Learning from Asian Christians Engaged with Religious Pluralism
Conflict for Mennonite Biblical Literalists?
Workshop at Global Mennonite Peacebuilding Conference
June 9-12, 2016, Conrad Grebel University, Kitchener, Ontario
Introduction: Two quotes and two Scripture texts
“There will be no peace among nations without peace among religions; there will be no peace among religions without dialogue among religions . . .” – Hans Kung 1
“Only as we find ways of stepping back from features of our traditions that wall us off from others can we hope to come into genuine understanding of community with them. Building such community . . . is the most profound religious necessity of our time.” – Gordon Kaufman2
Biblical texts can cause conflict for people loyal to religions or within a denomination like Mennonite. An idea central to our discussion appears in two texts.
When disciple Thomas admitted not knowing how Jesus would reach God’s dwelling on leaving them, Jesus provided a confession for believers that John’s gospel states as: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
(Whether he or anti-Jews among writer John’s companions expressed the remainder of that verse is uncertain): “No one comes to the Father except through me.” John. 14:6
When asked by Jewish religious officials by what power or name he and disciple John had healed a man who had been lame for forty years, Peter said, “There is healing in Jesus Christ. Listen to this Jesus!”
The meaning of healing and salvation have much in common. (Some people expand or translate the response as Peter’s intense, excessive love for Jesus.) “There is salvation in no one else for there is no other name under heaven . . . by which we are saved.” Acts 4:12
The text from John, part of Jesus’ final discourse on earth, has two parts. Phrase a states Jesus’ personal ID or identification: “I am the Way, Truth, and Life” which shapes a confession for his followers. Many Christians use phrase b (“there is salvation in no one else”) to negate all who do not follow Jesus. It becomes their reason to convert others to Christianity. Unaware of God’s initial plan for many religions, some Christians believe that only through Jesus is divine salvation possible. But the literal idea of this phrase can offend those loyal to diverse religions or sincere Christians who question it. People loyal to varied religions experience such exclusive an opinion as arrogant and hurtful; their own sacred convictions are therein demeaned. Some Christians recall the basic command to “not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Conflicts can emerge.
Further responses surface. A Hindu may ask, “How can a Christian who knows so little about Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim religions presume to limit Divine salvation?” How can Christians presume that at one specific time the Supreme Being sent an only son to redeem all people? Such belief limits God; it fails to expect ongoing, divine activity of a saving nature. Michael Amaladoss from India explains the main terms: “They are three aspects or ways of looking at the same thing. The way points to the dynamic and process dimensions of the truth (what is). Life is nothing but walking along the way,” he says.3 Some students of the text question if writer John again tries with part b to negate Judaism, not quote Jesus, while Indian biblical scholar Israel Selvanayagam suggests that John did not intend to reject worship of those loyal to other figures, those open to other expressions of truth. Seeing Jesus as the open way, he remains committed to God’s will for justice.4
Religious Pluralism – Experienced Asian Christian Voices
Other Asian Christians who daily live within religious pluralism address this text. Sri Lankan Arvind Nirmal thinks that a salvation plan that limits God “presents God as stingy.”5 Thomas Thangaraj describes the fourth gospel as less what Jesus said and more of a sermon about him. Synoptic writers do not include such an only claim by Jesus. To judge the destiny of all people beyond church walls based on John 14: 6b “totally misrepresents” the context, Thangaraj believes. For, elsewhere John clearly affirms God’s reaching to all. In chapter 13 Jesus describes his “way of suffering love” as the way for others to reach God.6
Religious pluralism, ever-closely intertwined with culture and nation, finds support in biblical texts as noted by Thangaraj in Relating to People of Other Religions.7 To promote language difference, God scatters the people at the Tower of Babel incident (Gen. 11:8). Prophet Amos reminds the Israelites that God enables the Ethiopians, Philistines, and Arameans as surely as them. (9:7) Jesus’ openness extends beyond his own Jews. He humbly learns from a Syrophoenician woman, credits a Roman centurion’s faith as greater than that shown by Israelites, and at multiple times praises Samaritans, those judged by most Jews to be impure.8 Then, through distinct languages, people receive the Spirit’s gift of insight at Pentecost, balancing the earlier Tower of Babel’s separation. (Acts 2:4)
Religious pluralism is central to Asian life. Through interfaith dialogue Christians learn openness to prayer from Muslims, meditation from Hindus, detachment from Buddhists, respect for nature from Taoists, and Confucian filial piety. Multiple channels to what Christians call salvation exist. For example, Buddhists credit the avatar Buddha’s discovery of nirvana, their path to liberation. Some Buddhists may call either Jesus or Thich Nhat Hanh—well-known monk of Vietnam, a bodhisattva—a released soul who shows others the way of liberation. None is a better or easier way to God, Michael Amaladoss states.9
Some western Christians also experience religious pluralism.
