Monday, October 29, 2012

Coexist? A pox on both bumperstickers!

No doubt you've seen this one, perhaps on the back bumper of a Chechnyan get-away car in Boston:

Or perhaps this version, which explains (in at least one case, wrongly) the symbols:

In America, where every thesis is soon confronted with its antithesis, we now have this as well:

All are fairly clear expressions of common theological positions.  The first two affirm the alleged equality of the world's "great religions," a sentiment typical of the Pluralist school of theology.  Many of John Hick's books read as if they were written to justify this bumpersticker, and even tend to emphasize the same "major religions."  (Pluralists seldom mention "folk" religions like that of the Aztecs, for example.)  Lining up these symbols in a row, even without the "emergent message," implies that they are comparable.  To some, that means all religions are equally evil: the Boston Mararthon terrorists may have been fanatical Muslims, but they could just as well have been members of the Religions Right, reactionary Hindutva members in India, or maybe those Buddhists in Burma who have been torching the homes of Muslims they feel have overstayed their welcome by a generation or two.

By contrast, the third sticker baldly challenges pluralism, expressing what is usually called Exclusivism. 

Of course, one expects simplicity from bumper-stickers, but I think these ones actually hit the nail on the head.  Both models of world religion really are that simple, and that simplistic.  Neither offers an adequate understanding of how religions relate to one another.  My goal in this post is to explain what's wrong with these two starkly contrasting views, and offer an alternative. 

I. Coexist? 

John Hick
The first error of the pluralist bumper sticker lies in its failure of ambition.  Coexist?  You mean, like oysters and cabbages?  Asteroids in space?  Lovers who go their separate ways, she to Venus in the Prius, him to Mars in the SUV? 

The unstated premise seems to be that all religions are perpetually at war, and that the planet is likely to wind up a smoking nuclear cauldron, if we don't somehow reign in all these wild-eyed fanatics.  So mere existence without any attempt to anihilate competitors, is by itself a big improvement.  Even though communism was arguably the most successful religion of the 20th Century, there is no hammer or sickle here.  But e=MC2 reminds us which ideology did have its paws on the nuclear trigger a few years ago, with a record of murder that gave its threats more credibility than Slim Pickens waving a cowboy hat.  

Are religions really always at war?  Of course not.  Sects compete for believers, true, just as grocery stores compete for customers.  Given enough power, churches, ideologically-driven political parties, and corporations or mercantilist states are apt to take competition to the level of bombs and bayonetts.  But controlled and civil competition between advocates of different belief systems is I think a healthy state of affairs, a "marketplace of ideas" that allows the spiritual consumer to "shop" for the best arguments, the warmest fellowship, holiness and kindness among one's leaders and fellow worshippers, worthy goals in life, even the best music or a big parking lot, if that's what you care about.  And that is the prevailing state of affairs in the world today: in most of Europe and the Americas, in Africa south of the Sahara, in India, Thailand, Japan and even China, for the most part, preachers offer their wares peacefully, and those on the street pass by or go inside, as the Spirit -- some spirit -- may lead them. 

There are modern religions that seem at war with the world, especially Nazism, Marxism-Leninism, and the religion of the Marathon bombers, in order of virulence.  One couldn't paste the Coexist bumper-sticker to the rear of one's car in some modern societies.  Pacifist sentiments by default only influence societies that don't much need them, and most need to remain vigilant against enemy threats.  I just finished reading Escape From North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad.  Author Melanie Kirkpatrick makes it clear that South Korea's Sunshine Policy towards North Korea was not only naive, but resulted in the enslavement and even deaths of many North Koreans.

Or should we read COEXIST as a protest against proselytism?  Should we all just keep our beliefs to ourselves, and refrain from preaching?

But what is a bumpersticker, if not a short sermon? 

And who is its audience, if not the automotive world? 

This, again, accurately reflects theology.  Pluralism contradicts itself, by practicing what it preaches against -- preaching.  It spreads its belief around, that we should stop spreading our beliefs around.  One suspects that the assumption here is that when everyone ELSE shuts up, pluralism will gain a monopoly, and conflict will end and the seas stop rising as  New Millennia dawns.  Thus, western pluralism generally reduces to what Catholic philosopher Gavin D'Costa calls "enlightenment exclusivism."  He contrasted that form of exclusivism critically with the (in his view) more open-minded exclusivism of the Dalai Lama's Tibetan Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism, still more with his own "trinitarian" Catholic beliefs.  A must always exclude non-A, even if A calls itself pluralism.

