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Spring 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 1 · pp. 51–65 

The Island of Knowledge and Shoreline of Wonder

Jim Pankratz

I remember when I first glimpsed the issues that drew me into being a scholar of world religions. It happened in an Asian religions course in the fall of 1966 at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. It was the first time I had ever studied anything about Asia. While reading one of our textbooks, Sources of Indian Tradition, I encountered Rammohun Roy (1774–1833). 1

Throughout my career the challenges of new knowledge were vastly more invigorating and inspiring than threatening.

Roy was a Hindu businessman, writer, social and political activist, and religious innovator from Calcutta. Roy was so interested in the Bible that he studied Hebrew and Greek to understand it better. He was so impressed by Jesus that in 1820 he published The Precepts of Jesus: The Guide to Peace and Happiness, Extracted from the Books of the New Testament Ascribed to the Four Evangelists. 2 In the introduction Roy wrote, “This simple code of religion and morality is so admirably calculated to elevate men’s ideas to high and liberal notions of one God . . . and is also so well fitted to regulate the conduct of the human race {52} in the discharge of their various duties to God, to themselves, and to society, that I cannot but hope the best effects from its promulgation in the present form.”

That caught my attention. Here was a Hindu who studied the Bible and published a book of excerpts from the Gospels describing the life and teachings of Jesus. But he never became a Christian. My background led me to believe that people are either drawn to Jesus and become Christians, or they reject Jesus. Roy admired and promoted Jesus and remained a Hindu. He worshiped with Unitarians but also strongly criticized Christian efforts to convert Hindus to Christianity. 3 He welcomed European education and socio-political ideas, collaborated with missionaries and the British colonial authorities on social reforms, but criticized Europeans’ disrespect for India’s rich cultural traditions. Roy’s published summary of the Gospels was condemned by Christian missionaries because he omitted miracle stories and texts that pointed to Jesus as divine and did not leave his ancestral faith to become a Christian. I was intrigued and puzzled. The next year I did a directed readings course examining the life and writings of Rammohun Roy and William Carey, the famous Baptist missionary who frequently interacted with Roy in Calcutta during those years. 4


As I neared the end of my undergraduate studies, I knew that the most obvious way to pursue these fascinating issues in depth was to go to graduate school. I realized that this meant I was probably on the path to a career as a professor of religions. I expected that I would eventually teach in a small department of religion (almost all of them were small and have remained small), so I decided to temporarily put aside the issues that had drawn me into this field and prepare myself to teach Eastern Religions. I took courses in Sanskrit, Buddhism, Hinduism, Hindu philosophy, Chinese religion, sociology of religion, and religion and technology. I wrote a master’s thesis based on early Buddhist texts.

Then I returned to Rammohun Roy in my doctoral thesis. But I did not return to the same issues that had caught my attention earlier. In “The Religious Thought of Rammohun Roy,” I analyzed key concepts that were battlegrounds for Roy’s debates with his Hindu contemporaries. Why battlegrounds? Many Hindu leaders objected to his public critiques of Hindu beliefs and practices. From their perspective, his condemnation of polytheism and idolatry reflected his sympathy for Christianity and Islam and his rejection of his ancestral faith. They resented his collaboration with the colonial authorities and missionaries that led to the abolition and criminalization of sati (the co-cremation of living {53} widows with their dead husbands). They accused him of violating caste regulations of food and drink in his friendships and interactions with Europeans.

Studying the life of a Hindu who tried to bridge the distance between religious traditions led to two years of research in India and to many friendships with Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians from many traditions. All of that shaped my life significantly. Studying Hinduism and living in India was not what I expected when I entered university. My life before I met Rammohun Roy may not appear to have been a good preparation for those encounters, but it was.


By the time I started university I had been encouraged and nurtured in my Christian faith all my life. I was taught the Bible at home, in church, and in my Christian high school. I had read through it twice (in King James English) by the time I finished high school. I memorized large parts of scripture for Sunday school, the Bible Memory Association, and Bible quiz contests. I heard biblical sermons in church, at youth events, and at evangelistic rallies. I heard missionary reports at least once a month in church. I attended the adult Bible study in our church for a while and then started a Bible study with a few teenage friends. My social circle was mostly Christians who had committed their lives to Jesus while they were still children. Our social life centered around church and Christian activities.

