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A Christian approach to religious pluralism

Posted August 29, 2023 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

A Christian approach to religious pluralism

Posted August 29, 2023 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

With more than 50% of the world’s population currently identifying as either Christian or Muslim, it’s vital that we discern how the Qur’an is both like and unlike the Bible.[1] I undertook that challenge in my book The Qur’an in Context: A Christian Exploration.[2] The Christian exploration often gets bogged down in theological questions—for example, Is the God of the Qur’an the same as the God of the Bible? On the Muslim side, the discussion often gets stuck on the question of the Bible’s alleged corruption because Muslims believe the Qur’an teaches that it had to replace the biblical scriptures since they had become corrupted.

It’s understandable that Christians and Muslims see those questions as important, and I take pains to address them in my book. However, it’s equally vital that we consider the radically different kinds of community the Christian and Muslim scriptures call us to. Here we must keep in mind that the Muslim faith favors its original language—classical Arabic—over all others in a way Christianity does not. For example, whether a Muslim knows Arabic or not, their required daily prayers are acceptable only recited in Arabic. Likewise, Muslims don’t view the Qur’an as translatable in the sense that the Bible is to Christians.[3]

This also bears on how the two religions approach the issue of pluralism. Here’s part of my answer to the question of the sort of pluralism Christianity envisions for the world and how it differs from that of Islam:

“The Bible’s approach to the social dichotomy [believers vs. unbelievers] differs radically from that of the Qur’an in terms of the faith community’s relations to outsiders. While both scriptures call believers to invite outsiders to share their peace, the peace the Qur’an envisions is geopolitical in nature and established by force if need be.[4] Biblically, by contrast, the human flourishing to which believers invite unbelievers is rooted in each individual’s relationship with God and the unity Christ established in the new humanity, his Church.[5] We are called to live out of the peace he established, even as we invite others to embrace it and look for the day when he returns to make it a universal, geopolitical reality. In accord with this, the New Testament fostered in the Early Church an openness to outsiders that is revolutionary even today.

“To begin, the Christian community is exclusive not just for its own sake, but very much also that it might be inclusive:  it exists for outsiders too. New Testament believers are called to follow Jesus’ example and offer themselves in costly service to others and to do so whether or not the recipients of their love embrace their message.[6] We are to do good not just to the members of the ‘household of faith,’ but to everyone everywhere, to whatever degree we can—and like Jesus, to do good for love’s sake, no strings attached.[7] Our exclusivity thus becomes ‘a springboard towards all humanity.’[8] All that the New Testament then mandates of engagement with the world—including bold proclamation and humble invitation—is to be done for love’s sake, leaving the results to God.

“The New Testament also evidences its own distinctive approach to pluralism, linguistically, culturally and religiously. Jesus taught not in the hallowed language of scripture, Hebrew, but rather in everyday Aramaic. And following his example, the apostles translated his message into vernacular Greek in the New Testament. Acts 2 shows the Holy Spirit embracing a broad multiplicity of languages at Pentecost and Acts 10 presents the apostles as breaking free from Judaism’s cultural absolutism.[9] Biblically, this means that ‘no one language or culture is privileged over any other’[10] and that God sees every culture as redeemable. The New Testament also provides the basis for freedom of belief within an atmosphere of healthy religious pluralism.

“The gospel would not be good news if God had come to earth—in Jesus—as the one person in the room with the mic or, worse, a military general issuing ultimatums. Rather, it shows us a God who assumed a position of vulnerability right from his birth in a lowly manger. Infuriated that an outsider would challenge them and their dogmas, the powerbrokers in his society mistook his humility for weakness and conspired to condemn him falsely and crucify him. In fact, they could not possibly have forced anything on him—he freely chose to endure it.

“What would induce an omnipotent God to endure such abuse at the hands of his subjects? Only love. Had he wanted mere submission, he could simply have silenced all dissenters. Had he been content with external conformity, he could easily have brought an army to enforce his will. But God desires our love and you cannot mandate that:  if it is not freely chosen, it is not love. God knew that safeguarding the freedom essential to love would cost him everything. But for love’s sake, he willingly paid the price.[11] Thus, the life he asks of us is but ‘the joyful response of our whole being to his love.’[12] For God came to earth not to command our love, but to win it.

“We find the very same thing in the apostles. It was not by accident that they went out as lambs among wolves, evangelizing from a position of weakness, as outsiders—even prisoners.[13] For its first few centuries—until Constantine and his successors domesticated the gospel—the Church displayed this same vulnerability-by-design. With no geopolitical ambitions, it imposed its views on no one. Similarly, the New Testament calls believers to destroy their own idols, never those of others.[14] Instead it evidences a remarkable openness to the other. In Athens, Paul freely recognized the polytheists’ experience of God, limited though it was, and humbly acknowledged truth wherever he found it, quoting contemporary pagan writers and crediting his sources.[15] He evidently claimed no monopoly on either goodness or truth.”[16]

 

[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/  Accessed December 12, 2022.

[2] Mark Robert Anderson, The Qur’an in Context: A Christian Exploration (Downers Grover, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2016).

[3] While translations of the Qur’an abound, Muslims view them as mere interpretations of their holy book.

[4] Ideally, everyone should freely submit to the truth of the Qur’an. However, any peoples choosing not to do so were forced not to convert, but only to submit to Muslim rule and law. In that sense, Islam’s worldwide community was to be made universal by force.

[5] Rom. 5:1-2, Eph. 2:14-22.

[6] Mt. 25:40, 1 Pet. 2:21.

[7] Lk.6:35, Gal. 6:10, 1 Tim. 6:18, 1 Thes. 5:15.

[8] As Jean Vanier says, in order to embrace universal brotherhood, we must first love our own people. Community and Growth (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 1989), 17.

[9] Lamin O. Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), 29, 47, 214-15.

[10] Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008), 254, n. 19.

[11] Isa. 42:2-3, 53:1-12.

[12] Thomas R. Kelly, Reality of the Spiritual World (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1942), 16. 1 John 4:19.

[13] Mt. 10:16.

[14] Lk.16:13, 1 Cor. 10:14, Col. 3:5, cf. Mt. 7:5

[15] Acts 17:23, 27-28. In addition, the New Testament writers frequently quoted (or referred to) the Old Testament writings, freely crediting them when they did so.

[16] Mark Robert Anderson, The Qur’an in Context: A Christian Exploration (Downers Grover, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2016) 136-38.

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