Thursday, September 25, 2014

Engaging With Other Religions

Over the past three years, I have been on an extraordinary journey of discovery as I have dared to entertain the idea that God is at work through other religions.  Even now, writing such a realisation still feels a little strange as I have grown up in an evangelical culture that says, 'you are either of God (as Christians understand Him) or of the devil,' and there was no grey area to allow for the possibility of divine revelation occurring in an interfaith context.

Scripture unmistakeably records God declaring, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 5:6-7); Jesus affirming, "I am the way and the truth and the life.  No-one comes to the Father except through me"  (John 14:6); and the Spirit's relationship in the Godhead, "When the Counsellor [Holy Spirit] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me [Jesus]" (John 15:26).

As a Christian, I hold firmly to these Biblical truths and an uncompromising belief "that there is only one God, who is infinitely perfect, the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of all things, and who is the only proper object of religious worship" (The Salvation Army, Doctrine 2).

However, I also recognise that "since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" (Romans 1:20).  I understand that faith comes from God:  "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no-one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8); "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith..." (Hebrews 12:2).  And I affirm that Holy Spirit is already at work in the world - "in the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people" (Acts 2:17) - revealing Jesus Christ - "He [Holy Spirit] will bring glory to me [Jesus] by taking what is mine and making it known to you" (John 15:14).

Therefore, I have come to believe that Holy Spirit has planted a seed of faith in all people, and religion is a human response to a partial revelation of God, forming a framework of understanding around what has been revealed.  This means that my interaction with other faiths is not to bring God where He is already present, but to discover where God is already at work and join in a conversation that has already begun.  From this posture I can share a fuller revelation of God by pointing people to Jesus Christ, because "in Christ all the fulness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Colossians 2:9) and "the Son [Jesus] is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word" (Hebrews 1:3).

For me, this has radically changed my view of and approach to evangelism!   Evangelism is not so much a proclamation of truth, but an interactive relationship that gives witness to the incarnational truth that "the Word [Jesus] became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14) so that "whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).  Clark Pinnock describes the nature of such a relationship: 
“We should watch for whatever Spirit may be teaching and doing among them. This posture creates the possibility of a dialogical relationship. We can enter into the faith of others and acknowledge truths and values found there. These are our fellow human beings, seeking truth as we are. God is reaching out, and people are responding. So let us watch for points of contact and bridges of communication” (Pinnock 1996, The Flame of Love, p. 205).
From this vantage point I now find certain "evangelical" language an affront to the Spirit's presence and activity in other faiths.  To suggest that people are 'heathen' or 'godless' is to deny God's sovereignty.  To renounce the 'god' of any religion or to pray against the 'demonic spirit' of a religion, dishonours other people's spiritual journey, dismisses the work of the Spirit, disregards a partial revelation of God, and does little to foster a dialogical relationship where Christ can be revealed.

  • What if the 'god' of a Muslim is a partial understanding of the Creator of the universe?
  • What if the 'faith' of a Buddhist is a genuine response to prevenient grace?
  • What if the 'religion' of a Hindu is an attempt to live out a divine consciousness?

Let me be very clear at this point!  I am not suggesting for a moment that other religions are an equal or alternative pathway to God.  I am not denying the reality of a spiritual battle between the God of heaven and "the god of this age [who] has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Corinthians 4:4).  Nor am I suggesting that all aspects of religious practice are Spirit-led or God-honouring.  Every religion, including Christianity, has embraced false or incomplete beliefs about the Creator and have demonstrated behaviour that is contradictory to a holy and just God!  Pinnock expresses well what I am suggesting:  “We have to say yes and no to other religions.  On the one hand, we should accept any spiritual depth and truth in them.  On the other hand, we must reject darkness and error…The key is to hold fast to two truths: the universal operations of grace and the uniqueness of its manifestation in Jesus Christ” (Pinnock 1996, p. 202).

With a new wave of religious extremism emerging in our world today, we must be very careful not to reject the work of the Spirit in fear of the work of Satan.  We must not assume that people seeking God through another faith perspective are the enemy.  We must be careful not to shut down the dialogue with people from other religions or cultures.  We must seek to strengthen relationships with people on a faith journey rather than segregate ourselves from them.  We must not exchange a spirit of humility for a spirit of superiority.  We must keep a posture of learning and openness to wherever and with whomever the Spirit is moving.  We must "in [our] relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross…that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:5-11).

With eyes wide open to the ministry of the Spirit within other religions I am better positioned to “seek [and] discern the Spirit’s presence and activity in other faiths” (Amos Yong 2005, The Spirit Poured Out On All Flesh, p. 247) and recognise that “The Spirit’s mission is to bring history to completion and fulfilment in Christ" (Pinnock 1996, p. 194).  Then, like Paul who dialogued with the men of Athens about their altar "to an unknown god" (Acts 17:22-27), we might evoke a similar response from our interfaith dialogue, "We want to hear you again on this subject" (Acts 17:32).

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