A Reflection On Christianity And The World Religions
The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.
Much of what I have to say in this talk I have learned from the work of the great missionary thinker, Bishop Leslie Newbigin. There is a branch of study called the sociology of knowledge. Sociologists of knowledge, such as Peter Berger, talk about the “plausibility structure” of a society. In every group, in every society, every civilization there are things which “everybody knows” and which are accepted uncritically and in which the rational and conceptional framework of the society are embedded. Recently we have been stunned by polls that show that many people in the Muslim world do not accept that the September 11 terrorists were Muslims but in that world “everybody knows” that Muslims do not do such things. Either they were not really Muslims or they didn’t really do what they are said to have done. It is not that people are being illogical or irrational it is just that they are thinking within the plausibility structure of their own world view. There was a time when everybody knew that the world was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth. From time to time things happen which call into question that which everyone knows. The important thing to understand is that there is not such a thing as a pure and neutral rationality and that all reason is carried by a community of understanding and is rooted in fundamental convictions which must be taken on faith, on premises which can not be established on any other basis.
For a long time now in those countries which have their roots in Christian Europe, in what we call the West, everyone has known that there are two kinds of things. There are things which can be known, called facts, and which everyone must admit are true. These are things like, “Stamford is in Connecticut” and ‘water is composed of two Hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule.” There are other things which can never be proved and which fall into the category of things which people may believe. These things we call beliefs and values. Facts have to do with public truth and beliefs and values have to do with private opinions. Since beliefs and values can never be proved, it is wrong to make public claims for them as though they were public facts instead of private, personal opinions. You may say, if you wish, that Jesus rose from the dead and is the Light of the world as long as you will admit that this is your private opinion and is true for you. To assert it as an universal truth relevant to all persons is to by the very fact of making such a truth claim to try to force your private opinions on others. Everyone knows this. People who do not know this are ignorant, backward and bigoted. Everyone knows this as well. If you need any more convincing that no belief could possibly be true in the same way that a fact is true just look at the simple fact that there are so many competing beliefs and values. It is implausible that any one of them could be the truth.
Christianity makes a claim for truth which is in direct conflict with the reigning plausibility structure of what is called modernity and now post modernity. There is no getting around this. Modernity restricted that which could be known with confidence to the realm of facts. Post modernity has seen the circle of dependable knowledge shrink to the vanishing point such that the whole concept of facts is called into question. That is part of what a show like the X files is all about. The characters in this contemporary television drama can not know anything with confidence because they cannot trust anyone and cannot believe anything. Without faith knowledge is impossible. Christianity does not oppose faith to reason but proposes a different but no less rational interpretation of reality and the human situation.
The plausibility structure of our contemporary culture which I have been describing has at its heart as a dogma, a beginning principle which is established on the basis of no other principle, the philosophy of pluralism. Pluralism is the paradoxical philosophy that says there is no absolute truth save for the absolute truth that there is no truth. This doctrine has become deeply embedded in our society. The thought forms of our culture are powerfully shaped by this doctrine. The history of theology in the Christian churches of Europe and North America in the 20th century is in large part a story of trying to forge an interpretation of the faith which fits into a pluralist world view and into the plausibility structure of modernity and post modernity. There are many consequences of this trend including the almost complete loss of evangelical and missionary nerve among the mainline-oldline churches. It has become increasingly clear that the survival strategy of accepting the assignment of Christian truth claims to the ghetto of private values and beliefs while accepting uncritically the reigning plausibility structure is a self-defeating strategy. On this basis we are not even able to secure the commitment of our own children.
Some of the world religions may be able to accept having their truth claims relegated to a private world of beliefs and opinions. Perhaps Hinduism may and more likely I think, Buddhism which may be one reason Buddhism is on the rise, it fits with the reigning plausibility structure. Judaism, Christianity and Islam rest on claims which are inherently public and universal in their character. God chose the Jews and rescued them for Pharaoh and gave them the Ten Commandments or not. Jesus is the Son of God and rose from the dead or not. Mohammed is the only reliable prophet of God or not. Christianity represents a set of truth claims that cannot be fitted into any other plausibility structure. They are themselves the starting point for a new way of thinking about God, the world and the meaning and destiny of human life. One of the earliest Christian thinkers, Origen of Alexandria replied to the charge of the learned pagan philosopher Celsus that Christianity was irrational with the reply that Christianity was not irrational, but that because of what God had done in Christ, reason was given a new “arche” a new starting point.
