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.
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:
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.
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.
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.