Most people in the United States consider themselves Christian, and most Americans consider the United States to be a Christian nation in some form or fashion, even though we are a secular state. In recent decades the extent to which Americans might be called Christian has been changing rapidly. Along with the decline of membership in Christian churches has been the rise of multiculturalism, political correctness, and relativism which suggest that one religion is as good as another. The influx of immigrants from other parts of the world, from the Middle East and from Asia in particular, has brought a significant number of adherents to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other world religions to America. Temples and mosques are appearing around the United States. The trend is more obvious in the large cities or near major university campuses, because that is where immigrants have usually gathered. People of Anglo-Saxon heritage are converting to non-Christian religions, even though their numbers are quite small. American culture is now very pluralistic.
Many Christian values and assumptions are no longer considered basic values or assumptions. Not only are Judeo-Christian values no longer taken for granted, there is a widespread effort to diminish those same values, even to silence them and remove them from the public square. As Ravi Zacharias, a Brahman Hindu born in India who converted to Christianity, declared:
Philosophically, you can believe anything, so long as you do not claim it to be true. Morally, you can practice anything, so long as you do not claim that it is a "better" way. Religiously, you can hold to anything, so long as you do not bring Jesus Christ into it. If a spiritual idea is eastern, it is granted critical immunity; if western, it is thoroughly criticized. Thus, a journalist can walk into a church and mock its carryings on, but he or she dare not do the same if the ceremony is from the eastern fold. Such is the mood at the end of the twentieth century.1
The purpose of this brief study is to outline some of the problems a Christian faces in trying to live a life of faith in a pluralistic society and to point in the direction of an appropriate Christian response to non-Christian beliefs. This is only an introductory outline which must be brief due to the constraint of space. The issues at hand and the available options are oversimplified more than once, no doubt.
Responding to Pluralism
How should Christians respond to the growing non-Christian presence among us and the erosion of Christian values in our society? First, we should strive to be a good example and to live an authentic Christian life. Many believers who are attracted to other religions are drawn away from their Christian origins because of inconsistency and hypocrisy on the part of Christians with whom they are acquainted. The immorality, apathy, and indifference of Christians are frequently the reason that some are repelled from the Christian faith. If this negative experience of Christianity is paired with a genuine, sincere practice of a non-Christian religion by an acquaintance, then the attraction toward a new faith might be very strong.
Second, Christians should strive to be informed about world
religions. Christian believers should learn at least the basics of the
major belief systems in the world. Ignorance can lead us in two equally
unacceptable directions. It can mean we are susceptible to adopting a
belief system without really understanding it. We may disregard
negative portions of a faith system while naively focusing on a few of
its attractive qualities. Another unacceptable consequence of ignorance
is blind bias and prejudice which is unwilling to see any good or truth
in another religion. There is much beauty and truth in all of the major
world religions. If these were not present, people would not be
attracted to them so easily. For example, in Jainism we see the beauty
of the principle of ahimsa or non-violence. Or what of this devotional
thought from Sikhism from Guru Nanak which reminds me of Psalm 42
|Oh my mind, love God as a fish loves water:|
|The more the water, the happier is the fish,|
|The more peaceful his mind and body.|
|He cannot live without water even for a moment.|
|God knows the inner pain of that being without water.|
When one studies the religions of the world one meets incredible people who show amazing devotion and sincerity to their God or their gods, whichever it may be. God has revealed himself, not only in special ways which are recorded in the Bible, but also he has shown himself in general ways which are available to all (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:14; Ps. 19:1-6; Acts 17:22-31). This means we should expect to find much good in most or all world religions.
Third, Christians need a deep knowledge of their own faith. While there is common ground between most world religions, the differences are vast and significant. Christians who do not understand their own faith will be unable to address these differences. They will be unable to defend their own belief system in an adequate manner.
Fourth, Christians entering into a study of other belief systems or a dialogue with adherents of other faiths ought to examine their own motives. If their motives are simply to try to prove someone else wrong, it would be better if they did not even participate in the discussion. Christians should approach dialogue with an appreciation for that which is good and noble in others. They should approach dialogue in humility in light of our own failings. Dialogue should be done in love, with benevolent concern for the eternal welfare of others.
The Only Way?
What are the possible relationships between the competing faith
systems of the major world religions? These can vary from one extreme
to another. Let us note two extremes and one possible mediating
Unique and Superior
Completely False But One
All equally true: Pluralism and multiculturalism are powerful forces in our culture which encourage people to ignore any claim to absolute truth by anyone, except for the pluralist's contradictory claim that all assertions are equally true. Under the guise of tolerance, many people affirm that all religions are valid. This approach discourages evangelism. While it might encourage peace and harmony, it sacrifices truth. Two contradictory ideas cannot both be equally true. Furthermore, in this so-called "tolerant" climate, absolute and universal claims are not even allowed. As one group discussion of the World Council of Churches concluded:
Pluralism means that not only are there many religions and beliefs but these religions and beliefs are equally true and valid. Therefore, all truths are relative and all religions are relative. Such an understanding of pluralism cannot be accepted by Christians. In Western countries pluralism has become a dogma of "faith", in which it is understood that everybody's opinion is as good as each other.2
If pluralism is true, then the Muslim cannot say: "There is no God but Allah," and Jesus is not permitted to say: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except through me" (Jn. 14:6). The contradiction of relativism, though, is that the pluralist cannot deny the absolute affirmation of a Christian or a Muslim and be consistent.
