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Imagine one religion?

17 December 2018

What’s an Evangelical to think when 200 world religions meet in Toronto?

What’s an Evangelical to think when 200 world religions meet in Toronto?

A sneak peek at an article to be published in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue. By James A. Beverley. Photos: Anthony Maccari/TPOTWR.

When it comes to religion, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” This phrase from the English satirist Alexander Pope came to mind during my recent visit to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto in early November.

The parliament was a time to learn about different religions. Photo: Anthony Maccari/TPOTWR

The religious marketplace of that conference – a kaleidoscope of plenary speakers, hundreds of exhibitions, an enormous quantity of online discussion – is a perfect snapshot of the bewildering, confusing and overwhelming religious world that surrounds us all.

Imagine 200 religious groups showing up for the eight-day marathon of spirituality. Most Faith Today readers know about Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism and New Age, not to mention Christianity. But that’s only seven groups. What are the rest?

The 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto had an Indigenous Peoples’ program with the theme “The spiritual evolution of humanity and healing our Mother Earth.” Photo: Anthony Maccari/TPOTWR

Okay, there were also atheists (including Gretta Vosper, the controversial United Church pastor), witches, plus members of the Bahai faith, Zoroastrianism and African tribal religion. We’re now at 12 groups, but still a long way from 200.

Delegates of all faiths attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto in November 2018. Photo: Anthony Maccari/TPOTWR

Part of the reason for the big number is all the factions within each larger religious tradition. For example, variations on Hinduism included Brahma Kumaris, Meher Baba, Sathya Sai and others. Buddhist groups included Soka Gakkai, Tzu Chi, Mahamevnawa Meditation Center, etc. Islam included Sunni, Shia and Sufi groups and their subgroups. For Christianity think Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant (on Protestant think Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Church, etc.).

You also reach 200 by factoring in many new religions distinct from the larger and well-known traditions. So this parliament brought followers of Daesoon Jinrihoe (Taiwan), Cao Dai (Vietnam), His Divine Eminence Ra Gohar Shahi (Pakistan), Joseph Communications (USA) and Shinji Shumeikai (Japan), to mention a few.

Even when we wrap our minds around the 200 groups, it’s still daunting to think about all the different views of truth and goodness.

And how do we respond to the endless refrains at the parliament that “All religions are one” and “We all follow the same God”? This view was popularized by Swami Vivekananda, a famous Hindu teacher, at the first parliament in Chicago in 1893. It has been a constant message at every parliament (Chicago 1993, Cape Town 1999, Barcelona 2004, Melbourne 2009, Salt Lake City 2015 and Toronto 2018).

But if all religions are ultimately the same, why continue to evangelize? If all humans follow the same God, why be concerned about people knowing Jesus as Saviour?

Apart from some Hindu and Sikh disagreements in the first couple of days, an incredible harmony existed at the parliament. Despite over 7,500 registrants from the hundreds of groups – it was basically a mood of peace. Isn’t this proof that the pluralist, inclusivist understanding of religions is the right path to take?

John Longhurst of The Winnipeg Free Press reported on his “sense of wonder and amazement so many people from so many places and so many religions could all gather peacefully in the same place – and no arguments about who was right or wrong broke out.”

Wow, if religions get along so well, there’s no need for John Lennon’s famous musical appeal to “imagine … no religion.” Should we then “imagine one religion” or at least “imagine all religions on equal standing?

To help us respond, let’s consider ten principles I have developed over more than four decades of study and teaching about the world’s religions and philosophies.

