For this roundtable, Ashley the Editor asks, “Should you form strong relationships with those who have different religious views than you?”
Since we columnists are encouraged to keep these reflections to about 800 words, I’m going to interpret the phrase “strong relationships” as a reference to friendship. Perhaps we can deal with the subject of marriage between Christians and non-Christians in a different roundtable.
And please notice, as always, I’m writing as an Orthodox Christian. If we want to know what the Mahayana Buddhists and the devotees of Vishnu and the Apostolic United Brethren teach about friendship with other religious traditions, then we’ll need to expand the number of participants in these roundtables.
But it’s certainly true that Orthodox Christians often form “strong relationships” with folks in their neighborhoods and at work and through school—and since we Orthodox are a real minority in this part of the United States, most of our friendships are with people who have a different religious background or who have no religious background at all.
And we Orthodox do the sort of things that friends always do: we get together for birthday parties, and we go to the lake, and we hang out at bars, and we watch sports, and our children play together, and we give each other rides to the airport. There is, however, one big difference between how an Orthodox Christian does friendship and how everyone else does that kind of relationship: eventually, sooner or later, if the relationship is truly a “strong” one, the Orthodox Christian will end up talking about the Faith.
Which, of course, just freaks some people out, because these folks believe that the moment you bring up religion you are somehow miss-using the relationship. But instead of hyperventilating, let’s just think about that. If you see a great movie, you’re going to talk to your friends about it. If you watch a really exciting baseball game, again, part of the enjoyment of that experience is re-living it with friends. If you find a good price on a major appliance, or if you discover a new restaurant, once again, you’re going to let your friends know. So if it’s appropriate to share all of that with friends, why is religion off-limits?
Now, sure, some folks approach religion as if they were in sales. We all have those people in our neighborhoods who use every conversation as a pretext to invite us to a worship service or give us some sort of reading material. That can be aggravating, but, ultimately, what makes that experience so annoying is not so much the religion these folks are peddling—it’s the fact that they are trying to talk to us about a sensitive and personal subject without ever really getting to know us.
However, when folks have a strong relationship that has been formed over many years and through many shared experiences, what could be more beautiful, what could be more generous, what could be more caring than for the friend who is Orthodox to talk to the non-Orthodox friend about the consolation and the hope that flows from an even closer relationship—a relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Now, at this point, the folks who hyperventilate are going to start sputtering again because they are going to want to know what happens if the non-Orthodox friend doesn’t respond in a positive fashion. “What if they aren’t interested? What if they just politely change the subject? Don’t you have to keep pushing? Aren’t you afraid that person is going to be damned for all eternity?”
In a word, No.
The Most Holy Trinity decides who is and who isn’t going to be damned, but we don’t worry about that sort of thing because, if there is mercy to be found in this life or the next, it will be found with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So our motivation in talking to friends about the Faith is not anxiety or fear; it’s love. We just share what’s most important to us with the people who are most important to us.
But if you’re reading this column there’s also a good chance that you’re thinking to yourself something like this: “I’m not sure I’m really that important to anyone else. I’ve got folks that I call friends, but those relationships aren’t what I would call especially strong. There are people that I’ve known for years, but most of my contact with them is now through social media. I mean, It’s not like we see each other on a regular basis; it’s not like we’re close or anything.”
That can be a discouraging realization, but, the truth is, lots and lots of folks find themselves in that very situation. We move around a lot; we change jobs all the time; we frequently rearrange our families, so it’s not at all uncommon for people to get to a place in life where they just really don’t have that many strong relationships.
But if you’d like to become important to some people, then let me invite you to our parish. Relationships form slowly; most of the time it takes years, but St. John’s is a good place to begin making friends, and, eventually, one of those relationships will also be with the Most Holy Trinity.
And this Sunday would be a great time to start.
Father Aidan Wilcoxson is the pastor of St John Orthodox parish in Cedar Park (www.theforerunner.org); he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.