In other words again, pluralism is yet another of the great "Unity" religions, which never unify, because they turn out just as sectarian and divisive as those they seek to reform, and sometimes more so: Sikhism, Bahai, the Unification Church (Moonies), Yi Guandao, Cao Dai, the New Atheism. 

Or perhaps for some, the message of COEXIST is simply, "Let's be nice to people of other religions?  Everone try to get along, please?"

In which case, I have no objection, of course.  Though of course, "getting along" must mean calling out the Boston cops with stun guns to bust the Islamic terrorists who hijacked the "COEXIST" getaway car.  Also, I prefer Jesus' way of putting it: "Love your neighbor as yourself."  In justice, though, some who affix this slogan to the backs of their cars mean mainly to encourage more kindliness, and perhaps are personally kind to people who disagree with them.  (Though my experience with Unitarians has not been such as to cause me to take this for granted.) 

II. Don't Coexist!

The third bumpersticker seems to encourage an exclusivist mentality:

At face value, the sentiment expressed here seems rather ghastly: don't live side-by-side with neighbors who disagree with you!  What should we do, then, launch a war of extermination? 

I'm sure that's not what is meant, and the verse at the bottom is eschatological: when the Roll is called up Yonder, Mohammed and Buddha won't be there.  Those other, presumably false, religions will die out, as "every knee shall bow" and all come to recognize the supremacy of Jesus and the truth of the Gospel. 

There are different forms of exclusivism.  As mentioned above, in the strict sense, every rational worldview cannot but exclude the full truth of worldviews that differ from it.  In that sense, every religion or ideology is exclusive. 

Someone suggested to me that this bumpersticker may mean no more than that:

A religion at minimum consists of a conjunction of propositions. If a conjunct of a conjunction is false, then the whole conjunction is false (although the other conjuncts might still be true). This is just basic logic.

By that argument, I would have to say, "the Republican party platform is false," because I disagree with SOME planks in that platform, even if I voted straight "R" on my ballot last fall. I don't think anyone seeing that bumpersticker is going to read it as meaning, "There is, among the many propositions conjoined in Zen Buddhism, at least one that is in error." Nor do I think that's what the person who created it was thinking.  It will be read, as it was no doubt intended, as a blanket dismissal of non-Christian religions. 

You may dismiss other religions in one of at least three ways, corresponding to Jesus' claim: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No man comes to the Father but by me."

First, you can embrace ethical exclusivism.  This would be the idea that all other religions either teach nothing but evil, or that their net effect is always evil, perhaps because they deceive people about the truth. This is the point of Christopher Hitchen's god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  All religions (but Hitchen's own, which he did not call a religion) are irredemably given over to harming the planet and the wild creatures and humans (especially women) who seek bread upon it. 

But of course, even what we Christians think of as pagan religion doesn't really poison everything.  I challenge anyone to take a course in the history of Chinese art, and tell me after you're done that China would be an unambiguously more glorious or ethical civilization without "pagan" influence upon it. 

Pluralists often close their eyes to the terrible evils that are not just committed in the name of religion, but also to the fact that the deepest premises of many religions encourage great evil.  One cannot say Aztecs cut out the hearts of their victims "in the name of" Aztec religion. Human sacrifice WAS their religion, or at least a very central part of it. 

Exclusivists commit the opposite mistake.  They take off John Hick's rose-colored glasses, and put on Karl Marx' dark shades, blinding themselves to the great beauty and good that religions (even non-Christian religions) also often encourage. 

It may seem more plausible to say the net effect of non-Christian religions is evil, because those religions distract people from the truth of the Gospel. 

But do they?  Justin Martyr referred to the various schools of Greek philosophy as "tutors to Christ," and for many (including him, and also one could argue St. Augustine), that is how they served.  The Apostle Paul seemed to cite Stoic philosophy, and also quirky local religious cults (the altar to the "unknown god"), when he preached in Athens.  Such examples could be multiplied down through Christian history. 

Even if other religions did mainly compete with Christianity, would it really be fair to look at, say, the call for ethical justice in Judaism, the cry to worship God in Islam, or the call for compassion in Buddhism, and say only Christianity is good, and all other religions are mainly evil?  And then of course they will ask, "What about your inquisitions?  What about Europe's religious wars?   Why did you let priests get away with abusing children?" 

So ethical exclusivism is unfair, at best.  I argue that Jesus Christ has served as the heart and soul of ethical revolution that has changed the world greatly for the better.  But if Jesus himself pointed to a kind Samaritan to explain what he meant when he sai "Love your neighbor as yourself!," who are we to ignore the moral good in other traditions? 

A second option is ontological exclusivism, the idea that Christianity alone is true.  That is expressed in one form by my critic quoted above.  If the conjunction of propositions of which a religion in part consists is false, in fact if any one of those propositions is false, then the religion as a whole must be untrue, he says.  Since Christianity conflicts with every other religion on at least one point, Christianity cannot be true, at the same time any other religion is also deemed wholly true. 

Gavin D'Costa
In essence, this is also Gavin D'Costa's view.  He admits that there is much truth in other traditions, but calls himself an "exclusivist," anyway, since the total Christian (or Catholic) package excludes the total Buddhist or Muslim package.  But I don't see that the term "exclusivism" really makes much sense, here.  In practive, D'Costa is quite sensitive to truth in other traditions, quite unlike this bumpersticker.  I do not think such weak critique of other religions -- "There is, at least, one proposition in modern Judaim or Buddhism that Christians are bound to reject" -- was what its creator had in mind. 

A stronger form of ontological exclusivism is that other religions are wholly false.  But how ignorant does a person have to be to think that?  Forced to think through the implications of this claim, even so obdurant a fundamentalist as Karl Marx or Richard Dawkins might demur.  (Let alone wiser "exclusivists" like Karl Barth, Helmut Kraemer, or certainly Costa.)  Anyway, Jesus said he came to "Fulfill, not abolish" the Law and Prophets that were the heart of Jewish religion.  That rules out strong ontological exclusivism for Christians. One non-Christian religion, for us, is quite true, and the Gospel is based on that premise. 

Finally, one may also hold to soteriological exclusivism, often expressed by interpretting this verse as meaning, "No one will go to heaven (home of the Father) unless they first believe in Jesus."

Ironically, the controversial pastor Rob Bell interprets the verse quoted in this sticker to mean just the opposite: apparently some day, everyone will come to God through Jesus. Bell could also be called an exlusivist, in the eyes of some pluralists, because while he seems to think people of other religions will eventually be saved, it is through Jesus alone that they will get there. So what is excluded, in his view, is not people from heaven, but false religions as the means of salvation.

I would, indeed, argue that the Christian Gospel has transformed the world for the better in a unique way.  But did it do so exclusively?  Or have we had allies at times?  Islam challenged human sacrifice.  Buddhists created hospitals and preserved ancient trees.  Reformist brands of Hinduism, often influenced by the life of Jesus, have challenged caste and abuse of women in India.  Secular humanists staff many worthy human rights organizations. 

If Jesus could praise a semi-pagan Samaritan who helped someone in need, while "ethical Jewish leaders" passed by on the other side, we as Christians should, I think, be careful about excluding people of other faiths from the redemptive work God is accomplishing in this world.  His ways are higher than ours.  Let us not presume to dictate to Him.

III.  What is the Alternative? 

So where are we left, when both sides in the Battle of the Bumperstickers fall on their swords?  How do we think about religion, when Chechnyan terrrorists make their getaway in a car with a "COEXIST" bumpersticker on the back?  What alternative can we fall back upon? 
GKC: Kind to little girls, but not one
to tolerate pink.
Quite a few theologians argue for some compromise model, often labeled "inclusivist."  But as G. K. Chesterton warned, "pink is not a color!"  He meant that Christian theology does not "settle for a happy medium" that simply melts extremes down.  Instead, it seeks to embrace the insights of both extremes at once, even to intensify them or bring them to consummation or "fulfillment."

