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Many Voices, One God: Remodeling Christianity for a Pluralistic World

By Published On: March 23, 20060 Comments

First of all, I would like to begin by thanking Jim and the organizers of this forum for the very kind invitation that you have extended to me to participate in this sixth annual forum. I have been extremely interested in this particular moment of progressive Christianity because, even though I have been for some twenty years now in interfaith work, much of my concentration had been on how to prepare the Christian community for a religiously plural world, because the interfaith movement itself has the danger of becoming a denomination or a religion of its own. But the future of our religious life depends on how each of our religious traditions is able to re-understand itself, to restate itself, and out of it build up a praxis that is relevant for the pluralistic world in which we live. Therefore, a Christian re-understanding of itself, and remodeling itself for the religiously plural world is perhaps the most important thing that can happen within the Christian faith.

In the four years that I have been back in the US and teaching, I find one of the hopeful signs of Christianity is being able to be a relevant and meaningful religion. One of the hopeful signs is TCPC. I am not saying this to say how wonderful you people are. Those of us who are following the development of religious tradition see that the capacity of a religious tradition to reorient itself to the world in which we have come to live is one the important signs of the possibility of survival.

I want to begin with an apocryphal story in response to, “Many Voices, One God?”. It’s not a true story but a story that says something very profound about the nature of belief in our society. Some of you may have already heard this. The story is told of Yuri Gagarin, the first Russian Cosmonaut and the first person to have gone into orbit and in outer space. When he came back to the earth, there was a reception for him in the Kremlin. During the course of the reception, Nikita Khrushchev, then the general secretary of the Communist Party and the head of state, slowly led him in the study and said, “Comrade Yuri, you are the first man to have gone into space. I want to ask you a question, and I want an honest answer from you. Out there in space, was there a heaven? Were there gates of pearl? Streets paved with gold? Angels? God? Did you see anything like that?” Yuri became very grave in his face and said, “Comrade, I cannot tell you the lie. Unfortunately, there is a heaven. I saw the gates of pearl and the angels there.” Khrushchev said, “Well comrade, this is what I always feared. But you know that you cannot say this to anybody else, because the Communist Party depends on NOT having heaven up there.” Then he was taken on a world tour to further propagate this great achievement of the Russian State. He also came to the Vatican, and he was given a reception in the Vatican and a private audience with the Pope. The Pope also took him aside and asked, “Brother Yuri, you are the first one to have gone into outer space. Now tell me, did you see a heaven and God and angels and Peter standing at the gates of pearl?” Yuri was reminded of the warning given by Khrushchev, so he said, “Holy Father, I am so sorry to tell you but there is no such thing up there.” And the Pope said, “This is what I always feared. But you know you cannot talk about this outside.”

Why do I tell this story? I think that the theme of our forum this time, “Many Voices, One God?”, does not need defense. It doesn’t have to be obvious or advocated or proved because out there in the world today there are millions of people who believe that this is the truth. In our own churches there are people who believe that this is the truth but who believe that it is wrong to believe that this is the truth. We are not being given the handles to believe that this is the case. So we are not in a position of having to argue that there are many voices but one God, but those of us who are interested have to show why it is okay to believe that there are many voices but one God. Out there, Christians believe that it is wrong to think this way, that it will compromise the Christian faith, that in so doing we would undermine the truth and the vitality and witness of our Christian faith.

Therefore, we are in a situation, with apologies to St. Paul, to be able to say, “It is not the faith that we want to have that we have, but a faith that we do not want is what we have. If we won’t believe in the right way, the Misleading One is at hand. Wretched persons we are, who will deliver us from this dilemma?” Everywhere I have gone – and I have gone to thirty-five countries – in congregations where we talk about interfaith dialog, at the end of the meeting many young people come to me and say, “We believe what you are saying, but we thought it was wrong to believe this way.”

