How should Episcopalians regard other religions?

This is the first of three articles on the evolving issue of Christian interaction with believers of other religions, what the Bible says about other religions, and how Christians can welcome the contributions of other faith traditions.

By Frederick Quinn

During the first decade of the present century two key issues converged. First, globalization has resulted in the content of all major religions being far better known than at any previous point in world history. The Internet, greatly increased world travel, and the expanding influence of diaspora communities in every country has made that possible. Second, longstanding Western Christian dominance of the language of global Christian discourse has given way to numerous newer expressions of world Christianity, often-incorporating insights from other sacred traditions, especially those of Asia. “Jesus is an Asian,” nonwestern Christian colleagues remind us, causing a challenging reorientation of spiritual geography for most Westerners.

Yet as an outpouring of more information becomes available about other religions, greater cooperation and tolerance are not always a result. Tension and violence clothed in religious language remains prevalent features of international life. Some recent examples are of Christian churches being burned in Pakistan, mosques being destroyed in Nigeria, the continuing headscarf controversy in France, and the global impact of the New York Ground Zero mosque controversy, triggered by a Florida pastor’s threats to publicly burn copies of the Koran on 9/11. Such examples of religious-related violence change weekly, like headlines on an Internet newswire.

Most striking of all is the finding that globally Christians and nonChristians have little intentional contact with one another and coexist in largely separate worlds, despite being crowded together in megacities and rural villages. This important conclusion comes from the painstakingly detailed Atlas of Global Christianity complied by Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross and published by Edinburgh University Press (2009). The world’s 2, 292,454,000 Christians divide into 41,000 denominations. Christian numbers grow gradually, as do those of their expanding global religious neighbors: Muslims presently at 1,549,444,000; Hindus, 948,507,000; Buddhists, 468,736,000 and Jews, 14, 641,000. Still, despite steady growth of numbers on all sides, purposeful contact is awkward and infrequent.

Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism

How should Christians look at other religions? In the 1970s Alan Race, a pioneering figure in the global interfaith dialogue, developed a much-employed typology of Exclusivism, Inclusivism and Pluralism that remains widely used, especially by Christians, to describe their attitudes toward other faiths. It first appeared in Race’s book Christians and Religious Pluralism (1983). Race never meant for the categories to be water tight, and many people would say they don’t fit any of them. Still others find themselves in a transitional place.

<1> Exclusivism, “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (Outside the Church there is no salvation.)

Broadly cast, Exclusivism makes three claims: that the Christian Bible is the only source of religious revelation, that Jesus Christ is the sole agent of salvation, and that the church represents the only presence of God’s grace and salvation in history. Although Catholic and Protestant Exclusivists then split over which church, there was no question of either accepting the legitimacy of other, non-Christian religions. Exclusivist doctrine coalesced in Roman Catholicism with Cyprian (200-258), who introduced the longstanding concept of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation). Although originally aimed at heretics and schismatics, the doctrine gradually expanded to include Jews and pagans, and by the Council of Florence (1442) its broader interdictions were firmly in place. A Protestant version of Exclusivism was voiced by Judson Smith of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1896:

There is no faith which Christianity is not worthy to replace, which it is not destined to replace. It is not to share the world with Islam, or with Buddhism, or with any other religious system. It is the true religion for man in the Orient and in the Occident, in the first century and in the twentieth century and as long as time shall last.

<2> Inclusivism and “Anonymous Christians”

Inclusivism accepts that truth is contained in other religions but finds it represents less than the salvation offered through Christ. Inclusivism vaulted into prominence when the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) issued far more gracious comments about other religions than in any previous Vatican documents, including that they “often reflect a ray of truth” (Nostra Aetate.). Vatican II stopped short of saying such religions represented ways of salvation, but made clear the Catholic Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions (and) has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines” they represent.

The principal Inclusivist voice of modern times was the German Jesuit Karl Rahner, who popularized the phrase “anonymous Christians” in the Vatican II debates. Rahner had little personal interest in other religions and never sought to advance conditions for an interreligious dialogue. “Anonymous to whom?” later critics asked. As both the content and spirituality of other religions became increasingly well known, westerners found not sources of anonymity but wellsprings of deep riches not widely recognized in Rahner’s time.

<3> Pluralism and the “Complimentary Weaving of Textiles”

Pluralism represents a convergence of religious thought. It is not a doctrine but a process, not a destination but a launching point. While recognizing Christianity’s uniqueness, it does not elevate the Christian faith to a position of finality over other faith traditions, nor does it relegate others to lower, lesser places. Also, Pluralism requires an active dialogue among participants, not as a debate to be won or lost, but as a truth-seeking encounter that includes clear points of agreement and disagreement. On Pluralism, Race wrote, “There is no reason to doubt the validity of the religious apprehension of other religious traditions and every reason to accept their integrity….The spiritual fruits of the many faith traditions seem comparable: all have inspired saints and holy figures who have been active on either individual or sociopolitical levels.”

Christians engaged in such a journey should find their own deep faith affirmed. Pluralism implies an open-ended engagement where participants are not asked to abandon their deeply held positions, but to encounter numerous other fellow pilgrims on similar journeys. In such a setting, different world religions can represent different ways to salvation or fulfillment.

Many recent definitions of Pluralism draw on imagery considerably different from traditional black letter theological language. Employing several striking visual expressions, a Korean theologian has described Pluralism as a “complementary weaving of textiles.” Kim Kyoung-Jae of Han Shin Theological Seminary employs images of Turkish and Native American rugs, Chinese and Korean silk weavings, and Tibetan and Buddhist woven shoulder bags. Each represents a blend of colors, patterns, and materials that lead to a unique final product reflecting both unity and distinct differences. The contribution of East Asian Christian culture can be thus understood as a “complementary weaving process” integrating shared gifts from other world religions. But the idea of such complementary enfolding of different strains has deep Christian origins, the new dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, reminded the Church in her installation sermon on November 7, 2010. Jane Shaw, former Dean of Divinity at New College, Oxford University, spoke of the wider implications of God’s “knitting together your elect in one communion and fellowship,” from the All Saints’ Day collect in the Book of Common Prayer (1662).

“The lamps are different, but the Light is the same.”

Finally, Pluralism is not some sort of super way above all other ways. Much religious language is metaphorical, pointing to a transcendent or ultimate reality. Such poetic and imaginative imagery does not offer literal descriptions of the divine, but provides symbolic language that approaches such mysteries. Some such descriptions include a journey toward a mountain or mountains, movement from darkness to light, or obstacles to be overcome on a path toward the holy. This convergence of world religions is represented in the words of the thirteenth century Persian poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, “Out beyond our ideas of right and wrong there is a field, I’ll meet you there.” Rumi also said, “The lamps are different, but the Light is the same.” Frank Griswold, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, used both quotes to illustrate the religious journey. Such approaches suggest the need for a climate of flexibility and willingness to engage in dialogue, a more open setting among Western Christians based on wider knowledge of and interaction with the members of other faith traditions.

One version of respectful Christian prayer for members of other religions is expressed in a fraction anthem, used at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, drawn from an English source: “We break this bread for those who journey with us: for those who travel the way of the Hindus, for those who follow the path of the Buddha. For our sisters and brothers of Islam. For the Jewish people from whom we come, and for all who walk the way of faith.”

Frederick Quinn, an Episcopal priest and former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, is the author of The Sum of All Heresies, The Image of Islam in Western Culture, published by Oxford University Press in 2008. These three articles are excerpted from his forthcoming book, “And I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth,” Religious Pluralism in a Global Age.

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