Over the past six years, I've been developing an alternative model of religions that I call Fulfillment Theology.  I don't claim to be wholly original: I argue that FT is the most biblical model, consistent with the gospels and Paul's approach to the Greeks in Athens and elsewhere.  Many of the greatest missionaries and Christian thinkers down through the ages have applied such a model to other religious traditions.  Four of the chapters of our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, show how this is done in relation to the "primitive" beliefs of the Sawi people in Papua New Guinea (Don Richardson), India (Ivan Satyavrata), and China (Yuan Zhiming), along with a wonderful overview of Christian and world religions in general, by anthropologist Miriam Adeney. 

It's a wonderful book, and at the end of a long post, I don't mind saying, "Please read our new book, to better understand the most biblical and empirically-satisfying alternative to the duel of the bumper-stickers!" 

I'm also hoping to see my academic argument for Fulfillment Theology in print soon.   

But I think as Christians, we ought to be able to look evil in the face, as we have seen the past few days (editing this in April 2013). trace it accurately to its roots, and call it by name.  We ought also be able to recognize grace wherever the Holy Spirit allows it to alight, and trace its implications for our lives.  That is the challenge: to see with both eyes, clearly, gain depth of vision by seeing in stereo, and to deny the truth of neither. 


Unknown said...

Hi, David.

I'm mostly just posting this, to let you know that I saw your post to me, over on Amazon. I am done with that discussion.

Hey, I like the direction that you are taking, here. It's pretty clear that the war against intolerance has become increasingly intolerant. And religion is the scapegoat.

My shul recently hosted a gathering of the followers of Jesus. It was sort of funny. Many of them had never been inside of an Orthodox shul, before. I think that they weren't too sure how to behave. I wasn't at the event. It was hosted by one of our interfaith relations committees, and wasn't oriented toward Jewish attendance. But I guess that some of our leadership and some of their leadership discussed ways of working together.

But the cute thing was that we put out quite a feed for them. Big trays full of bagels, lox, and sliced veggies. And they didn't touch a single bit of it. I think that they were too shy to eat. After their event was over, the trays full of lox and such got brought up to a group of us, who were studying together. My friend, who isn't most tactful person in the world, but he's really a nice guy, leaned across the table toward me, as we fixing our bagels, and said with in amazement, "I guess the goyim don't eat this stuff." :)

David B Marshall said...

Hi, Gen. The most interesting recent discussion was a few blogs back, on faith. Once we left the sillier atheists behind, it became interesting, with Brian and some well-informed theists. (Don't know if they are all Christians.) But of course our volume here still comes and goes.

When it comes to raw vegies, I always think of a cartoon I saw in Hong Kong. American husband, Chinese wife. Husband: "Let's see . . . broccali sticks, raw carrots, daikon . . . what have I forgotten?" Wife, throwing it all into a wok: "To cook it!" Cook the vegies, and this goyim will come. I'll take the bagels raw, though, depending on what you put in them.

Unknown said...

When outside of the US I generally cook the veggies, too. Salad is dangerous stuff, abroad. :)

But this veggies were slices of tomato,onions and cucumber to go on the bagels and lox. Delicious!

David B Marshall said...

If the tomatoes were garden, then their loss was your gain. We ate ours this year from late July up until about the middle of this month: I don't think I can force myself to go back to store-bought tomatoes, for a while. Even better: this year's crop of Concords.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, David. I'm Howard, the "Zealot" reviewer who you said to jog your memory about by mentioning Walter Martin.

I don't know why I'd not encountered either your blog or your books before (or have forgotten). Partly bec. I've been mostly "out of the loop" (and the "fold") of Evangelicalism for nearly two decades now. But I DO frequent many blogs from the more "left" wing of Evangelicalism (RH Evans, Peter Enns, occasionally encounter Rob Bell, Tony Evans, interact with Brian LePort (regularly), Phillip J. Long (Reading Acts), etc., and certainly McLaren--who I've read a few full books by, and heard at length in person).

Before my main point: Interesting intersection for us with Don Richardson, mine being way back, however: Got to have dinner with him with a small group in the early to mid 70s, at Biola/Talbot. Enjoyed his speaking and books on "redemptive analogy", missiology, etc., including "Eternity in Their Hearts", if I remember the title. Interesting, courageous guy! I now see the redemptive analogy matter differently. Regardless, the concept does seem relevant to some of your points in the post.

