by Ed Mathews
Abilene Christian University
Is there anything of which one could say, "Look! This is something
new?" Hardly! "What has been will be again;... there is nothing new under
the sun," Ecclesiastes 1: 9, 10.
This is certainly true of religious pluralism. There have been and still
are numerous systems of worship. These religions -- both ancient and modern
-- possess tremendous significance as life-determining and
community-governing forces. They cannot be ignored.
Religious pluralism is not a distant phenomenon. Adherents of
non-Christian religions are found throughout the world. They are our
neighbors. They use the same banks, shop at the same stores, eat in the same
restaurants, and drive on the same streets. What, then, is the difference
between them and us? They attend their temples and worship their gods, while
we assemble at church and praise Jehovah God.
I. Some Searching Questions
Religious pluralism, as a pervasive reality, raises some disturbing
concerns among many Christians. For example, are non-Christians as
destitute as they have been made out to be? As students in institutions of
higher learning, they appear to be intelligent and creative. As professionals
in business corporations, they are skilled and industrious. As tourists, they
are inquisitive and polite. These so-called "heathens" are not like we
imagined them to be. Any motive for mission based on the destitute condition
of the pagan is gravely weakened.
This leads to the second question: are non-Christians lost? Examining
the deeper elements of their religion, entering into the experiences of their
poets, philosophers, theologians, prophets, and priests brings one face to face
with the noblest expressions of spirituality found anywhere. Has God
disclosed Himself to them? Is not Christ the Lord of history who at no time
and in no place has left Himself without a witness, John 1: 9; Acts 14: 17;
Romans 1: 18-20; 2: 7, 10, 14, 15? Does the Holy Spirit work in non-Christian
religions? Does not the Lord operate through historical processes so that in
the fullness of time He might gather together into one all things in Him,
Ephesians 1: 10?
These questions cannot be dismissed lightly. They challenge the very
foundation of mission, the integrity of Christ, the heart of the Gospel. A
thoughtfully worded reply is demanded. To facilitate such an answer, three
items will be discussed: commonality among religions, claims of Christianity,
and contemporary theories regarding religious pluralism.
II. Commonality Among Religions
Religion is not an unnecessary addendum to life. Instead, it deals with
the ultimate issues of existence: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I
going? It is the most meaningful, the most sacred activity of mankind. To
assume that humans have matured beyond religion, have advanced toward
a post-religious world is a mockery of the universal preoccupation with the
holy. This preoccupation is expressed in a striking confluence of similar
features among all religions.
A. All Religions Contain Ritual Practices. In writing about the
commonality between Christian and non-Christian religions, J. H. Bavinck
A Christian who is accustomed to prayer cannot help recognizing
that the Muslim whom he sees praying is doing something similar.
And seeing a Hindu bow down before his god stirs the Christian
because he himself has learned to bow his head before the God who
appears to us in Jesus Christ. Indeed, we cannot deny that our
Christian faith and those other religions have something in common,
that there are certain similarities between them (1966: 13).
Such similarity goes far beyond prayer to include the symbolic process,
religious language, and sacramental regulations. To be sure, a host of
variations exist, but ritual practices of one sort or another are found in all
B. All Religions Serve Specific Purposes. Religions have meaning
because they make sense out of the nonsense of life. They are maps of the
invisible world, a guide for living, an anchor within society. They ask and
answer questions about ultimate reality and immediate need. All religions
suggest ways of dealing with the tensions of life (Carmody and Carmody 1988:
3). They address the chaotic complexities of human existence, set priorities,
and help adherents survive threatening situations. People expect their
religion to offer answers, to produce results, to perform a benevolent service.
C. All Religions Possess Discernible Structures. Just as there is no
unstructured society, so there is no unstructured religion. Instead, certain
foundational features are found in all faiths (Ellwood 1992: 20).
Common Elements In All Religions
Beliefs regarding the origin, reality, and destiny of things.
Arrangements for religious instruction and practice.
Formulations for evaluating acceptable human behavior.
Within a wide range of variations, there is substantial commonality of
structure. For instance, all religions have functionaries -- ordained priests,
officiating personnel, or spiritual leaders. All religions have institutions --
sacrifices, holy days, pilgrimages, and sacred places. These elements are
buttressed by codes of conduct, in the form of written or unwritten ethical
rules, as well as systems of belief whether formulated or not, which determine
or at least influence the lifestyle of the devotees. The details are certainly
different but the basic structures are surprisingly similar.
D. All Religions Involve Spiritual Experiences. No religion can survive
as a mere doctrinal system, ethical code, or ritual practice. Religion must
reach into the soul with a deep and lasting impact. Without some kind of
spiritual experience, religion would be empty, lifeless, and unnecessary.
