Talking with the Other

The interaction between various religions and trying to conceive of those interactions in a coherent, systematic way both seem to be muddied, arduous endeavors these days. A broad spectrum of perspectives with regard to other religions, or perhaps better stated, religions of the Other, exists making it supremely burdensome to pin down a fruitful way to approach this issue. In an increasingly polarized religious climate—one that is split between extreme pluralism and exclusivism—we need to understand the issues with these views and look to the possibilities for an alternative.

Exclusivism and pluralism are not inherently negative. To assume so and accept and alternative automatically would be to fall into the trap of the two polar extremes of those options before one had even set out on the project of approaching other religions. We need to understand the problems and challenges associated with each. Understood simply, exclusivism is the view that no other religious truth claims but those of one’s own religion are true. Understood extremely, other religious truth claims are not only false but dangerously subversive or even blatantly evil. In other words, there is Truth, and the exclusivist claims to possess it indubitably.

The theologian Karl Barth held to a perhaps less extreme version of exclusivism. He firmly believed that Jesus Christ is the only salvific path and would not consider the salvation claims of other religions to be viable. Stated another way, Barth did not believe that the special revelation of the gift of salvation could be realized through any figure except Jesus Christ. However, Barth also believed that general revelation could be received from other religions in the form of general knowledge about God, meaning he was an exclusivist open to the possibility of finding transformative power in religious experiences other than his own.

The issue, however, is that extreme exclusivism is very real and very prevalent particularly among fundamentalist Christians. An extreme exclusivist would hold not only that there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ but that to acknowledge value of any kind in any other religion is tantamount to heresy and puts one in danger of being sent straight to hell. This poses a problem for both the believer who wants to understand where someone from another religion is coming from. It automatically shuts the door. Furthermore, it exacerbates the difficulty of inter-faith dialogue, because extreme exclusivists are not willing to educate themselves about differing perspectives, and therefore are especially prone to erroneous assumptions regarding other religious beliefs (that Islam explicitly teaches terrorism, for example), which continue the cycle of extreme exclusivism.

Consider this example taken from Richard Mouw: A man is extremely abusive to his wife and children. He’s an alcoholic, and his life is quickly spiraling out of control. One day, he is converted to Isalm and suddenly begins to turn his life around. He is no longer abusive and begins a healing and reconciliation process with his wife and children. At first, everyone is skeptical: friends, family, and especially his wife. However, after three years of practicing Islam and through other means, his life is back in order, and his family is happy. He attributes this important life change to the tenants of Islam. As a Christian, how are we to understand this? Does God delight in this situation or not?

I’m going to let those questions hang for a minute and come back to them later.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, pluralism, to some, seems like the only solution to the exclusivism I’ve described above. If we simply accept everyone’s religious claims, then we will never encounter the violence, both physical and otherwise, that seems to naturally come along with extreme exclusivism. However, it’s not quite that simple. John Hick is perhaps the best example of a pluralistic theologian. Hick’s claim is typical of pluralism—the only way to quell violence is to accept all religious claims as true. And any one who does not is arrogant. The problem, however, is with that last statement. How can one claim to be defeating arrogance and bigotry while being arrogant? Hick’s approach to pluralism is self-referentially defeating. He is essentially saying: “Subscribe to pluralism (and my conception of it) or else not only are you wrong, but you’re arrogant as well.” One cannot argue for people to accept all religious beliefs while simultaneously denouncing particular exclusivist beliefs. This points to the fact that although pluralism attempts to accept all religious worldviews, it is itself singular worldview that requires justification.

Hick’s brand of pluralism, however, is not the only one. There are some pluralists, followers of Ba’hai, for example, who claim to genuinely believe that all religious claims contain truth, including claims of exclusivism or any other claims that would contradict their pluralism. Furthermore, Ba’hai do not believe in proselytization, meaning they will not engage in more than superficial discussion about their beliefs or another person’s because they do not want to be drawn into a position where they would be asked to defend their position. Although well intentioned, this form of pluralism seems intellectually dishonest in two senses. First, it cannot go very far in establishing a firm, systematic set of beliefs since it accepts contradictory beliefs as being equally True—not just true for a particular community, but universally True. Second, it avoids having to face this challenge by claiming one of its core tenants is to not defend itself publicly to those who are not believers. That is, even though what I’m offering is a distinct criticism of this belief system, they accept it whole-heartedly.

There is a major erroneous assumption being made by the types of pluralism that I have described: Human beings cannot disagree without resorting to violence. The primary question challenging pluralism is why we must accept all religious perspectives in order to avoid arrogance and violence. I will concede immediately that religious disagreements can and do incite violence (I wrote a post about that here: Violence) but that does not mean it isn’t possible to have a differing opinion without violence. People differ on politics, economics, even things as trivial as sports or interior design. All of those differences can potentially lead to violent reactions and certainly have, yet people still find a way to engage in conversation about these things without violence, while maintaining a rigorous position that doesn’t merely accept all differing positions as also true.

I maintain that the alternative is an inclusivistic position, one in which a believer can robustly defend his or her position but is still open to understanding differing religious views and will even accept that God can still work in places other than within the Christian religion. After all, we believe he created everything. Consider Isaiah 41-42. In these chapters, the prophet describes a “cosmic trial” in which the idols of man are put to the test and proven to be false. God then calls forward his servant who will deliver God’s judgment (and justice) to the world. While I validate the New Testament understanding of Jesus fulfilling the role of the servant (especially if we are reading Isaiah 42:1-9 as a type description of servants of God in general), there are important historical understandings at stake here. In 550 BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered the Medes, an ancient Iranian people and neighbor to Babylon. The Babylonians claimed that they had prophecies proving that Marduk had ordered Cyrus to do this. Isaiah 41-42 are a response to that. The idols on trial are the Babylonian gods, and Cyrus is God’s servant. The point the prophet is trying to make is only YHWH can orchestrate history, and he does so through whomever he chooses. Thus Cyrus, a Persian, not one of the chosen people, becomes chosen even cherished by God. In other words, God works through events outside of Israel and uses people who do not know Him.

Let’s return to our scenario above. If we take an extreme exclusivist position, we may argue that because the man’s life was rescued through Islam, that God does not delight in this situation or may even be angry because the man chose the wrong path. If we take a pluralistic position, we would be inclined to say that not only does God delight in what has happened because the man is no longer abusing his wife and children or himself through alcohol, but he is now saved because he has found one of the paths to salvation. An inclusive take, however, would be to say that God is certainly pleased that a woman and her children are no longer in danger of abuse, but that the man is not saved because Jesus is the only path to salvation. We say that the man experienced a general revelation, that there was something more, something better to be had, and that although his striving for that resulted in good changes in his life, he still needs Jesus.

Much of this stems from an argument that I’ve made often here: We cannot know things absolutely. We can believe sincerely, but that does not require that we know the Truth of what we believe in an absolute, foundational sense. This induces a heart change as much as it does a mind change. We have no reason to be dogmatic about what we believe. If we are firm in our faith—if we feel deep conviction—then that should be enough to not feel threatened by other religious worldviews. And if we want to begin to heal relationships between much of God’s creation that have been broken for centuries, we need to have dialogue. More importantly, we need to listen to each other.

by Joel Harrison


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