I also learned that the Bible and Christian faith could be contentious. The adult Bible study I attended was on the book of Revelation. My father was the pastor and led the study. Prophecy was his specialty. But there were such acrimonious disagreements among the participants that he and I agreed that it was probably not good for me to attend. I remember none of the contentious issues, but I remember the intensity, the self-righteous fervor. I remember exactly where I was sitting in our church when I realized that the Bible can be used to divide and cause pain when it is wielded like an accusation and a weapon.

Fortunately, I also experienced richer ways of reading the Bible during my youth. While we were discussing the Genesis 1 creation account in high school, our teacher asked us how we understood the seven days. We thought that was pretty obvious: seven days is one week. Then he asked how we might interpret seven days in view of the statement, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Pet 3:8 NIV, passim). When he quoted that text, I recall instantly recognizing that a door had just been opened, even though I had no idea where it would lead and how liberating it would be in the {54} years ahead. A few years later, Myron Augsburger came to town as the dynamic, eloquent, itinerant summer evangelist. He preached a sermon on hell. He exposed the biblical metaphors that described the horror of separation from God (eternal fire, utter darkness, bottomless pit) with compelling eloquence and clarity. He also made it clear that there was no point in trying to combine all of these metaphors into one literal description of hell. Another door opened.


While I was an undergraduate, the two core habits of Bible study and Christian fellowship continued. McMaster did not have an InterVarsity group on campus. A growing group of Christians met for Bible study in off-campus student apartments. We applied for recognition as an IVCF organization and by the next September we were a fully organized group on campus, and I was on the executive committee. We hosted lectures, Bible studies, and retreats.

On the Sundays when my roommates and I were not in our home churches, we attended local churches. That’s when another door opened. The pastor and regular preacher in the local Westdale United Church was Bruce McLeod, a gifted preacher who did something I had never heard before. In his sermons he referred to the world of ideas and social movements in which I was immersed every day in the university. He explored the biblical texts by referring to the long and deep legacy of Christian theology. He quoted poetry and literature. He referred to films and contemporary music. I was challenged, energized, and relieved. Even though I was experiencing a growing distance between my home church and the university, here was confirmation that Christian faith could thrive in my new world.

Of course there were challenges, some of which became teachable moments. In my second year at McMaster, I took a course in Old Testament. In our textbook, Bernhard Anderson made an assertion about two biblical texts that I thought was a misreading of the biblical account. Since the professor had repeated Anderson’s perspective in class, I showed him Anderson’s comments and the two texts, and asked my question. He agreed that it was a legitimate question. Then he said, “I never thought to check.” I knew at that moment that a different kind of door had just opened. If I encountered perspectives or issues that seemed to undermine my faith or create uncertainty about matters that were important to me, I was responsible to check them out. No one else would do it for me.

But others could help, and they did. During my undergrad years, we studied some of the Western world’s greatest philosophers, many {55} of whom were rigorous critics of religion in general and Christianity in particular. I was a novice. But I had a friend, Richard, a British graduate student in philosophy and a member of our InterVarsity club. I discussed some of the perplexing issues with him and asked him, “What should I be reading?” He suggested several Christian philosophers whose names I had never heard. He agreed to get some of their books for me. When the books arrived, I eagerly started reading, but soon ground to a stop. I could not follow the complex discussions. They were at least as advanced as anything I was reading in my classes. And that was enough for me. If Richard and these Christian philosophers were not daunted by these issues, I could relax. I could take the time necessary to grow in my understanding. I realized that the credibility of Christian faith could not possibly hinge on my personal capacity to answer all of its critics at this time in my life. My confidence was strengthened by knowing that there were highly competent Christians engaged in these complex and contested issues.


The church also helped. I became involved with Mennonite Brethren Student Services, a ministry to students who were in public universities and colleges. There were seminars and retreats where students gathered to hear lectures, debate issues, and develop friendships. People like John Redekop, Vern Ratzlaff, Vic Adrian, and Frank Peters, each in their own way, were models of Christians engaged in contemporary issues. These events demonstrated the church’s pastoral commitment to its students.

