Christianity and World Religions
Also related A Simple Theology of Religions
How does one believe in the exclusivist claims of the gospel and at the same time accept the people of other faiths, since the Christian faith includes a responsibility to share one's faith?
Following up on other comments about the relationship of the Christian faith to other religions, we may note that the vast majority of Christian believers do not exhibit the "fruits of the spirit" on a regular basis.
So here is the question: What is the difference between Christians who say they believe, but do not indicate this in their lives, and believers in other religions who do not explicitly claim to follow the beliefs of Christianity, yet exhibit what Christian teaching calls the gifts or fruits of the Spirit?
How does a Christian relate to followers of other religions, when the exclusivist claims of Christian faith entails a judgement on the other religions, and entails the responsibility to share one's faith?
The Basis is Love
One colleague commenting on this question said he would focus on the fact that Christianity is based on Love — the love God has for each and every one of us. He notes that is very different from other messiahs or great teachers.
The Same Words from Another Source?
But have you read the teachings of Guru Nanak? Nanak sounds like Jesus — some teaching slightly restated, some virtually the same wording, but all in the same spirit.
Nanak may have had some direct Christian influence, but there's no evidence of it. He appears amidst the religious turmoil of northern India in the wake of the Muslim Mongol empire, centered in the Sultanate of Delhi, one of the kingdoms associated with the Afghans. The conflicts between the Muslims and the Hindus — killing each other even back then — led Nanak to preach the unity gospel of repentance and love, unity in faith, faith rising above culture and religion!
Unfortunately, later developments placing the new Sikh community themselves under fire led to the obscuring of that purer, direct messianic message of Nanak.
But the book of Nanak's teachings (Granth Sahib) is still there. It would make sense that those who read Nanak's words, and accept them, are accepting the same things as if the had heard them from Jesus himself — they just heard them from someone else.
Could this same message of love and peace thus still be the Good News (the gospel), available to some outside the historical, theological cultural stream of what we call revelation history?
The Way and the Roads
The problem is that it is much easier for people to follow religion than to accept good news and its radical demands, even if they call themselves Christians. As I heard it rudely put, standing in a barn does not make you a donkey, standing in a garage does not make you a car. Calling yourself a Christian does not mean you are following Christ.
A reference point is Jesus as the way. My Christian friend says, "There may be many roads to God, but there's only one way."
Great, but this is a philosophical distinction that few if any cultural and theological Christians would ever think to make. They do not think about the language they use, and when they do think of religious language, they think in terms of philosophy and propositions, rather than in terms of confession of faith.
Interestingly, I was talking about this with the missions chairman from a Baptist church in the northwest of the United States. We were discussing some of the dynamics of cross-cultural communication and some of the cautions for creative expression of Christianity in areas where Christian faith is not common.
I was talking how I would speak with Hindus and Muslims. I preferred to focus on the idea of confession, rather than focusing on abstract concepts or ideas. After I had used the words "confession" and "confessing" several times, he finally had to ask me what I meant. This surprised me.
"Confession" is used the way Baptists use the word "profession." Baptists, and maybe other faith traditions, speak of speak of "professing Christ," or "making a profession of faith." The latter term originally meant to publicly state (profess, confess) that you had believed in Christ.
The original meaning of the term "profession of faith" has been lost and the term remains simply as a procedural formula, usually in reference to a first-time public statement of conversion. For a long time now, it's been just a formula word.
Testimony of Confession
I talk about a confession of faith, along the lines of the thoughtful, exploratory statements issued periodically by our faith ancestors. The purpose of such statements is not to make it easier for the leaders to judge what people believe. And I did not mean going to a priest to confess personal sins.
What I am talking about is a personal faith story, a testimony or what we might call a "witness." The term "witness' is often used for sharing your faith with others.
But rather than a testimony (confession) to what I have experienced, it is often understood to mean focusing on what I believe, what doctrines I think best explain God and faith. This is basically an intellectual exercise. The focus can shift from meaning and truth to place emphasis on mental assent to certain words or propositions in a certain language. What I was talking about was different.
A Confessional Approach
When I say I am "witnessing," it means I am telling my story, by confessing who Jesus is to me, what has happened to me, what faith in Jesus means to me. But by confessing, instead of teaching or talking religion or philosophy, I talk about faith experience and the personal meaning of life. It is a personal statement. This is what the term "witness" means.
This puts us into a deeper level of human commonality and enables us to bypass the philosophical statements and standard words, the stock words. I tell my story my way as I think about what it means, not as I heard someone tell me the right words to use. We are focusing on faith, not on formalized statements of a western philosophical system.
Into the Scriptures
I also have a lot of freedom to go into the Christian scriptures — and even the traditions, but to rise above the traditions, as I realize the richness and variations available in the language of confession. One seeker who has found, telling his discovery to another seeker.
A confessional approach enables a person to speak truth beyond the limitations of the philosophical. Confession bypasses the historical and cultural limitations of one particular system of expressing my faith or my community's faith.
It's just my testimony, my story.
