Following Jesus in a Pluralistic World

We live in an increasingly shrinking and pluralistic world. The world in all its colors is coming to us and there’s now a Buddhist temple and a Muslim mosque right next door. Our congregation is gradually building relationships with both. We have recently joined our Muslim neighbors in an Iftar dinner breaking their fast during the month of Ramadan.

How do we follow Jesus in our pluralistic world? We begin with integrity. I honestly confess that, for me, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life—the revelation and embodiment of God and God’s way (John 14: 6). The life and message of Jesus, as it is contained in Scripture and lived out in the lives of those who follow him, is indeed good news to people who are looking for life and hope.

Such good news, however, can’t be prepackaged and distributed like Coke or four spiritual laws. That quickly becomes a huge turn-off. This good news needs to be continually unpacked in relation to the world we live in and to our own journey of faith. Saying that Jesus is the “way” becomes triumphalistic when we take it to the next level and claim that all other people are outside of God’s grace.

So how do we understand Jesus’ statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to [God] except through me?” One approach is to counter this seemingly exclusive claim with a counter passage like Romans 2:14 where Paul argues that the Gentiles are justified by their own experience of God and their adherence to God’s law written on their hearts.  It’s a good reminder to not build our theology on one scripture passage.

We will also want to consider the question Jesus was responding to. It wasn’t, “Lord, will the Muslims and Buddhists also be saved?” Instead, it was a heartfelt response to an existential question. He had just announced his impending death—that he was going ahead to prepare the way. Thomas responded, “But Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “Can’t you see? I am the way!”

Another consideration is how John’s Gospel presents Jesus. In the prologue or beginning of the Gospel, John talks about Jesus as the Logos or Word that was with God from the beginning. Jesus is the creative power and love through which God creates, sustains, and recreates the whole world. This Logos is present and active in ways that we have only begun to imagine.

Religious scholars often distinguish between three different ways of understanding our Christian faith in relation to other religions. The first emphasizes Jesus’ uniqueness. This is depicted as an “exclusive” position. Jesus alone is the way. Those who do not confess Jesus as their Lord and Savior cannot know God.

A Hindu friend once accusingly told me that both Muslims and Christians are exclusivists who claim we are the only true religion. He said we’re always trying to proselytize and convert others. This raises the profound difference between honestly sharing our faith and trying to convert people or thinking we’re the one true faith.

The second is an “inclusive” position which builds on the Christology of John’s Gospel. It holds that the same Logos or Word which we know and experience in Christ is also present in other religions. In this respect, Catholic theologian Karl Rahner raised the possibility that devout adherents of other religions may be “anonymous Christians.” Some Muslims has a similar understanding of devout people from other religions as being “submitted to God” or Muslim.

The third is a “pluralist position which emphasizes the distinctiveness of each religion. It doesn’t want to combine them or flatten them out as somehow basically the same. Each religion has its own unique merits and is, in its own way, an expression of God’s love and grace. Each religion, including Christianity, however, also contains elements that are less than good and even evil.

These three positions are often seen as distinct but Bill Cenkner, my religion professor at Catholic University, taught me to see them as overlapping models. There are parts of each model that we find to be true but all are inadequate by themselves. As a Christian I confess that Jesus is the way. Through Jesus I understand God and God’s way in the world. This is good news that I freely share with others. In this sense, Jesus is unique. But that does not mean that I think people who do not believe in Jesus are going to hell.

This is where the inclusivist position helps me. God’s Spirit is greater than any one historical religious expression of faith. If we confess that God is the creator of everything we should expect God’s Spirit to be present and active in all cultures and their religious traditions. Many devout people from other religions have a winsome faith and moral integrity that can put Christians to shame. We might understand such faith as an expression of the same Logos or Word of God that we have come to know in Christ.

Still, I get uncomfortable when we speculate that people from other religions may be anonymous Christians. This is not because I want to insist on the exclusive claims of my Christian faith but rather because I want to respect and understand people from other religions for who they are. In that sense I’m a pluralist.

When we do that we can have mutually respectful relationships and honest conversations with all kinds of people in our pluralistic world—including those who profess no faith. We will often be profoundly impressed by their moral integrity and their deep faith. We will want to be open to the possibility that God’s Spirit can also speak to us through them.

I have found that when we approach others with such respect they are also open to hear about our faith and about what it means to follow Jesus in all of life. We don’t always get it right but we discover that, through such relationships, we grow in maturity as God’s people and that our faith in Jesus is deepened.

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2 thoughts on “Following Jesus in a Pluralistic World

  1. I can appreciate the way you are walking near the edges of faith and non faith. That you are a “pluralist,” at least to a point. I found that John 14 passage one of the most divisive and destructive passages in all religious literature. I might say it was an early hint for me to let go of God and get out of faith. Earlier in John, Jesus says “salvation is from the Jews” (implication: not from Christians or any other). The bible is a convenient weapon for those who wish to cut the world up into Light and Dark, Us and Them. Perhaps even Jesus had a limited exposure to pluralism? I hope your respectful approach to others will deepen, not so much your chosen faith, but your desire to learn more from other experiences.

  2. Thanks Chris. I agree that the Bible has an us/them and light/darkness dichotomy running through it. At the same time it also contains a deep pluralism that we often overlook. It’s liberating when we discover that pluralism and it begins to jump out at us all over the place. Let me gently push you on the matter of letting go of God. It doesn’t have to mean letting go of faith though it most likely may mean letting go of God as popularly or traditionally understood within Christianity. I don’t think you have let go of faith.

    Hinduism (the same might be said of Buddhism) has an ancient atheist tradition contained within it. That’s something our Abrahamic religions hardly know how to handle but perhaps we can learn from them. I always want to push out want we mean when we use the word “God.” Gordon Kaufman, a theologian who I appreciate, has done lots of seminal thinking on this. The word “God” always points us beyond ourselves and we’re in the face of mystery. “In Face of Mystery” is one of his best books. Later in his life, shortly before he died, he was exploring the nexus between “God” and creativity, which became the book “In the Beginning…Creativity.”

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