The church was not always so supportive. When Arena, the inter-Mennonite magazine for young adults, began to publish movie reviews as well as articles and letters that were critical of the church, support ended and publication ceased. That removed the only widely accessible church-based discussion forum for Mennonite university students in North America.

So a group of friends created our own forum. Our friendship had started in the Mennonite Brethren church in Kitchener, Ontario, but by that time we were in schools and workplaces across North America. We started a round letter. The format was simple. You wrote a letter about what you were doing and thinking. You sent it to the next person on the list. They added their letter to the conversation and sent it on. When it had gone full circle, it was time to take out your original letter and add a new one that joined the conversation that had developed over the past months. How we looked forward to the arrival of that bulky envelope!

There was another forum that changed my life. I had just started graduate studies at McMaster University and completed my summer Sanskrit course. I needed a break. The 1968 Mennonite Graduate {56} Seminar was being held at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, just forty miles away. I was only mildly interested, but some of my “round letter” friends were attending, so I went. That seminar reoriented my perspective on the Bible, introduced me to Anabaptism, and expanded my understanding of Mennonites.

Prior to that, I had understood my Mennonite tradition primarily as a fortress against the world, as “separation from.” I was familiar with the personal lifestyle expectations of being a Mennonite. These were primarily expressed as prohibitions against war, revenge, drinking, dancing, and other forms of “worldliness.” This seminar was a profound introduction to the deeper foundations and broader dimensions of Christian discipleship, the church, and the kingdom of God. The seminar was led by outstanding faculty from Mennonite colleges and seminaries: Howard Charles (New Testament), William Klassen (New Testament and Anabaptism), Walter Klaassen (Bible and Anabaptism), John Howard Yoder (theology and ethics), and Winfield Fretz (sociology). I now marvel that they gave nearly two weeks of their summer to mentor and inspire this diverse group of graduate students. Their example and insights were major reasons why I later began working in Christian and Mennonite institutions.


In 1971 my wife and I moved to Calcutta, where I conducted research on Rammohun Roy for the next two years. We had never heard the words culture shock before we ventured on this journey. I thought I knew India because I had studied its history, religious texts, and philosophy for six years. But I knew nearly nothing. I certainly did not know how Indian religions were expressed in everyday life. Everything—soaring temples, shrines in homes, dashboard images of deities in taxis, sidewalk sacrifices of incense and flowers, devotees singing in street processions—was unintelligible to me. I had so much to learn.

Fortunately, there were many willing teachers. As I traveled around India or through neighborhoods in Calcutta, people taught me. When people learned why I was in India, they were eager to guide me to sacred places and activities, introduce me to people, and explain the meaning of our surroundings. Several professors became mentors. A journalist coached me in Bengali. People I had never met before led me through temples and markets, introduced me to artists who created images of deities, and guided me to used book sellers. We developed friendships through our neighborhood, church, and the Calcutta Mennonite Central Committee office.

The relationships, hospitality, and generosity overcame the alienation of culture shock. They also began to undermine my unconscious {57} assumptions about “us” and “them.” I experienced amazing goodness, beauty, piety, familial love, compassion, and protection from many different people. It was obvious that the “fruits of the Spirit” were not restricted to Christians and that all religious rituals were not merely “empty, meaningless, forms.” I have been processing the implications of those realities ever since.


I never expected to teach in a Mennonite college. I knew there would not be space in the curriculum for a specialist in Asian religions. But three years after returning from India, my doctorate was complete and we were in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I was teaching world religions and social science courses at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC). I soon realized that I was now in an “advanced faith incubator.” Our college mission and our shared faculty commitment were to introduce students to a Christian perspective on all of life. As one colleague frequently reminded us, “All truth is God’s truth!” Although I had studied some church history, Bible, and theology at university, I was now among colleagues who were “devout experts” in these fields, people for whom the frontiers of their scholarship were also the cutting edge of their living faith. We had daily chapels, retreats, guest speakers, and mission conferences. We talked about faith and scholarship, politics and culture at lunch and at coffee breaks. I was invited to preach and teach in churches. The integration of faith and learning was the very air we breathed.

