Impossible to serve both ancient faith and religious pluralism

Published December 1, 1999

THERE IS NO doubt, that in our modern and postmodern global village, we daily encounter people from various and varied faith traditions. There are two questions that, inevitably, cross the minds of the curious and thoughtful. Is one religion as good as another, and is this a new moment in the unfolding history of the human journey? If, in fact it is, should not each and every religion lay down their tendencies toward ultimate claims and join the pluralist parade?

Surely, this is a wise and prudent move, a turn that would end centuries of religious conflict, turmoil and war.

It is essential to note that Christianity emerged at a period of time strikingly similar to our own. The Roman empire was most generous, kind and tolerant to diverse religious traditions provided, of course, they had little or no interest in challenging the empire’s political dominance. Religious pluralism and syncretism were very much in vogue for the intellectual and political elite of the time.

Christianity entered this setting in two different ways. First, there were those who argued that Christ came to negate and destroy other religions, to exclude and replace other faith traditions; this is a grace negating nature theology.

Second, there were others who argued that Christ came to fulfill and enhance the noblest strivings and longings of other faith traditions; this is a grace crowning nature theology. The early Christians, then, had to make sense of who Christ was, is and ever shall be in a pluralist and syncretist setting.

There have been many ecumenical ages in the past and we are just the most recent; hence the notion that we are somehow unique in history has little weight to it.

The question of whether we should do evangelism in a multifaith society begs yet a deeper and more probing question. Evangelism means, at root and core, the good news, but, there are many who differ on what the good news is and what it means. Those who hold high the tapestry and rainbow coloured flag of pluralism (most of the major-minor religions are perspectives, positions, opinions) or those who urge us to accept the syncretist answer (most of the major-minor religions, on the mystical level, reach the same mountain peak or inner centre, core or sanctum) have notions of the good news and do proclaim such notions in the streets and public square.

The pluralist and syncretist approaches seem, initially and on the surface, to be more tolerant, more understanding, more generous when it comes to interfaith dialogue; they don’t seem to exclude.

Christianity, like many of the major and minor religions of the world, seems to exclude, divide and fragment; surely, we must move beyond such antiquated notions and ideas.

We need to ask ourselves a rather simple question, though: where does the good news of pluralism and syncretism become intolerant? What do such perspectives exclude and repress for the sake of seeming tolerance?

It is essential to note that both the pluralist and syncretist positions tend, at the outset, to remove the ultimate truth claims of each tradition. We are all finite, fallible and imperfect in our limited understanding, hence any claims that one tradition should be preferred to another is arrogant, is it not?

And yet, pluralism and syncretism, in their different ways, claim that their approach is the ultimate and best one, the preferred one. Although pluralism and syncretism begin by negating the truth claims of other religions, turning against the grand narratives and epic traditions of the past, they create their own worldviews that each and all must conform to.

Those who point out that the pluralist and syncretist models are exclusive, also, often find themselves challenging the liberal position in the life of the church and our broader liberal culture. The underlying issue, then, is not should we do evangelism in a multifaith society, but whose version of the good news will we speak in the public square?

There, of course, can be silly and oppressive notions of Christian evangelism that have been hitched to either English or North American culture; the knockers of such forms of evangelism regularly trot out their horror stories to prove their points. But, is there not a deeper, more transformative, more demanding understanding of Christian evangelism we need unravel?

The different models of evangelism, it must be admitted, are all exclusive at a certain point, hence the claim that Christianity is exclusive and intolerant and pluralism and syncretism are not does not stand up to any sort or rigorous or honest thought or reflection.

Our Anglican way is deeply grounded in the fuller Christian tradition, of course. Such a tradition affirms that in Christ and the church we are lifted up to a new level of being. In short, in and through Christ, we are welcomed to a great feast and banquet, an eternal round dance in which each and all are generously invited.

The Anglican tradition, at its best, has been open to the best insights of other faith communities, but, in Christ and in the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’, we believe, the fullness and radiance of God dwells, both now and in the future.

The Lambeth Conferences and the 1988 Anglican publication, Towards a Theology for Inter-Faith Dialogue, articulate, in the clearest manner, the strength and limitations of the various models of evangelism, and, by day’s end, an enlightened inclusivism, as it should, wins the day.

This means, then, that Anglicans, in a subtle and nuanced sense, do affirm that in Christ, the dance, banquet and wedding feast we are putting on is the best in town, and we are only too keen and eager to invite others. We, also, realize that others think, as they should, that their feast provides the finest food. It is neither honest nor helpful to suggest that each feast merely provides different but equally valid morsels and food.

Our ancient faith, from the beginning, encountered a culture that proclaimed the good news of pluralism and syncretism. Christianity, only too clearly, saw the inconsistencies of such a position. This meant that as minds and hearts were transformed in Christ, conformity to the creed and orthodoxy of pluralism could be held no longer.

Bob Dylan once said, ‘You gotta serve somebody’. There comes a point in our journey in which we either serve our ancient faith or religious pluralism; it is impossible to serve two masters. The sooner this fork in the road is seen and acted upon, the less baffled we will be by the cacaphony of voices that call and woo us down all sorts of diverging trails. Should we do evangelism in a multifaith society? I think the answer is obvious. Ron Dart teaches in the political science/philosophy dept. at University College of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford BC.


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