It is very important when taking up this question of Christianity and the world religions to notice that we are taking it up within the context of a pluralistic culture. It helps to clear the ground on this question to point out that pluralism is itself a set of beliefs and values, a set of convictions about the world and the nature of reality, the meaning of truth and the possible meaning and destiny of human life which are assumed and not proven on any other basis and which masquerade as objective, tolerant and neutral but which are in reality as dogmatic as any other world view. There is no such thing as a nondogmatic world view. That is a world view without a starting point. The atheist and the theist are equally dogmatic. Pluralists do not have objective reason on their side. Their reason is embedded in a particular set of assumptions which are the starting point for this paradoxically skeptical and anti-religous religion.
The world is not divided into what can be known and what may be believed. Knowledge comes by believing. All knowledge is socially embedded and arises under the rationality and logic of a particular plausibility structure. The knowledge that water is composed of molecules of Hydrogen and Oxygen is won because of the classic beliefs of both Islamic and Western culture that the world is a creation by a dependable creator and that the mind which is made in the image and likeness of the creator is capable of discerning universal patterns and having true knowledge about the world. If you believe that the world observable to the senses is maya, illusion, you will not even seek such knowledge of the world. It is not an accident that science arises in the West because of what is believed there. There is a dynamic relation between belief and knowledge. What you believe powerfully affects what you can know.
I have spent a lot of time on the issue of pluralism before getting to the distinctives between Christianity and the other faiths because if we allow the notion of religious truth to be defined by pluralistic assumptions there is almost no point in taking up the issue. You have an investigation which may be titillating, interesting, entertaining but since you are dealing with things that can not by definition be true in an ultimate and universal sense, you are dealing with things that can never demand an ultimate commitment. By the nature of the case you are not dealing with evidence that demands a verdict to paraphrase a popular Christian title. The radical relativizing of religious truth claims in a thorough going pluralism actually makes sustained dialogue between the great faiths lacking in any ultimate significance. It also proceeds on a premise which only Westernized Christians domesticated into the reigning plausibility structures are willing to accept. Certainly no Muslim wants to come to a party for which the price of admission is the surrender of any claim to universal truth.
One of the corollaries of the pluralism which I have been describing is that all religions teach the same thing. They are all different paths up the same mountain. Plausible but just not adequate to reality. Just on the basis of the introductory talks which we have had in this series it is clear that Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam and Judaism are climbing different mountains.
There are points of convergence between the great world faiths and there are things which most of them hold in common to be true. This convergence occurs primarily in the realm of morals and ethics. The writer C.S. Lewis talks about the Tao of religions and about the agreement between cultures and religions on a set of basic moral principles which are resonant with the Ten Commandments. Otherwise the great faiths diverge fundamentally. They each represent a different story about the nature of reality and the meaning of the world, its origin, what is wrong with the world and with human nature and how that might be fixed, about the nature of God or the gods or the no-god in the case of Buddhism and what relation between God and humanity is possible, about the ultimate destiny of human nature. The commitments and beliefs of these great faiths give rise to different ideas of human destiny, human dignity, human rights and justice, of the significance of the world and different ecological policies, of the proper relationships between men and women and parents and children, of different visions of political life. At issue is not just some private religious opinion but the way we see the world and the beliefs that determine every aspect of private and public life.
One of the ideas which has great power in our time is the idea that no one religion can be true because there are so many of them. But the idea that there are many religions is a corollary of the idea that beliefs are quintessentially private and therefore there are as many beliefs, as many religions as there are persons. People will talk about “my beliefs” and the need to construct a “personal spirituality.” Are there really a welter of religions or are not the options relatively few. Martin Luther says there are only two religions. The religion of our laborious ascent to God and the religion of God’s descent to us in mercy and forgiveness.
On one side of a great divide are those religions which teach that God or ultimate reality is revealed in the depths of the individual consciousness. These ways are ways of meditation and spiritual practice guided by great teachers and metaphysical concepts like the Buddha or the ancient teachings of the Upanishads. These are the non historical religions. The outer world of history is a distraction from the realm of the divine of the ultimate which is found in the interiority of mind and spirit. To the extent that history has a meaning, it is the realm of suffering from which the spiritual practices promise escape.
On the other side we have the historical religions of Judaism and the religions which are related to Judaism, Christianity and the most recent of the historical religions, Islam. On the one side is a laborious path of spiritual discovery which may be aided by enlightened teachers and gurus but which is ultimately a private and individual search, a search which may well take more than one life time. On the other side is the God who wishes to be known and who intervenes in history to reveal himself.
