I grew up a pretty shy guy and I always admired my older brother's knack of being able to start conversations and make friends. One time I asked him how he did it and his answer to me began to shape my life from that moment forward. He told me to "know a little about a lot of things so that you can have something in common with just about everyone. Then when you find that commonality, ask them a lot of questions about it."
His counsel set me down a path of curiosity fulfillment where I began not only to do what he said about asking questions, but also where I began to read up on a wide variety of topics. The advent of the internet has only hastened this process in me by giving me virtual access to people all over the world to read about and communicate with through blogs, facebook, chat, videos, and numerous other ways of communication - not to mention instant access to libraries of newspapers in any one of about 200 countries at the push of a button. Over the years seeking deep knowledge and peculiar information about other cultures has become a sort of a hobby for me - something to kill time, build new friendships, and to satiate my curiosity.
Part of this curiosity led me to speaking in some depth to people of very different faith backgrounds than my own and learning not only what they believe and why, but how what they believe may differ significantly from the nominal faith that we think of when we hear the name of their religion. What I found is that very few people actually fit neatly into a "religious or philosophical box". Very few believe or practice 100% of the tenets of the group that they may associate with by name.
That being said, I have found certain beliefs that are commonly shared by many people of these groups that don't seem to make much sense to me when I examine them. One of the things that I've always found a bit odd about many hardline Muslims, for instance, is their insistence that God somehow needs help defending himself against infidel non-believers. This is how jihad is justified. Somehow, killing people in cold blood because of their belief system is considered a godly act. Our Western mindset easily dismisses this type of thinking as silly because we consider ourselves more dignified and civilized - choosing to fight our battles in the arena of the mind instead of with the sword. To me the Muslim stand on this issue is one of arrogance, essentially saying that God has appointed them as the arbiter of truth, judge, jury, and executioner.
A while back I began reading some of Gandhi's thoughts as they related to the missionary attempts to convert the Hindus to Christianity in the early 20th century. He found their conversion attempts to be curious as the people seemed more interested in winning a convert to a religion than they did in shaping and developing godly character in their converts.
Similarly I have spent a lifetime in a religion that has taught me that only people "like me" will see heaven and anyone who professes an association to another faith (or who hasn't even heard of my faith) is doomed to suffer an eternal punishment and damnation. A preacher that I heard at my church recently went so far as to make the bold claim that 2 billion people in this world have not ever heard the name of Jesus, yet they were "born guilty sinners" so they were destined to spend eternity in hell unless we abandoned our big homes, sold our possessions, and rushed over there to tell them the "good news about Jesus Christ."
In reflecting on this, I find it every bit as arrogant as the Muslim attempt to reshape the world in their image, albeit more socially palatable due to its non-violent method of conversion. Nonetheless it still makes God into an impotent being that requires our help to get his will accomplished. He "needs" us. I guess thinking that can make some people feel important for being the bearers of that news, or for possessing the hidden oracles of God that others are oblivious to. If God truly "needs" us to accomplish his will, he's a pathetic God and I don't want to serve him. Likewise, if he stands ready to condemn someone to the eternal fires of hell simply for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time, he's a sick and deranged God and I don't want to serve him.
My understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that he did what he did - living the perfect life and sacrificing his life, even unto death on a cross - because we (mankind) needed a bridge to God, a justification of the entire human race. With his life and death, he bridged that gap. With his message, he taught us how to act to align our own spirit with his so that we could have the same life in us, and have it abundantly. He taught us how to deny ourselves and submit ourselves to God. I assert that Jesus' life and sacrifice is sufficient to sanctify and justify anyone in the world who seeks to submit to the spirit of God, however that person knows to do that. His teachings appear in the principles of virtually every religion and philosophy in the world. I assert that if someone is seeking to please God, they will find his spirit and the teachings of Jesus anywhere in the world. This is not to say that I believe rote recitation of any particular religion is sufficient to earn someone a ticket to heaven. I believe with all my heart, though, that God is more interested in developing our character than in getting us to proclaim an allegiance or a creed with our lips. I also believe that his character is such that he would never create someone only to subsequently doom them to hell because of lack of opportunity. There must be another answer beside the arrogant one that places us on a pedestal of importance to God and his work.
Maybe my answer isn't right, but if it's not, I'm convinced that the alternative is not, as well.