There are examples, here and there, of persons and groups who espouse no
religion. But, overall, history bears eloquent testimony to the human
capacity, indeed the human need, for spiritual experiences. It is common to
call human beings homo sapiens, that is, "creatures who think;"there is also
good reason to call them homo religious, "creatures who are religious"
(Cunningham, et. al. 1995: 1). People, then, are incurably or inherently
religious, their religions universally involve spiritual experiences (Hopfe 1991:
III. Unique Christian Claims
All religions have some things in common. Does this mean all religions
are alike? Are all of them true? How can Christians claim a superiority for
their religion? Is Christianity the only true and right faith? Certainly the
followers of Christ make the most astounding claims for Christianity. Though
these assertions may not always be fully recognized by every member of the
church, they are the essence of the faith.
Christians do not say they have discovered or invented the genius of
religion. Rather, they humbly confess that their unique claims are a gracious
disclosure of God through the Holy Spirit to human beings. The tenets of the
Christian religion are not western in origin. The first disciples were Jews.
Their convictions were merely what they had received and experienced as true
and real. Christians take no credit for themselves for the uniqueness of their
religion. Notwithstanding, they accept and advocate the following truths.
Christianity is absolute in authority, contending for the control
over the mind, consciences, actions, and relationships of mankind in all
spheres of life.
Christianity is complete as a revelation of the person, work, and
purpose of God, allowing no possibility for Him to be found in or through other
Christianity is perfect, bringing wholeness to human hope,
desire, potential, and need.
Christianity is universal in scope and rule, taking the place of
all other religions, making Jesus Christ the sole savior and sovereign Lord.
These unique claims prompt some challenging questions. Are not these
convictions detrimental to a harmonious relationship with non-Christian
religions? Can one be as forthright and confrontational as these claims
suggest? In a world which encourages unity, tolerance, and peace, concern for
the brashness of these claims is obviously legitimate. It seems apparent,
nevertheless, that the Bible leaves no alternative: Christians should be as
closed as truth requires yet, at the same time, as kind as the Scripture bids
them to be.
To believe, then, that all religions are alike -- emanating from the same
source and leading to the same destiny -- is a serious mistake. It is neither
historically nor biblically accurate. The revelation of God in the incarnate
Christ, an eternal redemption through the vicarious suffering of Jesus, and
the empty tomb are distinctly Christian. No matter how much of value --
whether ethical precepts, social cohesion, or elements of truth -- may be found
or ascribed to non-Christian religions, there is a significant otherness to the
Gospel. The latter is simply incomparable. Christianity has been and will
remain a "nonmixer" (Hammer 1962: 91). It possesses an inherent "discontinuity"
(Kraemer 1956: 351). It allows no peer, tolerates no partnership among
religions. It is the absolute, complete, perfect, universal faith "once for all"
delivered unto the saints, Jude 3.
IV. Serious Contemporary Theories
Theories abound concerning the relationship between the Gospel and
non-christian faiths (see Braaten 1977: 93-118; Knitter 1985: 21-167; Peters
1972: 320, 321). One theory in particular has won a host of sympathizers. It
constitutes the core of the contemporary debate about religious pluralism.
The issue can be stated in two propositions:
Jesus is Lord of all history. He is present in the development
of every clan, caste, tribe, tongue, people, and nation. Nothing happens
beyond or outside of his sphere of influence.
Since He is the Lord of all history, He is present everywhere.
Everyone can find Him regardless of their religious affiliation, whether
they recognize Him as Savior and Lord or not.
Consequently, devotees of other religions are called "anonymous Christians"
(Rahner 1974) who worship the "unknown Christ" (Panikkar 1981) and belong
to the "latent church" (Tillich 1969). Though these positions represent
extreme views, they express widely held beliefs. From a human standpoint,
these two propositions appeal to the mind and heart. One could wish they
were true. Therefore, they deserve careful evaluation.
A. Jesus is the Lord of all History. The universe and all that is in it
was created by the Lord, John 1: 3; Colossians 1: 16, 17; Hebrews 1: 2. He is
the King of kings on whom all depends and in whom all authority resides,
Matthew 28: 18; Romans 14: 9; I Corinthians 12: 3; Philippians 2: 9-11;
Revelation 19: 11-16. As such, Jesus Christ is the ultimate source, hope,
purpose, meaning, and destiny of everything and everyone. To these
statements, Christians give hearty consent; but, to say "nothing happens
beyond or outside His sphere of influence," requires the surrender of two
pivotal doctrines of the Christian faith.
Another force operates in the world. Christians would have to
abandon the doctrine of Satan, the "god of this age," II Corinthians 4: 4, the
"ruler of the kingdom of the air," Ephesians 2: 2, the author of cunning
devises and crafty schemes, Ephesians 6: 11, who blinds the world and
threatens to destroy it, Colotians 2: 8. This second force is evident in every
area of life. Parallel lines of serious interaction and bitter conflict rage
between Christ and the devil (though, thankfully, the Lord will be the
eventual victor). Can we be assured that non-Christian religions are exempt
from this invasion? Is Christianity insulated against demonic influences?
