comparing religions from a christian perspective

The following are my notes from a Sunday School class I taught at my church a week ago. These notes are part 1. I’ll be teaching part 2 this Sunday. For articulating some of the material, I’ve borrowed from Adam Hamilton’s Christianity and World Religions since he lays out the basic positions in a fairly simple and direct manner. For anyone interested in comparing Christianity with other religions and them with one another, for Methodists, Hamilton’s book is a good place to get an introduction.
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Two stories from my experience, both from my college days:
1. Three blind men are describing an elephant to someone. The first feels the tail and says, “An elephant is long and thin with a tuft of fur on the end.” The second feels a leg and says, “No, an elephant is big around like the trunk of a large tree.” The third feels an ear and says, “Not at all. An elephant is flat and thin and wide.” All are partly correct, yet incomplete in their description of the elephant. The Point: We often have only a part of the truth—what we perceive from our own perspective—and need to appreciate and learn from others about the truth that they perceive as well so that together we can get to the whole truth.

2. A young woman shows me her open hand, pointing out that though she has five fingers, they all are pathways that lead back to the palm at the center. The Point: There are many ways to get to the same place or the same truth and we should be humble enough to recognize that our way may not be everyone’s way, but we’ll all arrive in our own way in our own time.

+ These stories are sometimes used to make a case for religious pluralism (more below). The stories are good illustrations for the points they make (about perspective and about there being more than one way to get somewhere). But in my view the points they make are not helpful or applicable for understanding the diversity of religions today from the point of view of biblical Christianity. These two experiences pressed me into thinking about these issues though. Let’s look a little more closely at the questions & issues when comparing religions, particularly from a Christian viewpoint.

Starter questions:
1. What is a religion? (My definition) Broadly defined, a religion is a set of beliefs, practices, and ethics concerning Ultimate Reality. This intentionally leaves room to understand things like secularism to be called a “religion” even though it does not have a deity. This may seem (or even be) a little strange, but I would propose that a person’s life is more or less shaped by how they understand Ultimate Reality—be that a divine Ultimate Reality or not.

2. What can we compare about religions? We can compare doctrines, practices, and ethics of various religions with one another. Among the major religions, we quite often find a similarity in the central guiding ethic, that of self-giving love oriented towards others as the ideal in life.

3. Why so many different religions? One could draw a number of conclusions. Classical Christianity has understood that all creation displays the glory of God. So, many recognize the fingerprint of the Divine upon this world through what is called “general revelation”—that is, the natural world—which is available for all to see. Classical Christianity has also understood that God has given “special revelation” to people throughout history who were charged with sharing the blessing of that special revelation with the world (Abraham, Moses, David, etc). God’s ultimate self-revelation is in and through his Son Jesus Christ. For me, different religions are evidence of the Divine presence at work in the world. But, they are not equally valid or equally true.

4. How might a Christian view other religions? There is a spectrum on which we might locate ourselves, but here are three basic points (in simple terms) on that spectrum that will give us a handle to help us think about our options.

4a. Pluralism: Pluralism says, “All religions are equally valid paths to God.” This view seems to desire to show respect to all faiths. On closer inspection (I think), it does not seem to make good on that desire since it muddies all faiths and lacks adequate logical thinking about the fact of differing truth claims among religions. As for evangelism, this view would seem to negate a need for it.

4b. Exclusivism: Exclusivism says, “Those who do not confess faith in Christ during their earthly life will be condemned to hell.” A softer version of Exclusivism says, “Those who never hear the gospel will be judged according to what they did know,” or “according to the light they have received.” This view aims to take seriously the truth claims of Christianity, thus avoiding the negatives of pluralism. This view seems straightforward and logical on the surface, but upon closer reflection, may be difficult to maintain in light of the big-picture story of the bible, God’s desire for all people to be reconciled to him and one another, and some specific biblical passages (like the visit of the Magi in Matthew 2, Paul’s reference to the people’s worship of an “unknown god” in Acts 17:22 and following, and people in Acts referred to as God-fearers like Cornelius in Acts 10).

4c. Inclusivism: Inclusivism says, “God’s definitive self-revelation and salvation is in and through Jesus Christ, but God is still at work among all people whether or not they have the benefit of a Christian witness.” If someone has not heard the message of Christ (or have not been able to hear authentically the Christian gospel), but they do genuinely desire to know, love, and serve God, then God is at work through their religion and its practices to draw them closer to him—and to prepare them to hear the Christian gospel. This view maintains that Christ alone saves, but allows that God might apply the saving work of Christ to people who don’t make a Christian confession of faith. God judges their hearts, allowing that they could be thought of as “Anonymous Christians.” This view seems to straddle a theological fence—exalting Christ as God’s true salvation while at the same time opening the door for practitioners of other faiths to be considered as having a relationship with God in some way. We might follow up with the question: Can we really straddle this fence or not?

