PASTOR ALLWIN JOHNSON - EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN RESPONSE TO RELIGIOUS PLURALISM
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EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN RESPONSE TO RELIGIOUS PLURALISM

PASTOR ALLWIN JOHNSON

INTRODUCTION

            The twentieth century has brought forth some unparalleled challenges to the historic Christian faith. During this century, Christianity's relevance and ultimate validity have been questioned as never before. This assault on the central truth claims of Christianity has come from two distinct fronts: atheistic secular humanism and the growing climate of religious pluralism. A research finding reports that in the USA the number of people who self-report Christianity as their religion has dropped from 86.2% in 1990 to 76.5% in 2001; other religions have grown from 3.3% to 3.7% over the same period of time.[1] The Christians, who were once devoted to the exclusive Christian faith, are been deviating from their traditional belief. They began to consider that every religion is same as the other. In the scene of the global village, these trends also come into the Indian context and saturates the Indian society as well.

            Having realizing the problem, the researcher became curious about finding an apt “Christian response” to it. But, unfortunately all “Christians” don't have the single stand in this issue. So, to be accurate, the paper is named as “the Evangelical Christian response to Religious pluralism.” The purpose of the paper is to have a basic understanding of religious pluralism and to find some evangelical Christian responses to its challenges.

DEFINITION AND MEANING OF RELIGIOUS PLURALISM

            Religious pluralism is one kind of view, towards the faith of other religions. To understand it clearly in a Christian connotation, we must know the various shades of Christian approach of Christians towards other faiths. In general, there are three main categories in which we can distinguish these shades. Those are Exclusivism, Inclusivism and Pluralism. Netland, in his book Encountering Religious Pluralism, gives technical definitions for these terms. Exclusivism, in other words, particularism holds that the Bible is God's distinctive written revelation, Jesus is the unique incarnation of God, and God's saving grace is not mediated through other religions.[2]

            Inclusivism is a center stand, holds that Jesus is unique, normative or superior to other religious gods, and at the same time God's salvation, which are somehow based upon Jesus, are also available and efficacious through other religions. Thus, the other religions are generally to be regarded positively as part of God's purposes for the humankind.[3]

            Pluralism is the extreme opposite stand of exclusivism. It holds that salvation should be acknowledged as present and effective in its own way in each religion. No single religion can claim to be normative or superior to others because all religions are culturally conditioned human responses to the divine reality.[4] Pluralist thinker John Hick often uses a familiar elephant analogy to illustrate this point; One blind man encountering an elephant for the first time compares it with a living pillar, another with a great snake, another with a plough-share, based on limited contact with the elephant's leg, trunk, and tusk, respectively.[5] By saying this, Hick derives a pluralistic theme that all men or religions have limited understanding of the same God and worship Him in different manners according to their understanding. However, he says that all religions are going towards one ultimate reality with each of their limited understandings. So he proposed that “the great religions are all, at their experiential roots, in contact with the same ultimate divine reality.”[6] While exclusivism has a Christ-centered christology, pluralism has a theo-centered christiology and the inclusivism is standing in between.

HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN ATTITUDE TOWARDS RELIGIOUS PLURALISM

            The traditional position of Christians is undoubtedly the exclusivism. Even from the birth of Christianity, Christians have maintained that God revealed himself in a unique manner in the Scripture and in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and that sinful mankind can be reconciled to God only through the atoning work of Jesus, the one Lord and Savior for all people in all cultures. Christians considered other religious people as Pagans and spiritually lost. Though there were few, who accepted more accommodating views, the traditional stand was never shaken in the Christian history, both by Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

            Even after the reformation, both Catholics and Protestants had an ardent exclusivistic conviction. But when the missionaries began to move into the eastern parts of the world, they found out a variety of faiths and traditions. They also encountered a cultural-religious problem of Christianity and other religions. However, neglecting these problems, Initially, they kept on Westernizing (christianizing) people from the other religious cultural pattern. They actually wanted a unique Christian identity among the other religious people.

            However, in the coarse of time, controversies began to arise among Protestant missions about the soteriological exclusivism of Christianity. Although majority stuck on to the exclusivistic stand, some slowly moved towards inclusivism and pluralism. This in process, finally gave birth to the pluralistic religious belief among some Christians. Some western as well as Indian theologians, studied other faiths and came up with a pluralistic way of attaining salvation.

