Posts Tagged ‘religious pluralism’

Why “religious pluralism” fails to respect other religions

October 15, 2014

I’m leading a Bible study tonight on Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which we’ll tackle the deeply controversial idea underlying Paul’s words in Romans 2:28-29: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”

Let’s not beat around the bush: Paul is claiming that those who belong to the new covenant in the Messiah are now entitled to the name “Jew.” One problem with this claim is the exclusivity it implies about Christianity. We modern people, even we more “sophisticated” Christians, are supposed to believe that Christianity and Judaism (and probably Islam and other religions) present parallel paths to the same reality that we name “God.” If we sincerely embark upon any of these paths, we wind up in the same place, ultimately.

The idea that all sincere religions are parallel paths to God—otherwise known as religious pluralism—sounds deeply respectful of other people’s religious beliefs, but not so fast. N.T. Wright puts the problem in sharp relief. He says religious pluralism is rooted in Enlightenment thinking, according to which,

all religions are inadequate approximations to truth, and, despite what many of them say, none has exclusive rights to it. The appropriate stance is therefore mutual tolerance. This is, of course, a covert way of saying, among other things, that (at least) Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are all actually misleading, since all of them make, at the very heart, claims that the others are bound to deny if they are not to lose their very identity. Nevertheless, this secularized agenda has seeped into both Jewish and Christian circles, often coupled with the laudable desire for humility and mutual respect, sometimes using that as a pretext for a highly arrogant liberalism that challenges all truth claims while pressing its own with remarkable intolerance.[†]

N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 451.

That whacky Christian fringe movement known as the United Methodist Church

October 5, 2011

On Monday, I caught the tail end of an NPR Fresh Air interview with someone named C. Peter Wagner, about whom I know very little. He used to be a missionary, and he retired as a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. He’s associated with this political-religious movement known as “dominionism.” A dominionist organization he founded, the New Apostolic Reformation, sponsored a prayer rally in which presidential contender Gov. Rick Perry of Texas recently took part. Perry’s involvement is the sole reason there is any national interest at all in Wagner.

I’m being deliberately circumspect in my description of Wagner. I’m sure that he and I share some important theological differences. Based on the interview, I’m guessing he’s Pentecostal, and he has what I would describe as eccentric views of spiritual warfare. I believe in the reality of spiritual warfare and the demonic, as I’ve preached about recently, but I wouldn’t go nearly so far in describing how that warfare manifests itself.

Also, my view of the church’s involvement in politics tends toward Anabaptist separation. In other words, I’m not optimistic that the church can be involved in government in a way that doesn’t hopelessly compromise the church’s witness. If that’s what dominionism represents, I’m against it. (But I’m against a lot of things.)

Having said all that, Wagner seems like a sincere believer. While I don’t share many of his views, he’s hardly any kind of threat to the Republic, as I suspect interviewer Terry Gross and many of her listeners fear. I love secular public radio, but it often treats evangelical Christians like the exotic subjects of a National Geographic special. Is it possible that Gross might have a friend or neighbor who actually is an evangelical? Has she ever gotten to know one before? Are they really so unusual?

But this post isn’t mostly about any of that. What really interests me is Gross’s last question to Wagner, and his response (emphasis mine):

GROSS: One thing about that, and this is something that confuses me. On the one hand, you say that you respect all religions, and that that’s something our Constitution guarantees us. But at the same time, you want as many like-minded Christians as possible in positions in the arts, the media, the government, business, school. And also, you think Christianity is the only true faith. You’d like Jews in Israel to convert to Christianity. It just seems kind of contradictory to, you know, on the one hand, say you respect all religions, but to, on the other hand, say that you really want people to convert to yours.

WAGNER: Well, we – yes, we respect all religions, but we also respect the freedom of exercising our religion. And part of our religion is called evangelization. It’s called presenting Jesus Christ to others and persuading them to become followers of Jesus Christ and walk into the kingdom of God. So – so we’d like to maintain our right in a plural – in religious pluralism of exercising our privilege of winning other people to Christianity.

If I accept the premise of Gross’s question, then I, too, belong to a whacky Christian fringe movement. We’re called the United Methodist Church. We also think that Christianity is the one true faith. We want Jews in Israel to convert to Christianity. And listen to these extreme positions, which come from the 2008 United Methodist Book of Discipline:

The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world… (¶ 120)

The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world. (¶ 129)

I thought Wagner answered the question just fine, but I would add that a part of “respecting” other religions means respecting the ways in which other religions’ truth claims compete with Christianity’s truth claims. I am not respecting other religions if I say that they’re really the same as mine or that their competing truth claims don’t matter. Of course they matter! People sometimes die on account of these differences!

Christianity claims that God revealed God’s self definitively in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if that revelation is definitive, then other perceived revelations are either false or redundant. Like it or not, there is a built-in exclusiveness to Christianity.

Of course, many Christians—and certainly many Methodists—may disagree. But this exclusiveness isn’t a distortion of the true faith by recent fringe groups. It has been near the heart of the Church’s proclamation from the beginning and continues to be so.

Like it or not.

But if you don’t like it, what’s the alternative? One terrible alternative (if we believe in the God of Christianity) is to place ourselves above God and say to God, in effect, “You don’t have a right to reveal yourself in an exclusive way.” But suppose God did? Is God wrong or are we?

“Not a private or a tame savior, available on tap, like a favorite beer”

August 26, 2011

In last week’s sermon, I discussed the understandable misgivings that we Christians sometimes feel about evangelism  in relation to Jews. Years ago, the Southern Baptists got into hot water in the media (like, when aren’t Southern Baptists in hot water with the media?) because they had some explicit plan to evangelize the Jews. I had a friend at the time, who is Jewish, who was indignant, and he wasn’t alone. We Christians want to say (as we often do say) that Jews have one covenant with God and Christians have another, and so let’s just live and let live.

This is bad Christian theology, and it flies in the face of everything Paul argues throughout Romans, especially in chapters 9-11. But if the only alternative to this bad theology were anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism, then I’d gladly live with bad theology!

But this isn’t the only alternative. If we as the Church love and respect our Jewish friends, we should love them enough to want them to experience this amazing gift of life and love that God has given us in Christ; and we should respect them enough to bear witness to what we truly believe. Namely, that Jesus is Lord, not merely of the billion or so professing Christians living in the world, but of the entire cosmos.

I’m reminded of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode I saw one time. The opening credits of the B-movie that Mike and his robot sidekicks were forced to watch showed the famous space logo for Universal Pictures. And below the logo it read “A Universal-National Production.” (I assume a company called National merged with Universal, and they hyphenated their name.) One of the show’s robot commentators pointed out the obvious redundancy: “If you’re ‘universal,’ doesn’t that imply that you’re also ‘national’?”

If Jesus is Lord of all Creation, he is also Lord of everyone within it, not merely us (mostly) Gentile Christians. Of course this is a challenge to our prevailing ideology of inclusiveness and religious pluralism. But we can’t evade the challenge and be faithful to the gospel. In his commentary on Romans, N.T. Wright deals with this challenge on nearly every page, but I especially like what he says here:

And if Christians remain loyal to Jesus of Nazareth they cannot evade the challenge of his Messiahship, upon which is based his universal lordship. He is not a private or a tame savior, available on tap, like a favorite beer, for those who want some salvation now and then. If he is not Messiah and Lord, the whole of Christianity is indeed based on a mistake and ought to be abandoned. But what if he is?…

Here, in fact, is the crowning irony of today’s attempt to appropriate Romans 9–11. For Paul, anti-Judaism would mean imagining that Jews cannot come to faith in Jesus. For many today, anti-Judaism means supposing that they can and should.

Of course, the idea that the Church can convince Jews today—after the tragic, sordid history of violence and arrogance that has too often characterized our relationship over the centuries—may seem daunting, even hopeless. But the fact remains, even today, that ethnic Jews do become Christians. They are in our churches, and God knows that we Gentile Christians—the “wild olive branch” grafted onto an ancient root—benefit from their witness.

N.T. Wright, “Romans” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol X., ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 697-698.

Desmond Tutu on the challenge of religious pluralism

June 5, 2011

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.

Rob Bell stirs things up

March 1, 2011

Rob Bell’s publisher couldn’t ask for better controversy. Apparently, some evangelical leaders got hold of a promotional video for Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and have gone crazy denouncing a book that they haven’t read. They fear that Bell has become a universalist.

