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Jul22FriSociety tells us there are many paths to God. How do we respect other religions without compromising the gospel message? July 22, 2011
Born and raised on the island of Newfoundland, I completed my officer training in St. John's and had my first two appointments in small Newfoundland communities. Wherever I went as a Salvation Army officer, I encountered Christians—either devout Christians or people who were affiliated with a Christian denomination. So, when I sang the national anthem and asked God to “keep our land glorious and free,” it seemed consistent to me. I was living in a Christian nation. Or so I thought.
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As I moved across the country, and ultimately to British Columbia nearly a decade ago, I noticed a changing religious flavour the farther I moved west. The Sikh and Buddhist temples and the mosques of Islam that I saw in high-school textbooks were scattered throughout Vancouver and Victoria. The cultural framework in which I would be fulfilling my calling was quite different from the place where I started.
Multiculturalism, and the resulting religious diversity, is an official policy of Canada, introduced during Pierre Elliott Trudeau's time as prime minister. As citizens of this great country, we are expected to accept people regardless of their religious beliefs. Also, the biblical mandate to “love our neighbour” teaches us to show respect for people of all religions.
The subject of pluralism and the Christian response to it is perhaps the most daunting challenge facing the Church today. Far more than just a matter of pragmatism, it is a difficult theological question: How do I function in my ministry context when nearly half of the people I encounter identify with a religion other than Christianity?
In typical Wesleyan fashion, I rely on four different sources to help me reach my theological conclusions. The Methodist Albert Outler referred to this as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: tradition, Scripture, reason and experience.
1. Tradition—Historically, what does the Christian Church have to say on this matter?
While space does not permit a comprehensive overview of this subject, it is important to say that the opinions of the Church and leading Christian thinkers throughout history have been varied. We can narrow down the viewpoints into three categories:
Normative Pluralism. This is the view that all ethical religions lead to God and salvation. This would be the most liberal viewpoint. Christianity is thus seen as one of many paths.
Exclusivism. This is the conservative viewpoint that states that salvation is found in Christ alone. Typically, an exclusivist believes that we need to explicitly pronounce faith in Christ in order to be assured of salvation. There are some exclusivists who choose to remain agnostic about the fate of those who have not yet heard the gospel.
Inclusivism. This is the centrist viewpoint between pluralism and exclusivism. Inclusivists believe that salvation has its origin and fulfilment in Jesus Christ, but that may mean that the subject is saved and is not fully aware of it. The individual might not have heard the gospel or may be following a different religion. However, they are responding to God in the best way that they can, based on the revelation that they have received.
I admit that I find it difficult to accept the pluralist view. If all roads lead to God, then of what significance is Jesus Christ? Why evangelize? At first glance, exclusivism appears to be the most faithful to the historical Christian message of salvation in Christ alone, which is one of its strong points. However, there are a couple of difficulties with exclusivism as it relates to sharing our faith. First, it tends to cause believers to appear arrogant and intolerant, which is not helpful to our witness in a pluralistic context. Second, exclusivists fail to consider the sociological and cultural factors that play into whether a person becomes a Christian or not. As theologian Ronald Nash puts it, “Is God's grace limited to the relatively few who, often through accidents of time and geography, happen to have responded to the gospel?”
If God is loving and merciful, would he sentence people to judgment without providing them an opportunity to choose or reject the gospel?
Inclusivism is not without its critics either. Inclusivists are sometimes accused of being soft on the gospel. If a person of another religion is already saved, then the impetus for evangelization might be removed.
While exclusivists often have the loudest voice in evangelical Christianity, historically many Christians have been inclusivists. In fact, they probably represent the consensus viewpoint in Christianity today. C. S. Lewis was an inclusivist. His view was summed up in a scene in The Last Battle (Chronicles of Narnia) where the pagan soldier Emeth learns to his surprise that Aslan regards his worship of Tash (a pagan idol) as directed to himself. This is an obvious inclusivist principle. Lewis earlier wrote in Mere Christianity, “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.” Concerning the unevangelized, our spiritual grandfather John Wesley once wrote, “We have great reason to hope, although they lived among the heathen, yet [many of them] were quite of another spirit, being taught of God, by his inward voice, all the essentials of true religion.” Lewis and Wesley would agree that there are Christians who do not know they are Christians.
