Learn about other faiths (from the people who actually practice them)

IMG_5229 Mosque, Golconda Fort, Hyderabadphoto © 2008 Peter Gibbons | more info (via: Wylio)

One of the most rewarding ventures in my quest for “biblical womanhood” is that I’ve stuck up an email correspondence with an Orthodox Jewish woman from Israel.  Over the past few months, Ahava has offered valuable insights on everything from interpreting Proverbs 31 to celebrating Passover to practicing family purity.  I’m not sure how I would have gotten through April without her! 

Not long into our correspondence, it became clear to me that Ahava knew a heck of a lot more about Christianity than I knew about Judaism—from our holidays to our canon to our leaders and traditions. This inspired me to start studying up on Judaism in earnest, and I’ve learned quite a bit from books by Rabbi Wayne Dosick, Anita Diamant, and other Jewish writers—Orthodox to Reformed.  

In college I spent a lot of time learning about other religions, but my information came almost exclusively from other Christians presenting arguments against them. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I took the initiative to do a little reading on my own, starting first with Tich Nhat Hanh’s excellent bookLiving Buddha, Living Christ.  Then the blog opened up opportunities for me to correspond with atheists and agnostics, as well as Orthodox and Catholic Christians whose traditions were unfamiliar to me. 

As it turns out, I’d been given some misinformation regarding these faiths and the people who practice them—not downright lies, but exaggerations, caricatures. It would be a bit like a Muslim teaching a room full of other Muslims about Christianity and using Westboro Baptist Church as the only example. There’s just a lot more to the story. 

Some of my Christian friends don’t approve of my research into other faiths. They say I have no business listening to those who practice “false religions.”

It’s hard to explain to them how enriching this experience has been to my faith, to my relationships, and to my mind. Obviously, I haven’t converted to another faith as a result. If anything, my own faith has grown stronger as I’ve pushed past my fears, exposed myself to new ideas, and tested my faith in light of them.  And if we want to expose people of other faiths to the best version of the Gospel—the whole story, not just a caricature— don’t we owe them the same courtesy?

 A recent Pew forum study shows that evangelicals are far behind atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons when it comes to religious knowledge. We know a lot about our own faith, the study found, but little about the faith of others.

This has to change. 

A refusal to listen signals insecurity. (I know, because the louder I yell, the less sure I am of something.) And insecurity makes the gospel sound like something other than good news. 

All I know is I’ve never lost anything by shutting up and listening for a while

***

Your turn! Tell us about books you’ve read or conversations you’ve had that have broadened your exposure to other faiths.

(If I ever finish writing this book I’d like to read through the Quran. Anyone have suggestions for a  beginner’s commentary or guide?)

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Book Club Discussion: Big Important Questions

Today we continue our discussion about Phyllis Tickle’s fascinating book, The Great Emergence. As we learned last week, Tickle’s premise is that the Church experiences a great paradigm shift every 500 years, and we are in the midst of one presently.

According to Tickle, each time of re-formation has the same central question:

Where, now is the authority?

During the Great Reformation, Christians challenged the authority of the Pope and rallied around the cry sola scriptura, scriptura sola (only the Scripture and the Scriptures only.)

“Now, some five hundred yeas later,” writes Tickle,  “even many of the most die-hard Protestants among us have grown suspicious of ‘Scripture and Scripture only.’ We question what the words mean—literally? Metaphysically? Actually? We even question which words do and do not belong in Scripture and the purity of the editorial line of descent form those that do. We begin to refer to Luther’s principle of “sola scriptura, scriptura sola” as having been little more than the creation of a paper pope in place of a flesh and blood one. And even as we speak, the authority that has been in place for five hundred years withers away in our hands.” (p. 46)

Tickle goes on to say that, in addition to the authority question, (which is foundational),“each reconfiguration also has at least two dominant, unrelenting questions that attend it and may not be unique to it.” (72)  Tickle sees two overarching, but complementary questions of the Great Emergence:

  • What is human consciousness and/or the humanness of the human?
  • What is the relation of all religions to one another?  