I am not a universalist (as I have discussed elsewhere—here, for instance) for the following reasons: I believe that God revealed God’s self definitively in Jesus. Everything we need to know about God, we can learn from him. There are no additional revelations necessary. Jesus is identically equal to God. Moreover, I believe that reconciliation with God is available only through Christ. I’m not surprised or threatened by the fact that other religions have truth and value, but where there are competing truth claims between the Christian faith and other religions, I side with Christianity.

The above paragraph makes me not a universalist. (Is there a word for that? Exclusivist?) The question of hell and who goes there, however, is a separate question.

And on that question, I’m not nearly as firm as Bell’s critics would prefer (and for all I know, Bell’s book will struggle with the same question). I believe that hell exists. I don’t know, based on scripture, who goes there. I know for certain (at least as certain as faith can be) that through Christian faith and baptism, believers will be saved.

As for everyone else, I don’t know. I don’t have to know. I don’t have to judge. Fortunately, judgment is God’s business, so I’ll leave that up to God.

But I agree with Slacktivist Fred Clark’s exegesis of the Big Three hell proof-texts (Luke 16:19-31; Matthew 25:41-46; Revelation 20:11-15) over at this post. (Fred is firmly in the anti-hell camp.) I’ve made this point before plenty of times. I like this paragraph, in particular:

What one finds in all three of these passages, instead, is a seeming Pelagianism. All that matters in any of these scriptures is deeds and actions. Not a word anywhere here about grace or faith or the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Deeds and actions and those alone are what determines the eternal fate of everyone in each of these passages. They couldn’t be any clearer on that point — the main point of each passage above. What determines if someone is to be cast into Revelation’s “lake of fire”? The dead will be judged, Revelation says, “… according to their works, as recorded in the books. … according to what they had done.” Who are the accursed “goats” on Jesus’ left hand who will be consigned to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”? Those who did not feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked or comfort the lonely. And why was the rich man in Luke’s gospel sent to Hades? Jesus never quite says, but he seems to suggest that the rich man went to Hades because he was rich just as the poor beggar Lazarus goes to Heaven justbecause he was a poor beggar.

Awkward, that.

I also share Slacktivist’s puzzlement on the larger issue: “The odder, larger question is why the members of Team Hell so very much want this imagined eternal torment to be true.”

As I’ve said in sermons before, I hope that God shows everyone the same love, grace, and mercy that God has shown me. Why wouldn’t I? What did I do to deserve it? But God isn’t going to force God’s self on anyone—and that alone is a sufficient reason for hell’s existence.

Nice op-ed on religious pluralism

May 25, 2010

The Dalai Lama has a thoughtful op-ed on the subject of interfaith harmony in today’s New York Times. I highlight the following passage:

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

I think this is exactly right. Notice that the Dalai Lama is not saying that our religious differences are unimportant or (as the op-ed’s headline, “Many Faiths, One Truth” might imply) that all religions are essentially the same. On the contrary, he rightly says that some degree of exclusivity is at the heart of all religions.

Christianity certainly has an exclusive component. I am a Christian, after all, because I believe that God is definitively revealed in Jesus. Everything I need to know about God I learn from him—because I believe that Christ is God. There is no necessary revelation outside of Christ. This is to some degree exclusive because where the truth claims of Christianity compete with the truth claims of other religions, I side with Christianity—with the caveat that all human knowledge is provisional. At best, we see through a glass darkly. We should always be open to revising our understanding of the truth that Christ reveals.

But our faith is by no means completely exclusive. Inasmuch as other religions reveal this same God, I say a hearty “Amen.” If Buddhism (or any other religion) can teach us something about compassion, then by all means we should be receptive. We’re not surprised or threatened by the fact that we share so much in common with other religions because we believe there is one Spirit revealing this truth.

My point (with which the Dalai Lama would surely agree) is that we don’t get along with people of other religions by minimizing our differences or pretending that they don’t really matter—as many well-intentioned Christians have tried to do by redefining “salvation,” for instance, to some lowest common denominator.

No. We can hold onto our exclusivity while at the same time respecting, admiring, and appreciating other traditions. In fact, we must: otherwise we tell practitioners of other religions that their traditions’ unique and competing truth claims don’t really matter. How is that not offensive and disrespectful?

See earlier entries here and here for more on the challenge of religious pluralism.

Last week’s sermon audio

October 1, 2009


“Tough Texts: Is Jesus the Only Way?” Text: John 14:1-14.