God’s Gift of Diversity
During a recent trip to Lebanon, I had my first experience of someone trying to convert me away from my religion. A woman, knowing I was Catholic, began questioning me about the Bible and my beliefs.
Her intention revealed itself as she launched into an argument that her sect—Jehovah’s Witnesses—was true Christianity and my Catholic faith was counterfeit. Her judgment attacked the most treasured part of my identity. In her thinking, I was worshipping God the wrong way and she needed to set me right.
Services at both places of worship (Muslim and Catholic) often let out at the same time, and the mixed crowd of worshippers greet each other. Could this scene of religious diversity take place in the United States?
It’s a familiar mindset: “only one religion is the valid path to God, and I have it.” It’s certainly common among Christians who emphasize making converts to their version of the faith and regard people of other beliefs as objects to be “saved” or as rivals to be overcome. This exacerbates the rips in our societal fabric and prevents true love of the “other”—anyone with a different religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or political loyalty.
Christians who fight religious diversity are doing a disservice to the greatest commandment Jesus gave us: love God and neighbor. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself”—no preconditions accompanied this command. Jesus did not specify that love extends only to Christian neighbors. Nor did He say love your neighbor in order to convert them to your belief system with a proselytization-at-all-costs attitude that manages without fail to obstruct love of neighbor.
The life of Jesus reveals positive encounters with Gentiles—those outside His Jewish religion, including followers of paganism and Samaritanism. Jesus even praises a Gentile Roman centurion for having greater faith than any of His own people in Israel (Matthew 8:10).
In these encounters, Jesus shows us that believers of other religions are not a threat; they can even have superior faith.
Global Guests at the Table
I recently attended a Hanukkah dinner in Dubai that brought together Jews, Christians, and Muslims, including Israelis and Arabs. I had a spiritual moment when the rabbi recited the traditional Jewish blessing over bread—the same prayer Jesus likely said over the bread at the Last Supper.
The rabbi explained that ancient Judaism understood bread to be the primary source of physical and religious nourishment. For me, this reminder deepened the meaning of Jesus’ declaration of His body being the bread.
When the challah was passed around my table, we guests from a world of faiths – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu—each tore off a piece. All of us were journalists from a myriad of countries—Egypt, India, Israel, Sudan, United Kingdom, as well as the US. Our conversations didn’t dwell on our differing religions or nationalities but on our shared careers and passions.
A New Friend
I was surprised by how similar I was to the Muslim woman named Nesreen seated next to me. I share more in common with Nesreen—personality, career, and interests—than I do with many of my Christian friends. She has since become a close friend.
The event proved that religion doesn’t have to be a barrier between peoples but an instrument for bridging divides.
Experiencing another religion can potentially enrich one’s own faith while stirring a recognition of our multi-religious common ground. Christianity grew out of Judaism and incorporated Jewish scriptures and teachings. The three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—share a foundation in spiritual patriarch Abraham.
Three Branches, One Tree
In recognition of Abrahamic patrimony, a new initiative has been launched in the Middle East: an interfaith complex in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates that will house a Jewish synagogue, a Christian church, and an Islamic mosque. The Abrahamic Family House, expected to be completed in 2022, will host three freestanding houses of worship connected by an array of gardens. I am the communications specialist for the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, the organization in charge of the project.
The initiative reminds us that the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths all sprouted out of the same monotheistic soil. They are three different branches of one tree, which all reach up to the same nourishing light. Suddenly the religious “other” is a partner to learn and grow with, rather than a challenger to be converted.
Middle East Journeys
This hopeful interreligious vision of cooperation is what drew me to the Middle East as a journalist and as a Christian believer. In my travels to Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Bahrain, and the UAE, I have witnessed Muslim respect for Christianity. Despite a minority of extremists who keep their own intolerant agenda, Islam from its very beginnings allowed Christians to keep and practice their gospel faith because of the Pact of Umar agreement, which had its origins in the 7th century.
Respect is evident to this day when I attend a Catholic church in Dubai that stands next to a Muslim mosque. A statue of the Virgin Mary is on one side of the street, and minarets are on the other. Often services at both places of worship let out at the same time and the mixed crowd of worshippers greet each other. Could this scene of religious diversity take place in the United States?
In my own study of Islam, I discovered a compelling argument in the Qur’an as to why God made humanity so diverse. The Qur’an says that God intended to make people of different groups—not in order to segregate, but for us to get to know one another across groups.
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another,” the Qur’an states. (49:13)
Giving us encounters with the religious “other”—without expecting us to convert or feel superiority – is what God seems to have intended.
As with an ancient tree that has taken root in the richest soil on earth, these common branches of faith hang together. And though separate, they all strive towards the same source of Light, growing together and bearing fruit.
Emily Judd ’19 M.A.R. is a multimedia correspondent based in Dubai. At YDS, she created and continues to host Yale’s only podcast series on religion, The Quadcast. She has also worked as a reporter and producer for Fox News Channel and the Knights of Columbus.