 “Those torturous questions, “ she writes, “which have bobbed along in human history for centuries, now come to us with a militant ferocity, a ferocity that enjoys a line of direct, uninterrupted descent straight down from Michael Farady and Charles Darwin. The other great truth here is that we can not be said to have truly entered into any kind of post-Emergence stability until we have answered them both.” (73)

Those who have read the book know that Tickle goes into much greater detail about the questions and challenges raised by cognitive science, literary deconstruction, higher criticism, Freud, Jung, Campbell, Einstein, Heisenbuerg, and many other philosophical/scientific/cultural movements.  Tickle does a good job of explaining complex theories and scholarship clearly, and she makes a good case for why this stuff matter so much to the faith. I like that Tickle doesn’t waster her time vainly criticizing postmodernism, evolution, deconstructionism, etc., (as some conservative evangelicals tend to do), but instead takes these things seriously enough to think Christians can learn something from them.

However, Tickle never directly answers  the question of authority...or of humanness or religious pluralism...which leaves the reader hanging a bit.

So, here’s my question for you: Do you find yourself questioning the notion of sola Scriptura/ the sole authority of the Bible? If so, why? And second, do you feel that questions regarding 1) humanness and 2) religious pluralism are the most important of our time?

My response? A past post delves more deeply into my own questions regarding sola Scriptura. (Also, see my comment below.) Over the past few years, I’ve come to question the notion that the Bible can be inerrant on a practical level if it must always be interpreted by an errant reader.  Also, I agree with Tickle that questions regarding religious pluralism will be huge. I myself have struggled with that issue, on a lot of different levels, for many years.

What do you think?

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Survey Says: Don't Read Into It

As you may have heard, a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life found that the majority of those affiliated with a religion do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. This includes 57 percent of evangelicals who say that many religions can lead to eternal life. 

It’s amazing to me how quickly this study has become fodder for evangelical outrage over relativism, particularly here in Dayton. To the collective gasps of their congregations, pastors are misrepresenting the study’s findings by making claims like, “most Americans are universalists” or “a majority of evangelical Christians no longer believe Jesus is the only way to eternal life” or “most Christians think all paths lead to God.” I’ve heard the study used to support everything from buying more Christian apologetics books to sending kids to private Christian high schools and colleges. 

Such a reactionary response fails to factor in the inexact science of polling and what may simply be a more nuanced view of pluralism among religious people. 

The Actual Question: How would you answer it?  

First of all, we’ve got to look more carefully at the actual question that was asked of those taking the survey. Here it is: 

Question: Which of the following statements comes closer to your own views, even if neither is exactly right: 

a) My religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life
b) Many religions can lead to eternal life 

Now, how would you answer that question? 

Personally, I’d prefer there be an Option C that states: “Religion itself has no saving power, so no religion (including my own) leads to eternal life.” 

But there is no Option C. So, given the circumstances, I’d probably choose Option B, simply because it is more open-ended. I think that people of all religious traditions are loved by God and that God is capable of using religion to draw people to Himself, even if that religion is not Christianity. 

Furthermore, considering the fact that  in this survey, Protestants and Catholics were separated into different “religions,” many people may have confused “religion” with “denominational affiliation.” In fact, a LifeWay study to be released in the fall used more specific wording, asking Protestant churchgoers whether a person can obtain eternal life through “religions other than Christianity.” That survey found that only 31 percent agreed “strongly” or “somewhat.” 

Of course, I would also prefer an Option C in that survey as well. 

A More Nuanced Approach to Religious Pluralism 

I suspect that the Pew Research Center’s survey simply reveals the fact that Americans, including evangelicals, have a more nuanced approach to religious pluralism. This, I think, is a very good thing.  It would mean that evangelicals are moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to the gospel to one that appreciates the scope of God’s love for the world. It would mean that evangelicals are perhaps finding a “middle way” between traditional exclusivism on the one hand and outright universalism on the other. 

The bottom line is that the yes-or-no, black-or-white nature of a survey doesn’t really lend itself to the complexity of this important issue. Even the question, “Do you think Jesus is the only way to salvation?” fails to factor in the dynamic nature of the Trinity, especially as it concerns those who have never heard the name of Jesus to begin with. 

My feeling is that the survey should not be taken too seriously, and it certainly should not be used to try to sell more apologetics curriculum to an “increasingly relativistic evangelical community.” There was plenty in that survey regarding evangelical attitudes toward homosexuality, conservative politcs, science, and abortion to keep the Religious Right happy for a while...(but that's for another post!) 