  1. Contrary to the popular message of pluralism at the parliament and elsewhere, all religions and philosophies are to be measured by the final revelation of God in Jesus ChristThe binding Christian confession of Jesus as the only Son of God and as God’s final and ultimate Word (Acts 4:12) is the foundation for all assessment of religions. The Bible does not teach that all roads lead to God. The Apostle Paul did not adopt a pluralist stance when he shared the gospel, whether with pagans in Athens or Jews in Corinth. The Christian tradition has always taught the uniqueness and supremacy of Jesus. To use the words of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, Jesus is the one distinction between truth and error.
  2. We should be glad a loving spirit prevailed at the parliament. After all, commitment to Jesus demands love be paramount in all humans do, Christian or not. That is the message of 1 Corinthians 13 and the two great commandments. It is no small thing that there was harmony at the parliament. That is better than acrimony, hatred, bigotry and ignorance. (And see the sidebar in this story about the need for a loving, gentle witness about the gospel.)
  3. Christian response to religions involves a commitment to truth. The love for truth means not only dedication to Christ as the Truth (John 14:6), but also a devotion to accuracy in understanding all worldviews and religions. The commandment not to bear false witness against your neighbour includes avoiding lies, half-truths and distortions about all religions and philosophies. No, not all Buddhists are nihilistic. (When I interviewed the Dalai Lama in India in 2000, I was impressed by his zest for life.) No, Baptists are not all close-minded. (Robert Sellers and Larry Greenfield, two of the top leaders at the parliament, are Baptist.) No, not all Sikhs are militant. (Canadian Sikhs at the parliament engaged in langar, the practice of providing a free meal to anyone who showed up – in this case 20,000 meals.) No, witches are not always fighting with each other. (There was a real spirit of unity among the witchcraft leaders I heard in one of the sessions.) No, Christianity is not the only religion that teaches salvation by grace alone. (Some forms of Buddhism teach that enlightenment is given the same way.)
  4. Christians must recognize the contradictions that exist among the religions of the world. The Abrahamic faiths confess one God whereas Hinduism is often polytheistic, as are many African tribal religions. Jews and Muslims do not accept Jesus as the Son of God. Christians do. Some New Age groups deny evil is real, a view not accepted by almost every other religion. Many religious groups support the necessity of war while Jainists won’t even harm a fly, literally. Christians look to Calvary as the way of salvation whereas Muslims deny Jesus even died on the cross. Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions to the point of death – all other religions accept the medical procedure. Many Muslims support terrorism, most do not. Most religions believe in God while many Buddhist groups do not. These huge differences and opposites prove, not that the parliament’s harmony is not real, but that it is partial and incomplete.
  5. Disciples of Jesus can celebrate every true, good, and beautiful part of a religious group and in people of little or no faith. The artistic element at the Parliament (dance, painting, crafts, music, dress) was often inspiring, for example. In terms of the common good, many of the groups at the parliament work effectively to fight poverty, injustice against Indigenous peoples, discrimination, misogyny, damage to the climate and other ills of our world. The parliament’s Global Ethic declaration is powerful, even if it leaves out major divisive issues like abortion. Since 1979 Human Concern International, the oldest Canadian Muslim charity, has given $100 million in aid to 30 countries. The Boroujerdi group works at defending civil liberties, particularly in relation to Iran. The parliament also issued a statement (written with consultation from Kim Campbell and Romeo Dallaire, two of the most famous Canadian attendees) urging the world to commit to eliminating nuclear weapons.
  6. Those who trust the gospel of Jesus must recognize the power of the dominant pluralistic and inclusivist perspective on religion and religious study. Since the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, the acceptance of all religions as equal paths to God has grown. Mainline denominations often downplay the missionary enterprise, as has the World Council of Churches. Some liberal theologians have gone extreme and argued Jesus is not the only Saviour and Lord. Diana Eck, a Harvard professor, claims her Methodist faith is consistent with worship of deities at Hindu temples. John Wesley, her spiritual forefather, would weep at such practice.
  7. The Christian Church must affirm the mercy and love of God shown in Jesus is more than enough to answer concerns about God’s fairness in relationship to God’s judgment on our world’s philosophies and religions. The Christian must resist attempts to downplay the supremacy of Jesus or to overstate the unity of religions as a means of making Christian faith more acceptable in the contemporary climate of relativism. The wideness of God’s mercy is shown best by the immense grace given at Calvary. This grace should lead us to be wary of judgmentalism, as Jesus commanded in the Sermon on the Mount.
  8. Those who trust in the Christian gospel must not forget the wrath of God that stands against the wickedness of a fallen world. The message of God’s justice is a necessary balance to overstatements of God’s mercy and grace. This applies to both secular and religious worlds since the Lord’s name is taken in vain in both. The good news in Jesus is a word of judgment about the folly and sin of lost humanity. Paradoxically, trust in God’s judgment can be an anchor of hope for those who have experienced evil and injustice.
  9. Christians must recognize the ways in which the Church has not allowed the gospel to critique the Church through the ages. Karl Barth has argued prophetically that the message of Christ must be heard by all religions. Barth was correct to recognize that religion can be unbelief, even among those who claim to follow Christ. The story of Christianity stands under the judgment of the gospel, sometimes more than other paths, as when German Christian groups endorsed Hitler, American Christian churches practised slavery and Canadian Christians committed heinous injustices against Indigenous peoples.
  10. A Christian response to religion must include respect for human liberty. Christians must defend the right of all humans to exercise their free choice on religious matters (apart from undisputed criminal actions). A decision for the gospel is real only if made in freedom. The Christian should respect the freedom of humans to reject any religion, including the Christian gospel. Conversely, non-Christians should fight for the religious liberty of Christians, especially now that Christians are under enormous attack, as clearly explained in Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea (Thomas Nelson, 2013).

Should Christians be upset about other religions and non-Christian philosophies? Yes, if that is about concern for the lost, anger over evil, sadness over error, grief over the power of false religions and spiritualities, and disappointment that any human rejects the gospel of Jesus.

Should Christians be uncertain about the truth of the gospel in the world of religions and philosophies? No, especially about our conviction that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6), and that “every knee will bow . . . and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10–11, NASB). We should be utterly confident and celebrate that “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15, NASB).

James A. Beverley is professor of Christian thought and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, and the longtime “Religion Watch” columnist forFaith Today. 

Read a more complete version of this article in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of Faith Today, where you will also find three related items by James Beverley:
  • Resources on World Religions
  • Sharing: The Gentle Side of Witness
  • Witchcraft Then and Now
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