Desmond Tutu on the challenge of religious pluralism

Desmond Tutu strikes me as one of the happiest people alive

Despite the provocative sounding title of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s forthcoming book, God Is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations, this excerpt, from a 1989 speech, doesn’t strike me as especially provocative, just deeply truthful. Tutu wants us Christians to relate in an intelligent way to people of other religions.

As I’ve written and preached about elsewhere on this blog, our culture often wants to reduce religion down to its lowest common denominator and say that all religions are different paths to the same destination. And many in the church agree. I understand the impulse, which arises from a well-intentioned effort to respect people of different faiths. But it actually has the opposite effect, as Tutu rightly understands. We Christians are

not to insult the adherents of other faiths by suggesting, as sometimes has happened, that for instance when you are a Christian the adherents of other faiths are really Christians without knowing it. We must acknowledge them for who they are in all their integrity, with their conscientiously held beliefs; we must welcome them and respect them as who they are and walk reverently on what is their holy ground, taking off our shoes, metaphorically and literally. We must hold to our particular and peculiar beliefs tenaciously, not pretending that all religions are the same, for they are patently not the same.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t be surprised or threatened by the fact that different religions have much in common—especially in the actual practice of faith. We should celebrate that and seek to understand one another.

Surely we can rejoice that the eternal word, the Logos of God, enlightens everyone—not just Christians, but everyone who comes into the world; that what we call the Spirit of God is not a Christian preserve, for the Spirit of God existed long before there were Christians, inspiring and nurturing women and men in the ways of holiness, bringing them to fruition, bringing to fruition what was best in all.

As we go about our mission in the world, he writes,

we will make our claims for Christ as unique and as the Savior of the world, hoping that we will live out our beliefs in such a way that they help to commend our faith effectively. Our conduct far too often contradicts our profession, however. We are supposed to proclaim the God of love, but we have been guilty as Christians of sowing hatred and suspicion; we commend the one whom we call the Prince of Peace, and yet as Christians we have fought more wars than we care to remember. We have claimed to be a fellowship of compassion and caring and sharing, but as Christians we often sanctify sociopolitical systems that belie this, where the rich grow ever richer and the poor grow ever poorer, where we seem to sanctify a furious competitiveness, ruthless as can only be appropriate to the jungle.

3 thoughts on “Desmond Tutu on the challenge of religious pluralism”

  1. How have we who demand to be called ‘Christian’ with all its implications of superiority gotten so off-track? Would Jesus even recognize us as His followers? Tutu speaks with such clarity and insight!

  2. Brent, I like all the excerpts you posted, and certainly we as “Christendom” in general have much to apologize for. I also like Tutu’s point that in actuality to make all religions “the same” is rather to deny other religions any content, instead of “compliment” them. The only question I have, due to the ignorance of what Tutu also says, is whether he also believes that the other religions are “wrong” to the extent that they do disagree with Christianity as to its most essential teachings. Such as, in particular, that Jesus is God’s Son, and that this belief in Jesus and his death and resurrection is necessary to our eternal salvation. (But not SUFFICIENT, in that this belief must also result in a changed life, various characteristics of which may find common ground in other religions. But the fundamental “belief” is still essential, as I see the matter.)

    1. Tom,

      This speech is highly nuanced, but I don’t think Tutu disagrees with you. Among other things, he’s saying that God is much larger than Christianity and the church, therefore we Christians don’t have a “corner” on God. How could we? We’re finite human beings, and God is eternal. Moreover, the Spirit is revealing God to people all over the world.

      This doesn’t contradict our firm belief, however, that God is perfectly revealed in Jesus—the way, the truth, and the life. The truth-that-is-Jesus, in other words, is often found outside of the church. The apostle Paul perceives this in Acts 17, for instance, when he finds a little bit of the gospel in pagan philosophy and religion. “As your own poets have written…” etc. But, by all means, where Christianity’s truth claims are in competition with other religions, we side with Christianity (and Jesus, we hope).

      That’s how I read it, anyway.


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