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Gays, Buddhists, and Scientists: Will Evangelicals Change Their Minds?

In the 16th century, John Calvin argued on theological grounds that anyone who believed that the earth moved in space was “motivated by a spirit of bitterness, contradiction, and faultfinding; possessed by the devil.” *  

In the 17th century, both Catholics and Protestants systematically executed Anabaptists for holding to the “heresy” that a confession of faith should precede baptism. 

Here in America, the original Southern Baptist Convention was organized, in part, because Baptists in the South did not want to be told from Baptists in the North that owning slaves was wrong. 

In the 60s, many evangelicals used Scripture to support racial segregation. 

Oops. Hindsight is 20/20, huh? 

I bring up these historical embarrassments, not to shame the Church or criticize the many godly people who supported them, but to pose a question: What’s next? What are the issues facing the Church today that may come back to haunt us in the future? 

Every now and then I wonder what convictions I might have held had I lived in my hometown of Dayton, Tennessee just five, ten, or fifteen decades ago. Would I have used Scripture to defend my right to own slaves? Would I have remained silent as the Cherokees stumbled by my house on the Trail of Tears? We Christians must be careful not to imitate the Pharisees, who bragged that had they lived during the time of the prophets they would not have shed the blood of innocent men, but who then proceeded to crucify Jesus and persecute his disciples (Matthew 23:30-34). Our confidence that we are right about everything is often our downfall. 

So what will be the hot issues for our generation? What will we be debating over the next five, ten, or twenty years? 

I don’t know for sure, but I have some guesses. Let me know what you think. 

1) Homosexuality: This week’s California ruling regarding gay marriage is sure to spark another round of arguments between conservative evangelicals and the gay community. It’s too bad. I’m really starting to get weary of all the hateful rhetoric coming from conservative Christians, rhetoric that only serves to alienate gays from the church. 

If I were a betting woman, I would put money on the guess that in less than ten years, evangelicals will be blushing at some of James Dobson’s comments regarding homosexuality. I think that as more people come out and as more progress is made in identifying possible genetic influences in sexual orientation, evangelicals will have to back-track a bit. I also anticipate that in the coming years, theologians will re-approach those biblical texts used to condemn homosexuality and perhaps present evangelicals with some optional interpretations. 

2) Religious Pluralism: As our world becomes more interconnected, I think young evangelicals in particular will grow hungry for fresh approaches to religious pluralism, and will begin to seek out alternatives to traditional exclusivism. The Catholic Church has taken the lead on this issue with the Second Vatican Council, and I expect evangelicals will follow. It’s hard to foresee any “official” changes in doctrine, considering the complexity of the issue, but I expect the dialog will open up a bit in this area. 

3) Evolution: As scientific evidence supporting evolutionary theory continues to become more widely accepted, I think conservative evangelicals will at least have to concede the point that it is possible for a  person to believe in both and old earth and a loving God, that “Christian evolutionist” is not an oxymoron. I have a feeling that the evolution debate might be our generation’s Galilean controversy, which is why I am wary of making sweeping pronouncements about God being on one side or the other. I’m hoping that this issue will spark a healthy conversation about whether should treat the Bible as a science textbook or a spiritual guidebook. 

So, what do you think? What will be the hot-button issues of our time? In what ways do you expect evangelicals might change their minds?

(I also thought about mentioning the role of women in the church, changes in the political affiliations of young evangelicals, and a renewed interest in humanitarian aide and world poverty. What do you think about those issues?)

-- 

Citation:* Sermon No. 8 on 1st Corinthians, cited in John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait by William J. Bouwsma, Oxford University Press, 1988, A. 72

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When a theology just doesn't feel right...

This week’s posts challenge the fundamentalists position of exclusivism-the theology that salvation is available only to those who explicitly confess faith in Jesus Christ, leaving out the billions of people throughout history who either never heard of Jesus or who were raised in religious traditions other than Christianity. 


Having been taught my whole life that exclusivism was the only truly biblical position, I nearly gave up on the Christian faith altogether when my moral objections to it became too overwhelming for me to ignore. At the heart of the issue was the fact that exclusivism just didn’t feel right to me, it didn’t fit with my very core sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, of good and evil. 