Scholars share their study. Canadian Ronald Neufeldt (Mennonite Brethren) wrote his doctoral dissertation on German, comparative religionist Max Mueller’s focus on the Hindu Rig Veda (1500-1200 BCE), the oldest religious document.12 The Rig-Veda’s insight into the origin, growth, and spread of human thought formed into sentences has no parallel elsewhere. It shows intellectual development in clear strata of thought. Principal elements of ‘real’ religion that characterize the Rig Veda include belief in gods. Neufeldt notes elements named by Mueller that are shared by all religions: “intuition of God, belief in divine governance of the world, and a distinction between good and evil with hope for a better life.”13 (But Neufeldt also knew of many Christians’ limited goal to convert others since they think of Jesus as “the only way.”14)
Australian professor Geoffrey Oddie expands for western thinkers on Mueller’s validation of Hindu Vedas. “There is hardly one religion which does not contain some . . . important truth. . . Every religion, even the most imperfect and degraded, has something that ought to be sacred to us, for there is in all religions a yearning after the true, though unknown, God.” Rather than focus difference, Mueller nudged people to build on common ground, Oddie reminds readers.15
Asian Christology Options
Indian theologian Stanley Samartha suggests that Christology needs a thorough reconsideration for a multi-faith context; he warns that failure to give God priority may lead to a Jesus-cult. Consider how perception of Jesus’ open, pluralist pattern can shape diverse Christologies.
Indian Stanley Samartha’s Christonormative pattern affirms Christ as the way for Christians; people loyal to other faiths envision and choose other ways. Kotian says that Samartha realized that religious pluralism provides adherents with diverse resources, values choice of vision for ways of life, and expects to build community around communities. For him, a Christology that presumes that God redeems humanity only in Jesus of Nazareth, or that such activity “took place once for all in the first century, unjustly shows the One Creator’s liberating of all creation and denies that more Truth will follow . . .”19
Brief Reference to Related Themes: Conversion and Mission
Asian Christian voices do indeed provide breadth of insight toward Jesus, beyond only to open. Jesus’ openness to diverse others enables followers to see differences between or within religions as a good feature, as part of God’s plan. While some writers might avoid these two concepts within religiously plural society, this paper highlights a recent book aware that ideas noted might prompt conflict within western Mennonite thought.
Whereas Christians know conversion as regeneration, a Buddhist might refer to such change as “enlightenment,” while a Jew calls it “turning to God” and a Hindu claims “realization.” Different ways to think of religious belonging exist. Theologian Thomas Thangaraj explains “to extend.” A Christian might practice Hindu Vedanta or Buddhist meditation without giving up church membership. A Jewish mother’s son not recently devout might again engage in Jewish religious life and ritual. Such shifts are “extensions,” not “conversion.” For conversion to be “replacement,” Thangaraj says that the religious identity of the person changes along with the person’s community. Most Christian or Muslim folk expect a former Hindu to reject and replace earlier practice because understandings of religious belonging differ.27 In part due to change of community, a former Hindu’s conversion can be sorely begrudged by Hindu relatives or neighbors.
Doing good and avoiding harm through methods of conversion matters. Several western writers also appear in the resource edited by Sri Lankan Shanta Premawardhana. Presbyterian Jay Rock, long active in interfaith relations, describes evangelism that patterns Jesus as being invitational without coercion, passionate without manipulation, and confident without triumphalism. People loyal to a religion will experience conversion when radically open to “new creation” within it. Crediting the One God (Ultimate Reality) as present among all people and religions, conversion dare not usurp that Divine role, Rock warns.28
Professor Rita Gross, born into a Christian family and now chosen to be a devoted Buddhist, discusses models of religious belonging. Many Japanese presume loyalty to Shinto activities with birth and to Buddhist practice for death and afterlife. Neither religion is chosen over the other. In China, Buddhist, Confucian or Taoist features may be variously favored. Among people loyal to some religions, barriers between groups are erected; others approve of multiple belonging. While Hindus approve of multiple paths to salvation—action (karma), devotion (bhakti), or knowledge (jnana)—some Muslim or Christian loyalists insist that they alone possess religious truth.29 Such Christians presume that all people should belong to their religion, that Jesus is the “only way.”
Christian Stanley Samartha explains that adding members to a religion is not central to its mission. Content or method for mission may need to change. The Second Testament notes mission methods of conquest, being a witnessing presence, suffering with Christ, and engaging in God’s mission. Ongoing, genuine ‘change of heart’ reflects religious life for any believer. So, intent to determine “which religion is true” matters less than asking how a religion enables a person to become truly human. Samartha, along with Indian theologians J. Russell Chandran and Israel Selvanayagam, discuss purpose within God’s mission.30 That trio of writers faults viewing people of other faiths as “targets” for joining one mission. Such process may prompt superficial comparison, false witness, or failure to credit positive elements in other traditions. Instead, they expect to solve world problems through interreligious cooperation.31
Rabbi Amy Eilberg sees Jewish people charged with the mission to “bring the world to the knowledge of God and to commitment to justice.” She critiques aggressive mission activity that disrespects others’ religions, that thinks its truth alone is superior or absolute, that is supersessionist in relation to others. Mission endeavor will best credit religious worldviews and practice that is distinctly committed while valuing others’ spiritual or cultural identity and integrity.32
Conflict and Peacebuilding –A Glimpse
Questions surface: Why are people drawn to restrictive terms of comparison like only, final, or fulfilling of others? What is going on within a person who or group that presumes to be part of a “superior” religion? Further, how is scripture long-interpreted in traditional ways approached when it is explained with new openness? How might conflicts that arise within churches toward views of Jesus as open rather than only be addressed?