The strong emphasis on formulated doctrine is different from what I understand in the examples of "witnessing" in the New Testament, which appear to be a testimony to what one has experienced and perceived in encounter with the Divine.
If statements of doctrine were so important for us, wouldn't you think Jesus would have given us one? Where in the whole New Testament do you find any statement of doctrine in the western philosophical sense? The common terms used in the New Testament are confession, faith, teaching (different from how we use the word doctrine today, though it originally meant simply "teaching").
Enough Knowledge to be Saved
I preached a sermon a few years ago, stimulated by a taped sermon by a well-known Baptist preacher. This speaker had preached from Paul's teachings in Romans 2 about the law and knowledge, where Paul discusses the response to spiritual light even outside the revelation tradition.
This pastor presented an interpretation of the passage, but he dealt with only half the issue. I felt it was a half-impression he gave.
He had concluded that everyone was lost, because Paul says they have the light. But he never said any one was saved by that same light. He did not expound Paul's reference to those without revelation who do what revelation requires.
But that was the whole point of the passage. Paul is warning the Jewish Christians who think they are special because they were given the Mosaic law.
Paul declares that — to the shame of the Jews who fail to honor the covenant of God with Israel — there were non-Jews who were fulfilling the terms of the covenant with God, when they had not even heard the message of the Law.
The pastor missed the point! He did not finish the exegesis. Paul is saying that if you know enough to be lost, you know enough to be saved. It is just as clear to me from logic as from Paul's words. Salvation and sin are matters of choice, and of response to the truth one has access to, according to Paul.
We honor this in our common phrase "according to his lights."
A religion that is all right-brained — that is, all art, feelings, expression and worship — is half-witted. Likewise, a religion that is all left-brained — that is, all ideas, concepts and doctrines, intellectual — is also half-witted. This latter is a problem with the forms of Christianity that focus on ideas and doctrines as the primary identification.
It's not about me and my beliefs — it is about God and our relationship to him. Worship and faith are central, not beliefs that attempt to explain that relationship or that faith. God is the focus — not what is going on in my mind.
Thinking in terms of beliefs, systems, propositions, and ideas is the Gnostic trap, what I have called the "Romance of Gnosticism." Westerners, in both religious and political arenas, are ideological, not relational, so miss half their brain power when thinking about God and their governments.
Isn't that frightening? True religion is love of God, and service to God through service to neighbor — unless Jesus was wrong.
A dangerous thing for the western hedonistic, ideological culture is that a major pleasure is the pleasure of the mind. Imagination, escape, abstract fancies of thought, intellectual stimulation — these are given high value and even can become the primary focus of life. Much of the current entertainment centers on imagination: science-fiction and virtual reality — which, by the way, is not bad in itself.
The danger is that the thought or imagination can take the place of the living reality. Some people value their thoughts, ideas and beliefs more than they value people. Churches that should be united on the basis of a common faith are broken and divided because of a commitment to their particular beliefs. Beliefs become more important than faith! For some, agreement of doctrine becomes more valuable than the command to be united, which Jesus stressed just before he died.
The Mental Pleasures of the New Gnosticism
Our reflection on our ideas or the ideas of others, the nursing and refining of our ideologies — political or theological, it is all the same category — it's rewarding, pleasant, also insulating from the real world of people running around out there trying to find their way.
So they have no hope, heading wherever they will go without the guidance of faith, instead of into the rich welcoming love and forgiveness of God — where the real pleasure is, while we nurse and refine our Gnosticism in our own convenience for our own pleasure, in our own systematic and ordered thought-world of the Church.
Real life is a real time, real time with the Lord and real time with people who need good news. Who can refute the recounting a personal experience? Someone can reject or refute your philosophical (theological) interpretations. (You will not be able to out-argue a Muslim who knows his faith!) But an experience interpretation has no refutation! Testimony or confession is more powerful than knowledge and logic.
Freedom in Testimony
Thus I am free to accept a fellow seeker, but I still can show him what I feel I have learned about the right path. It's his choice, then, if he wants to go down another road. It is his privilege and responsibility to respond to the Holy Spirit.
Thus I am a common believer bearing good news (an "evangelist," meaning "a good news person"). I do not have to bear the burden of convincing and converting. That's not my job. My job is confessing, and clarifying to the best of my ability what that might mean to my fellow human in his unique set of experiences.
Some have stated an objection to missions this way: The pagans who do not know about Jesus are protected in their ignorance. But then if they hear the gospel and fail to believe they will be lost, and thus worse off than they were before. This is a different perspective of sin and guilt than that expressed by Jesus and Paul.
John quotes Jesus as saying that those who have not yet believed are already judged. So what I tell a person cannot make him or her more lost than they already are! Likewise, Jesus said that those who seek would find. He also reminds his followers that he has other followers in a different "flock."
Paul indicates it is our response to what we do already know, not how much we know, that determines our relationship to God. It is not a question of knowledge — it is a question of relationship.
This is actually one of my areas of greatest freedom. It appears from the references in the New Testament that whenever someone hears the good news, if they are seeking they will respond, if they are resisting already, they will resist. It is not up to me to judge what stage of response or understanding they are in. I am not responsible for their conversion, but for being faithful to my faith experience with God.
