Monday, February 20, 2012

Evangelism and Principled Religious Pluralism

For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you. (1 Cor. 5:12-13)

But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thess. 4:10b-12)

How do Christians relate to a pluralistic society— one in which many religions are embraced? This is a question that had stopped being asked when Constantine co-opted the church, and one in which many Christians even nowadays do not reflect on much.

In dealing with this question, let it be said that I (and hopefully other Christians) are not interested in looking to the world to guide us in this area. We are dealing with the relation of truth to life, not spiritual experiences with daily living. Nobody goes around asking the opinions of Tom, Dick or Harry how Einstein's General Theory of Relativity works. No, they go to someone who has studied and worked on the theory. Similarly, and in fact more so, it is folly to go to unregenerate people who are haters of God how Christianity relates to the world. Their darkened minds are unable to give the correct answer to the question (1 Cor. 2:14-15).

So what are the biblical principles that govern our answer? They are:

1) Christianity is the only way of salvation for the world. Evangelism (and discipleship) is a command of God (Mt. 28:18-20)

2) We are called to submit to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1), unless they ask us to disobey God. If push comes to shove, we are to obey God rather than Man (Acts 4:19)

3) We are called to live quiet dignified lives (1 Thess. 4:10b-12). As much as possible, live in peace with everyone (Rom. 12:18).

4) Salvation is through genuine faith in a person. Such faith cannot be forced or coerced. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit is the One who ultimately saves people, not us.

From these principles, how are Christians to think of evangelism and religious pluralism?

I propose that Christianity is most in line with a principled religious pluralism. That means that religious pluralism is an accepted reality not a celebrated virtue. On this side of eternity, the Lord has called us to witness and evangelize for Him, yet we cannot force faith on anyone.

As much as possible therefore, we strive to remove unnecessary offences which are stumbling blocks to non-believers. We should strive to be at peace with them as much as it is possible. But at the same time, we cannot compromise the Gospel. If they are upset over the exclusivity of the faith, too bad!

In such a society, embrace of principled religious pluralism means that various religions can believe and practice their faiths. This means that society does not censor the religious faith of one group just because some are unhappy with what they say. Those who attack Christianity on its exclusivity seem to forget that most religions around the world are just as exclusive. Islam for example claims to be the only true religion. Buddhism claims to be the only true knowledge. Hinduism while it can accommodate belief in many different religions does not tolerate those who reject its fundamental tenets. Almost all religions are exclusive. Whether their adherents are interested in promoting their respective religions is another issue altogether of course, but it certainly speaks a lot about their love for fellow human beings (or rather hatred) if they think they hold the truth and do not share it with others who they think are wrong.

Principled religious pluralism therefore protects the act of believing and practicing one's religion, regardless of how offensive it may seem to someone else. After all, those who are offended can always not join the religion they dislike! It is the height of hypocrisy to claim that one is for religious harmony and religious pluralism when one decides that certain beliefs and practices are more deserving of protection (read theirs) than others. It is downright selfish and arrogant and outright bigotry to attempt to enforce one's idea of what religions can or cannot believe and practice. Who gave you the right to dictate what others' religious beliefs and practices should look like, Bigot?!

It is my conviction that Christianity has by far the best paradigm of true religious pluralism. Since faith cannot be forced, all religions are protected. In a secular humanistic system, what happens is that only secular humanism is protected and religions that do not conform to the secular humanist paradigm are censored. True religious freedom can only come when faith is considered a personal action that cannot be coerced, and therefore all religions are allowed to believe and practice whatever they please as long as they do not commit crimes.

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