My teaching changed. In this Mennonite college context, I did not simply teach religions (faiths) as interesting phenomena. I tried to help students understand how these faiths provided wisdom, comfort, purpose, and hope for their adherents. We discussed the implications of these faiths for the Christian students in my classroom. While I taught about world religions I also began to teach about Christian mission and the church in the non-Western world. I especially focused on how Christians had encountered and interpreted other faiths throughout history. Over the years this became my main teaching area. My research changed too. My early publications were about nineteenth-century Hinduism. 5 Today my main research is on Mennonite mission in India in the twentieth century.

During those first years at MBBC, I also taught courses at the University of Winnipeg. Sometimes I taught a variation of the same course at the college and the university at the same time. The course I taught at the university was not as oriented to “Christian formation,” although I intentionally created opportunities for all students to explore the meaning of what we were studying for their own lives. One year, when I {58} taught a world religions survey course to “senior citizens,” there were six elderly Jewish women in the class. When I began the section on Judaism, I told them that I hoped they would correct me and offer real life examples to the class. They were generous and affirming, and they offered stories that enriched the course. They also said, “We know how we practice Judaism in our families, our homes, and our synagogue. But we don’t necessarily have a larger picture of our own tradition. This course gives us that.” Their comment reminded me that while my experience and perspective as a Canadian Mennonite Christian is deeply meaningful to me, it is also very limited.

When I joined MBBC as a faculty member, I was also invited to be Director of Student Services for the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference. What a remarkable opportunity. Soon I was coordinating seminars for students and churches, representing the college at youth conferences, and speaking in churches across Canada. I compiled a bibliography for university and college students and churches. It included Bible study, devotional readings, evangelism, apologetics, Mennonite history and theology, Christianity and culture, and Christian perspectives on various academic disciplines and professions: science, arts, social science, medicine, and law. I consulted many Christian scholars. The research for that project was a great education for me and enriched my appreciation for the scope and quality of Christian scholarship.


During those years I often spoke and wrote about new religious movements, such as Transcendental Meditation (TM), the Divine Light Mission, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), popularly known as the Hare Krishna Movement. On one occasion, after I was interviewed about these movements in the Winnipeg newspaper, I received notes and phone calls from people whose children had joined a religious group and then had broken off contact with their families. They wanted to know what the attraction of these groups could possibly be and whether their children had been brainwashed. It was a very humbling experience because I could offer them little solace and no assurance. My advice did not require a PhD in Asian religion: if your children reach out to you, welcome them and assure them that you love them.

This experience, like so many others, motivated me to explore the Christian tradition more deeply. I knew that meditation, contemplative silence, and simple living were not just Hindu or Buddhist phenomena, but I had never read Christian mysticism or the Christian devotional classics. What a discovery! Just as I was starting to read these sources, Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline was published. 6 The college {59} invited him to speak at MBBC’s annual minister’s course, and we hosted him in our home. What a transformative experience that was for me and for those who participated that week. One of the insights that influenced me most was his analysis of the “disciplines” as inward, outward, and corporate. “Worship” was in the “corporate” section.

I had been fascinated by public worship for several years. It was an inherent part of all religions, but I had never studied it systematically. I began to do that and designed a new course, Christian Worship. Teaching that course shaped my life deeply. I required students to visit and worship in churches other than their own, and I did the same. Significant changes were underway in Christian worship during that time, and many Mennonite churches were part of the widespread turmoil and renewal. “Worship” soon became the main topic when I was invited to churches to speak.


For about twenty years during this stage of my career I was one of the writers of the “Christian Mind” column in the Mennonite Brethren Herald. This was both a great privilege and a relentless challenge. It was an opportunity to reflect on and communicate about the life of the church, cultural trends, world events, and personal experiences to a different audience. Anyone who has been a teacher, preacher, or writer knows that the finished speech or article is a small fraction of what you learn and how you are shaped inwardly.

