Indian-born Ravi Zacharias, who grew up steeped in Hinduism, is one of the first Christian apologists to come out of the Third World. Headquartered in Atlanta, his expertise on comparative religions has earned him audiences from Capitol Hill to Harvard. The following are excerpts from an interview by Julia Duin with Mr. Zacharias, who was in town recently for a lecture at the C.S. Lewis Institute.
Q: How do you present the uniqueness of Christianity?
A: I am totally convinced the Christian faith is the most coherent worldview around. Everyone: pantheist, atheist, skeptic, polytheist has to answer these questions: Where did I come from? What is life’s meaning? How do I define right from wrong and what happens to me when I die? Those are the fulcrum points of our existence. I deal with cultural issues whether they be in the Middle East, Far East, the Orient or the West. You broach questions in the context of their culture and then present Christian answers.
Q: Why do you call “Jesus Among Other Gods” your most significant book?
A: There was no life so impeccably lived as His. There are those who’ve claimed prophetic status who have led pretty heavily duplicitous lives. But in Christ, you never see that. You never find Him in any compromising situation that shows itself where He was driven by the sensuality of the moment. After 2000 years, no name has been scrutinized more, none abused or challenged more in the public media.
I find a lot of Western journalists intellectually cowardly here. They would never do with Mohammed what they do with Jesus. They don’t have the courage to do that. If the major magazines — Time, Newsweek or U.S. News and World Report — did with Mohammed on one of their major festivals what they do to Jesus on Christmas or Easter, they probably wouldn’t be in existence any more.
Q: Why are people so fascinated with Eastern religions?
A: Because they give you the privilege of morality without having God. Even aspects of the entire New Age movement are a moralizing philosophy without the positing of a central deity. Buddhism also gives you that. Bahaism gives you a pluralistic view, and a lot of aspects of Hinduism give you a moral framework with no accountability other than the karmic system. There’s no linear movement or point of accountability toward God.
I was in a hearing with [former presidential speechwriter] Peggy Noonan years ago and she asked this question: Do terrorists fear anything? I said, ‘I suspect they would fear a morally strong America.’ They would know that a morally strong America would not be dislodged. You can always appeal to a point of vulnerability which would break a people up. [Terrorists] don’t fear so much the weaponry as the moral courage, and I think a morally strong America would be intimidating to them.
Q: What has been your experience on American campuses?
A: If I speak on Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam or whatever, I am quite free to do it without any repercussions. But if you speak on the Christian faith, somebody is going to question why you are there. You talk to any Christian campus group on any major campus and they’ll tell you about the intimidation there.
It’s sad. I lived in India, then in Canada and then I’ve come here. America seems to take a hit for everything it does. But worse can be done in other parts of the world and it will be done with impunity. For instance, racism: I could take you to parts of the world today where racism is horrible, blatant. The same people who will tell you that, are the ones who will take us to task. I will tell you what is hidden under all of this. I believe because we live under the outworking of a Christian worldview, we are willing to face the self-criticism and scrutiny. Other worldviews are not willing to lend themselves to that.
Q: How much freedom do you have in Muslim countries?
A: [Muslims] will tell you there is no compulsion in religion. I was with the minister of religion of a major country that I will leave unnamed. He was a very courteous man and he was talking about the work they were doing. They had just met in Malaysia about improving the image of Islam.
I asked, ‘Why do you feel it needs to be improved?’ He said, ‘Well, September 11. We are often represented as using compulsion in religion.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to be discourteous, but if I were in your country and I were a Muslim, would I be free to disagree with it?’ He said, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ I said, ‘No, I am just asking theologically: Would I be free to disbelieve it?’
He said, ‘Well, these things get more complicated when you deal with a country’s laws and all.’ I said, ‘When you say there is no compulsion in religion, you are looking at one side of the coin, meaning you will never force someone to become what you are. But to have no compulsion means you should not compel somebody to believe something when they want to disbelieve it. That is a very critical test for compulsion.
There is no law in the land where I live, compelling me to [be a Christian]. But in your land, if I chose to disbelieve [Islam], I have to stand before a tribunal of justices and explain it. How can I withstand such intimidation and be honest and not pay for it at the same time?
Frankly, he wouldn’t give me an answer. I think if Islam is going to rise to the level many moderates want to see it, they will have to take off the heavy foot of compulsion in their own lands. Then it can be a legitimate representation of how many believe.
Q: How can Christianity meet the needs of a place like India?
A: I was born and raised in Bombay and I go back there twice a year. India is agony writ large. The voices of the millions are not heard. Walk through the streets of Calcutta and it hits you. At the same time, it’s the center of India’s learning. Some of her greatest philosophers come from Calcutta. The first thing Christianity does is raise the level of every individual. There’s an essential dignity. Every human being is of essential worth.
The second thing it does is give the impetus to love and reach out in a way that rescues the person, not just the function. Look at where the missionary organizations — the hospitals, orphanages and health care — came from. I spoke three weeks ago at Bahrain at the 100th anniversary of the American missionary hospital, which was founded in Saudi Arabia and now is in Bahrain. Many of the sheiks were born there and several were represented in the audience to which I spoke. From where came the impetus? It came from the love of Christ.
Q: What does American culture need rescuing from?
A: What America needs more than anything else right now is to know she cannot exist without the worldview that helped bring her into being. And that was the Judeo-Christian worldview. What America also needs is the willingness to allow the Christian faith freedom of access in the institutions that it allows every other faith to have.
Isn’t it interesting that when these mainline divinity schools were conservative, room was given for the liberals. But they have become liberal and the conservatives are squeezed out, if not humiliated out, which is a fascinating reality.