Witnessing in a Multi-Faith World
Society tells us there are many paths to God. How do we respect other religions without compromising the gospel message? BY MAJOR JUAN BURRY
orn and raised on the island of Newfoundland, I completed my officer training in St. John’s and had my first two appointments in small Newfoundland communities. Wherever I went as a Salvation Army officer, I encountered Christians—either devout Christians or people who were affiliated with a Christian denomination. So, when I sang the national anthem and asked God to “keep our land glorious and free,” it seemed consistent to me. I was living in a Christian nation. Or so I thought. As I moved across the country, and ultimately to British Columbia nearly a decade ago, I noticed a changing religious flavour the farther I moved west. The Sikh and Buddhist temples and the mosques of Islam that I saw in high-school textbooks were scattered throughout Vancouver and Victoria. The cultural framework in which I would be fulfilling my calling was quite different from the place where I started. Multiculturalism, and the resulting religious diversity, is an official policy of Canada, introduced during Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s time as prime minister. As citizens of this great country, we are expected to accept people regardless of their religious beliefs. Also, the biblical mandate to “love our neighbour” teaches us to show respect for people of all religions. The subject of pluralism and the Christian response to it is perhaps the most daunting challenge facing the Church today. Far more than just a matter of pragmatism, it is a difficult theological question: How do I function in my ministry context when nearly half of the people I encounter identify with a religion other than Christianity? In typical Wesleyan fashion, I rely on four different sources to help me reach my theological conclusions. The Methodist Albert Outler referred to this as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: tradition, Scripture, reason and experience. 22 I July 2011 I Salvationist
1. Tradition—Historically, what does the Christian Church have to say on this matter? While space does not permit a comprehensive overview of this subject, it is important to say that the opinions of the Church and leading Christian thinkers throughout history have been varied. We can narrow down the viewpoints into three categories: Normative Pluralism. This is the view that all ethical religions lead to God and salvation. This would be the most liberal viewpoint. Christianity is thus seen as one of many paths.
If God is loving and merciful, would he sentence people to judgment without providing them an opportunity to choose or reject the gospel? Exclusivism. This is the conservative viewpoint that states that salvation is found in Christ alone. Typically, an exclusivist believes that we need to explicitly pronounce faith in Christ in order to be assured of salvation. There are some exclusivists who choose to remain agnostic about the fate of those who have not yet heard the gospel. Inclusivism. This is the centrist viewpoint between pluralism and exclusivism. Inclusivists believe that salvation has its origin and fulfilment in Jesus Christ, but that may mean that the subject is saved
and is not fully aware of it. The individual might not have heard the gospel or may be following a different religion. However, they are responding to God in the best way that they can, based on the revelation that they have received. I admit that I find it difficult to accept the pluralist view. If all roads lead to God, then of what significance is Jesus Christ? Why evangelize? At first glance, exclusivism appears to be the most faithful to the historical Christian message of salvation in Christ alone, which is one of its strong points. However, there are a couple of difficulties with exclusivism as it relates to sharing our faith. First, it tends to cause believers to appear arrogant and intolerant, which is not helpful to our witness in a pluralistic context. Second, exclusivists fail to consider the sociological and cultural factors that play into whether a person becomes a Christian or not. As theologian Ronald Nash puts it, “Is God’s grace limited to the relatively few who, often through accidents of time and geography, happen to have responded to the gospel?” Inclusivism is not without its critics either. Inclusivists are sometimes accused of being soft on the gospel. If a person of another religion is already saved, then the impetus for evangelization might be removed. While exclusivists often have the loudest voice in evangelical Christianity, historically many Christians have been inclusivists. In fact, they probably represent the consensus viewpoint in Christianity today. C. S. Lewis was an inclusivist. His view was summed up in a scene in The Last Battle (Chronicles of Narnia) where the pagan soldier Emeth learns to his surprise that Aslan regards his worship of Tash (a pagan idol) as directed to himself. This is an obvious inclusivist principle. Lewis earlier wrote in Mere Christianity, “There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate