Wilfred Cantwell Smith was one of the world’s most influential figures in the field of comparative religion. He founded the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal and later directed Harvard University’s Center for the Study of World Religions. He left a profound legacy of deep respect for all and insisted on taking people of all faiths and cultures equally seriously. “Religion,” he said, “is best understood as the living, vital faith of individual persons rather than as an abstract set of ideas and doctrines.”
Because he respected other faiths so deeply, people would occasionally ask him, “Are you a Christian?” His answer was, “Ask my neighbour.”
It’s a profoundly faithful response. When I first heard it, I immediately thought of Jesus’ teaching about the great commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” The whole purpose of the law and the prophets (which was the religious tradition of Judaism) is found in loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbours deeply.
When I think about what it means to love, I turn to Thomas Jay Oord’s definition: “To love is to act intentionally, in relational response to God and others, to promote overall well–being.”
The full goal of Christian faith is to love God and love others. Smith reminds us that the best judge of how well we love God and others is not our own conscience, but how our lives impact the lives of others. How well am I living out my gospel commitments? Ask my neighbour. Does my life show my adherence to the way of love as exemplified in Jesus? Ask my neighbour. Is my life ASK MY NEIGHBOUR marked by compassion and grace? Ask my neighbour.
Jesus stands in full solidarity with the great prophets of the Old Testament who called the people to a life of righteousness, justice, compassion, and love. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Rest in the security of God’s love. Share that love with others and seek their well–being.
Paul wrote the same thing: “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Paul’s formulation is quite a radical thing. Imagine the other two possibilities.
Paul could have said, “the greatest of these is faith.” That response would suggest that the most important thing is our relationship with God. It’s all about being right with God, making sure that God blesses us as we live faithfully.
Or Paul could have said, “the greatest of these is hope,” with the suggestion that faith is centred on the future, on eternity. Everything we do would be shaped by that future, by trying as hard as we could to make sure we reached an eternity of bliss with God.
But Paul says neither of these. “The greatest of these is love.” Our trust and faith in God must always lead us toward our neighbour. Jesus doesn’t point our eyes to heaven … but to earth, to this life, to our neighbour, and particularly to a neighbour in need.
I believe that here we find the centre of our vocation as God’s beloved people. We are called to love God, and to express our love for God in our love for our neighbour. There is no higher calling. When we exclude others, for whatever reason, we fail in our Christian vocation to love our neighbour, and when we fail to do that, we also fail to love God.
So often, people make Christian faith all about “me.” Have you been saved? Where will you spend eternity? Are you living the full and blessed life which God wants for you? They seem to think of Christian faith as a spiritual self–help process to make me a better person.
Smith helps us remember that Christian faith is about “us.” Christian faith always reaches out to the other. God works in us as we all “act intentionally to promote overall well–being.”
Are you a Christian? Ask my neighbour. A profound, deep, and inspiring answer