THE CHALLENGE OF RELIGIOUS PLURALISM FROM OUTSIDE AND INSIDE

The Challenge from Outside

            When, we Christians say that we alone have the real absolute truth and all others are wrong, the people of other faiths become furious and try to force pluralism into Christianity. They find all the similarities and resemblance between the religions and say that all religious contents are same but only the forms and expressions are different. When Christians try to explain the real difference between Christianity and other religions, they would blame Christians of being intolerant towards others' faith. Especially the uniqueness of Jesus irks the heart of others. Even Gandhi has said, “God cannot be the exclusive Father and I cannot ascribe exclusive divinity to Jesus. He is as divine as Krishna, Ram, Mohammed or Zoraster.”[7]

            When it comes to the Christian mission and the conversion activities, people of other faiths could not tolerate. They want, all of us to join together, to fulfill a common task, build a global community, fight irreligious and secularism together and together strive for peaceful co-existence. They try to nullify the religious differences and thus try to stop Christians speak of uniqueness criteria. With a post modern philosophic thinking of relativism, every body try to live as they like.

            These ideas slowly permeates the world and Church of this age. The unprepared church is been spoiled by this new age thinking over a period of time.

The Challenge Within

In the West: Christianity is an exclusivist religion by-birth, but some of those who are already inside the fold of Christianity, have come up with the pluralistic ideology. Western theologians like John Hick and Paul F. Knitter who had a kind of dissatisfaction with Christianity, tried to find out something new in the Christian theology. And when they see the old traditions of other religious faiths in the eastern countries, like India, China and Japan, they were intensely attracted to it. They could neither accept those religions fully nor leave them simply aside. As a result, they came up with a pluralistic ideology, which considers all religions are equally capable to give spiritual nourishment to man. The pluralists deny the sovereign authority of Scripture, uniqueness of Christ, supernaturality of miracles and the exclusivity of a religion.

In India: Indian theologians assumed that each culture has something unique in it to contribute to every other culture and thus they tried for a cultural syncretism; that is inculturation of gospel with every other culture. This effort gave birth to the problem of religious pluralism. For Hinduism and Islam do not distinguish between religion and culture as two different entities, but see them as one organic whole.[8] In this circumstance, to achieve cultural syncretism, some Christians dared to sell their unique faith to religious syncretism which in turn leads to religious pluralism in Christianity. Martin puts it beautifully, “it is a religious syncretism in essence on the inside and cultural syncretism in form on the outside.”[9] Even M.M. Thomas suggests that “such culturally syncretistic pluralistic societies can be jointly built by the church and Hinduism,” with some basic similarities in foundational dogmas.[10] So there is no cultural syncretism without religious pluralism in Indian context.

The Impact: The impact of religious pluralism upon the Church is visible in the position of the Second Vatican Council on the salvation of adherents of other religions. The formula outside the church there is no salvation labeled the traditional Roman Catholic view of other religions, until the twentieth century. But when it is exposed more to the other traditions, it softened it's stand to say that there could be salvation even outside the Church. Karl Rahner, One of the most influential figures at Vatican II proposed that, “under certain conditions, a sincere Hindu or Buddhist could be regarded as an “anonymous” or “implicit” Christian, and thus be saved, even though this person had not had any contact with the preaching of the gospel or the visible Church.”[11] Thus Catholic Church forsook its fundamentalism and adopted a kind of inclusivistic stand in the view of other religions.

EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN RESPONSE to RELIGIOUS PLURALISM

Logical and Philosophical Arguments

All Religions are Not the Same

            Truth cannot differ from person to person. If Christianity is the truth, then Hinduism or any others cannot be a truth, because truth is one. For example 1+1=2. Can it be 2 for me and 3 for you? Never can it be. So if truth is 2, then it is 2 for everyone and all other numbers are false answers. So if Christianity is truth, then all others are false. Pluralists argue that all of the different religious faiths, despite their philosophical differences, have a similar objective. This is an absolute wrong statement. Christianity is a monotheistic religion and Hinduism is a polytheistic religion.[12] Both are in two extremes opposites, then how come two become the same? So all religions are not same and all religions are not reaching God.

