This is a blog entry that I suppose is long overdue; one, because I have been very busy and haven't had time to write anything lately and two, because it is a subject that I am frequently asked about and called out on, both on internet forums like this one and in real life. As many of you know, I am about to become a seminarian and I'm studying to become an ordained minister. The call of Jesus Christ on my life is the central part of my life; to me there is nothing more important than this.
But then again, as many of you also know, I am very actively involved in interfaith work. I've been studying comparative religion for over a decade; I've read the sacred literature of the five major world religions; I've read their greatest writers, their mystics and their saints as well. I've had the opportunity to travel around the world visiting numerous holy sites believed to be sacred to these great faiths. I've prayed with Muslims, Jews and Hindus. I've meditated with Buddhist monks.
My Master of Divinity will be specialized in Interreligious Contexts, and my ultimate goal is to eventually pursue a doctorate in comparative religion and to teach and write books on the subject. I consider people like Thomas Merton and Huston Smith as my heroes.
As such, the readers of the Unexplained Mysteries Forum have seen me defending the various religions in debates on countless threads. I argue for religious tolerance, freedom of religion; and for others to learn to understand our neighbors who practice different faiths. I've also argued for these things in real life. At my former Bible College for example (a very conservative and evangelical school) I did a presentation in my Missions class on the Chinese persecution of Tibetan Buddhists, and I openly criticized the Christian missionary efforts over there, as the vast majority of the aid they offer is contingent upon Christian conversion, as in "we will give you food if you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior." My audience was naturally shocked. There was a stunned silence in the room when it came time for questions.
But then someone raised their hand and asked me the same question I have heard so many times: "You say you are a Christian. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven?"
Then just a few days ago, on a UM thread where I was defending Islam, a conservative Christian said this to me:
Marcus you seem to love Muslims so much that you should convert to their faith. After all you are in an interfaith movement so you must be compromising your beliefs, why not embrace the lot? By claiming to be a Christian and at the same time belong to an interfaith movements, shows me, without doubt you are not a Christian and your statement is an oxymoron.
He also said this:
Your "Master in Divinity" makes a joke out of true knowledge of God, it is full of psychology and rubbish that just push you further and further away from the truth.
This is not the first time someone has called into question my Christianity and my faith in Jesus over my seemingly "liberal" stance on other religions. It
has happened to me a number of times on this forum, and even more so in real life. Thus, it is high time I respond to these charges in some detail. But from the onset, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am just sharing my own opinion. I am not "infallible" and nor am I condemning my more conservative Christian brothers and sisters who believe differently than me. Their opinions are valid and they should not be looked at with disdain.
Indeed, one could argue that there are actually more Christians who believe differently than I do. There are three different theological categories that one can fall into when it comes to other religions. I will describe each view, then I will fairly critique the other views and finally explain to you why I have the position that I do. I am paraphrasing these definitions from my favorite living theologian, Allister McGrath.
So to start off, let's look at that most common of beliefs; what theologians call exclusivism or particularism. 'A particularist is someone who believes that only those who hear and respond to the Christian gospel can be saved. As noted, this may very well remain the majority view.' A particularist takes claims like John 14:6 as being completely literal: "Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." It should be noted that not only Christians are particularists, indeed, a kind of particularism can be found in just about every world religion.
Christian theologians such as Karl Barth hold the particularist view. Barth taught that there is no knowledge of God apart from Jesus Christ. Many prominent atheist writers have attacked this view in particular, perhaps fairly arguing that this is the form of religion that leads to bigotry and even extremism. It's "my way or the highway." But Karl Barth's theology was unique in this regard. While he argued that salvation was only available in Christ, he also argued for the eventual eschatological victory of Grace over unbelief. Thus, when time itself comes to an end, all will come to faith in Jesus Christ without exception.
The second theological stance on other religions is known as Pluralism. This is the position that many of my critics and detractors think that I hold. It is not.Pluralism 'is the view which holds that all the religious traditions of humanity are equally valid manifestations of, and paths to, the same core of religious reality.' Philosophers like John Hick advance this position. No one religion holds any special access to God; whatever path you follow gets you to the same destination.
The third theological stance on other religions is known as Inclusivism. This is the position that I actually hold. 'Inclusivism is the idea that although Christianity represents the normative revelation of God, salvation is nonetheless possible for those who belong to other religious traditions.' "This class of approach includes parallelism, a form of inclusivism which recognizes the obvious differences between the religions, and argues that each religion is to be seen as valid, in that it achieves its own specific goals.