I am interested to see what you develop in Fulfillment Theology. I do like your thorough breakdown of versions of "exclusivism" in relation to "inclusivism". Personally, I avoid use of such bumper stickers for the very reason of ambiguity/potential misunderstanding they usually carry. Personally, I've taken the "coexist" one in the last way you described.

I'm not a true "pluralist" I think. And not a complete relativist or postmodernist in the sense of "enlightenment exclusivism" (new and interesting phrase to me). I find a better way (than anything else I know of) to deal with both the hierarchy of personal/societal development and the mutual-respect of differing religions (and sub-sets within religions) in Integral theory (ala Ken Wilber et al). In this system we accept "superior" and "inferior", but only within careful criteria... not that those can be airtight, either.

The latest and I believe the fullest development of Integral theory as applied within Christian categories and esp. the teachings of Jesus and "movings" of Spirit/spirit is found in "Integral Christianity" by Paul Smith. I find almost full alignment with his views there, and would MUCH enjoy participating in his church (pastored for 45+ years!) in KC, Mo., if it were not 1500 miles away. Have you read it and/or reviewed it? (con't below)

Anonymous said...

(Con't from above)

I think the subset of Progressive Christians that are "Integral" like Smith and quite a few others, Catholic and Protestant, including myself are your real conversation partners, not "New Atheists" or Secular Humanists. Esp. re. atheists, even the moderate/gentle ones usually, they DO tend to only be reacting to ONE kind of Christian faith/God. They get the interest of many people, but I think few are seriously influenced.

On the other hand, I believe there is real momentum and vitality developing in one part (the less rationalist, "Enlightenment" part) of Progressive Xnty which will require the increasing engagement of Evangelicals and other Xn conservatives. But only those who have been or are marginally still within the Evangelical "fold", such as Bell, Tony Jones, RH Evans, McLaren, etc. are so far being engaged, for the most part. At least that I've seen.

I see hardly anyone yet engaging the "Integral Christianity" people or the "older" Process people (with whom I also align) such as Cobb, Griffin, Ogden, DD Williams, etc.... Even Bruce Epperly, who I think is closer to standard Evangelical than most Process people. Maybe I'm being obtuse, but I can't yet see just why the more open, thinking Evangelicals won't engage the Process paradigm and its agenda more frequently and seriously (other than Pinnock, now passed on as you no doubt know, who they HAVE... but who was NOT fully Process).

My main hunch is that it's just too hard and/or threatening to do so... to break out of the supernatural theism vs. naturalistic atheism polarity. (With Eastern pantheism seeming little different than Western naturalism, at least on the surface... an issue you'd know WAY more about than I.) Your thoughts?

David B Marshall said...

Howard: No particular reason you should have run across me: I'm not famous, I'm barely even infamous.

Oddly enough, I don't think of myself as an "evangelical" -- just as a middle-of-the-road Christian, who has read a lot, thought a lot, but still has a whole lot more questions than answers.

I like Plato, but I'm not fond of the Gnostics, or what they did to Plato. (Or to Jesus.) I wrote a little book called "The Truth about Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels'" in which I argued there were no such things, and Thomas et al would not have been an improvement in much of any sense -- if we're going to do mysticism, I prefer my Buddhism straight. So I doubt I'd see eye-to-eye with Paul Smith on much. But maybe I'll give him a shot, some time.

Anonymous said...

David: Appreciate your humility. While there may be some fundamental things (as to views of the Bible, authoritative theology, etc) we disagree on, I have already seen that you DO indeed do more reading/thinking that all but the top 1% or so of PEOPLE, let along "middle-of-the-road" Christians. (BTW, I do think the evidence gives a slight edge on amount of reading/thinking to "non-Christians", be they "Secular Humanists", atheists or very "liberal" [i.e., heretical] Xns.)

Curious, as a "middle of the road" Xn, do you have any system or a creed (Nicene, etc.) that you like to point to as a summary of your basic beliefs? I know that "Evangelical" has become almost as broad and un-defining a label as "Christian", but not quite.

