Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Chapter 2 - The Many and the One

[For several weeks, I will be blogging through John Dickson's The Best Kept Secret in Christian Missions: Promoting the Gospel with More than Our Lips.  Page numbers I cite will all be from this book unless otherwise noted.]

In Colossians 2:8, the apostle Paul writes, "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ."  One popular philosophy, which is full of empty deceit, can be summed up in the following statement: "All religions are just different paths to the same God."

This is called pluralism, and John Dickson gives a helpful and simple definition on page 39: Pluralism is "the popular belief that spiritual truth (unlike most other truths) appears in mane forms (hence: 'plural'), not just one."  In the first chapter of the book, we thought about the fact that one of the driving forces in God's mission to the world...and ours...is that there is only one God (i.e.- Yahweh), and all men owe their allegiance and worship to that God.

In pluralism, we find a challenge to that belief.  The challenge, however, is a bit complicated because it is not necessarily a denial that there is a God...just that every religion describes a different path to that one God.  So, how do we deal with this?  Very helpfully, Dickson breaks pluralism into two types...popular and sophisticated.  Let's think about them both.

Popular pluralism is the argument you get over coffee with a friend.  It is the notion that among the different religions, "God" just goes by a different name.  Also, your friend says, the basic teachings of these religions are so similar (believing in God, the need to pray, living morally and ethically good lives, etc.) that to exalt one over the other is unnecessary. 

Now, stop for a second, how would you respond to that kind of argument?  This is an important question for us to consider because this line of thought is not uncommon in our culture.  Would you know how to respond to such an argument?  Well, the foundational problem with this line of thinking is that "in trying to affirm all religions, it pays close attention to none of them" (p. 40).  Let me give you some bullet point facts that will help draw some distinctions (taken from p. 40).

Hinduism, the Sikh faith, & Buddhism
  • Hinduism teaches there are many gods (devas) that exist as individual deities.  Each of these gods reflect part of the ultimate reality (Brahman) 
  • One Hindu names Guru Nanak rejected this notion and founded the Sikh faith (pronounced 'seek').  He insisted that there is only one god worthy of worship.
  • Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) rejected Hinduism altogether, rejecting the notion of a God altogether...which is still the belief in classical Buddhism.
  • Can you see the difference?  Many gods vs. one god vs. no god.  "You don't need a degree in mathematics to see fundamental contradictions here."
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
  • Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the promised Messiah spoken of in the Old Testament.  Without this belief, there is no Christianity!
  • Modern Jews insist Jesus is not the Messiah...Orthodox Jews saying the Messiah is still yet to come.
  • The Islamic faith says that Jesus was neither crucified nor the Son of God.
  • Can you see the difference?
Dickson also explains differences in views of the afterlife, but I'll leave it to these.  Do you see what he means by trying to embrace all religions without paying attention to any of them?  In order to believe that all these religions aim at the same God, you have to disregard much of what distinguishes them.

Sophisticated pluralism is what you find more...to be repetitive...sophisticated.  It is the notion that none of the religions really describes the way to God.  They all just describe human longing to be connected with God.  Here is an analogy Dickson uses to help explain what this means:
"Influential US theologian Marcus Borg...uses the analogy of Communion or the Lord's Supper...The bread and wine convey a sense of Jesus' death and ongoing presence without actually containing those things.  In a similar way, he argues, the beliefs and practices of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and so on mediate an experience of ultimate Reality without truly describing or laying hold of it." (p. 42)
How does one respond to this?  This is certainly more complicated than just comparing religious beliefs because, after all, the pluralist is here saying that none of the beliefs really matter.  They are just a way into a universal, spiritual experience.  So, what would you say?  Many of us may dismiss this kind of thinking out of hand, but those who believe it take it seriously.  So, we should seriously consider how to respond...how to give an answer.

The answer Dickson gives is simply brilliant and very helpful.  Think about the assumption behind this argument.  If I am saying that every religion is essentially wrong...only mediating an experience of ultimate spiritual reality, what am I assuming?  What am I claiming?  I am claiming that my knowledge far exceeds all those who hold to the tenets of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc.  I am claiming that I actually have a better understanding of spiritual reality than anyone else.  The very thing that pluralists dislike about religions (i.e.- the claim to exclusive spiritual insight) is exactly what they are claiming!

One of the attractions of any form of pluralism is that it seems more tolerant.  The very mention of the word "tolerance" has some Christians ready to pound their fist and form an "anti-tolerance" organization.  The problem, when it comes to tolerance, is not whether we should be tolerant...it is that the meaning of the word has changed.  Today, many use the word "tolerance" to speak of an attitude which considers every perspective on every issue equally true and valid.  What Dickson calls for is a return to true tolerance, and I will close with his words on the subject (emphasis mine):
"True tolerance does not involve accepting every viewpoint as true and valid; it involves treating with love and humility someone whose opinions you believe to be untrue and invalid...[Being] a tolerant Christian does not involve accepting contrary beliefs as valid (as 'vehicles of the sacred'); it involves treating with love those whose views we regard as untrue and invalid.  True tolerance is the ability to treat with grace those with whom you disagree.  And this is a deeply Christian quality, especially since the Lord who is proclaimed in our gospel is the epitome of humility, love and gentleness" (p. 45).