Many times in the Old Testament record, God reminded Israel that he reserves the right to make himself known (reveal himself) to other nations, independently of his covenant with Israel. Thus God is exclusive — he makes his own covenants with the peoples of the world.
But for exactly that reason his self-revelation is inclusive. God calls all peoples.
He is exclusive, different from national and territorial gods — different and unique, as the Universal and Living God. He is inclusive, in that no one is left out of his call.
Thus when I testify of my relationship to him, I am seeking anyone who is also responding to God. I'm a seeker who has found, seeking another seeker.
The "Knowledge Context"
Paul says in Romans that if they are seeking, they are seeking just as I, with more or less light. And if they're rebelling, they're rebelling, no matter how much propositional truth they know. So the lost are lost, and the saved are saved, on grounds other than their knowledge context.
Thus a true witness to the Living and Universal God — that is, the Only God — can do nothing but clarify a person's spiritual condition. Those who seek will find, and respond. Those rebellious and unbelieving will get another chance in my witness, but if they do not respond, it is not because I told them something.
God's good news is for everyone, in every culture and place, no matter what their religious preferences. God is inclusive — his message is for all without discrimination. But it is one and the same for all who hear it. It is not a message about religion — it is a message about faith and relationship with God.
The other side of this is the communicator's responsibility to be sure what they actually communicate is what they intended. But assuming good intentions and appropriate care in presentation, believers respond and non-believers reject. Pretty simple, actually. It is their decision and God's acknowledgement of it that judges them, not my words of grace and mercy, which are good news to those who are seeking.
The same message is always a judgment for some and redemption for others. Every encounter in life is a choice. I'm just glad it is not up to me to render the judgment in my ignorance of the deeper factors and the experience each person brings to that encounter! Let God be God, let me be obedient to what I know from what I've experienced! I have enough to keep up with in my own heart and life!
Excitement of Life and Discovery
In conclusion, I will say that I also enjoy this romance of the mind, the quest for information and understanding — but I try to apply it to questions that might enhance my faith and witness through better understanding of myself, God and the world. This is part of the excitement of living in faith, following Jesus day by day!
God is in charge, not me. So I don't have to worrry about knowing all the answers, about clarifying all the details. My security is not in being right — it is in knowing that the Ultimate has me, but is forever beyond me.
I am incorporated in the Ultimate — it is arrogance to claim I have understood "how it is." God is ever beyond and always encompassing. My goal in life is to be rightly related to the Creator-Savior. To be one with Jesus as he is one with the Father.
This seems to be the essence of the message Jesus preached. His message was about the Kingdom of God (the Rule of God in our life). His call was to repent, not to figure it all out. His call was one of the heart and life. Good News is in my relationship to God, not in my knowledge of the facts of the universe.
The Faith-Life is exciting and challenging, and likewise satisfying. I can enjoy the uncertainty of my limited knowledge as a human creature. I can let God be God — the one with Ultimate Knowledge. Truth is God's, I leave the details to him.
Judgement of Self, not Others
The purpose of my learning is not to judge others in their relationship to God. But in trying to follow what Jesus asks of us, I apply what I learn to my relationship with God, and judge myself in light of the gospel — The Good News of the Kingdom of God. Mental doctrines about the fate of others are not my right or responsiblity. Let God be God.
Faith Gives Unity
Faith is the center of my existence. This gives unity to the process of discovery. It is what makes sense of the ongoing discover of information, description and theory by which we all try to make more sense of our existence. I do not depend on my knowledge, I just enjoy what I learn as part of my relationship to God!
Eastern Focus, Western Comment
Karma and Christ: A Dialogue
Keeping The Torah by Nature
Names of God and Words for God:
Thoughts on Beliefs and Usages
Relationships Between the Religions
Resources for Diversity
Saved without the Overt Gospel? — A Deep Analysis
A Simple Theology of Religions
What about the people who were born before Christ?
When They Haven't Heard
For further Reading
The following are books I recommend on this topic. Links are provided to reviews of some on this site. I have also written reviews of some on this site or Amazon.Com
Achtemeier, Paul J. and Elizabeth. The Old Testament Roots of our Faith. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981. 158p.
Cobb, John B., Jr. Christ in a Pluralistic Age. Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1975. 287p.
Erickson, Millard J. How Shall They Be Saved? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996. 278p.)
Fernandez Olmos, Margarite and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction to Obeah and Espiritismo. NY: NY University Press, 2003. 251p.
Grant, Robert M. Gods and the One God. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986. 211p.
Moule, C F D. The Origin of Christology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. 176p.
Ogden, Schubert M. The Point of Christology. Cambridge: Harper and Row, 1982. 191p.
Piper, John. Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993. 240p.
Tiessen, Terrance L. Who Can Be Saved?: Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004. 511p.
Spong, John Shelby. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Gospels with Jewish Eyes. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997. 365p.
Based on original notes written 21 March 1997 for private circulation
Revised periodically since then in private reflection
Posted 07 December 2004
Last edited 12 April 2011
Copyright © 2004, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.