Therefore, assuming that most of us are from a Christian background, I want to talk about whether this principle that we have in our theme, “Many Voices, One God?”, is biblical. Because 90% of our Christians are what I call “Bible Christians”, if something is true, it should be biblical. It should be something that is coming out of the biblical faith. Is it true that there are “many voices but one God”? Or put it the other way, is it true that there is one God and there are many ways of talking about God? Is this true? Is this something the Bible can accept? Of course, we are familiar with the selective reading of the Bible – in fact, the selective reading of certain verses of the Bible – that have wrought in our Christian communities a very exclusive attitude to our own faith and an antagonistic attitude toward other religious traditions. We all know the, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the Father except through me.” There is no other way by which you should be saved. “There is only one mediator between God and Man.” “Go out into all the world and preach the gospel to all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

There isn’t a single interfaith lecture I have given in which somebody has not got up and said, “but Jesus said I am the way, the truth, and the life.” But, if we read the Bible carefully, both the Old Testament (the Hebrew scriptures that we have accepted as our Old Testament) and the gospel message itself, this is not the truth that we find. The Bible begins with the creation of the whole humankind, not of any one group of people. The very first covenant that was made with Noah is a covenant with the whole of creation, all people and all creation. When Abraham was called, he was called so that he might be a blessing to the nations. The Hebrews believed that even though God called them to be a covenant people, God continued to be the God of the nations. God does not abrogate the nations. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” That is the undergirding faith of the Jewish tradition.

You may notice that at certain periods of history there has been active proselytism on the part of Judaism, but by and large, the Jewish tradition was never anxious to make the whole world become Jews. There has not been a world mission from Judaism because their own understanding has been that God has called the people to live out God’s righteousness among the nations and to be a light to the nations, to bear witness to this God who brings people out of slavery, who demands justice, and who is the one in whom all nations will be finally gathered. Every eschatological vision of the Bible, whether it is in the Old Testament or in the New Testament, is universal. Take God’s vision of shalom, in which not only peoples, but the whole of creation, are in a reconciled situation. Or in Micah, the nations beat their swords into plowshares. There is a whole idea about final harmony, that shalom is something in which all the nations participate. Or see the book of Revelation in which there is a new Jerusalem coming down. The gates of the city are open in all directions, twelve gates, and the nations of the earth bring their treasures, and they bring their glory. Therefore, a vision of Christianity or the Christian faith that primarily has to do with one group of people, a nation, is something that is non?biblical.

To understand God as interested in only one group of people borders on blasphemy because by definition God is a God of the nations, of all people. By definition, God provides for all people. Jesus’ own teaching in this matter about God is so obvious that I do not know how we can get an exclusive understanding about God and the people from the Bible. God is the one who “causes it to rain on the good and the bad, and causes the sun to rise on the just and the unjust.” God does not show partiality among people. And if you go on further with Jesus, the main cluster of the gospel messages is a nonexclusive and all?embracing love that comes from Jesus. “Be ye perfect as only your Father in heaven is perfect . . . ” is a verse that introduces the non?partial approach that God has to all people, whether they are just or unjust. And you remember when Jesus was alienated by the fact that the Temple had become a commercialized institution, he quoted from Isaiah saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” He said so many times, almost every time he had an encounter with a non?Jewish person, “Many shall come from the East and the West and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Now I do not want to quote Bible verses against other Bible verses to prove my point over against other points. What I do want to show is a holistic understanding of the Christian message, the meaning of the gospel, and how Jesus’ own approach and attitude cannot bring about a narrow Christian faith. It cannot be exclusive toward other people or other faiths. It cannot say that we are right and others are wrong. Therefore, I have ceased to be apologetic or defensive about the broad Christian faith. I think that those who want to be narrow have to become defensive because the gospel is on the side of an all-embracing love. That is a very important approach that we need to take.

In 1988, it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Third World Mission Conference that was held in Tambaram in 1938. Some of you who have followed the mission history would know that the first major world mission conference was in 1910, in Edinburgh, where John R. Mott, a very famous Methodist layman from this country led the mission societies to come together in order to strategize, in order to evangelize the world in that generation. But by 1938 there had been liberal religion, and there had been many experiences of missionaries in Asia that began to challenge the understanding our relationships with people of other faiths. And at that particular time, in the World War situation, Karl Barth had produced a theology that was very exclusive in regard to other people of other faiths. You remember Barth’s teaching was that the gospel creates a crisis in the life of all people and that the gospel is in a challenging situation with all religious traditions. Therefore, all religions, including the Christian religion according to Barth, protest against God. It’s part of the rebellion. The gospel is the one that really challenges people to leave their faith and to respond to the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

Hendrik Kraemer, who interpreted Karl Barth for the 1938 meeting in Tambaram, argued out very strongly for the importance of converting the whole world to the Christian faith, or to bring the gospel to all other religious traditions. Now, in 1988, I organized a meeting back again in Tambaram near Madras to mark the 50th anniversary of the World Mission Conference of 1938, and I brought to that meeting two figures who are prominent in two ends of this whole debate: on the one hand, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, and on the other, Wilfred Cantwell Smith. We had an explosion, because that mixture was something that is very interesting. On the one hand, Wilfred Cantwell Smith has argued that it is no longer possible for us to talk about religious traditions as mutually exclusive. We have to see each religious tradition as a strand within human religious history. And he said that there is no such thing as Christian faith and Muslim faith and Jewish faith. There is only faith. Anybody who has dependence on God, anybody who has a relationship with God, is in a relationship of faith.

Religions are cumulative traditions, and theology is human. It is “we” reflecting about our faith. As far as faith is concerned, there is no such thing as Muslim faith and Hindu faith and Christian faith, even as there is no Muslim love and Christian love and Hindu love. When we love somebody, we love somebody. When we have faith in God, we have faith in God. We speak about this in many ways, and therefore theology is a necessity, but it is human-made. Much more important, he insisted that Karl Barth’s problem was that he had never met a person of another faith tradition with exception perhaps of some Jews, but not Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims. Therefore, without ever having had any experience of these people and their religious tradition, having never read any of the glorious literature of faith and practice that has come out of these religious traditions, out of a priori reasoning, he comes to the conclusion that all religion is unbelievable and that all religions need to have the challenge of the gospel.

Hendrik Kraemer – who had lived in Indonesia and had been a missionary among Muslims, and who had been in Egypt and had worn the crest, and was known as Sheik Kraemer – even though he was an Indonesian missionary, he felt that he was put into a situation where he had to draw up a mission theology that was exclusive of other religious traditions. And this is what Smith had to say about Kraemer, “It was not only the majority of those attending the first Tambaram Conference that Kraemer failed to convince of his thesis. He failed to convince himself. He spent the rest of his life writing further books, each of which was an effort and an attempt to say, no, he had not quite meant what he had said the last time. Yet he died a poor man without ever managing to satisfy himself that he had formulated the vision adequately.”

What I want to say is that the Barth-Kraemer theology of mission is a mission theology that entirely occupies the protestant churches today. It is a theology that is based on the truth of our religious tradition and the falsity of other religious traditions. It is a theology that believes that all other religions are in error, that they have no experience of God, and that we have the one final relevant and true experience of God, which must be brought to people of other faith traditions. What Wilfred argues, is that these are people who are doing theology, not having met and not having experienced the depth of the religious life that we find in a Hindu or in a Buddhist or in a Muslim. He used an interesting example.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith went to Karachi in Pakistan. He was sent by the United Church of Canada as a missionary to Pakistan, and he went as an enthusiastic young person to engage in missions in Pakistan. It so happened that he met there with Muslims who were very devout and God=fearing, who prayed five times a day, who fasted for a month, and who had an enormous sense of the presence of God. So he wrote back to the mission house and said, I came here in order to convert people to God, but I find here people who are already in fellowship with God. So the mission house thought that he had lost his missionary vocation and that he had lost his faith. And he wondered, if I came to Pakistan and I found that people were already in communion with God, and if I informed the mission house of that, I would expect a response, “Hallelujah! People are already in a good relationship with God!” Why are they upset that people are in a relationship with God? Why are they upset that they are already praying, already fasting, and already leading a spiritual life?

What is it about the Christian faith that we can’t handle the reality that other people have a life with God and that God has a life with other people? Why is it that other people should be wrong in order for us to be right? Why is it that we cannot present the understanding of God that we have in Jesus Christ in the context of a people who are already in a relationship with God? Why can’t we simply present the dimensions of God that have been opened for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ? Or why can’t we talk about Jesus becoming a window into God, as John A. T. Robinson puts it in his, Honest to God, a new thing about how God deals with humankind? Why can’t we present that to people who already have a relationship with God?

John Wesley said many things with which I, as a Methodist, don’t agree, but one of the glorious things that he said about missions was the idea of the prevenient grace, that nobody is without Grace. God’s Grace is already there. We’ve talked about the preaching of the Christian gospel as heaping grace upon grace. We are in missions not because people do not know God but because they know God. We are in a process of talking about what God means to us, not because other people don’t have knowledge of God, but because they have other dimensions, perhaps from which we can learn.

Therefore, interfaith relations become a pilgrimage in which we compare notes. We want to know what God has been doing in the lives of people within other faiths even as we share what God has been doing in our religious tradition. Therefore, Christian witness is not trying to convince other people that our way is the only way, but to open our lives to others so that they may see those things that have called us to our ultimate concern and so that we might see the reasons why other people have ultimate concerns also.