2. Scripture—What does the Bible say about it?
Exclusivists probably have an easier time than the other two in finding Scripture to verify their position. The declarations of Jesus himself in John 14:6 (“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”) and of Peter in Acts 4:12 (“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under Heaven by which we must be saved”) are well-known to all Christians.
Our job isn't to change people. Only God can do that. We are called to witness, by our words and our actions, to what Christ has done for us
While inclusivists do not doubt that Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith, they also find a basis for what could be called “anonymous Christianity” in the Bible. The Bible declares that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. However, the Bible does not limit that salvation to one segment of history. As theologian Clark Pinnock wrote, “God has been at work saving human beings before Jesus was born and does so where Jesus has not been named. The patriarch Abraham was justified by faith without knowing Jesus, and Paul holds him up as a model believer for us all, even though he never heard the gospel (see Romans 4:1-25).” Inclusivism places the focus of salvation upon the work of Jesus Christ and his mercy, not necessarily upon our response to it.
3. Reason—What does rational thinking conclude?
While we may approach rationalism differently, we can agree that our opinions of pluralism must logically agree with our corollary beliefs about God, sin and salvation. If we believe that God desires for all people to be saved, then we would reject the notion that large groups of humans in history had no chance of being saved. If we believe that God is loving and merciful, we would find it hard to comprehend him sentencing people to judgment without providing them an opportunity to at least choose or reject the gospel. Believing that people are precluded from the Kingdom of God when many haven't had the same opportunities that we've had is akin to Calvinist predestination. I cannot believe that God would allow that to happen for the same reason that I don't believe he chooses some to be saved and rejects others.
4. Experience—How does my own personal journey inform what I believe?
In case you haven't guessed, I am an inclusivist. I believe that Jesus is the only way to God and his sacrifice makes salvation possible. I believe that salvation is extended to all those who hear the gospel and choose to accept it. I also believe that there are many people—some Jews, some Muslims, some of indigenous faiths and some of no religion—who are not as fortunate as I was to be taught the gospel at an early age. I recognize that they have not yet heard the good news or they have heard some of it and are not quite sure how Jesus is superior to their own path to salvation. Or perhaps they are mortified to even consider giving up their inherited faith for something new, just as we would be. I believe that some of them are in Christ.
I am not saying that one has to be an inclusivist to be an effective witness in a pluralistic context. We may want to cling to an exclusivist view. Regardless, we should all approach people with a spirit of inclusiveness. Why? First, inclusivism is a message of hope. I am encouraged by the prospect that the numerical results of Christ's sacrifice will be even greater than what I can see with my physical eyes. Perhaps the people I am sharing my faith with are not as far away from the goal as I used to think. Second, inclusivism helps me to see my neighbour without the distorted lens of nationalism or prejudice. The problem of evil and injustice in our world is big enough without having to add entire races to the mix through no fault of their own. As Peter said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). Finally, inclusivism provides a fuller picture of God's redeeming will. It upholds the particularity of Christ as the only way of salvation and at the same time explains the universal scope of God's plan to save sinners.
God is at work in this world, at all times and in many places even through other religions. In Wesleyan terms, we would call it an act of prevenient grace—grace preparing them for a fuller understanding of Christ. Our new Handbook of Doctrine states: “The sacred writings of other religions may possess insights helpful to spiritual searching” and the “Bible can interpret and inform current thinking and attitudes.” Our calling then is to work alongside of God; to go to the people where he is working and moving.
Being a Christian in a pluralistic environment is an awesome opportunity. Like Paul, who preached to philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens (see Acts 17), we get to share with people who have a sense of the divine and make inroads toward having meaningful dialogue about faith and salvation. It is a tremendous opportunity to open the door to Jesus Christ. I believe that our God is loving and merciful, and that people who are honestly searching will find the truth when they seek it with all of their hearts.
Major Juan Burry is the executive director of the Addictions and Rehabilitation Centre in Victoria. He is married to Lorraine and they have two children.