Monday, June 23, 2008

Waking Up to the Reality of Pluralism

A recent article in Time Magazine points out something that people of my generation have known for quite some time: the fact of greater diversity in American society has had a tremendous effect on people's theological views. 

According to a new survey from the Pew Research Forum, 70% of people (and even 57% of Evangelical Christians) agreed with the idea that "multiple religions can lead to eternal life". The basic reason for this, according to both the Pew Forum and nearly every single person I talk to about these issues, is that once you meet someone of a different religious tradition and begin to understand that they are basically a good, moral person and not that different from you, it becomes much harder to believe that they are headed to Hell simply because of a different confession of faith.

It's been interesting to watch reactions to this survey over the last few days. The nearly universal reaction in Evangelical circles is that the survey should make us take a very hard look at the status of evangelism in the church. And on this point I'll agree with them, but probably for very different reasons.

Most churches don't address the subject of other religions in a substantive way. Many of them that do tackle the subject do so to promote Christianity via negativa. That is, they try to prove that what they believe is true by attempting to show every flaw in the other system of belief. We see this in the political arena in pundits like Bill O'Riley, who would rather make their opponents look stupid than argue the merits of their own positions.

If the issue of religions pluralism is raised at all, it's usually for the purpose of evangelism. Once we've sufficiently (we think) debunked other "false" religious traditions, we go in for the kill and ask people to accept Christ by praying a quick prayer that magically ensures their eternal salvation, keeping them from burning in Hell with the infidels. In this mode of evangelism, Jesus is reduced to a "get out of Hell" free card in a cosmic game of Monopoly.

These approaches to other religions and evangelism work just fine when you live in a place where everyone is just like you and you rarely, if ever, need worry about actually interacting with that awful, scary "other". My dad grew up in a small town where this was the case. One of the biggest scandals when he was growing up was when one of his Baptist friends started dating a Catholic girl. He never met a Jewish person until he was in college, let alone a Muslim or a Hindu, so it was easy to see these "others" as godless heathens marching straight toward the lake of fire.

So maybe what the Pew Forum shows us is that building up your own religion by tearing down another is the act of a bully, just like kids on a playground. If there's no other reason to be a Christian than not going to Hell, then Christianity is a religion based more on the fear of God than the love of God. 

The Kingdom that Jesus preached about was one where no one need fear exclusion based on any criteria, confessional or otherwise. What if the evangelistic programs our churches engaged in were based less on "I'm in, you're out" fear mongering and more on the radical good news that says, "congratulations, you're in. Now live like it!"?

Just a thought...


preacherman said...

Wonderful thoughts.
You really made me think.
I love that about your blog.
I have added it my favorites and will be visiting regularly.
God bless you and your ministry.
I hope you have a great weekend.

Anonymous said...

Nicely written.
I wish more thought like you and hope that you can influence change.
I love the point about people arguing to show the other person as stupid instead of show their own points. I love the point about how hard it is to think of people you've known as going to hell. I love the you make about christianity in general in the last two paragraphs.

Anonymous said...

You blog reminds me of why i became a christian and what I liked about it.
While I can't say I fit in that category anymore it is reassuring to know that this type of christian exists.