Many religious traditions have complex, internal disagreements or sectarian movements like Sunni, Shi’a and Sufi Muslims or Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians. Each tradition has many voices. Potential conflict emerges regarding religious plurality or critique of “Jesus only” judgment. Andrea Bartoli notes Christian obstacles to peacebuilding: intolerance toward difference, being a majority religion that depends on coercive power to resolve conflicts, conversion patterns, and gaps in scripture interpretation.33
Conflict occurs naturally with all relationships. In a Mennonite Quarterly Review article Stephen Ainlay and Fred Kniss34 see Mennonite culture wars as waged more often over ideas than with force. How peacebuilding follows internal Mennonite conflict over ideas of scripture interpretation evolves through several basic principles: everything that we know about scripture is someone’s interpretation; all knowing is partial; no interpretation is fixed forever. All translation and interpretation includes bias, notably of patriarchy if not countered by feminist conviction. With the bible’s goal is for justice and wholeness, a question follows about whether an interpretation enables that goal for all.
To ponder Jesus’ practice with conflict might teach openness either to meet opposition or provide space for another. Jesus used multiple, cultural metaphors to address tension, to improve life for a person disadvantaged. To turn one’s other cheek in order for it also to be struck, give one’s inner garment when an outer one had already been taken, or walk a second mile beyond the one required all enabled a disfavored person to gain dignity, to avoid further humiliation.35 The Christian who insists on his or her view that God provides wholeness (salvation) through one means alone—Jesus—deserves to be freed to welcome God’s possible multiple plans for diverse peoples. To trust difference with core beliefs or admit that Divine ways might be broader than those known to the one feeling tension prompts gracious being. It expands rather than limits options, a quality that the one judging either values or negates.
An example of conflict out of Asia comes to mind. The 1938 International Missionary Conference took place at Tambaram, south India. Hendrik Kraemer of Netherlands, who had for years been a missioner in Muslim Indonesia, discussed religious pluralism in the keynote address. Some hearers countered his saying that “the gospel is radically discontinuous with other world religions.” Long-time faculty member at Madras Christian College Alfred Hogg knew solid spiritual life among his Hindu students. He expected Christians to discover “God in Christ afresh” from such Hindus, not ‘discontinuity.’36 Antonio Gualteri opposed Kraemer’s comparison: that “true Christianity” witnesses to God’s unique, final act of revelation in Jesus while other religions are human or natural achievements with no redemptive link.37 Diana L. Eck countered Kraemer’s dependence on Karl Barth’s view that revelation in Jesus and Christian scripture is unique and full by stating that people of diverse faiths “participate in God’s continual mission” through universal Spirit. They openly join to mend brokenness between people, nature, and God.38
Roles that peacebuilders model have long been noted by Mennonites and others. The first principle for effective peace work according to Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is “Be peace.”39 Andrea Bartoli suggests needed qualities: deep personal faith, being warm and respectful, being curious, humble, and open to unveiled mysteries in life. She also knows peacebuilding to involve: being present, discerning, and vulnerable. It builds nonviolent, open relationships that embrace religious freedom.40
In conclusion, Paul Knitter and Roger Haight suggest that “religions are ways in which God’s presence comes to public awareness.”41 To avoid divisiveness about Holy Mystery matters. One ancient Hebrew word for life-giving, Ultimate Being was ruach, meaning vital force evolved into Spirit. Christians confess that much later Jesus, also existent from the beginning—a “spirit person” or human mediator of Divine presence—lived on earth with integrity and meaning. For several decades he made clear the One God’s message of inclusion. Twenty-five years ago professor Stanley Samartha wrote: “The only way to be Christ-centered is to be God-centered, but in a religiously plural world to be Christ-centered is not the only way to be God-centered.”42 Scriptural confessions like those from John and Acts can divide when practiced as exclusive.
Rather than exclude others as occurred during the early church polemic with Jews, or when Christianity became a religion of empire or of colonizers, confession belongs to faith. Wesley Ariarajah from Sri Lanka details the task of ‘talking about God’ (theology) when present among other religious traditions. Rather than use human constructs like “only, decisive or final,” he affirms that: No community is closer or more important to the Creator and Sustainer of all. No group’s experience of Mystery is less ambiguous than another’s; each is different. Each group witnesses to and learns about Mystery through distinct figures, stories, and events. Through the “Christ-event” Christians explain in a distinct, not superior way, “who God is; how God deals with us; what God requires.” Others share their distinct ways. People of diverse religions are pilgrims moving together toward Wholeness, he concludes.43 Such confession reflects Jesus’ open way. It reflects peacebuilding that moves beyond exclusive only.
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