During the past month there has been much analysis and questioning over the consequences of what happened five years ago in New York. So what has followed those Muslim extremists flying planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre (and the Pentagon) and killing thousands? John Piper, an American pastor and author, says this writing from a Christian perspective:
"The terrorism of September 11, 2001, released a brief tidal wave of compassion and cowardice in the Christian Church. It brought out the tender love of thousands and the terrible loss of theological nerve. 'Ground Zero' became a place of agonizing comfort as Christians wept with those who wept, while radio talk shows and Muslim-Christian ecumenical gatherings became places of compromise as leaders minimized Christ and clouded the nature of Islam with vague words about 'one God'. The tension between strong Christian love and weak Christological cowardice will not survive indefinitely. If the root is cut, the fruit will die - sooner or later. The reluctance to pray publicly in the majestic name of Jesus Christ; the disinclination to make clear distinctions between Allah and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; the fear of drawing attention to the fact that Islam consciously rejects the entire foundation of Christian salvation, namely, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus - this loss of conviction and courage will in the end undermine the very love and joy it aims to advance."
A number, of course, have not lost their theological nerve. A distinguished American church historian, Timothy George asked the question to which Piper refers, "Is the Father of Jesus the God of Mohammed?" He replied, "Yes and No. Yes, in the sense that the Father of Jesus is the only God there is. He is the Creator and Sovereign Lord of Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, of every person who has ever lived. He is the one before whom all shall one day bow (Phil 2.5-11). Christians and Muslims can together affirm many important truths about this great God - his oneness, eternity, power, majesty. As the Qur'an puts it, he is 'the Living, the Everlasting, the All-High, the All-Glorious'. But the answer is No, for Muslim theology rejects the divinity of Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit - both essential components of the Christian understanding of God. No devout Muslim can call the God of Mohammed 'Father', for this, to their mind, would compromise divine transcendence." Pope Benedict XVI also in September voiced criticisms of Islam and, which was not well reported, of some Christian theologians and modern secularists. This resulted in the shocking killing of one elderly nun and attacks on churches around the world. Fear of Muslim violence and a secular philosophy of 'multi-faithism' means that even in the so called 'free world' many are now cautious about saying anything critical of other religions and philosophies (and of Islam in particular). If truth matters, intellectually this is suicide. In such a context, the following, I hope, will be helpful. It is an edited portion from my The Church and State in the New Millennium, London, HarperCollins, 2000 (the year before '9/11').
Multi-faithism and theological liberalism
In 1879 Cardinal Newman summarized the essence of theological liberalism like this: "Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another ... It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion." This approach when faced with an actual 'other religion' becomes multi-faithism. Multi-faithism is a treating of all religions as ultimately the same, all interesting, all to be experienced and none to be privileged. This multi-faithism is now the religion promoted by much of the media, especially the BBC, and in our schools. As a result of such educational policies our children are now often Christianly illiterate. I once heard a former Home Secretary say that for many children it is as though the Old Testament had never been written. A MORI poll revealed appalling ignorance, especially among the young, over the basic elements of the Christian faith. Reporting on this poll, the Press said: "Many Church leaders and politicians laid the blame firmly at the feet of the country's education system."
And the culture of relativism is also to blame. Openness to everything is fair, if you believe that in principle everything is good. But few of us believe that. We do not want to be 'open' to Muslims killing southern Sudanese, or Serbs killing Muslims in the Balkans, or a host of wicked actions being perpetrated around the world. Some things we want to say are wrong absolutely, and for good reasons. And also we want to say that some things are true. Many do want to say that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, and that that particular truth is as relevant for public life as it is for private life. They do not believe, however, they should force their views on anyone. They do believe they should seek to persuade and educate people into the truth. But are there grounds for such beliefs? Is it reasonable to talk about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ? Some will say that belief in his uniqueness is due to ignorance or arrogance. But ignorance is a two-way argument. Many orthodox Christians have considerable experience of other religions, even more than their opponents. With regard to arrogance it must be stressed that truth has nothing to do with questions of pride (or humility). Rather it has all to do with matters of fact. The claim to the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ is a truth claim and, therefore, a question of fact. That is why all claims cannot be right. Peter Cotterell, an English missiologist, puts it like this:
"Islam says Jesus wasn't crucified. We say he was. Only one of us can be right. Judaism says Jesus was not the Messiah. We say he was. Only one of us can be right. Hinduism says that God has often been incarnate. We say only once. And we can't both be right. Buddhism says that the world's miseries will end when we do what's right. We say, you can't do what's right: the world's miseries will end when we believe what is right. The fact is that the world's religions may agree about the peripheral matters but they disagree precisely about the most important matters of all. Any intelligent person could decide that all religions are wrong. Any intelligent person could decide that one is right and the rest wrong. But no intelligent person can seriously believe that all religions are essentially the same."
Nor is this western triumphalism. To say that Christ is unique is not to say that other cultures are therefore automatically inferior and all is well with the West; nor is it to say even that Christian activities are unique. The uniqueness simply lies in whom Christians believe. It is Christ who is unique, it is claimed, not the West nor the followers who worship him.
The Cultural Limitations of Knowledge
Multi-faithism is motored by three pressures. P.F.Knitter in the preface to the book The Myth of Christian Uniqueness refers to these as: one, "the historico-cultural limitations of all knowledge and religious beliefs"; two, "religious experience [being] infinite"; and, three, "the confrontation with the sufferings of humanity and the need to put an end to such outrages."
These are big issues. Let me just touch on them. Knitter is, first, referring to the sociology of knowledge and the idea that the social environment powerfully conditions beliefs. Most of this is common-sense. It is clear that apart from a few areas of direct personal experience human beings require social support for their beliefs about reality. For example, an individual does not need someone else to prove they have toothache. But they do need social support for a wide range of religious and moral beliefs. Peter Berger puts it like this: "physical pain imposes its own plausibility without any social mediations, while morality [or religion] requires particular social circumstances in order to become and remain plausible to the individual." And these social circumstances form in modern societies a range of 'plausibility structures.' Take the armed forces and public schools, as examples. So long as people are in such institutions certain values will be plausible in an unquestioned way. But once they move out and 'migrate' to other social contexts these values may be questioned.
We can also say that there is a direct relationship between the cohesion of institutions and common beliefs, values and world-views. When a school is strong and effective, its pupils will most likely have the same value system in regard to discipline, manners and the importance of hard work. Similarly when institutions break up, there will be a break up of plausibility structures and a weakening of every belief and value that depends on social support. So a weak school will have pupils who are likely to be disorderly, disobedient and lazy.
In part this is the reason why multi-faithism is so pernicious. It is, in itself, an act of institutional deconstruction. If it is right, fine; but if it is wrong, it is much more serious than mere theological sloppiness. It is destroying the social support of belief for many people. We need not develop this further. All we need note is the following fact: the cultural limitation of knowledge and religious beliefs cannot be a reason for accepting a pluralistic theology of religions as Knitter seems to imply. Truth questions will still remain. The sociology of knowledge in no way removes questions of truth. It can show why modern man finds it easier to believe in electricity than demons. But the question of the existence of demons still remains. The sociology of knowledge can show why modern people often feel reluctant to say that Jesus Christ is God's unique and final revelation to mankind in spite of the evidence. But the question of whether he was, or whether he was not, still remains.
Religious Experience and Justice
Knitter, secondly, talks about 'religious experience'. Since Schleiermacher, a liberal Protestant theologian at the turn of the 18th/19th centuries, there has been the belief in a reservoir of 'world spirituality'. All the religions tap into it and we can all draw from it. Add to that the effect of the 'History of Religions School' at the beginning of the 20th century; this 'school' not only mapped out but tried to synthesize the religions of the world, and so reinforced a concern for experience. Add to that various pronouncements of the WCC (the World Council of Churches) in the second half of the 20th century on inter-faith matters. Then add a Roman Catholic post-Vatican II stress that God's grace is given not only through non-Christian religions but even through Atheism. And finally add the Roman Catholic Karl Rahner's talk about 'anonymous Christians'. Do not then be surprised when you have both a growing belief in the value of any religious experience and new plausibility structures.
With regard to religious experience, traditional Christian theology has always been cautious. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:
"Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doers!'" (Matthew 7:22).
Furthermore the interest in religious experience is reinforced by the 'concentric circle' way of looking at other religions. This may have spread originally from Roman Catholic teaching such as you have in the Papal Encyclical Suam Ecclesiam. The model is of the Roman Catholic church forming the centre circle; then a little further out are other Christian churches; beyond that is a circle of other theistic religions; beyond that a circle of various animistic and non-theistic religions; then on the far edge are the secularists with no religion at all. But are the other religions to be measured by their nearness to or distance from Christianity? As Lesslie Newbigin said: "The other religions are not to be understood and measured by their proximity to or remoteness from Christianity. They are not beginnings which are completed in the gospel. They face in different directions, ask fundamentally different questions and look for other kinds of fulfilment than that which is given in the gospel. They turn, as Otto said, on different axes." In Jesus' parable (Luke 18:9-14), was the Pharisee or the tax-collector nearer to Jesus? The Pharisee, no doubt could claim a range of religious experiences. He was committed to 'fasting' - a tried and tested adjunct of religious experience. But it was the tax-collector who went down to his house 'justified'.
Then, thirdly, Knitter has a concern for justice. There is the assumption that to assert the truth of the Christian faith over against other religions and world-views is essentially a denial of justice. Justice demands toleration. But there is so much confusion over 'toleration'. It has been argued that if you are truly tolerant of others, you will not critically evaluate their beliefs. This, however, is to equate tolerance with indifferentism. There is a commonly held but mistaken view that tolerating a religion is primarily a matter of not making a judgment about it. But that is not the case. Tolerance means no t seeking the legal restraint of something about which you have a negative opinion or negative judgment. This is so important. Let me give you a humanist, non-Christian, writer on this very point - Professor Bernard Crick: "Reacting against the religious disputes of the seventeenth century, toleration both as a state policy and an educated attitude began to spread in Britain in the eighteenth century. But let us remember one essential thing about tolerance. It arises because people do differ on fundamental and important things, but wish to limit the practical effect of their differences. Tolerance is not complete acceptance, still less permissiveness; it is modified disapproval."
So we must now move on to direct theological questions, as a great amount of 'good stout resolute nonsense' (to quote Lord Halifax) is talked over multi-faithism. The claim to the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ is a truth claim and, therefore, a question of fact. That is why all claims cannot be right. When it comes to the Christian faith we are talking about a 'gospel' or 'good news' about what God has done in history. We are not talking about 'good ideas'. So the question is: "Did God do certain things or did he not?"
Let me now summarize, in concluding, five reasons for rejecting current multi-faith theology and philosophy.
First, what we read of the world's religions in the Bible is so often negative. When Paul was having an afternoon off in Athens and saw the evidence of other religions in the city, he did not think about the possibilities of inter-faith worship. No! "His spirit was provoked within him" (Acts 17:16) and he ended up trying to convert the Athenians (see also 1 Corinthians 8:10).
Secondly, of course, God can choose whom he likes to receive his grace. Melchizedek and Jethro in the Old Testament come to mind as two unlikely characters outside the ancient covenant community. But there is no suggestion that their 'religions' could in any way be alternative to the covenant revealed to Abraham and through him to Moses. In the New Testament the Wise Men received divine guidance, but there is no suggestion that they were saved by their own religion. In fact God brought them to worship the child Jesus. Later on in the New Testament we read that the prayers of the Gentile Cornelius were heard by God. So Peter concluded that "in every nation any one who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34). But Cornelius himself said, under divine prompting, that 'salvation' required more than those prayers: it required the preaching and message of Peter (Acts 11:13-14). Clearly preparation for faith occurs outside the community of the people of God. There was also the Ethiopian eunuch (and there are many similar people in the modern world). But the fact is that in whatever way God meets with people in other religious (or secular) settings, the Bible gives us no grounds for saying there is full salvation apart from acknowledging Christ. Religions (or secular philosophies) may play a part in helping to identify needs. But there is no salvation except in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). This is not 'anonymous Christianity' at all!
Thirdly, we must note that confusion comes through failing to distinguish the Holy Spirit's dual work - in creation and universal history on the one hand, and in redemption and salvation history on the other. Ever since the Reformation there has been a tendency in the West to make redemption everything and to ignore creation. The result is that God's work then gets assumed to be always and only redemptive, even when what he is doing is creative. Of course, he is engaged in redemptive work for, in and with the person of Christ and through the preaching of the gospel; that is his great work. But we must never ignore his creative activity. With that background the traditional categories of 'general' and 'special' revelation and 'common' and 'saving' grace are helpful. General revelation is what God reveals of himself by creation, in nature and through conscience. Special revelation is God's revelation in Christ and through prophets and apostles (so through the Bible). Common grace includes all the blessings of this life - the sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous, after all. Saving grace is salvation and redemption through Christ alone. Much of the inter-faith confusion, surely, comes because general revelation, understood in other religions, is seen to be special and common grace, experienced in other religions, is seen to be saving.
Fourthly, confusion also can come, and a position of uncritical openness adopted, because of the way religion is often identified with culture. We may, indeed, want to affirm elements of another culture that is shaped by a non-Christian religion. At the same time we may be critical of some (or much) cultural baggage in western Christianity. That is not the same, however, as affirming the truth of that other system of belief and worship. The bottom line has to be for the Christian that nobody comes to the Father but through Christ (John 14:6).
Fifthly, what we must say is not that God's common grace is never experienced in other religious (or secular) contexts; nor that general revelation is never heeded in other religious (or secular) contexts. But we must assume, nevertheless, the recorded remarks of Jesus that his Father seeks 'true worshippers' (John 4:23). So worship should not only be in spirit but also in truth. For the Christian believer that will rule out misleading 'inter-faith' worship experiences such as sometimes are forced on children.
Multi-faithism needs to be resisted. "But are you saying," asks someone, "there should be no dialogue with adherents of other religions?" It depends what you mean by 'dialogue'. E.J. Sharpe in the early days of multi-faithism identified a four-fold ladder of dialogue. He spoke of, one, discursive dialogue (where you share beliefs); two, human dialogue (where you get to know each other as persons); three, secular dialogue (where you engage in joint social or political action); and, four, interior dialogue (where you sink your differences and take on each other's spirituality). There has been a consistent push to descend down this 'ladder'. Many Christians can cope, and cope happily, with those first three rungs. They just deny you can descend to the fourth and retain Christian integrity. You cannot believe and worship as others believe and worship, if Jesus Christ is the only way. Christians believe he is and his resurrection confirms it. David Watson wrote: "The bones of Lenin are in Moscow. The bones of Mohammed are in Medina. The bones of Buddha are in India. But in Jerusalem is the empty tomb." Such a belief is at the heart of the Christian faith. The Bible says: "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom 10:9).