No one Can Be a Genuine Pluralist

            A pluralist thinks that he respects and accommodates all other ideas. But still he tries to emphasize his idea of pluralism on other exclusivists. If he respects and accepts all religions, then exclusivism is one of those religions, and hence he should accept this exclusivist view too. Here we see the clear contradiction in the pluralistic ideology. By accepting pluralistic view, he actually rejects exclusivistic view. So no one can be a genuine pluralist.

Pseudo-Tolerance of Pluralism

            Pluralists are talking about true tolerance and they often blame exclusivists of being intolerant towards other faiths. Here, Christians recognizing the differences between Christianity and other religions is seen as intolerance. This characterization is simply not true. Because, as Judisch clarifies, “tolerance supports the freedom of religion that allows us to confess the truth of Christianity over against all other religions.”[13] Unfortunately the word tolerance is been misused and misunderstood. Paul Copan further defines tolerance that true tolerance recognizes the difference between persons, who should be treated with respect, and their beliefs, with which we need not agree. Thus true tolerance is with people and not with the beliefs.[14] So the tolerance that pluralist are talking about is a pseudo-tolerance.

Scriptural Arguments

            Jesus Christ has claimed himself as the God, Son of God and the only way of salvation of humankind, throughout His teaching. He is the image of the invisible God; and He is the fulness of God in human body (Colossians 1:15, 19). He is alone the way, the truth and the life. As Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), there is no other way to reach God except through Jesus. Some argues that Jesus is just the other name of Krishna, Buddha and Mohammed, so salvation is available through any religion. But the Scripture contrasts this as Peter says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

            Paul wrote that Gentile unbelievers are shown mercy by God in only one way—through the gospel of Jesus Christ—not by staying in their old religions. Their pagan religions are futile—ineffective (Romans 1:20-23). God has made himself plain to all people, so that they “are without excuse” (verses 18-20). The Scriptures distinguish between knowing about the existence of God and knowing who God is. While other religions may derive truth about God from general revelation (nature or conscience), salvation comes uniquely through the special revelation found only in Jesus Christ. General revelation helps explain why many religions can, and in fact do, agree on particular beliefs and values.

            The Scriptures teach that God witnesses to Himself in creation and conscience (Psalm 19:l; Romans 1:19-29, 2:15), yet no one comes to know who the true God is through this natural revelation. Everyone sins and can be held responsible for their sins (Romans 2:14-15). There are good people in all sorts of religions, but salvation is not a matter of being good people; it is a matter of being one with Jesus Christ, the Creator and Redeemer of all things. The gospel teaches only one path of salvation, that is Jesus Christ. We are obliged to worship God through Jesus alone. All non-Christian religions, therefore, sin against God by worshiping someone or something other than Christ.

The Exclusivism Explained

The Uniqueness of Jesus Christ

            As Alister McGrath says, "The identity of Christianity is inextricably linked with the uniqueness of Christ."[15] Jesus is—for the believer—the source from whom his understanding of the totality of experience is drawn. Jesus of Nazareth is the God incarnate, the second person of a divine Trinity, who died for the sin of the world and paved the way for salvation. When Jesus came to the world, he testified boldly that he is the Son of God and the way of salvation. I am statements in the gospel of John, unequivocally prove the uniqueness and exclusiveness of Jesus Christ, which cannot be denied by anyone.[16] No religious figure has claimed these claims like Jesus claimed. No religious leader spoke authoritatively like Jesus spoke. No other religious leader has offered salvation by faith, apart from works, to take away the guilt of human sin. No religious leader has displayed the love for people that Jesus did as he died for the sin of the world.[17] Jesus is absolutely unique among all human beings who ever lived and he is not a mere man but a God-man.[18]

The Uniqueness of Christian Salvation

            Hick defines salvation as a transformation of human-existence from self-centredness to reality-centredness. So, he concludes that all religions are “equally productive of that transition from self to reality which we see in the saints of all traditions.”[19] He says that the Hinduism's concept of Moksha, the Islam's concept of Paradise, the Buddhism's concept of Nirvana, the Sikhism's concept of Union with God, the Christianity's concept of Salvation and even the Marxist's concept of equal society, all are one and the same. But in contrast to Hick's argument, the Bible tells that human salvation is possible only on the account of Jesus Christ and there is no other way for mankind to be saved.[20] As McGrath puts it, “Christian salvation is grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”[21] All other religions talk about salvation by doing good works but Christian salvation is purely by the grace of God. None of the other religious concepts are possible to attain in this modern period, but in Christianity, by grace, God gives salvation to all those who approach him through the blood of Jesus Christ. In no way, we can compare and equal the Christian salvation with the other religious concepts of salvation.

The Uniqueness of Christianity

            Christianity is not like Hinduism to embrace everyone in its fold; rather it is an unique religion made for an unique people. M.M. Thomas suggests to build a new community of faiths, as he says, “don't work for a Christian culture but for an open secular pluralistic culture informed by and open to the insights of many faiths, including Christian faith.”[22] However, in practice, it is certainly impossible to have such a common system because every religion is unique in its basic essence. As Paul E. Little puts it, “Christianity is what God has done for a man in seeking him and reaching down to help him, but other religions are a matter of man seeking and struggling towards God.”[23] Christian community is an exclusive society washed by the blood of Jesus Christ.[24] Bishop Newbigin indicates this exclusiveness when he says that the Christian truth is embodied by the community which bears the name of Jesus and in which the Spirit of God is actively at work.[25] Christianity is a religion of the unique people who carry a unique universal good news.

The Uniqueness of Christian Mission

            Christian mission is entirely unique than other social welfare missions. Pluralist, Knitter has come up with a new model of Christian mission to facilitate dialogue between faiths; that is, “all people should know of Buddha, of Mohammed, of Krishna.”[26] and the final goal of conversion, as he says, is to make the Christian better Christian and the Hindu better Hindu. His ultimate purpose is to build a new harmonious society. But Jesus did not called us to make a harmonious society with our newly invented ideologies. He commanded, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”[27] Hence, our goal of mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and baptize the believers in the name of Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.

The Uniqueness & Authority of the Christian Scripture

            The Scripture that we have is the most reliable authoritative book than any other ancient books in the world. The New Testament which was written in between 40-100 AD, had its earliest copy in AD 125 itself. We have got over 24,000 manuscripts of New Testament.[28] This was written by those who had seen and heard the work of Jesus, with lots of historical information.[29] So our Scripture has very good evidential proofs to believe that it is reliable. More than that, our Scripture itself testifies that it is God-breathed.[30] It also says, “no prophesy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophesy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”[31] So, we should always hold the principle of Solo Scriptura, because it is the only special revelation that human has got from God.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS FOR THE PROBLEM OF RELIGIOUS PLURALISM

Zealous Affirmation of the Absoluteness of Jesus Christ

            Christian faith and doctrines are based on Jesus and Jesus alone. The very foundation of the Christian faith is laid on the absoluteness of Jesus Christ. The secular humanists call for a common system of faith, in which all religious gods are at equated at one level. If we make Jesus as one among the other gods, then He will be the least proportionate God among the 330 million gods of Hinduism. So we should always affirm that Jesus is unique, absolute, Son of God and the only way of salvation; and there is zero tolerance in the uniqueness of Jesus.

No Interfaith Dialogue

            Dialogue means, two parties sit together to speak about their differences and later come to a conclusion with mutual compromise by both the parties. But Christianity, in evangelical perspective is uncompromisable at any level. As the pluralists think, the major stumbling block for inter-faith dialogue is the Christian assertion of uniqueness of Christ.”[32] If we Christians go for a dialogue, the first thing, we would loose our superiority by equating our faith with other faiths. Samartha blames Christians for their bold uncompromising proclamation of good news of salvation.[33]  So for a believer, everything is Jesus and Jesus alone and we can't go for a dialogue at the cost of Jesus.

High Critical Study on Inculturization of Gospel

            In the context of India's religious-cultural system, the distinction between the Hindu culture and Hindu religion is so subtle, it is very very difficult to draw an line of demarcation between the two at several points. As Martin says, “a cultural syncretism without being a religious syncretism in the context of Hindu India is inconceivable.”[34] So as we are striving for an inculturated indigenous Christian gospel, we must be cautious to avoid any kind of religious syncretism and religious pluralism. A high level critical study should be done on every aspect other religions before we adopt into it.