Therefore, interfaith dialog is not basically two people in conversation. Very often when the word dialog is used, we think dialog means two parties talking to one another, but actually, etymologically, the word dialog has the same background as the word diagram, or diabolic. A diagram is a picture, a perfect picture. Diabolic is a perfect evil. And dialog is a perfect conversation, an interrogatory conversation, a truth-searching conversation, a conversation in which we are talking not on the surface but at depth in order to understand the nature of truth. What happens in a dialog is that we are creating a community of heart and mind, a community of conversation which is commonly opening itself to be led into a greater understanding of who God is and what God demands of us. In this process we share with one another. It is in this process of sharing with one another that each of our religious traditions begins to expand, and we begin to see new dimensions of life.

I want to illustrate this by telling you a story, which I have recounted in one of my books, I think Not Without My Neighbor. It is a very telling story about what happens in interfaith dialog. I was a Methodist minister in charge of a church in Colombo. Since the Hindus knew that I had been in modern dialog, I had good Hindu friends. In those days, Methodist ministers didn’t go into Hindu temples. That was a big scandal. So one day my Hindu friend and I were walking down the street in Bambalapitiya. There is a very fine Hindu temple there. He asked me, “Wesley would you mind waiting? I want to go into the temple and pray.” So I was standing outside the temple looking at the magazines at the tobacconist’s, and he went into the temple and came back in five minutes. I said, “You finished worship?” He said, “Yes, I finished worship.” So we went on, and I didn’t think too much about it at that time. But after some time, I had to write an essay on Hindu worship. I decided to go into a Hindu temple and to observe and to study a little bit more about Hindu worship before I wrote this essay. I decided with a Hindu friend of mine to go into a Hindu temple.

Hindu temples are of many kinds. You can have a worship place in Hinduism just at the bottom of a tree, or you can have a very simple structure. You can also have very elaborate Hindu temples. A good Hindu temple is an enormously interesting experience. As you enter the temple, your eyes are filled with Hindu architecture, paintings – the lambs in front of the goddesses beautifully dressed, the flowers. And in the Hindu temple you also hear. There is the chanting of the mantras. There is the beating of the drums, the ringing of the bells. Also, your sense of smell is catered to. The camphor is being burned. Incenses are being burned. You have a wonderful aroma in the Hindu temple that you don’t get anywhere else. Soon after you go in, the Priest will give you the Prasad, the sacrament, with fruits, milk and water. You receive the sacrament, taste it, and throw it away, and then you fall prostrate on the ground. Then you stand up and say, “all in the name of (the God of that temple),” and then you leave.

I realized that Hindus, over four thousand years of experimentation, have said that if worship is raised to the awareness of standing in the presence of the Holy, then you must cater to all the senses at once – the sense of seeing, the sense of hearing, the sense of touch, the sense of taste, everything together – so suddenly you are raised to the awareness of standing in the presence of God. You call upon the name of the god, and you leave. Now I discussed this with my Hindu friend, and I said, “You know you have a very fascinating concept of worship.” And he said, “Wesley, why don’t I come to your church and give you feedback?”

I got very scared because, as you know, in the Methodist church there is nothing to smell, nothing to see, and nothing to taste. We only have sacraments once a month, and we cater to only one sense — hearing – prayers and readings and singing and sermons. For such rich worship that Hindus have, what is he going to make of Methodist worship? But I said, “No, you are coming next Sunday. I am preaching at Moor Road Methodist Church at 6:00 p.m., and you are going to come.” So next Sunday I decided not to make any accommodations, but we would have the normal Methodist service, what they call the “hymn sandwich” service: hymn-prayers-hymn-bible-hymn-sermon-hymn. I saw him sit in the back seat. I was a little worried, but we went through the normal service. I am a very eloquent preacher in Tamil, and that’s what I did.

