King of All Goals
PSALM 95:1-3, COLOSSIANS 1:11-20
In a burst of exuberant, triumphant poetry, the hymn writer psalmist proclaimed, Psalm 95:3, "For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods." The psalmist is referring to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into the promised land. Christians rightly further identify the King of all gods with Jesus who is the ultimate revelation of God, God incarnate in a human being. We have continued the use of royal language in praise of Christ. In Handel’s Messiah we sing the "Hallelujah Chorus," "King of kings and Lord of lords." Today, the last Sunday of the church year, has long been celebrated as the Festival of Christ the King.
But, what about the other gods over which we proclaim Christ as King? What about other religions? What is the Christian stance towards other religions? As it becomes increasingly apparent that the world must act globally and cooperatively or we will perish, how shall we relate to Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism? Is Jesus Christ king of all gods?
Donald Messer, President of Iliff School of Theology in Denver, in his book, A Conspiracy of Goodness, says there are three alternative stances we may take in relation to other religions. First, exclusivism. The exclusivist perspective is the position the church has held through much of history. Sometimes even with armed might on our side, as with the Crusades, and the tragic missionary conquest of South America, we have preached the exclusiveness of Christianity. The exclusivist believes Christ’s kingship is unique and absolute. There is no salvation possible outside of the Christian understanding of Christ. There is only one way to God, all others are lost, and therefore we send missionaries to convert the heathen, the pagans, to the worship of the one, true God.
A second stance is the inclusivist perspective. The inclusivist believes Christ’s saving love exists incognito in all the world’s religions. God in Christ is manifest or latent in all religions. I have preached that Christ is far bigger than the Christian experience. But, this perspective is still assuming that our religion is the only true one and the others are "savable" because God as we know God is working incognito. It is arrogant to presume there are Christians in other religions, but they don’t know it!
Another popular expression of the inclusivist stance is the notion that all religions are serving and worshiping the same God, but in different ways. We’ll all get to heaven, but we are using different roads. Therefore, one religion is as good as the other. Did you read in yesterday’s paper about the ancient practice of circumcising women in Asia and Africa? Our doctors are finding themselves unprepared to deal with women immigrants who have been sexually mutilated.
Do we really believe that a religion which practices sexual mutilation is a religion that is as good as the others? Do we really believe that a religion which lets children die rather than give them medical treatment is a religion that is as good as the others? Do we really believe that a religion which tests faith by handling deadly snakes is a religion that is as good as the others? Do we really believe that a Christianity which exterminated 6 million Jews in the holocaust, and a Christianity that dropped atomic bombs on innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a religion that is as good as the others?
The third stance is the pluralist perspective. The pluralist recognizes that Christianity is one religion among many, and that we all can learn from one another through dialogue and mutual understanding. Exclusivists monologue. Pluralists dialogue. The Gulf War brought the Middle East into our living rooms, and revealed the ignorance we Christians have about Islam and Judaism. The Gulf War dramatized the potential disaster to the world if we don’t begin dialoguing with other religions.
Former President Jimmy Carter is a shining example of a convert to the pluralist perspective. As a Southern Baptist he was reared in the exclusivist position where there is no salvation outside of the Baptist experience of Christ. Through his Camp David experiences with Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Carter learned how interreligious dialogue can influence international diplomacy. President Sadat was the first Muslim believer with whom Carter had ever engaged in extensive conversation. Carter claims that Sadat "pointed out to me that his was a faith of peace, of reconciliation, of brotherhood, the same principles found in the faith of other people of the Book, Jews and Christians." Carter portrays himself as emerging from a parochial experience, where you are sure you are right, you know that your particular religious interpretation is certain, and those who disagree with you are somehow inferior in the eyes of God...Since then, as I’ve developed a broader perspective, I have begun to see...that there is a lot of commonality among religions. Almost all of them call for justice, peace, service, equality, some humility. And the finer aspects of our faith are expressed in those terms.
One of the earliest proponents of the pluralistic stance was John Wesley, founder of Methodism over 200 years ago. Listen to some excerpts from Wesley’s sermons, We must both act as each is fully persuaded in his own mind. Hold you fast that which you believe is most acceptable to God and I will do the same...Join with me in the work of God and let us go on hand in hand...Embrace with strong and cordial affection neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love...If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.
In the pluralistic stance, the emphasis is on dialogue with persons of other religions. As I said last week, there is nothing like getting to know someone personally to break down stereotypes. When Jimmy Carter got to know Anwar Sadat personally, he moved from the exclusivist to the pluralist stance. Dialogue does not mean we water down our Christianity to find the lowest common denominator. Dialogue means we express our beliefs, we express our theology, we express our hope for the world, we express our belief in justice and human rights for everyone. Dialogue means we express the best we know about our understanding of God through Jesus Christ. Dialogue also means we listen. We listen to the other religions because other religions, beginning with Native American, have much to teach us.
Also, within the pluralist stance, there is room not only for dialogue but for confessional language as well. Confessional language differs from philosophical, propositional, political or absolute language. Confessional language is love language, the metaphorical expression of how God loves us and how we love God. We proclaim Christ as king of all gods in love language, praise language, confessional language. It becomes inappropriate when the proclamation becomes absolutist and political.
For example, when I tell my wife she is the most wonderful woman in the world, when I tell my sons they are the best on the whole earth, when I tell you my granddaughter is the best in the universe, I am using love language. If I attempt to turn that language into absolute truths, and try to prove how my granddaughter is better than your grandchildren, then I have crossed the line into divisive war! Remember when you bragged, "My dad is the best dad in the whole world"? You got into trouble when you took the next step and boasted, "My pa is better than your pa." Love language, confessional language proclaims, "My mom is the best mom in the whole world. Jesus Christ is the King of kings and Lord of lords." You get into trouble when you add, "My mom is better than your mom. My Christ is superior to your god."
Exclusivist Christians send missionaries to the world to preach exclusive salvation through Christ. Pluralist Christians send missionaries and empower local congregations to work with other religions to save the earth from war, to save the environment, to minister to human need, and, in the process, share our faith by using love language. Let us also not forget the multitudes around the world and in our own neighborhoods who have no religion at all. To them especially we minister, proclaim love language, and invite them to join our faith community.
Exclusivists preach "My way is the only way." Inclusivists believe one religion is as good as the next. Pluralists dialogue, work together, and share love language; remaining loyal and true to their own religion, but respectful, tolerant, and open to learning from others.
ã 1992 Douglas I. Norris