Embracing Religious Contradictions to Proclaim Christ Crucified: Tolerance and Coexistence
March 24, 2014
Diversity. Respect. Tolerance. Coexistence. These are buzz-words for the twenty-first century. I remember the first time I saw a Coexist bumper sticker, around 2004 in Irvine, California. Coexist was spelled using symbols from various belief systems: a crescent moon for the C, a peace symbol for the o, male/female symbols were integrated into the e, the Star of David for the x, a Wiccan pentagram for the dot of the i, a yin-yang symbol for the s, and a cross for the t. I was mystified. I thought it was ingenious. I had never seen so many religions standing side by side to form a single word.
But what really floored me was the message itself. When these bumper stickers first hit the scene, America was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We had an openly Christian president who commonly used religious rhetoric when discussing the war on terrorism, and it couldn't be ignored that the men who hijacked the planes on September 11 were Muslims. Some saw the necessity to clarify that the hijackers were radical Muslims, but even the addition of that distinction didn't take away from the fact that America was attacked by Muslims on domestic soil or that American soldiers were fighting against Al-Qaida, a Muslim terrorist organization.
In such a context, coexist, spelled with religious symbols, had a significant message that religious disagreements have unnecessarily caused much animosity and violence. As humans, we ought to agree with the coexist sticker's call for peace. After all, are we not better than the animals? As humans, we have the ability to strive to live together in peace without hating each other or killing each other over differences in race, culture, sexual orientation, politics, or religion.
Trailing the coexist adhesive in popularity is the tolerance bumper sticker. Tolerance is at the heart of successful coexistence. By definition, the word implies that there are differences within the world's religions, and that the tensions caused by these differences must be resolved through practicing tolerance.
This should not be misconstrued as agreement, as some might interpret it. Tolerance is not agreement but a state of allowance. We must first recognize that individuals have the freedom of religious choice and expression. From there, the necessity to tolerate conflicting religious beliefs must exist if the preservation of human liberties is to continue. If we cannot muster the will to tolerate opposing beliefs, we resort to weeding out any belief other than our own. In the process, we kill all freedom of religious expression.
The coexistence and tolerance movements must be applauded for their calls for peace, but numerous people derive another message from these stickers. I have spent three years talking with students about their views on these two stickers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) in the campus's freedom of speech zone. I have learned that many students think these stickers also imply that all religions are the same at their core, or that all religions lead to God. I have also learned that many students agree with this view and care enough to spend hours debating this position with me, even though I am a complete stranger to them. I have to admit to them that the idea that all religions are the same is a good sentiment. If it's true, there is no reason why we can't all get along.
If all religions led to the same positive outcome, we'd be able to move beyond simply tolerating religious differences to an arms-wide, open embrace of all faiths. Such an open acceptance can only be possible for someone who hasn't taken the time to study the world's religions. The shortest of studies of the sacred texts of just a few different religions would reveal contradictions in their fundamental teachings. If two beliefs directly contradict each other, both of them cannot be true, no matter how "tolerant" we become. This means it is false to say that every religion is true, or that every religion leads to God. Logically they could all be false, but they cannot all be true.
Religious Pluralism Thrives in Ignorance
If one knows the basic history, teachings, and practices of a handful of religions, it would be inconceivable for that person to think that all religions are basically the same, or equally valid and true. The problem is that many people do not know what other religions believe, teach, and confess. Furthermore, even many Christians are Biblically illiterate. The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a survey in 2010 to ascertain how much religious knowledge Americans possess. A random sample of 3,412 adults were contacted via phone and asked thirty-two religious questions. The average score was 50 percent, or an F! The highest-scoring group was the atheists and agnostics; they got 65 percent, or a D. Mormons outscored Christians on questions about the Bible and Christianity.
Among all respondents, 54 percent knew that the Qur'an is the holy book of Islam. Fifty-one percent knew that Joseph Smith was Mormon. Forty-seven percent know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Forty-six percent knew Martin Luther's role in Christian history. Only 38 percent knew that Vishnu and Shiva are connected with Hinduism. At least America passed with B-level scores on the questions regarding that Mother Teresa was Roman Catholic and that atheists don't believe there is a God.
As long as ignorance is bliss and subjectivity reigns, religious pluralism will continue to exist and even thrive. This isn't just a problem relegated to those outside the church. Beliefs contrary to God's Word are being embraced and practiced even amongst professing Christians. Another poll by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life released in 2009 reveals that American Christians mix New Age practices with their Christianity. Twenty-nine percent say they have been in touch with the dead, 23 percent believe there are spiritual energies in trees, 23 percent believe in reincarnation, and 14 percent have consulted a psychic.
