A Jewish Rabbi and Catholic Monsignor decided to write a book that suggested searching for God has become like climbing a mountain. Since everyone knows that there is not just one way to climb a mountain - mountains are simply too big for that - there are any number of paths that can be taken. So, the Rabbi and Priest concluded, all of the ideas about God throughout the religions of the world are like different ways up the mountain, and all of the names of God in all of the world's religions all name the same God.
The Dalai Lama, who wrote the foreword to the book, heartily agreed.
I was reminded of this when reading an article in the New York Times recently that was titled, “A Church That Embraces All Religions and Rejects ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them.’”
With almost giddy prose, the article highlighted the start of the Living Interfaith Church, a “holy” mash-up of every religion under the sun.
Consider the contents of a recent service:
*the minister donned garments adored with the symbols of nearly a dozen religions;
*the Koran was symbolically displayed next to the Bible (near copies of the “Humanist Manifesto” and the Sioux wisdom of “Black Elk Speaks”);
*stones joined candles and bells around the altar;
*liturgy moved from a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi to the “passing of the peace” greeting to a Buddhist responsive reading to an African-American spiritual to a rabbinical song.
Few currents have shaped the mindset of our modern world more than pluralization. The process of pluralization is where individuals are confronted with a staggering number of ideologies and faith options competing for their attention.
But the process of pluralization means far more than a simple increase in the number of "faith options." The sheer number of choices and competing ideologies suggest that no single perspective or religious persuasion has the inside track about the spiritual realm.
Theologian Langdon Gilkey was correct when he observed that "many religions have always existed;” what is unique is a "new consciousness" that "entails a feeling of rough parity, as well as diversity, among religion.” By parity, Gilkey means “the presence of both truth and grace in other ways." Harold O.J. Brown adds that such pluralism is actually "value pluralism,” meaning that “all convictions about values are of equal validity."
But what we’re witnessing today is a new chapter. As Brown adds, if all convictions about values are of equal validity, that “says in effect that no convictions about values have any validity."
But the irrationality inherent within this runs further. Not only does it mean that no convictions have validity; it also means that you can “hold” to two ideas that are diametrically opposed to each other without concern.
Because substance no longer matters.
We have come to that point where the soul cannot be denied, but all we know to do is search for something “soulish.” So an extraterrestrial will serve as well as an angel; a spiritualist as well as a minister. Borrowing a phrase from historian Christopher Dawson, we have a new form of secularism that embraces “religious emotion divorced from religious belief.” In our current climate, people might be as likely to explore Wicca as the Word, Scientology as the Spirit.
Or as the Living Interfaith Church would maintain, all of the above.
But here’s where it starts to get a little messy. While many courses in world religions take the approach of showing how much is held in common, the reality is that there are vast divides on the most foundational of issues.
So while there is some common ground between Buddhism and Christianity, there are also enormous tension points. The Dalai Lama himself has stated publicly that the central doctrines of Buddhism and Christianity are not compatible. He has been quite open to the fact that you cannot be a Buddhist Christian, or a Christian Buddhist.
And he is right.
Christianity believes in a personal God; Buddhism does not even believe in a Higher Being (Buddhism is, essentially, an atheistic religion). That is a divide that is simply insurmountable. That is not two different ways up the same mountain; those are different mountains entirely.
This is true when you compare Christianity to the other major world religions as well: Christians believe there’s one God; Hindus believe there are millions. Christians embrace Jesus as God Himself in human form; Muslims don’t even rank him at the top of the prophets, much less the savior of the world.
Whenever you have divisions of this nature, you only have two options: you can either say that somebody is right in that particular area, and everybody else is wrong; or you can say that everyone is wrong in that area.
But what you can't say is that everybody is right. That would be intellectually dishonest. Unless God is some senile, confused, muddled, schizophrenic, unbalanced Being who isn't sure what He stands for, then there is religious truth and there is religious falsehood. And the areas of disagreement are not trivial in nature. They deal with the very nature of God, the identity of a person like Jesus, and how we enter into a relationship with God.
Or you could do away with the dilemma in another way.
Just ignore it; go for experience alone, and don’t worry about truth.
Now there are even churches that will help you.
James Emery White
“A Church That Embraces All Religions and Rejects ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’,” Samuel G. Freedman, July 12, 2013, The New York Times, read online.
Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman, How Do You Spell God? (New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1995).
Peter Berger, Sacred Canopy.
Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001).
Langdon Gilkey, Through the Tempest: Theological Voyages in a Pluralistic Culture (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991).
Harold O.J. Brown, "Evangelicals and Social Ethics," Evangelical Affirmations, edited by Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F.H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Academie/Zondervan, 1990).
James Emery White, The Church In An Age of Crisis (Baker).
James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).
James Emery White, Can We Really Believe in Just One Way? (InterVarsity Press).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.