Where are you now in your spiritual journey?
What was your religious background as a child? How was that experience?
These are examples of questions that Christians are sometimes encouraged to ask strangers in order to begin a “spiritual conversation.”
A recent op-ed piece written by an international student in her university’s newspaper questioned the practice of being “roped into a conversation about ‘spirituality’ that ended up feeling like an attempt at conversion.” She called the practice of Christians approaching an unsuspecting stranger and trying to begin a “spiritual conversation” a “trap” and a “subtle turn of language and behavior.”
Ironically, the term “spiritual conversation” is commonly used by Christians, but the definition is usually not clear. So it is important to consider a very important question: What is a spiritual conversation? Gleaning from a number of websites, the most common definition seems to be: “a conversation that refers to God in some way,” although sometimes it seems to be defined as a “deep” conversation.
Based on those definitions, I realize that most of my conversations with Hindus are spiritual conversations! As I walk alongside my Hindu friends, spiritual conversations happen naturally and frequently. In fact, I may have more spiritual conversations with my Hindu friends than I do with my Christian friends.
When my mother had a bad fall a few months ago, I posted her photo on Facebook and Instagram and asked for prayer for her healing. Most of the immediate comments were from my Hindu friends saying that they were praying for her. Now, after she has healed, I express my thankfulness to all of my friends for the way God healed her. My Hindu friends always ask about her health and tell me that they prayed for her.
The act of walking up to a stranger and engaging in any type of conversation is not normative behavior for an Indian. The unspoken question is “what does s/he want from me?” In most non-Western cultures, an introductory conversation usually only happens after an introduction from a mutual friend. Most of the new Indian students I meet are through someone I already consider a friend.
But some people genuinely want to meet strangers. In order to not have an “agenda” or nor to not be tempted to “twist” the conversation in some way, the following quote by Hasan al-Ghazali from a book called Muslims and Christians on the Emmaus Road has had a large impact on my conversations.
“I spend from 9:00 a.m. to 11 a.m. daily in my ‘office,’ the magha (coffee shop). These are the most important hours of the day…. Every level of the sociological scale is represented in the magha. In one week I met the university dean, laborers, teachers, students, and government officials…..I need to be informed on a wide variety of subjects related to their daily lives. If religion is the only subject I can deeply discuss, most will become bored quickly. So I talk on secular topics and current affairs…”
I have become truly interested in Indian news and affairs and read as much as possible from a variety of sources. I love to read about something in the Indian news and discuss it with an Indian friend in order to understand another viewpoint. Having deep conversations about current events also helps us to become better friends and understand each other’s worldview.
The writer of the recent op-ed piece also took issue with the sharing of a booklet during the spiritual conversation. The booklet gives a logical step-by-step presentation of the Christian message, and then the student is asked to make a decision to “accept Jesus.” I have been with a Hindu student in a public setting in the U.S. when Christians quickly initiate a spiritual conversation, then ask for a decision about “accepting Jesus.” The Hindu student was very confused and politely declined to make a decision. As the Christian walked away, my Hindu friend turned to me and expressed how baffled he was by what had just happened. In addition to not understanding the Christian terms, he and my other Hindu friends would never make such an important decision without the involvement of their family. al-Ghazali states that when he begins a friendship with someone, he always visits their home and involves the family in the friendship. He doesn’t want his new friend to isolate himself from the family.
I am very grateful for the Hindu friends who I can walk alongside as we explore spiritual themes and topics together, and I am thankful that they walk alongside me as well. As we live life, with its ups and down, it is a blessing to have friends who are not interested in surface-level conversations, but instead quickly go deep. Having authentic, unconditional friendships with Hindus helps us all experience God at a deeper and more powerful level.