5. What is the fate in the afterlife for those who never hear about Christ? Each of the three viewpoints above offers an answer to this question. I’ll assume that we’re talking about heaven and hell—eternity with God and eternity apart from God—as our point of reference for this. For pluralism, the answer would be that whatever religion they practiced or faith they professed would lead them to eternity with God in heaven. For exclusivism, the stricter version would say that they would spend eternity apart from God in hell. The softer version would say that if they responded positively to what they did know, or what light they did receive, that they would spend eternity with God in heaven. And for inclusivism, that those who truly sought to know, love, and serve God regardless of what religion they professed would spend eternity in heaven with God.

Another option, universalism, contends that God will save everyone regardless of what they believed, practiced or didn’t practice religiously, or how they lived. Universalism is different from pluralism in that it does not address whether someone practiced any religion at all. It simply holds that absolutely everyone will be saved in the afterlife and spend eternity in God’s presence in heaven.

Next Steps:
1. At the end of the last class, I offered a dilemma I have pondered that I call “the problem of Gandhi.” If “the problem of Hitler” is a way of asking the basic question about the problem of evil, namely, that if an all-good and all-powerful god exists, why does evil also exist in the world? The “problem of Hitler” simply personifies the question: Why would an all-good, all-powerful god (the Christian God in particular) allow someone as evil as Hitler to do what he did?

For me, an alternative question is also a little perplexing and somewhat interesting: If God has revealed himself fully and definitively in Jesus Christ and has chosen to reconcile and transform the world through him, then why do we find someone as incredibly good as Gandhi outside of Christian faith and, in fact, never receiving Christian faith despite knowing reputable Christians? Would not God want all the good, or at least all the good to that extent, to arise within Christians/the Church? Would that not bolster its witness to Christ whereas a Gandhi would seem to be a counter-witness?

We will explore this potential dilemma a little further.

2. What concerns and guidelines might we raise as we consider our own beliefs about Christianity, world religions, and the fate of those who don’t hear about Christ? I’m working on some criteria and guidelines that would be helpful in our thinking that I’ll bring to share.

Reading further:
The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis. In this short narrative, Lewis, in novel form, explores the nature of heaven, hell, and salvation. This is a very readable and insightful book.

Christianity and World Religions, Adam Hamilton. Hamilton examines the five major world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism) in order to compare the others with Christianity and wrestle just the questions we are dealing with.

UPDATE: Read Part 2 here. Or, look into my so-called “problem of Gandhi” a little further here.

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5 thoughts on “comparing religions from a christian perspective

  1. When I teach on the subject I always try to get an Elephant – the bigger the better – so I can act out the parable. I start off in the orthodox way – feeling the tail, legs, ears, etc., but then I start feeling a nearby table, maybe even my own head. Attentive people in the audience will then note that I’m no longer feeling the elephant. “How do you know I’m not feeling the elephant?” “I can see plainly!” “My point is that the parable (as does the parable of the fingers & hand) depends on an observer who sees truly – better than the pitiable blind people – and can see that what they think of as the whole is really only a part. The all-seeing one is also a detached observer – not engaged in the act of “feeling.”

    As to the “Problem of Gandhi” I guess I’d do it in the contxt of asking people whether they’re good enough to “get in.” How can they know they’re good enough? Can they be sure they’re good enough?

    Then I switch to the biblical picture where “good enough” is irrelevant, and that this irrelevance is a good thing for us.

    I also teach that God’s grace is bigger than we imagine, but that as one who is not a Five Point Calvinist, I don’t believe God’s grace is irresistible. SO I guess I’m in the Exclusivist camp (even though that’s a dirty word these days).

  2. Thanks, Richard. I especially like your twist on the elephant illustration. That’s a helpful point that I hadn’t noticed.

  3. Nice post, indeed. The way in which you have organized the class is fantastic. I would love to be in such a class.

    One of the things I like most about the Methodist Church (UMC) is that you can find folks from all of the persuasions you described. They may not agree but generally they do get along and respect one another. According to your breakdown, I would most likely be in the “Inclusive” camp.

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