The Bible says "no!" History shouts, "no!" Reforms may occur in all religions
from time to time. Evil aspects and inhuman practices may be eliminated,
but every faith is vulnerable, every religion is deceived, to some extent, by the
"father of lies."
A sacred story exists within the history of mankind. If Jesus
is the Lord of history, Christians must not only surrender their belief in the
devil but also surrender their belief in a unique story within the narrative of
humanity, must believe that all history is alike regardless of its local
particularity. Thus the qualitative distinctness of the history of Israel --
begun in Abraham -- must be abandoned. Faith in the uniqueness of the
Christ event must be relinquished. What we have heretofore claimed to be a
special development within the history of religions would cease to be a
distinctive story. Though there would still be quantitative differences, the
assertion of qualitative distinctiveness would be jettisoned in favor of
acknowledging history as a variety of acts composing the same sacred drama.
A Christian cannot champion this view and be a Christian. It contradicts the
very essence of the Gospel.
B. Jesus is Present in all Religions. The situation differs little when
the second proposition is considered, i.e., "since Jesus is everywhere, everyone
can find Him regardless of their religious affiliation, regardless of their failure
to recognize Him as Savior and Lord." The issue centers on the spiritual
experiences of the "men of faith" in other religions, such as Buddha,
Muhammad, Black Elk, or Mahatma Gandhi. They appear to have had
genuine encounters with what they perceived to be holy. Their experiences
were absorbing, ennobling, and transforming (like Christian conversion in
many respects). What is the source, nature, and significance of these
encounters? Where did they originate? Where do they lead? What do they
mean? Though they may reflect a common yearning of the human heart for
a connection with the ultimate, do they prepare mankind to accept the one
and only true God? The evidence of history does not allow an affirmative
verdict. Two facts must be emphasized.
The Connection Between a Saving Faith and the Word of God.
Faith comes from hearing the message of Christ, Romans 10: 17: cf. Galatians
3: 2. This is in keeping with Jesus' statement: " No one can come to me
unless the Father who sent me draws him . . . Everyone who listens to the
Father and learns from Him comes to me," John 6: 44, 45. Saving faith is
related to the word of God in a similar way the new birth is related to the
word of God, James 1: 18; I Peter 1: 23. Does one, therefore, have a right to
speak of "men of faith" apart from the word of God? While the psychological
basis may be similar, is there not a qualitative difference between the
spiritual experiences of the people in non-Christian religions and the
experiences of the people who hear and accept the word of God? If not, why
believe that Jesus is "the way and the truth and the life?" Why contend that
"no one can come to the Father except through Him," John 14: 6? Why
propose that "salvation is found in no one else," Acts 4: 12? Why suggest "he
who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have
life," I John 5: 12? We dare to make such claims "because there is no other
name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved," Acts 4: 12.
Jesus Christ was either a deceived egotist or a divine messiah. Christianity
is either one among many false religions or the only true faith.
Superiority of the Object of Faith over the "Men of Faith".
Faith may be the channel of religious encounter but the substance of the
encounter is determined by its source. If a religious experience is related to
"men of faith," it will only produce what human beings can do. If religious
experience is connected with pagan gods, it can only result in what lifeless
idols can give. If a religious experience flows from the Lord, it will result in
what the sovereign God of the universe provides. Therefore, the Bible is
insistent on affirming that saving faith is in Jesus Christ alone, John 3: 16;
Romans 1: 16. In other words, the object of faith becomes the decisive factor.
In this the Christian rests with confidence. In this we go forth to proclaim
him who is the Good News -- the only Lord and Savior of all mankind. Should
we do anything less than that?
1966 The Church Between Temple and Mosque. Grand Rapids:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
1977 The Flaming Center. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
CARMODY, Denise and CARMODY, John
1988 The Story of World Religions. Mountain View, California:
Mayfield Publishing Company.
CUNNINGHAM, Lawrence, et. al.
1995 The Sacred Quest. Second Edition. Englewood Cliffs, New
Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.
1992 Many Peoples, Many Faiths: An Introduction to the Reli-
gious Life of Humankind. Fourth Edition. Englewood Cliffs,
New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc.
1962 Japan's Religious Ferment. New York: Oxford University
1992 Religions of the World. Fifth Edition. New York: Macmill-
ian Publishing Company.
1985 No Other Name? Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
1956 The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World. Grand
Rapids: Kregel Publications.
1981 The Unknown Christ of Hinduism. Revised Edition. Maryknoll,
New York: Orbis Press.
1972 A Biblical Theology of Missions. Chicago: Moody Press.
1974 "Anonymous Christianity and the Missionary Task of the
Church," Theological Investigations, volume 12. New York:
1969 What is Religion? New York: Harper and Row.
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Mirrored by permission of ACU Missions Personnel
Direct questions and comments to Ed Mathews,
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