After the service I was shaking hands with the members of my congregation. He was standing and talking to somebody. I came to him, and he said, “Wesley, this was a fascinating experience for me.” It was shocking to me so I said, “Let’s get together tomorrow and we’ll talk about this.” Next day we met, and I said, “What did you find so fascinating about the Methodist worship? I was so afraid about it.” And he said, “Wesley, you have been to the temple. You know, in the temple we go when we like, go in and out as we please, and the people come and go. But I was so struck when I entered the church that 300 people were seated there quietly with one intent. And in the temple we are never taught anything. There is a separation between worship and teaching in Hinduism. In the temple during the worship nothing is taught. We are never taught anything in the temple. We go, and the priest does some rituals, and then we receive the sacrament and come back. Here you are reading the scriptures, explaining the scriptures, and applying it to what the people should be doing.” He was very impressed with the prayer of intercession, impressed that we were mentioning people who were ill, mentioning situations in the world and what was happening in the country, and we were praying about it. He said, “We don’t do it in Hinduism. We just go and pray and come away.”

Suddenly the meaning of interfaith dialog began to strike me. Here I am as a Methodist going into the Hindu temple and discovering how protestant Christianity has thrown out so much of what is meaningful in worship by becoming such a one-sense oriented religious tradition. We have nothing to smell, nothing to see, nothing to taste as part of worship. While the Hindus are able to worship in one or five minutes, we have to worship for one hour. Why are we using only one sense in the Methodist church? We have shut out everything else. Dimensions of worship have been lost. And here is a Hindu coming into a Christian church and finding dimensions of worship that would enrich his own religious tradition.

Dialog is mutual enrichment, mutual correction. It leads to mutual self?criticism. In dialog we begin to rediscover what would make our faith become more meaningful for ourselves. I do not understand why we should be afraid of being in a situation in which we can learn, can correct ourselves, and can grow into something much more profound.

Aloysius Pieris, one of the Sri Lankan Jesuit theologians who are very profound scholars in Buddhism, has made some very interesting observations about what they call the Semitic religions, the religions that came out of the middle east – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – compared with the Asian religious traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. He says that these two religious traditions are two poles of reality, two idioms of reality, two responses to reality. One he calls agapeic response; the other he calls gnostic response. What he means is that in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam there is an enormous emphasis on God as personal and on the question of love. God loves us, and we need to love God. Our relationship is one in which we love one another, as neighbors and as people.

In the Asian religious traditions, the emphasis is on harmony, on having the right knowledge, on being enlightened, or on being brought into a greater awareness that we are part of one reality. He says it is very unfortunate that these two poles of reality – two responses to reality, two idioms of speaking about reality – have seen each other as opposite to one another. They have to learn from one another. In fact, the truth depends on the two of them trying to influence one another. Therefore, he says that Christianity becomes truly Asian only when our agapeic faith has a baptism by immersion in Asian spirituality. It is only in our capacity to respond to the reality of another idiom, which is also part of reality, that we experience the wholeness of our faith. For those of us who are coming from one world tradition, one truth tradition, there is much to learn from the plurality that the Asian traditions respect.

There is much that we need to learn about the whole emphasis on unity, on oneness. How do you arrive at oneness by rejecting what does not belong? That’s how we Christians have tried to achieve unity: arriving at truth by refutation. That’s why we have so many heretics in our history. We want to say so many things are wrong in order to establish what we think is right. We cannot handle plurality. Plurality is a very big problem for the monotheistic religions

You go to Asia. Unity is not the issue. Harmony is the issue because many?ness is taken as the basis of reality. Reality is many, and therefore, you have to have harmony. The means we use to hold these things together can lead to oppressive ways in society, whether it’s a caste system or the strict hierarchy of the Confucian tradition. They need the influence of the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition of justice, of equality. They need Christianity and Judaism and Islam in order for them to recover and to discover some of the traditions they’ve been missing.

We need the influence of the Asian religious traditions to move away from an exclusivistic tradition in which we cannot handle plurality. It is in the mutual influencing of these core religious traditions that we can have a balance between word and silence, between engagement in the world and withdrawal from the world, between the control of nature and harmony with nature, between the emphasis on love and the emphasis on wisdom. These two traditions are two poles, and they need each other in order for us to understand reality.

One of the problems that we have had in interfaith dialog is that when are we talking this way, many people are beginning to suspect that we think that all religions are okay. Why are we Christian? Why are we Jewish? Why are we Muslim? We can be the kind of people who accept all religions, declaring that all religions are the same. But one of the things that has become very clear in interfaith dialog is that all religions are NOT the same. All responses to reality are NOT the same. Not all religious traditions, and not all the traditions within each religion, draw the same consequences for what our relationship to reality means to our daily life and to our life in society. There are unacceptable dimensions of religion. Religions can be oppressive. Religions can be demonic. The on

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