Jews believe that God has revealed himself first and foremost in a series of mighty deeds in history which include the calling of Abraham, the exodus from slavery under Moses, the granting of the divine law, the Ten Commandments, the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the leading and protection of God who led them through the wilderness and gave them the promised land and established the kingdom and made it great under David and Solomon. Jews also believe that God revealed himself through the inspired utterances of the prophets and that these prophecies have to do not only with a private and personal relationship with God but with how Jews should live toward God and toward each other and toward the alien and strangers in their land. The prophets say that the suffering of Israel, her defeat at the hands of her enemies is in part the judgment of God and the prophets look forward to the coming of a Messiah, an anointed one who will put right the relationship between God and His people and establish a perfect Kingdom.
Christians believe that the history of Israel is a preparation for the sending of the Messiah, the Lord and King who is the Son of God. Christians believe that the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the last and final, until the end of the world, in the series of God’s mighty saving deeds in history and that Jesus is the culmination and perfection of that to which the prophets pointed.
Muslims believe that Jews and Christians have corrupted the teachings of their prophets who were real prophets of God and that God has sent Mohammed as the true and final prophet and given him a revelation in the form of a book written in heaven by God in a heavenly language, Arabic and that the Muslim community is the only community to have maintained its revelation unspoiled.
So we are presented with a limited number of choices. Perhaps pluralism is true and there is not a universal trustworthy knowledge of God which is possible and each person must construct as best they can their own spirituality. Or one of the great paths is true. If so is God to be sought in esoteric practice or is God seeking to make himself known in such a way as to require a response and if so which of the three versions of God’s self revelation is the most compelling.
So what is the distinctive account of God, humanity and history which we find in Christianity. Christians believe in one God who is the creator of everything that is. God is good and the creation is fundamentally good. At the peak of the creation is the human race. God created us to know and to love him and to love and serve each other. God is distinct from the creation and with love and goodness exercises a providential control over the creation. What about evil? The creation is a fallen creation. God created free spiritual beings, the angels, and a human race with free will and these free creatures have rebelled against God. Human beings as part of the creation are created good but have been seduced by evil. The rebellion of Satan which human beings have joined is the source of evil and suffering. As a result of the fall people have turned away from God and against each other. This is the permanent human condition. As a result of the fall human beings are afflicted with Original Sin. This means that they are not able to live the life for which God created them and that there exists a breach between God and humanity which can only be bridged from God’s side.
God has a plan for the creation which includes a restored relationship between God and people in a healed and perfected creation. In order to redeem and restore a fallen humanity and a fallen nature and in order to finally defeat evil God from his side begins to bridge the chasm between God and humankind. He calls Abraham and through the covenant with Abraham creates a community which is capable of receiving the self disclosure, the revelation of God. God reveals himself primarily by what He does. He chooses to make Himself known to particular people not because of what they deserve or merit but because God reveals Himself to be gracious and to be a God of love who bestows undeserved blessings. God discloses Himself to be a God who is faithful and who fulfills His promises even when it does not appear possible, for example the promise of making a great nation out of Abraham and the promise of giving to slaves the promised land. God shows Himself to be righteous and Holy by giving the Ten Commandments and through the testimony of the prophets which recall Israel to holiness of life.
So far we have been keeping company with much of what is believed in Judaism. Christians though searching the scriptures of the Old Testament with the spot light of the Resurrection perceive a promise in the prophets which Judaism does not perceive and that is the promise of God to send a Messiah, a Christ, a Saviour who will be the son of God and truly Emmanuel, God with us. God Himself with us. For Christians the meaning of the history of Israel is God’s preparation for His ultimate revelation of Himself to all the nations.
Here we have one of the true distinctives of Christianity. That though God is utterly transcendent and incomprehensible He desires to be known and makes Himself known not only through revealing a divine law and teaching something of His character through His dealings with His people in history but by becoming human Himself. For Christians the ultimate revelation of God is not to be found in divine law or esoteric teaching or exalted spiritual practice, the ultimate revelation is in a person. God wants us to know Him as intimately as we can know another person and becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ who is fully human and fully divine. The claim for the divinity of Christ is blasphemous for both Jews and Muslims. At the heart of Judaism is the Torah, the law, at the heart of Islam is not Mohammed but the Qua ran and at the heart of Buddhism is not the Buddha but his teachings and his mental and spiritual discipline. At the heart of Christianity is this man Jesus who we say is both truly human and truly divine.
