If you want an interesting conversation (and have a lot of time), ask any religious person why they’re religious, and why they believe their religion is the “right” one. Then ask gently what they think would have happened if they’d been born in (choose any of) Israel, India, or Iraq.
I came across this comment in an online conversation, and gently reminded this person that I come from Israel… (and faith in Jesus is not the obvious or normal choice for an Israeli Jew – on the contrary, it’s the least normal choice, it’s the choice most likely to get you disowned by your family and friends.)
Ah, but this guy knows that my faith journey involved going into a church (in London) and so he raised the next question:
I do wonder how your life would be different if it had been a mosque or Buddhist temple instead of a church.
In the absence of a time machine, all I can do is speculate – but I can try and make reasoned speculations, based on what I know about myself and about God.
The first answer that came to mind was: I wouldn’t have met the living God and wouldn’t have been saved. But that is a bit simplistic – it’s assuming that you can only meet Jesus in a church, and that’s just not true. He reaches people in all sorts of places – I once met an Israeli guy who told me his own story about how he met Jesus in a Buddhist monastery in India. He had gone to India to do that whole “searching for your true self” thing that all the cool kids were doing back in the 1970s, and ended up in a Buddhist monastery, getting more and more depressed – until one day in his utter despair, alone in his room, he cried out to the God of Israel for help and to his great surprise, Jesus showed up. (Because yes, that’s who he is.)
Oh, and maybe this is the point where I should mention I had actually tried the mosque thing – back in my early 20s, when I was going out with an Arab guy and felt an attraction for this exotic stuff and a desire to become part of my boyfriend’s culture, so I gave that a go. But at the mosque – or when doing the Muslim prayers in my room at home – I didn’t feel the presence of Someone, I didn’t have that sense of connecting with a living Being, and I didn’t experience anything like that strong attraction that made me want to keep going to that church again and again and again. I guess I must have been looking for something, and at first it appealed, but the appeal soon wore off and I went back to my secular life. The attraction was to a culture and a community that I felt I’d like to belong to – it wasn’t anything to do with connecting with God.
What about trying the synagogue though? That would be the obvious choice for an Israeli Jew, it’s the default option if you’re Jewish and you’re looking for religion. Israeli culture is generally secular, but in terms of religion the mainstream option is Orthodox Judaism. We learned a bit about it at school, and I have a faint memory of visiting a synagogue with a friend when we were kids, and of going to synagogue with our relatives when my mother took me on a visit to South Africa when I was ten. I don’t remember feeling anything significant, and there wasn’t anything there that made me want to go again, explore a bit more.
The reason I mentioned the lack of a time machine was that obviously the other factor in the equation is where I was at (mentally or emotionally) at the particular point in time when I went into that church in London and this whole journey started. Can I know for sure how I’d have reacted if at that particular point in time I’d gone into a mosque or a Buddhist temple or a synagogue instead of going into that church? I can’t know for definite, but I can make some reasoned speculations, based on my experience and on what I understand about God.
Based on my experience before that initial visit to that church – including the time several years earlier when I’d tried the mosque, and including my visits to synagogue earlier on – I see no reason to expect I’d have felt much different. And based on what I understand about God, I know that if I had felt something similar to what I felt in that church, it would have been a counterfeit and not the real, living God.
You see, how I felt was just one part of the equation. It was a starting point – but an initial attraction isn’t enough. It’s not enough to give you a strong, robust faith that will keep going through thick and thin, a faith that will withstand hardships and doubts and pressure to let go of this stuff and conform to the expectations of your culture, your family, your friends… For that, you need to really know that the God you are serving is for real.
I could say more but this is already pretty long for a blog post, so I’m just going to stop now. I hope I’ve said enough at least to show you that no, it’s not reasonable to assume that all religious people are just going with whatever they were brought up on or whatever they were exposed to in childhood – some of us make choices, and they are sometimes very tough and costly choices. I made the tough and costly choice to put my faith in Jesus despite the fact that in Jewish culture this is considered pretty much the worst thing you can do – I made that choice because I am 101% convinced that Jesus really is who he said he was, and who the Bible says he is, and therefore he is totally and utterly worth it.