I shared the reservations of Elton Trueblood, who wrote of exclusivism: “Such a scheme is neat and simple, but it is morally shocking…A God who would thus play favorites with his children, condemning some to eternal separation from himself while admitting others, and distinguishing them wholly or chiefly on the basis of the accidents of history or geography, over which they had no control, would be more devil than God.” 

But whenever I worked up the courage to question exclusivism,  someone inevitably fired back, “who are you to question your Creator? If you have a problem with people going to hell, then take it up with Him.” Believing Calvin’s theology to be God’s theology, any moral or emotional reservations are rendered moot. As one of my friends put it in an e-mail recently,  “If God says that the moon is made of green cheese, then the moon is made of green cheese despite what the scientists and my own senses might say. Everything God does is right, so if He condemns millions of men, women, and children to eternal torment, then I have to be okay with that. It’s got nothing to do with how I feel.”  

If I had a penny for every time I was told that my reservations on this matter were the result of my accommodating to a humanistic culture,  I could afford the ACLU membership fees apparently needed to support my habit. Such “sentimentalism,” I’ve been told, comes from the misguided assumption that human beings deserve mercy. The reason I have a problem with the idea of people suffering eternally without the chance to be saved is because my sense of justice is perverted by my sin nature. This is a common argument, and one set forth by  David George Moore in his book entitled The Battle for Hell. “It must be stated quite emphatically that our sense of justice is perverted, twisted, and distorted,” he writes. “What we as humans deem to be fair can many times be far removed from what God says.” (p. 29) 

I can accept this idea to an extent, but it raises another serious question: If my sin nature perverts my sense of right and wrong to the point that I should not listen to my conscience, should I refrain from making judgment calls altogether? Is it not, dare I say, a bit of an argument in support of moral relativism? 

C.S. Lewis describes the sense of right and wrong that exist in every person’s conscience as the Moral Law written on our hearts. Although our hearts and minds are corrupted by our sin nature, this sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, of love and hate, remains an important part of who we are and deserves our attention. I believe that, if my conscience tells me it is unjust for someone who never heard the gospel to suffer eternal torture for being born at the wrong place at the wrong time, I should listen to that conscience. If my heart tells me something is wrong, I’m not going to ignore it because Calvin says it isn’t real. 

Now, someone will probably post an angry comment saying that the authority of Scripture should supercede any moral objections to exclusivism, that God’s Word trumps those gut feelings that there might be a problem. 

But what if Scripture doesn’t necessarily support exclusivism?

While I have a great deal of respect for the many godly people I know  who subscribe to the theology of exclusivism, I no longer believe that it is the only biblical view. In fact, I would argue that the Bible actually has more support for an inclusive view of salvation than it has for an exclusive view of salvation. (See the previous post for references.

Also encouraging is the diversity of scholarship on the subject found within the Christian tradition. Christian history is full of theologians who struggled with the problem of the unevangelized and who posed a wide variety of ideas about it. From Origen’s hope that salvation will eventually be received by all, to Karl Rahner’s assertion that other religions can serve as pointers to Christ, to Clark Pinnock’s biblical case for a more optimistic view of salvation, I’ve found that tucked away in the dusty corners of Christian libraries is a wealth of scholarship on the subject. 

All my life I’ve  been taught that the Church is at its best when the theology is consistent and everyone agrees with one another, but when my very faith was on the line, it was the diversity of the Christian tradition that offered me so much hope. 

As I’ve worked my way through Scripture, I’ve come to realize how horribly I misjudged God when I assumed that certain theological interpretations of Him defined Him. Doubting what I thought was a core tenant of Christianity was an incredibly difficult experience, and I confess that the anger and frustration I felt often led to sinful challenges to God’s authority and insensitive remarks to other people. There’s no excuse for it. 

And  yet, I’m glad I listened to my conscience and questioned a theology that simply didn’t feel right to me. Doing so has brought me down a path of spiritual exploration that has renewed my sense of awe for God’s love and mercy and for the universal reach of His redemption. 

My hope is that, as more people listen to their intuition, the conservative evangelical community will reassess its position on the destiny of the un-evangelized.

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