I have many problems against the theological particularism of so many fundamentalists and evangelicals, but one is chief above all of them. If Jesus Christ is the only way into heaven; then what about all the people who never heard the gospel message? What about a Chinese person who simply never came into contact with Christianity? What about a person who lives with a remote tribe in Papa New Guinea? These persons necessarily must be punching a one way ticket to hell through no fault of their own, if this is indeed the case. But that begs even deeper questions. How can we say that God is loving when He knowingly sends people to hell simply because they can't pass their entrance exam...which is only one question "Who is the Way the Truth and the Life?" How is He loving if you just don't know the answer?? Furthermore, the particularist view contradicts otherpassages that we see in scripture. 2 Peter 3:9 says: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." How does the Lord will that none should perish, and yet, He allows countless numbers of people to perish? If He doesn't want anyone to perish, then why doesn't He do a better job sending out His missionaries?
Barth's idea, while appealing, and undoubtedly the best of the particularists, doesn't sit well with me either. First of all, the concept, strictly speaking, is unbiblical. While I would certainly like this to be true, I simply can't find any scriptural evidence to support it. It was yet another one of Barth's existential leaps that lack a rational basis. He made his argument from silence. Second, he unapologetically states that everyone will be saved. What does this do to morality? Religion, at its core provides an objective grounds for ethical behavior; yet such a concept while appealing at a glance, actually calls into question objective morality and slides dangerously towards subjectivism. Stalin and Mother Teresa will find equal footing in heaven? At a very basic and fundamental level, nearly every religion teaches that we reap what we sew. If we do bad things, bad things will happen to us, both in this world and the next. Yet Barth sidesteps this whole issue with his positivism.
My second major problem with particularism is its unflappable sense of imperialism. When taken to extremes, it can become a kind of megalomania that leads to much of the religious strife and conflicts we see all around the world today. Particularism led to the Crusades, the inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials to 9/11 and to ISIS. Indeed, it was immediately after 9/11 that the first books of the New Atheist movement began to appear and subsequently fly off the shelves. Religion, they rightly argued, often leads to all manner of violence and oppression, thus their conclusion was that in the wake of 9/11, the world would simply be "better off" without religion. This is a relevant, powerful, and devastating critique that theists of all stripes should take heed of.
I would argue that it is not religion that needs to disappear, but rather that particularism needs to disappear, at least eventually. The simple fact of the matter is that we live in a global economy and our demographics have radically changed over the past few decades. Just in my little apartment complex alone I have both Hindus, Muslims and Jews living all around me. Jesus Christ commanded us to love our neighbors, but the particularists would have us either ignore them at best, or shun them at worst. My first blog entry this year was about a Muslim billboard that had fundamentalists in my city outraged. Do we really need more of that in our own backyard, much less around the world? As one who has prayed alongside people of other faiths, it saddens me profoundly to see followers of these great traditions constantly fighting against one another.
But I am not a pluralist. Let me tell you why. While I believe we must be pluralistic in social terms (i.e. recognizing and respecting the religious differences of our neighbors) I do not believe we should adopt pluralism philosophically or theologically. One of the main reasons for this is that philosophical pluralism does not respect the differences between religions. Simply put, every religion has its truth claims; every religion teaches that it is the correct path to follow to reach God, heaven or enlightenment. But philosophical pluralism would eschew all of this and instead posit that it is all part of the same "divine reality." I personally feel that this is a vast reductionism of religious practice in general; it reduces religion down to a subjective and emotional experience of a purely personal "transcendence." Thus, we can all come to this great spiritual buffet table and pick out what we like and discard the rest. You like "karma" so you put that on your plate, but you don't like "hell" so you keep that off your plate like stale bread. Thus, the self, the individual becomes the final arbiter of what is true and what is not. Yet, if everything is subjective in philosophical pluralism, how do we know that any of it is true? How do we know that our mystical experiences are nothing more than the human experience; that is to say grasping for a divine reality that may or may not be there? You see, this is what happens when you throw out special revelation; the theological idea that God has spoken to us in specific times and places, guiding our systems of belief. No genuine practitioner of any faith would advocate such a view; it doesn't matter whether you're a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or even a Buddhist....at some point special revelation was handed down to us either by God Himself or an enlightened religious teacher, and it is these revelations that lead to the truth claims of that religion, (i.e. particularism). Philosophical pluralism would do away with particularism...by doing away with objective truth. And the idea that everything could be part of "one divine reality" is quite simply theologically incoherent. No kind of revelation is possible beyond the general. This is why I could never be a true pluralist, and neither could any Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. It just doesn't make any sense!!