Study and Teach Other Religions while Proclaiming Christ Crucified
There are three actions the church can take to counter society's current state of religious pluralism and religious ignorance. First, individual Christians must make it a priority to dialog with religious adherents to grow in knowledge of what the spiritual influences are that oppose the message of Christ. Second, pastors and teachers must find suitable times to instruct their congregations and classes on the differences, as well as the similarities, between other religions and Christianity. Finally, all believers must hold unswervingly to the Reformation theology that salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, by Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone.
For the individual Christian to commence engaging in conversation with those who adhere to other religious beliefs and practices, the apostle Paul sets an example for us to follow. While Paul was waiting for his traveling companions to meet him in Athens, he passed time in the marketplaces. What he saw there greatly distressed him (Acts 17:16). The Athenians were very religious and had many objects of worship, and to ensure that they didn't offend any god by lack of knowledge, they erected an altar to "an unknown god" (Acts 17:23). Paul's attentiveness and initiative to take note of the sacred practices around him led him to be a great missionary. When given the chance to speak with the men of Athens concerning Jesus, he was able to connect their current religious zeal and understanding of the divine to the true nature of God and the resurrection of Christ. Paul even quoted their own poets in the process (Acts 17:22-31). Many sneered at the gospel message, but a few believed. Paul's public address might have never happened if he hadn't taken the time to first learn what the Athenians believed themselves.
To follow in Paul's footsteps, the pattern is simple: observe the religious practices and beliefs in our local marketplaces, gain knowledge of your audience's worldview, reason with those who are willing to dialog, and share Christ through addressing your audience's questions and concerns. We should start in our neighborhoods, schools, and places of work. If you find that your neighbor is a Mormon, read Mormon books that open the door for you to ask clarifying questions. At the same time, read books on Mormonism written by Christians that provide Scriptural critiques of Mormon teachings and practices. If your co-worker is a Muslim, acknowledge his religious practices and seek ways to connect his belief system to the Gospel, just as Paul connected the Athenians worship of an unknown God to Christ. Watch movies, television shows, and magazine racks to know what the culture is emanating concerning the nature and will of God. These are the poets of our day. Quoting such sources, just as Paul did, might aid in connecting your audience's present worldview to the truth of Christ. Even if there are no clear connection points to sharing the Gospel, simply taking the time to learn the beliefs and practices of others shows that you are not coming from a position of ignorance and arrogance, but instead one of informed judgment.
This process of growing in the knowledge of other religions and using that information to share Christ with followers of those faiths does not directly address religious pluralism. It is however a first step. Christians must first know what other religions teach to be able to show how they contradict each other. Pastors and teachers can aid their parishioners and students by setting aside time to teach what other religions believe in comparison to what God has revealed to us through the Bible. Similarities will arise and these can be used as connecting points to present the Gospel of Christ. Stark differences will emerge. Knowing these distinctions will protect Christ's followers from falling into the deception that all religions lead to God or that they are so similar it doesn't matter what one believes.
Once a church body has grown in its knowledge of other religions, pastors and teachers can equip their flock and students with simple tools and phrases that can be adjusted to address a specific religion in comparison to Christianity or to demonstrate how Christianity cannot comport with religious pluralism. For example, a simple conversation piece as the following can be utilized to aid believers in sharing newly gleaned information with others, "I understand that you believe ___________, Christians hold a similar belief. We hold similar beliefs concerning ___________, but we don't believe ___________. Instead, the Bible teaches _________."
The Hindu teaching of Brahman can be inserted into this simple pattern. Hindus consider Brahman to be the divine essence that is at the heart of all things in the universe. This teaching ultimately says that there is only one divine reality and that we are all one through it, thus all is divine. Christians hold a similar understanding of Jesus's role in the universe from Colossians 1:17, a verse that teaches that Jesus holds all things together. This means that Christians recognize that all things in the universe have come from God. However, Christians reject that all things consist of God, because the Bible teaches that God created the universe out of nothing by speaking it into existence. Christians therefore disagree with the Hindu understanding that all is divine. This does not mean that we believe God is far off from us. Paraphrasing what Paul shared with the men of Athens in Acts 17:28, "God is still at the heart of all our lives; we have our being because of him, and he determined the times set for us and the exact places that we should live." In this way, Christians agree with Hindus that God is at the heart of all things, but we certainly would not say that all things are God. Therefore Christians don't worship what was created, but rather, the creator. We take care of and appreciate creation because of the simple fact that God made it and crafted all things as a potter creates pottery.
Such an example that compares the Hindu understanding of the divine with the Christian view demonstrates how knowing the world's religions in detail can bolster a conversation with a Hindu to show a level of respect by taking the time to know what they confess. In addition, it can also be used to show the contradictory teachings of the world's religions with a religious pluralist. This leads to the final solution I offer for Christians to pursue in order to counter religious pluralism: the proclamation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ without compromise. Once we know what other religions believe and teach, the work of Christ becomes uniquely distinguished. Christianity stands apart as the only "saved by grace" religion, as well as the only religion whose founder claimed to be God incarnate. These two exclusive traits of Christianity become great starting points for proclaiming Christ by embracing religious contradictions when sharing the Gospel.
To demonstrate the exclusivity of Christ's work, the Church can boldly claim that Christianity is the only paid religion. It is not a way of life; it is life given to you. In other words, Christianity is not a system of moral rules that must be followed or an arrangement of obligatory rituals. At its heart is mankind's utter inability to adhere to God's standard, and our universal need of God's grace, which comes to us through the work of Jesus Christ alone. It is often said that Christianity is the only free religion, or that it is the only religion in which salvation comes through faith apart from works, but that's only partially true. For sinful man's part, Scripture teaches that salvation is freely given through faith in Jesus apart from works, but for God's part, our salvation was not free; it came at a great cost. Jesus paid dearly for our salvation.
All other religions can be classified as not paid. Humanity must work to rectify our ultimate problem, which varies from religion to religion. In Hinduism, we all must practice yoga as the means of seeking union with Brahman. Our karma dictates how well we are doing in that process, affecting the direction of our rebirth. In Buddhism, our desires lead to pain and suffering. To escape our suffering, we must follow the eightfold path. In Islam, we must all submit to Allah and his coming judgment. Our good works must outweigh our bad, and the best way of ensuring we end up on the right side of the scales is to strictly adhere to the five pillars of Islam and the teachings of the Qur'an. In Jainism, killing anything, even a fly, restricts the hope of escaping reincarnation. In Scientology, we must partake in auditing sessions to detect engrams. Through many, many audits, we can clear our engrams and scale the operating thetan ladder to eventually reach our full potential of godlike status. The beat goes on; it's the same pattern for all other religions. Humanity has a problem (ultimately death) and we can overcome it through our dedication to hard work.
Christianity sets itself apart as the only paid religion because it is the only religion that is from God. It claims to be founded by God in the flesh. Christianity teaches that God exists in three persons, and that the second person of the divine Trinity assumed a human nature and was born in this world as Jesus of Nazareth. As the God-Man, Jesus was able to redeem mankind from its sinfulness. Being fully divine, he was able to fulfill God's standard of righteousness. Being fully man, he was able to be tempted and die in our place. The death of Christ serves as a vicarious atonement for all sins, past, present, and future. No other religion can claim such divine redemption, because no other religion was founded by God incarnate.
All other religions are from man. They were founded by people who were merely human teachers, prophets, enlightened beings, guides, or esoteric gurus. These men, and in some cases women, took the revelations, knowledge, and insights that they gleaned from their divine or spiritual source and shared it with others, to guide them out of mankind's ultimate problem and into the sole solution.
None of these founders could offer redemption free of charge. All they could provide was the bill that needed to be paid and the way humanity could pay it. Since these religions are the products of man, their answers to mankind's ultimate problem make sense in the system of our world from which they are derived, a system in which our self-worth is dependent upon our value to society. It's no wonder that the solution lies in an individual's merit.
Religions are either paid or not paid. Christianity is the only paid religion. Religions are also either from God or from man. Again, Christianity stands alone. It is the only religion whose founder was God incarnate. If the only religion that claims to be from God is also the only religion that offers paid salvation, then it seems reasonable that it actually is from God, since it is completely different from everything that has been founded from man.
Moreover, the religion that is from God adamantly refuses to borrow from the religions that are from man. However, all the religions that are from man tend to borrow from the only religion that is founded directly from God. They do this by incorporating Jesus into their religion, either through claiming him as a prophet (Islam), a bodhisattva (some forms of Buddhism), an avatar of Vishnu (some Hindus), or a good, moral teacher (basically everyone). The exceptions are religions that split off from Christianity or include Jesus centrally in another way--Rastafarianism for example.
The gospel rings of truth, simply through presenting the message of Christ side by side with the doctrines of other religions. Today's pluralistic setting is no different from what the early church faced in the Roman Empire. We know that it was Christianized within a few centuries after Christ's resurrection due in part to the church's founding fathers' unwavering commitment to keeping the gospel preserved in its entirety, unchanged by outside influences. The call is the same for us today, to proclaim Christ crucified without compromise, while reasoning and engaging the followers of the world's religions and the religious pluralists through study, observation, and reasoned dialog. Some might worry that such exposure to false religions might lead one away from Christ, but the gospel dispels such fears, promising that "the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:7).
Andy Wrasman is the founder of Contradict Movement (www.contradictmovement.org) and the author of Contradict - They Can't All Be True (WestBow Press, 2014). He teaches World Religions and Apologetics at Crean Lutheran High School in Irvine, CA.