I'm not quite clear on your comments about gnostics, Thomas, and such; and how that related to affinity with Paul Smith. As to the Buddhism aspect, are you getting at the fact that Integral, at least as per the lead guy, Wilber, draws some from Buddhism and that he is at least somewhat a Buddhist himself (more than a Christian)? I'm not sure how Smith or the other Integral Christians think about or address what may also be Buddhist influences on their thinking.

My own form of "Integral Xnty" does not have much relation to Buddhism, at least not consciously, mostly because I've not read much within that system, been close to Buddhists or even become very advanced in meditation, tho I have practiced basics of it for many years (not signficantly different now than in my Evangel. years).

What I do think Wilber seems to be right about is that Buddhism is/has a much more developed system for developing self-awareness, self-management or "inner psychology" (don't know if that's his exact term) than does Xnty. And I say that having taken "Xn Psychology" at Biola (MFCC) and practiced with mainly Xns for a decade.

Have you read Wilber's "Integral Spirituality"? Since you don't sound very eager about Smith (the other Smith, J.Z., may be actually more important, in an academic sense, when combined with Mack's overall work), I'd say you definitely need to read Integral Spirituality if you haven't.... Even if you've read some other Wilber. I'm pretty sure that book is the key (so far) expression of the grounding theory which is increasingly influencing many thinking/writing people in "spirituality" and will "filter down" more and more... those people constituting the real "conversation partners" for Xn leaders, not the New Atheists or Secular Humanists. (If you weren't aware, btw, in the book Wilber blasts typical "postmodern" thinking about as hard as any Xn I've read.)

David B Marshall said...

Howard: I read some Amazon reviews of Smith and Wilber. There seemed to be a near-consensus that the book you mentioned was not Wilber at his best: apparently you disagree. If I do get one his books, or Smith's, I do want to read the right one.

I tend to agree that I've been caught up too much in recent years in the New Atheism debate. If I were going to explain that psychologically, I'd point to two factors: (1) I like to argue, so do Gnus; (2) while I find Taoist philosophy, or even Buddhist religion, much more attractive emotionally than atheism, I tend to find atheism more plausible intellectually. (Which may be a curious fact about me, given all the evidence I think there is for Christianity.)

As to creeds, that's not the way I think. I'm more like a hunter-gatherer, than the chief of a city who builds high walls around his town. I believe in God, the uniqueness of Jesus, the fact of miracles, that God is working through Christ in the world, and in the physical Resurrection, not because those are dogmas I've accumulated in my city and now defend behind impervious walls, but because I find them outside the walls, on the broad plains of empirical reality. But I still wander, and wonder. God isn't evident everywhere, at least not to me, at least not yet. But that, again, may be just a fact about myself.

Anonymous said...

David, as to Wilber's books, I've only read a couple beyond Integral Spirituality, and short parts of a few more, so I'm not capable of actually a good comparison. But, besides "A Sociable God" (which I have read), I think he'd say himself that this one goes far deeper on issues of religion and spirituality in relation to his general developmental scheme than any others of his books. I have read a fair amount of developmental theories (and my own ebook on spiritual growth, which I'm happy to send you a copy of... just 100 large font pages, if you'd like, summarizes aspects of them), and I do think Wilber's is the most comprehensive and broadly useful system, particularly for intellectual interaction (leaving application to the individual or spiritual/emotional leaders). That's whether or not one agrees with his "theology". So yes, I'd start with Wilber and with Integral Spirituality if coming in "fresh" I think. I wouldn't say that for the "average" reader but for you I would.

Different subj. but "small world" stuff maybe of interest: My mother's side is almost all Mennonite (esp. "General Conf." or its current expression), several of whom were missionaries, at least one couple in China... "Clear Shining After Rain" is a book by one of my rel's (Matilda Voth, I think, who I barely met, if I did, as a kid. Mom's maiden name was Voth, and Jantzen on her mom's side, with Claasens, etc. mixed in). It's on their experiences in China mainly I think.... Interestingly, I never had enough interest to read it, getting it well after seminary and my particular interest in missions.

Though my mom never talked at length about Mennonite views, theology, etc. and we never attended their churches (mostly bec. none existed nearly close enough, perhaps), I did interact some with the tradition, mostly outside extended family, and felt affinity with their peace and peace-making emphasis and other aspects of the Anabaptist tradition.