In a culture as religiously diverse as ours, where the number of “non-religious” individuals continues to increase, and tolerance is virtue above all else, a common approach to religious diversity is actually nothing more than religious ignorance - “you do your thing, I’ll do my mine.” In this way, tolerance ends up being more isolating than inclusive. We tolerate our difference, yes, but we don’t actually know each other. I’m all for tolerance, but a tolerance that strives for relationship and understanding.
Christians don’t always fare well in changing the situation or addressing religious diversity in general. Whether it’s adopting the approach of ignorant tolerance to preserve reputation or practicing a narrow-minded exclusivity that at the extreme can border on bigotry and even racism, Christians often relate to others out of fear - both fear of rejection or fear of difference - instead of loving engagement.
With this cultural situation in mind, I recently led a group of college students at Columbia Bible College in reflecting on this question: Why study world religions?
To avoid the extremes of shallow tolerance and aggressive intolerance, a healthy approach to religious diversity is integral to living a culturally engaged life from whatever religious perspective one has. Part of the Christian calling in the world, I believe, is to remind ourselves and others of where we still get glimpses of the “very good” God originally declared of this earth and everything and everyone in it. We can love our neighbors by getting to know them. We can get to know our neighbors by studying their religions. Studying other religions, thus, is integral to loving our neighbors, a concept most all religions share in common to begin with.
As an academic pursuit, studying world religions is a discipline rich with a fascinating complexity of history and culture. There is measurable intellectual value in learning about other religions and their practices. But when you add the cultural reality of religious diversity, and aim for an engaged understanding of other religions, knowledge growth is accompanied by relational growth. Differences and conflict will remain, no doubt. But engaging difference in relationship forces a level of respectful dialogue often absent in our world.
In a culture that rightly celebrates religious freedom but wrongly practices religious isolation, relationships are exactly what we need. Relationships are why I study world religions.