All completely false but one: The other extreme is not logically inconsistent. It would be possible for all religious systems to be thoroughly false except one, but this option does not fit with the facts as we know them. Also, it is morally unattractive. This approach tends to lead to extremism and inflexibility, even to violence. Little or no room is found for respecting the conscience and sincerity of others. Little or no inclination will be present for appreciation of shared truths. Dialogue and discussion will be impossible if one adopts this approach.
One unique and superior: If one believes that one's own faith is unique in certain ways and even superior to other faiths, one does not have to reject everything found in other faiths as untrue. A little, or even a lot, of another faith system might be accepted as true. If God has revealed himself, not only in special revelation (that which is given initially only to a few), but also in general revelation (that which is available to all through human reason or in nature), then many truths ought to be present in various world religions. For example, most religions have a belief of some sort in a deity and in the efficacy of prayer to that deity. A Christian might find many similarities between a church pot-luck dinner and a Sikh communal meal. The study of comparative religions specializes in the common traits found amongst various religions, and they are many. Commonly held beliefs such as these can provide a starting point for dialogue. They can promote mutual understanding and goodwill between people.
It is not illogical, though, to believe that one's own faith may contain elements which are unique, that are not held in common with other faiths. Holding a unique trait alone does not make a religion better than another religion; it only makes it different. However, it is logically possible that those unique traits might make one religion superior to another. In particular if the traits held in common by all religions could be explained on naturalistic grounds and if some of the unique traits of one religion could only be explained by an appeal to a power that is beyond the ability of man or nature, then a convincing case could be made for that religion being not only unique, but also superior to all others.
While the "all religions are equally true" approach would discourage any evangelism at all, the "all religions are completely false but one" approach often encourages tyranny, even holy war. It shows no sympathy for competing belief systems. The "one religion is unique and superior" approach makes room for evangelism, but it is offered in a more humble manner. It is evangelism that springs from a genuine belief that something unique is being offered, but it allows for a large measure of sympathy for other belief systems. It would stake its claims, kindly and gently, but firmly, for the truth of its own way of thought. This, I believe, is how Christians ought to present their faith in dialogue with those of other belief systems.
The Uniqueness of Christ
In this brief introductory guide there is no time to look at the areas of common belief between Christianity and other major world religions. Such an area of common belief can range from huge, major overlaps of belief (as between Christianity and Judaism) to very little of a shared faith (as between Christianity and animism). What, though, is unique about Christianity? What is special? What message do Christians have to offer that no one else has? The chief content of our message is simply Jesus Christ. The following is a very brief outline in confessional form of some unique points of the gospel.3
A unique birth: Jesus Christ is the only person in the history of the world who was not merely a human being. Christians believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, his father being God himself (Mt. 1:20; Lk. 1:35). Thus Jesus was both God and man in one person. He was God incarnate in human flesh (Jn. 1:1, 14).
A unique life: We believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life. Not only did he never do anything wrong, he constantly did that which is right (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 Jn. 3:5).
A unique teaching: Jesus Christ was the Master Teacher who gave the most marvelous religious and ethical teaching to mankind that anyone has ever given (e.g., Mt. 5-8). We would expect no less from God in the flesh.
A unique death: Jesus Christ died "for our sins" as an atonement (1 Cor. 15:1-4). We know, in part because of his resurrection from the dead, that his death was accepted by God as payment for the debt of man's sins (Rom. 4:25).
A unique resurrection: Jesus Christ was resurrected from the grave on the third day (Acts 2:22-36). The evidence for his resurrection is quite strong, and it comes from a variety of sources (1 Cor. 15:3-8).
A unique coronation: Jesus Christ ascended into heaven after his resurrection and was made both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). He was given authority and made king, not over some country or a piece of land somewhere, but over heaven and earth (Mt. 28:18-20).
A unique consummation: Jesus Christ will return and call all mankind to judgment. He is the one who will execute universal judgment on all who have ever lived (Acts 17:30-31).
The Universal Claims of Christ
If Jesus had only claimed to be a prophet, then Christians could not claim anything unique about their Lord. There have been many prophets. But since he is the greatest of the prophets and more than a prophet, we are justified in making such claims. If Jesus had only been a mere mortal, we could not claim anything more for him than the followers of Buddha, Mohammad, Confucius, or other great religious figures. But since Jesus was and is the Son of God, the Lord, and the Messiah, we cannot be satisfied with limited and temporal claims for him. Only universal and eternal claims are worthy of his true significance.
On one occasion several people turned away from following Jesus. Jesus turned to the remaining disciples and asked them: "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered: "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God" (Jn. 6:66-69). Jesus Christ is the only mediator, the only savior for mankind, and the monogens, that is, the one-of-a-kind Son of God (1 Tim. 2:5).4 "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
1 Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), vii.
2 "Common witness within a religiously plural context: Group report," International Review of Mission 90 (July 2001): 346.
3 Erwin W. Lutzer, Christ Among Other gods (Chicago: Moody Press), 1994.
4 The word monogenēs is used in reference to Christ in John 3:16 and 1 John 2:2. It is mistranslated "only begotten" in the AV. The NIV reads "one and only." The RSV and NSRV simply render "only." The term means one (mono)-of-a-kind (genēs), sui generis, or the only-one-in-its (his) category. Jesus was the only "Son" in the category of sons of God, because he was God's beloved Son, and for other reasons related to his deity.
Dr. Williams included an extensive 4-page selected bibliography for this booklet. Due to space problems, we did not include it in this September/October Does God Exist? publication. The bibliography will be available on our web site (doesgodexist.org) under the September/October 2007 issue. Also we have made copies of this bibliography and will be happy to send one to anyone interested who would like to have a complete bibliography for further study. If you cannot get it on our website, please feel free to contact us via e-mail, letter, or phone, and we will put it in the mail for you.
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