It is also a distinctive of Christianity that is in line with the revelation to Israel that when Jesus comes He brings more than a teaching. He does teach and His teaching is very resonant with the Tao of religions about which C.S. Lewis talked. He radicalizes that teaching and especially the command to love and forgive teaching a love and forgiveness of enemies that is an essential of Christian identity. He taught us only one prayer which has the phrase “and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” In this prayer He also teaches us to call God, Abba, which means daddy. This teaching of the possibility of intimacy with God is shocking to both Jews and Muslims.
He also does things. He heals and He casts out demons and frees people from the power of evil and He does what for Jews only God can do, He forgives sins. He outrages the religious authorities by His claim that in Him the promises of God are coming true and as a result of this conflict He is handed over to the Roman authorities and crucified for the crimes of sedition and blasphemy. Three days later His disciples go to look for His body and find the tomb empty and then the Risen Lord appears to them at various times and places for forty days and teaches them that He has overcome sin and evil and death through the cross and that the Holy Spirit will come upon them to give them the life that He has won for them through His cross and Resurrection. This life consists of a new relationship with God and with each other. It begins now and the grave cannot hold it. Between now and the consummation of history when He will return to judge the living and the dead they are to go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them everything I have taught you and baptizing them in the name of the Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit.
The Christian Faith is that the cross is no accident but part of what Christ had come to do and the means by which He has become the saviour of the whole world. On the cross God heals the rift between God and humanity from His side. Christians talk about the cross as the sacrifice which brings the forgiveness of sins and God’s victory over evil and death.
This is an absolute distinctive of Christianity, the place of suffering. God saves the world and restores His plan for the creation by coming into the world and taking upon Himself the suffering of the world. This is a distinctive answer to suffering. Suffering cannot be avoided. Suffering will be finally overcome in the consummation of all things but in the meantime God Himself has identified Himself with our suffering and transforms it from the inside out. Christians say no cross, no crown. Jesus says if you would follow me you must pick up your cross. Suffering is not an illusion. It is real but God leads the way through suffering to the new life of the Resurrection.
The Resurrection of the body is a distinctive of Christianity. The material universe is not illusionary. It is not to be discarded, a throw away universe but to be transformed and transfigured as the body of Christ was. He is so to speak the leading edge of God’s work of repairing and renewing the fallen creation. He is the first fruits of the new creation. The Resurrection is often referred to by the church Fathers as the eighth day of creation.
An additional distinctive of Christianity is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Fifty days after the Resurrection on Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended on the gathered church. The Holy Spirit communicates the life of the Risen Christ to His people through the words of the Bible and through the sacraments, worship and life of prayer. The Holy Spirit creates a new community in which we live in Christ and He lives in us. In this community by the power of the Spirit we are able to forgive and be reconciled to each other and by the Spirit Christ works in us and through us His continuing work of healing, forgiving, reconciling, overcoming evil with good. The life of this community is to be a down payment and a witness to the perfection of all things in Christ which will come at the end of all time. History has a meaning. It is all going somewhere. Not by some inner working of forces within history but by God’s promise all things will be restored in Christ.
An additional distinctive of Christianity is that God is proclaimed as three in one, a divine Trinity. This is a very precise way of saying that God is love and is something which is known on the basis of Christian Faith and experience and is very opaque to outsiders and constantly misinterpreted as for example by both Jews and Muslims who think it a form of idolatry.
The Christian proclamation is that Jesus is the decisive revelation of God and the cross and resurrection of Jesus the means by which God intends to bring us into a saving relationship with God. To receive the gift of Himself which God wants to give us we must trust Christ, believe in Him, receive Him as who He says He is, the light and life of the world. Does this mean that all who do not profess Christ are lost and damned? Some Christians think so. I don’t believe that commitment to Christ commits us to the belief that all non Christians are doomed to hell. God is just and merciful and infinitely loving and whatever the justice of God will be in the case of any individual soul it will be all of these things. But that thought should not make us complacent in the face of the hunger of the world to know the true and living God and the suffering of a world that struggles to find an answer to sin and evil and the power to forgive.
In the meantime we must be tolerant of other religions. We must seek real understanding of what they teach. We must affirm the truth we find there and the goodness and holiness of their adherents and we must respectfully but confidently share the good news that what they so laboriously seek has been freely given to us and to the whole world in Jesus Christ our Lord. We must do so without any hint of coercion or manipulation. It is for this reason that Christians should not seek to have the state impose Christianity on anyone. We cannot witness to Christ by violating the logic of the cross. Then we must stand aside and let the Holy Spirit work. For that is one of those things that happen that changes a person’s sense of what is plausible.
©Leander Harding+ 2002