CONCLUSION

            The issues are many, the arguments complex, and the responses varied but our  commitment to the veracity of Christianity should not be shaken by any issues. Though other religions have some general truths about God via natural revelation, the salvific truth comes only through Jesus Christ; and there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.  When Hick gives the analogy of Elephant and blind men for Pluralism, Kenneth says, “If the analogy were altered to fit Christianity, it would portray the elephant healing the men's blindness and personally introducing Himself as God disclosed Himself in Christ.”[35]



[1]A. Jerry Bruce, Matt R. Menefee, S. Thomas Kordinak, & Marsha J. Harman Sam Houston State University, Department of Psychology and Philosophy, Huntsville, Texas, Religious Pluralism, Religious Activity, and Religious Coping, American Journal of Psychological Research, Volume 1, Number 1, Publication Date: April 25, 2005, pg. 1

[2]Netland Harold, Encountering Religious Pluralism, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 46

[3]Ibid., 51

[4]Ibid., 53. Religious pluralism can be analyzed at three consecutive social levels: At the macro-level, religious pluralism implies that the societal authorities recognize and accept a plurality within the religious field. At the meso-level, pluralism implies the acceptance of a multitude of religious organizations which function as competitive units. And, finally, at the micro-level, pluralism implies an individual freedom to choose and developed one’s own private beliefs. (Ole Riis, Modes of Religious Pluralism under Conditions of Globalization, International Journal on Multicultural Societies (IJMS) Vol. 1, No. 1, 1999, page 23.

[5]C. Stephen Evans, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking about Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), p. 36.

[6]John Hick, cited by Netland Harold, Encountering Religious Pluralism,  222

[7]A. J. Anandan, God for All, God for Me, Gandhi's Religious Duelism, (Bangalore: SAIACS publication, 1998), 42

[8]Martin P. Alphonse, Witnessing to Christ in a World of Religious Pluralism in Many Other Ways? Questions Of Religious Pluralism, (Madras: CGRC McGavran Institute, 1992), 47

[9]Ibid., 48

[10]Ibid.

[11]Netland Harold, Encountering Religious Pluralism, 43

[12]Other religions also equally contradict each other. For example, Christians believe that Jesus was God incarnate and part of the Trinity, while both Muslims and Jews hold that it is impossible for any human to be God incarnate, and that no Trinity exists. Christians believe that Jesus was crucified, while Muslims believe that Jesus was not crucified. Therefore, claiming that all religions are true, gives rise to a logical contradiction.

[13]Douglas McC. L. Judisch, The Faculty of Concordia Theological Seminary, Religious Pluralism and Knowledge of the True God: Fraternal Reflection and Discussion, Concordia Theological Quarterly, Volume 66, 4 October 2002, page 304

[14]Paul Copan, Is Everything Relative? (Chennai: RZIM Life Focus Society, 2001), 33

[15] Alister E. McGrath, Intellectuals Don't Need God & Other Modern Myths (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 119.

[16]When Jesus stakes, “I am the way and the truth and the life” in the gospel of John, Seiichi Yagi claims that the word 'I' has many levels of meaning. He quotes Paul, who says, “For through the law I died to the law... I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me.”(Galatians 2:19) The 'I' that Paul uses, has a double structure. When Paul was crucified with Christ, a change of subject took place so that Christ became Paul's ultimate subject. So Christ is both Paul's ultimate subject as well as the object of his faith. So 'I' of Jesus had two centers, the ultimate subject and the empirical ego. If it is the ego which gave these statements, then it is self apotheosis and hence it is blasphemy. So it was something Divine has spoken through the mouth of Jesus' empirical person. (Seiichi Yogi, I in the words of Jesus in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, (Eds) John Hick and Paul F. Knitter, (New York: Orbis Books, 1988), 118, 127.) My answer to this is, if it was a human Jesus carried the word of God, then why did God raised his empirical body from death? What about Jesus walked on earth for forty days with his resurrected body? What about Jesus was taken to heaven with his empirical body? So Jesus was 100% God and 100% Human, when he was in the earth. There is no question of dividing man and God in him.