Monday, December 20, 2010

Book of Note: Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions?

Refuge Vineyard (Cambridge) planter Brad Culver pointed me to this book by Gerald R. McDermott. Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions? Jesus, Revelation and Religious Traditions sounds quite daunting. It is actually a very accessible read and one of the more useful books in my library. McDermott tackles the problem of religious pluralism (our cultural reality) and provides a real workable and soundly evangelical means by which we can live our faith in the world today. That is a big claim, so let me unpack it.

The two dominant responses to pluralism are to appeal to a same but different view of religions or to demonize other religions. I know that most of us struggle for something in the middle, but it is hard to not find yourself at one end or the other. The "all roads lead to the same place" view is quite common amongst classically liberal theologies (e.g. Paul Knitter's No Other Name?) and usually makes us evangelicals run the other way. What this approach ignores is that the scandal of particularity, that is the technical term for the belief that there is something unique about what Jesus has done, is of huge importance to Christian orthodoxy. But when we insist on the scandal then we often do it in a way that says all religions, except maybe Judaism, are rooted in lies. So in that way of thinking there is nothing we can learn from world religions except maybe how to argue against them. And even though I hold to the scandal of particularity, I find neither of these responses adequate. That is where McDermott comes in.

McDermott tackles a cluster of issues around the way evangelicals view other religions. He looks at the notions of revelation, and rightly suggests that it is naive to think that God is without a witness there. In fact he would encourage us to look for the ways that the Father is already speaking within other religions. Much like the story of St. Patrick and the Celts - Patrick found that God was already at work drawing the Celts to Jesus (such as the four leaf clover, another excellent book on the subject of God's witness in world religions is Don Richardson's Eternity in their Hearts). However, there is a problem with just trying to find the ways a world religion is like Christianity. If all we are doing is trying to convert the religion of the other then there can be no learning. McDermott does something fascinating with this core idea - he makes it the basis of an attitude towards other religions. This attitude has two important parts:

1) Unlike the approach where we lay down what makes us distinct as Christians, McDermott asks us to come into the conversation (with other religions) as who we are. His position is that if we come to the conversation what we bring is our Christian religion, and that it is as valuable as any other contribution. But it also means that we need to take the claims of our religion seriously, including the scandal of particularity. That is why we look for those things that we can recognize, so that we can understand the other - but, I would suggest, also so that we can better understand ourselves. Part of the integrity of this aspect of the attitude is that we recognize we are still growing in our own knowledge and understanding of God.

2) Which means, unlike the demonization approach, we truly value the contributions of world religions. In fact, from the confidence of our identity we can even open ourselves up to the possibility of God speaking through our conversations with practitioners of other world religions. The shift is that we look first to what God might be doing before we simply assume that the person in another religion is not also trying their best to understand God's plan for themselves. It does not mean that we do not look for moments to share what we love about Christianity - but it does mean that we also get to hear what others love about their religions. This opens all kinds of doors for inter-religious conversations and even cooperation toward making this world a better place.

I have found this approach very helpful in the relationships I have with other world religions. In a recent conversation with a Muslim friend of mine he commented about how he enjoyed talking about religious things with me. And we've had some deep conversations. I think we've both been enriched by the experience. And he is just one of the people from other world religions that God has graced my life with. Would I love to see him become a Christian? Actually yes I would, but I have a confidence that God is at work drawing him and in that I see the work of Jesus who already draws women and men to the Father. (In fact that is the only way they ever come.) So I trust, pray, and share - but I also find myself enriched, challenged and I think prayed for. And this is good.

Also I often recommend this book for new students. Academic study of theology today is not possible without encountering other religions. It also necessitates the opening of ourselves to new ideas and new ways of talking about God. McDermott will be challenging to some of these students, but I trust that they will see that he gives them (and us) tools to navigate the religious pluralism of our day with integrity as evangelicals.

5 out of 5 stars.

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