We all know that Christianity is a missionary religion. The Old Testament already contains passages that invite Jews to share their faith with other peoples. Then the New Testament story of Jesus ends with what is called the great commission, Jesus’s instruction to his disciples to carry their faith to the ends of the earth.
There are two other faiths we recognize as global in our world today — Buddhism and Islam — and if we suspect they are or were missionary, further investigation proves us right.
Buddhism began in India about 500 years before the time of Jesus. Its founder, the Buddha, meaning “the enlightened one,” is called that because he claimed to have found an answer to the suffering caused by unsatisfied desires and cravings. The story has it that upon his enlightenment he faced the choice of simply basking in the peace of his discovery or of sharing it out of compassion for other humans caught in the web of craving and desire. Out of that came the conviction that enlightened Buddhists should teach to others the truth they have found. Buddhism’s missionary impulse is the reason his message spread from India to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and also north into Nepal, China, Korea and Japan.
Islam is the other major global faith today, second only to Christianity. It began with Muhammad’s wish to have his own Arabic people granted a revelation in their language such as had been granted to the Jews in Hebrew and to the Christians in Greek.
Islam (which means “submission” to God and to the revelation to Mohammed) spread by conquest for most of its first century (from 632, the death of Mohammed, to 732, the halt of an Islamic invasion of southern France). But later Islam spread also by preaching, as documented in T.W. Arnold’s book of 1896 titled, “The Preaching of Islam.” A student from Khartoum, Sudan, whom I met at the American University in Beirut in 1969, reported how preachers held forth in Khartoum on a summer evening, spellbinding huge crowds of hearers. These preachers often accented the pietistic side of Islamic faith. To my surprise, I found some years ago that some Islamic countries today also have their TV preachers, somewhat akin to the late Robert Schuller and his “Hour of Power” broadcast in the U.S.
The theme of missionary preaching to extend a faith must be complemented by another theme in the spread of a faith, namely, the quality of life shown by its adherents. In his book, “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church,” the late Alan Kreider documents how most of the early church’s growth in, for example, the 200s and 300s happened because people saw the life of Christians of that time and wanted in.
Something similar happened when Islamic traders in Africa moved into a community and, by their literary and mathematical skills and their discipline of daily prayers, prospered and gained converts.
Both Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 have poetic passages we may often have heard about nations of the world going up to the mountain of the house of the Lord (that is, Jerusalem) that Israel might teach them God’s law, as a result of which “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore,” the text that has produced the African American spiritual, “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” All faiths started local. It’s the missionary impulse that has made them global and today in a sense competitive, but our world is likely the better for it.
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Goshen College. In 1968-69 he received a Fellowship in Asian Religions, spending five months at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia.