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The cutting edge- An occasional series on doctrinal issues today

September 2003 | by Timothy Alford

Once, you had to be a world traveller to see other cultures first-hand. Today, these cultures exist almost anywhere in Britain.

In most town centres you will find Chinese, Indian, Thai, Italian and other restaurants. The turbans and veils, temples and mosques, music and dance, shops and hospitals, indicate a racially mixed and multi-cultural society.

Wherever there is an influx of people of different ethnicity and different religious affiliation, there will inevitably be a plurality of different religions and lifestyles.

‘Multifaith’ is the obvious way of referring to many faiths existing alongside each other. ‘Religious pluralism’, on the other hand, is the notion that all religions are equally valid as a way to God, and are to be respected as such.

Neither idea necessarily means that each religion has equal value. But both demand that people of different faiths should welcome one another, and recognise and appreciate the different traditions that shape our lives.

As a result, interfaith co-operation, including religious services, is regarded as a key to racial harmony and social order. It is seen as a desirable and necessary way to end centuries of religious conflict, turmoil and war.

To some observers this is a dream coming true — but to others it is a nightmare.

Dream?

The dream was verbalised by a delegate at a World Council of Churches forum: ‘This is my dream and thus hope. I look forward to the day when Christians will thank God that there are Jews and Muslims and Hindus, when Muslims will thank God for Jews, and Hindus and Jews will thank God for Christians and Muslims.

‘In my dream, we will one day all realise that the other in his or her otherness is exceedingly valuable for my own journey through life.’

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev. Richard Harries — who planned to appoint a homosexual as Bishop of Reading until protests aborted the move — wants major changes in the next coronation service.

He said: ‘I feel strongly that at the next coronation the leaders of other faiths need to be significantly and symbolically present. They need to be much more than guests; they need to be present in the sanctuary, at the centre of things.’Interfaith services will almost certainly have been held in your locality.

Nightmare

This modern cocktail of religious pluralism quickly intoxicates those who drink it. There have been similar ecumenical ages in the past, and we should learn from them.

Christianity arose at a time when the Roman Empire was generous and tolerant to diverse religious traditions — provided they did not challenge the empire’s political dominance.

The intelligentsia and the elite eagerly embraced the religious pluralism of the day. The early Christians, therefore, had to be crystal-clear about who Christ was. They most certainly did not dream of ‘togetherness in otherness’!

Religious pluralism was to them a nightmare, not a dream, and they were willing to lay down their lives for the unique claim that Jesus alone was the Son of God and Lord of glory.

Unmixed truth

They submitted without reservation to the authority of the Holy Scriptures, and were eyewitnesses of God revealed in Christ. The apostle Peter makes much of this (2 Peter 1:12-21).

He states that the prophets of the Old Testament, and the apostles of the New Testament, give credibility and exclusiveness to the Christian faith.

The gospel of God is not an ingredient that can be added to the fizzy drink of popular religion — either to spice it up or to balance its taste. It cannot be diluted without being corrupted.

The apostle Paul was determined not to corrupt the message he had received from God (2 Corinthians 2:17; 7:2; 11:3). Truth mixed with error becomes toxic.

No rivals to Christ

People who are properly identified as Christians believe that religious pluralism flies in the face of God’s truth.

For instance, their Lord says: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). This claim elevates Jesus and the Christian faith above all others.

How can there be other ways to God if Jesus is the only way? His resurrection from the dead was open proof, given by God, that his Son brooks no rivals. He alone has the pre-eminence (Colossians 1:15-20).

The Word of God refers to ‘the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ and says we are ‘to contend’ for it (Jude 3). We are not permitted to compromise it; and where necessary we must stand up and argue for it.

The New Testament is quite clear that God is in a unique relationship with his Son, and has spoken his last word to us through him: ‘In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe’ (Hebrews 1:1-2).

True light

We must obviously take today’s interfaith activity seriously — because the demands of God’s Word, the honour of Christ, and the nature of the gospel are all at stake.

Our duty as Christians is to resist whatever is not acceptable to God, and be directed by what he says, not by cultural trends.

One of the basic principles of Scripture with a bearing on this issue is stated in 2 Corinthians 6:14-17: ‘Do not be yoked together with unbelievers … what fellowship can light have with darkness? … therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord’.

This demand will be disregarded by religious pluralists — simply because they believe there are divine gleams of light in all the religions they embrace. But they cannot have it both ways!

Either Jesus is ‘the light of the world’ — thereby negating all others — or he is not (John 8:12)! Other faiths have nothing to add to him, and everything to receive from him.

Plea for understanding

While refusing to accept religious pluralism, we must avoid giving the impression that we are bigoted or (even worse) racist. The arrival in Britain of thousands of immigrants presents us with great challenges and opportunities.

We dare not isolate or ignore the ‘aliens’ and ‘strangers’, even though they are different, for God commands us to receive and care for them.

It is inevitable that they bring with them the religious beliefs of their country of origin. There is nothing new about this. British Jews, for example, have tended to maintain a belief in Judaism. Southern Asians have kept their links with Hinduism. The same goes for people from Islamic countries.

This is not without difficulty for them. For example, one of the cornerstones of the Hindu system is the need to ‘arrange’ marriages to ensure ‘spiritual purity’. But their young people struggle with this in a culture which insists on individual choice of marriage partner.

It is vital that we understand where people are coming from in their beliefs, and build bridges for communicating the gospel.

Don’t be intimidated

It would be wrong to imagine that followers of other religions are content with their beliefs, or are aggressively committed to spreading them. Some are, but by no means all.

Their religious practices may simply be inherited, as with many brought up in Christian families! They may have no strong personal faith.

For this and other reasons, we ought not to be intimidated by their presence among us. In fact, we have a golden opportunity to reach out to them with the gospel. For example, winning the confidence of the local restaurant staff may be a good starting point!

And why not make sure that young mums from ethnic minority groups know about your church’s ‘Mothers and Others’ group?

It is impossible to serve both biblical Christianity and religious pluralism. But our evangelistic responsibilities obligate us to involve ourselves with people of other faiths and none. Evangelism means making known the good news.

Narrow way of truth

Many in today’s religious world differ on what the good news is. From the outset, the Christian faith encountered a culture that preached the ‘good news’ of pluralism. Paul faced it in Athens, for example (Acts 17).

The inconsistencies of this unholy mix were only too clear. As a result, those who believed the gospel in New Testament times found they had to reject the ideas and culture of religious pluralism. It was costly but unavoidable.

Minds, hearts and lives were transformed by Christ, and the very foundations of evil systems and empires were shaken. It can happen again!

‘The tapestry and rainbow-coloured flag of pluralism’ flies proudly over many human institutions. But it will one day be taken down, and in its place will remain a royal standard declaring ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’.

Until then, siren voices will try to coax us down the broad way of compromise. But by God’s grace, we will take the narrow and divergent path of truth.