Relatively early in my academic career I began to take on administrative responsibilities. At MBBC/Concord College, this was initially as dean of students, then as academic dean, and eventually as president. That was followed by two more experiences as dean: at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California, and then at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo. In the thirty years when I was primarily an academic administrator, I preached and taught in scores of churches. I worked with conference leaders, was a member of two mission boards and a hymnal commission, and conducted two research projects about local and global church leadership development. I was deeply engaged in interactions with congregations, conferences, church leaders, and institutional issues. 7 During all of these responsibilities I continued to teach courses and write about how Christians have understood and interacted with people of other faiths. 8

My research, teaching, and life experiences raised significant issues that I have pondered and addressed for many years. They have challenged and stimulated my faith and have required an ever deeper understanding of the Gospel. {60}

One issue is “goodness.” Years ago I wrote a column titled “Goodness: A Theological Problem.” Many Christians interpret the Bible to teach that humans are inherently and relentlessly sinful until they intentionally and explicitly accept the grace of God offered through Christ. “Goodness” is a fruit of the Spirit in the lives of those who have new life in Christ. It is not natural. Only a second birth can produce it and explain it.

For those who share this perspective, it can be unsettling to encounter people who are not Christians but whose lives manifest the fruit of the Spirit. 9 Instead of rejoicing in how God’s love is distributed lavishly and widely, they often deny the goodness of others or diminish its importance. They assert that the “goodness” is superficial, that there is a dark side that will inevitably prevail. They emphasize that there is no fundamental, eternally significant value in this temporal goodness, for it will earn no heavenly reward. 10 This theological disposition makes people less open to learn from others, especially those with whom they disagree or whom they are trying to evangelize. 11

A second issue is a theology of human nature as it is expressed in our theological understanding of children. I began to research this issue about fifteen years ago because some mission scholars suggested that one metaphor to use to understand other religions is that they are like stages of understanding in a person’s life. This prompted me to read about Anabaptist theology of children. Our emphasis on “adult believers baptism” is based on important assumptions about the meaning of baptism and the spiritual state of children prior to confession of faith and baptism. When we offer comforting words to grieving parents who have lost a child and assure them that the child is “safe in the arms of Jesus,” we are expressing an implicit theology. Our use of terms like an age of innocence or age of accountability reflect significant assumptions. These issues were debated intensely by early Anabaptist leaders. 12 Today similar issues are widely discussed in relation to the spiritual identity, capacity, and destiny of people with disabilities.

The third issue goes back to the time of Jesus. Two metaphors that describe how Christians relate to the religious life around them are fulfillment and replacement. The New Testament interprets Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises to the Jews, and often demonstrates this by quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures. This approach was sometimes also used by early Christians when they engaged Greco-Roman culture, most explicitly Paul’s speech in Athens in Acts 17. In the next three hundred years, Christian leaders used this motif extensively in relation to Greco-Roman philosophy and literature. They saw evidence of the logos in all that was good, beautiful, and true and claimed it for Christ. 13 {61}

But there was also much that they condemned, insisting that it be replaced. They challenged Jews and Gentiles to reject and abandon certain practices, attitudes, and beliefs and to replace them with the “armor of God” (Eph 6:11), and to be “clothed . . . with Christ” (Gal 3:27). As Christianity became associated with power and conquest over the centuries, the replacement motif flourished and the fulfillment motif languished. Christians had the power to declare indigenous religious practices illegal wherever they conquered, and they often did so. They facilitated the spread of Christianity in many ways, from forced conversions at the point of a sword to subsidies for schools and travel permits for missionaries. When that coercive partnership of church and state diminished, the fulfillment motif became more prominent again. A great deal of mission today begins with the premise that God is active among all people and that Christians should engage cultures with the expectation they will learn from them and discover “redemptive analogies” within cultures to express the gospel. 14

This leads to the fourth issue and connects Rammohun Roy to contemporary Christians and “spirituality.” I am fascinated by what I refer to as “Jesus Plus: Plus Jesus.” There are many followers of Jesus who have added and adapted devotional, ethical, dietary, and ritual practices from other religions into their lives. These include “mindfulness” practices, pilgrimages, vegetarianism, smudging, devotional poetry, daily and yearly cycles of prayer, and chanting. There are also tens of millions of people from other religious traditions who venerate Jesus and use the Bible and Christian practices to supplement their inherited traditions. “Jesus Plus: Plus Jesus” is a major paradigm in our world. In the long term, the hybridization of faith may be a more important trend than interreligious conflict.


There is a slogan that I often quote: “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.” Throughout my career the challenges of new knowledge were vastly more invigorating and inspiring than threatening. I was always engaged with people for whom understanding and living the gospel was at the core of their identity and purpose. Studying and teaching religions in primarily Christian settings required me to constantly think about Christian perspectives and implications, including the imperative that I should “teach about the faith of others as I would wish them to teach about my faith.”

I do not think that the risks and dynamics of “losing faith” through academic study are substantially different than losing faith in other contexts. Most often we lose faith because it no longer seems relevant or it {62} no longer lives up to its promise. It may be because we are no longer part of a family or community in which faith is a major part of our shared identity. Perhaps we encounter illness, trauma, and broken relationships, and our expectation of healing, comfort, and inner peace is not fulfilled. We may be disillusioned by the hypocrisy and moral failure of religious leaders and institutions. The death of a child, a betrayal of trust, or an encounter with injustice can overturn our worldview more profoundly than writing an essay on Nietzsche or a thesis on Buddhist saints.

When we lose something precious, we look for it relentlessly and ask others to help us find it. But when we misplace something that once was essential but now is no longer useful, there is much less urgency. Our life seems to go on fine without it.

I am fortunate that my academic career required and equipped me to grow as a Christian. Most jobs offer little scope and support for addressing the deep questions of our personal identity, our world, and human destiny. Those are regarded as personal or extracurricular concerns and activities. But those questions were always at the center of the relationships and vocation I shared with my colleagues and students. I am grateful.

While this essay has focused on my academic career, I gratefully acknowledge the profound impact of church, friends, and other activities. Six supportive, creative, and diverse congregations in North America were our home churches during these years. All welcomed our contributions and leadership. The range of opinions on theological and practical matters varied greatly, but the shared commitment to reflect Christ in our words and lives united us. In Winnipeg we were part of Olive Branch for thirteen years. Together with fifteen families we managed a Self-Help/Ten Thousand Villages store, were active in community service, and met twice a month to plan our shared work and reflect on its meaning. During our three years with Mennonite Central Committee in Bangladesh we were always aware that who we were and what we did should be a reflection of our motto, “In the Name of Christ.”


