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The Big Question

Are we faithful by nature or nurture?

By John McTavish

My grandparents on my mother’s side were Lutheran, on my father’s side Anglican, and when my parents married, they joined The United Church of Canada. It turned out to be a happy compromise. This is the church in which I was baptized; 72 years later, it is still my denominational home.

Sometimes I wonder, though, how things might have turned out had I been raised Baptist or Catholic or as a Hindu, Muslim or Jew. Is faith simply a matter of the environment in which we grow up? Or are we born with a certain religious disposition — an inclination toward or away from faith — that determines our convictions from the start? Nurture or nature?

Surely the answer is both: our upbringing and the spiritual or anti-spiritual bent of our souls make a sizable difference. But this doesn’t mean that we are programmed from birth by our parents or our DNA. We have a choice. We are free to rebel against the culture, including the religious culture, that we inherit. Free also to embrace and develop it.

Whatever our mature religious convictions, however, it is still healthy to look around and see what’s happening beyond our own belief system. We needn’t make an exhaustive study of all world religions. But we should view other people’s faiths appreciatively, recognizing that God is their God as much as God may be our God. However perplexing their convictions may strike us, they too have most certainly benefited from the Spirit that blows where it wills.

Jesus never said, “Come unto me and I will make you good Presbyterians or Baptists or United Church people.” He didn’t even say, “Come unto me and I will make you good Christians.” No, he encouraged people simply to ask that it may be given, seek that it may be found, and knock that the door may be opened. This surely means that we are invited to ponder our faith: to consider the biblical witness to the promises of the God of Israel, and the fulfilment of those promises in the very one who encourages us to ask and seek and knock.

Start with Christ, then, and decide if the good news that he embodies is all it’s cracked up to be. If it is, great; if it isn’t, then maybe it’s time to explore other faiths.

This is the advice that the Methodist evangelist D.T. Niles gave people at his missions. Niles was a native of Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country, and the person who coined the phrase, “Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” Once, when conducting a mission at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, Niles was asked by a student if Islam might be superior to Christianity.

“Are you a Muslim?” asked Niles in return.

“No,” said the student.

“Then that’s not the first question for you,” said Niles. “You’ve been raised in the Christian tradition. Have you ever really examined it? Go and read the New Testament and make up your mind about Jesus Christ. Then you can come back with your question about the Muslims.”

On another occasion, Niles was asked by a scientist if he didn’t find it hard to believe that an event that occurred 2,000 years earlier in one little corner of the planet could be all that important when we consider the immensity of the universe. Again, Niles gave the scientist the same basic answer: “You have to read the New Testament and make up your mind about Jesus Christ. Then such questions begin to fall into place.”

This is surely good advice for us all. Read the New Testament and make up your mind about Jesus Christ. Then if you’re not satisfied, consider looking elsewhere — and may God go with you.

Rev. John McTavish is minister emeritus at Trinity United in Huntsville, Ont.

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