But there is a third option, or a middle way. One could be an inclusivist; I myself am one. Of this view, the little known Catholic theologian Jean Danielou once wrote: "The domain of Christ and of the Church extends beyond the limits of the explicit revelation of Christ and of the visible expression of the Church. In every age and every land there have been men who believed in Christ without knowing Him and who have belonged invisibly to the visible Church." Another great Catholic theologian named Karl Rahner argued this in a fourfold point which I shall describe below:
1. "Christianity is the absolute religion, founded on the unique event of the self-revelation of God in Christ. But this revelation took place at a specific point in history. Those who lived before this point, or those who have yet to hear about this point, would thus seem to be excluded from salvation-which is contrary to the saving will of God."
2. "For this reason, despite their errors and shortcomings, non-Christian religious traditions are valid and capable of mediating the saving grace of God."
3. "The faithful adherent of a non-Christian religious tradition is thus to be regarded as an anonymous Christian."
4. "Other religious traditions will not be displaced by Christianity. Religious pluralism will continue to be a feature of human existence."
I am a Christian, through and through. I believe that all of revelation culminated in the Incarnation, the earthly ministry, and the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that all the other religions point to the truth while Jesus Christ is the truth. Indeed, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." I agree with C.S. Lewis when he said "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only do I see it, but by it I see everything else."
But as noted, I believe that one can come to that Way indirectly; they can enter into heaven through the back door rather than through the front door. C.S. Lewis argued this very same point: "There are people in other religions who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good pagans long before Christ's birth may have been in this position."
In God in the Dock, he wrote: "Of course it should be pointed out that though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life. And it should be made totally clear that we are not pronouncing all other religions to be totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected."
Most importantly, the inclusivist view regarding other religions is a Biblical one."For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law." (Romans 2:14) he idea behind this is quite simple, really. If all truth comes from God, then necessarily, whatever is true in other religions is from God. These religions, then, contain in them enough general and special revelation to be 'a law to themselves.' Thus, the person who lives with a tribe in Papa New Guinea, who looks to the stars and all the creation around him and concludes "someone made this", then knows God despite only possessing general revelation. By the same token, a Hindu who has a highly evolved theology and system of ethics, though he does not know Christ, he knows God from the special revelation contained in his religion. His moral way of life points him to God.
This view was upheld in the Second Vatican Council, which states: "the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of truth which enlightens all men."
So far I have been arguing Inclusivism from my own Christian position. But wait a minute, you ask! What if you are wrong and Allah is God? What if you are wrong and Krishna is God? Being a lifelong student of comparative religion, I would still argue for the Inclusivist position!! One can make just a solid case for Inclusivism even if you follow one of these other paths! Let me just highlight some for you:
The Holy Quran says: "To every people [we have sent] a messenger." (10:48) and "We appointed a law and a way. And if Allah had pleased He would have made you a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you. So vie one with another in virtuous deeds. To Allah you will all return, so he will inform you of that wherein you differed." (5:48)
From Islam, we learn God could have made us all the same; but He didn't. We will all return to Him and He will judge us 'wherein we differed.'
In the Bhagavad Gita, the great religious text of Hinduism, Krishna, who is an Incarnation of God, says this: "Wherever dharma declines and the purpose of life is forgotten, I manifest myself on earth. I am born in every age to protect the good, to destroy evil, and to reestablish dharma." and this: "When a person is devoted to something with complete faith, I unify his faith in that. Then, when his faith is completely unified, he gains the object of his devotion. In this way, every desire is fulfilled by me." Indeed, within the Hindu system, we find the concept of radical inclusion. God will take whatever subjective faith we have and make it objective.
I could go on with more examples, but you probably get the idea. One can argue for religious Inclusivism regardless of which faith you practice because it celebrates what we have in common and it accepts, acknowledges and respects the fact that we also have differences. It is my opinion that if the religious leaders of the future push for both social pluralism and theological inclusivism, we will eliminate much of the religious division division and strife all around the world and here at home. We will learn to work together, stemming from an Ethic that is Objectively True. Indeed, we will learn to