian mode of thought can only imply eternal damnation for the guilty parties.

This knee-jerk, preemptory reaction by many Christians mirrors the cries of "racism" or "sexism" in the classroom, which can be used in academic settings to stifle debate and open discourse. The only difference in the religious discussion is that Christian preemption (armed with the weapon of eternal suffering) precludes the possibility that hell-fearing students might create a version of spirituality that is unique for them, perhaps derived from a number of faiths.

All religions rely on faith as a central motivating force, but the thousands of Christian missionaries abroad "spreading the good news" suggest a type of spirituality that has been sorely misinterpreted.

Jesus' directive in Matthew does not necessarily imply a mass conversion of the world's varied faiths to that of the Christians; I would urge that the interpretation of the text be expanded to suggest a teaching of general principles that God has laid out in the Bible.

First, this interpretation would promote a less rigid, more accepting view of Christianity, and second, it would facilitate a greater sense of commonality among religions, which are often preaching similar values. In this manner, people of all faiths could hope to lead "good" lives that will be positively judged by any higher power in which one might believe.

Although Christians appear to be the most committed in their evangelic mission, this is not to say that Christians are the only believers whose dogma sometimes gets in the way of accepting other people.

Particularly since Sept. 11, Muslims have been charged with harboring the same intolerant posture towards people of other faiths. The Qur'an states that, "for those who reject Allah, a Blazing Fire!". Regardless of how the vast majority of practicing Muslims interpret this passage, there must surely remain some burden on Muslims to "save" individuals of other faiths from this eternal inferno.

And Islam has come under fire for its violent form of fundamentalism. While Islam teaches that salvation must be earned by good works and almsgiving, the only sure way to make it to heaven is for a Muslim to die in a jihad ("holy war"). Once again, like in the Christian case, spiritual fundamentalists would be well-advised to expand their narrow interpretation of the religious text: "Unless we go forth for Jihad, He will punish us with a grievous penalty, and put others in our place." Clearly, a broader understanding of jihad and proselytization could be derived from Mohammad's instruction.

Still, however, Christian missionary work across the globe has had more far-reaching impact than that of Islamic missionaries. Indeed, the whole notion of "missionary" work seems to be a Christian concept. Perhaps I am simply reacting to the pervasiveness of Christian evangelism in the United States, but the audacity of some Christians to purport that the way in which they have been raised to believe is inherently superior to that of other peoples throughout the world cannot be tolerated. Does not the Bible tell us that "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God"?

In Christianity, the ultimate fate of people is up to God, not Christians. In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul states clearly: "Even so have these also now not believed, that through God's mercy they also may obtain mercy." The Bible itself thus shows Christians that proselytization does not have to mean world homogeneity; Christians can be confident in their faith without converting others to their point of view.

Christians and Muslims should take profound comfort in these potentially new understandings of their faiths. Religion remains an inextricable component of culture and wields a powerful influence on individual philosophy and worldview, but--just like in the classroom--this reality does not mean that we need all think the same. It is crucial that Christians and all proselytizing believers think about these significant questions, as the vitality of spiritual discourse and its benefit to students of all religious ideologies are entirely dependent upon it.

Philip Kurian is a Trinity junior. His column appears every other Monday.


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