  1. William Theodore de Bary, ed., Sources of Indian Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).
  2. The fifty-page book consisted of selected Gospel stories and words of Jesus. There was no commentary, just biblical texts. Miracle stories and the events at the end of Jesus’s life were not included, for reasons Roy explained in later publications when he responded to Christian critics of his work. It was published in English, Bengali, and Sanskrit. {63}
  3. He regarded the Trinity as a form of polytheism.
  4. Carey’s missionary colleague Joshua Marshman and Roy engaged in a long, public debate through books and published articles about the deity, miracles, and atonement of Jesus.
  5. One dramatic symbol of this change in my scholarship happened in 1998 as we were moving from Winnipeg to Fresno, where I would be the academic dean of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (now Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary). I had not used many of my books on Indian languages, religion, and philosophy in recent years and knew I would not use them in Fresno. So I sold and donated about fifteen hundred of these books before we moved. That, of course, made room on the book shelves for more books about my current interests!
  6. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1978). Some of my first discoveries were Thomas à Kempis, Thomas Merton, Thomas Kelly, Evelyn Underhill, A. W. Tozer, Elizabeth O’Connor, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
  7. In those contexts, my faith was both strengthened and tested. I experienced the variety, vitality, integrity, brokenness, deceit, and pain of churches and leaders. I preached in churches that were vibrant and in churches that were wounded by leadership conflict, once in a congregation that had split a few days before I arrived. I attended conferences where leaders nurtured gracious consensus and others where leaders used misdirection and procedural complexity to achieve a result they knew would be impossible if they were forthright and honest with the delegates. I was in meetings when people deliberately reached out to those who had disagreed with them during debates to assure them of their respect and friendship and in meetings when those who “won” showed disdain for those who “lost.” I saw leaders publicly reconciled and leaders publicly humiliated. I met pastors who offered encouragement and wise counsel about how my colleagues and I could be more helpful to the students we were teaching. I met pastors who pointed to a line that they disagreed with in a textbook assigned by a college professor or objected to a comment that one of my colleagues had made in a class or sermon and demanded to know why that person was not fired. I met parents who were tearfully grateful for the way in which one of their difficult children had been mentored and cared for by my colleagues.
  8. One of these writing projects gave me a significant introduction to indigenous Christianity in Canada. I was contracted to research and write about the theological education by extension program that the Vancouver School of Theology offered in northwest British Columbia. Through my visits to the school, the Skeena River basin, and the islands of Haida Gwaii, I met remarkable people and experienced profound adaptations of Christianity.
  9. I took this interpretation of the Bible for granted for many years, and that is why experiences of evil—violence, greed, duplicity—in my own culture or in India or in Bangladesh were never theologically disorienting, even when they were personally painful. Christians have tried to explain the coexistence of goodness and sinfulness for many centuries. Various Christian traditions have developed theological categories such as common grace, {64} prevenient grace, sanctifying grace, and saving grace. God’s providential care of creation, providential restraint of sin, and providential blessings to humans are often regarded as common grace. My primary interest in this theological issue is how it has affected our attitude toward and relationships with other Christians and adherents of other faiths.
  10. This line of argument was prominent in Mennonite missionary reports in church periodicals. They rarely acknowledged any good in the people and cultures around them. When they noted generosity, kindness, or loving self-sacrifice, they nearly always described it as “works righteousness,” the attempt to earn God’s favor. But there was more to Mennonite mission than this. I am deeply grateful to former Mennonite missionaries in India who shared their understanding and love of India with me. Some of them became my mentors.
  11. A colleague whose biblical scholarship and spiritual integrity I respect deeply once commented publicly that although he disagreed with Rudolf Bultmann on many issues, he admired Bultmann’s call for radical obedience to Christ. A group of pastors and conference leaders severely criticized him for saying something positive about Bultmann and forced him to apologize publicly. He was treated with suspicion by those leaders for the rest of his distinguished career. The meta-message seemed to be that when we disagree with people on significant issues, we cannot affirm anything good in them.
  12. For a brief overview of this issue see the article, “Children” in GAMEO, the Global Anabaptist Encyclopedia Online, It includes this statement from the “The Nurture and Evangelism of Children” adopted by the Mennonite Church General Assembly (MC) in 1955: “When the age of accountability arrives, a totally new spiritual situation arises. The individual now has a new sense of restlessness and guilt. He recognizes himself as a sinner. He stands in need of repentance, faith, and the new birth. As the Holy Spirit convicts, he may either yield to Christ or reject Him. Those receiving Christ are born again. Those rejecting Him lose their former saved status and are lost persons spiritually” (emph. added).
  13. Augustine and others called it “plundering the Egyptians/pagans,” based on Exodus 12:35–36: they claimed the best and left the rest. According to Justin Martyr, people’s use of reason, even people without faith in Christ, is already evidence that Christ the Logos is active in their lives. This was sometimes referred to as the Logos spermatikos, the “seeds of Truth.”
  14. The phrase “redemptive analogies” was popularized by missionary Don Richardson, who discovered such an analogy in the “peace child” ritual exchange among the Sawi in Papua New Guinea and then later wrote a book titled Eternity in their Hearts (Regal, 1981) to explore this concept in other cultures. This method was common in the early church. Christian apologists throughout history have used popular stories and metaphors to portray God and Jesus. For example, an analogy from Hinduism illuminates the Christian’s debate about predestination and free will. How does God’s grace function? One opinion is that it functions like a cat. The mother cat picks up the baby in its mouth and carries it to safety. The other opinion is that grace functions like a monkey. The mother {65} comes beside the baby and only when the baby holds on to the mother with its paws and feet can the mother carry it to safety.
Jim Pankratz earned his master’s degree and PhD in Religious Studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. He was a faculty member at Mennonite Brethren Bible College and Concord College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, for twenty years, nine of those as president. He served as academic dean and associate professor at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, from 1998 to 2005. He was dean and associate professor at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario, from 2006 to 2014, and has just completed a year there as interim president.

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