I just returned from a weekend in beautiful San Juan Capistrano, California. I spoke at The Case for the Real Jesus conference, which was centered on Lee Strobel’s recent book by the same title. Reclaiming the Mind Ministries colleague Dan Wallace was there, and we enjoyed some great late-evening dinnertime conversation together. Dan spoke on the reliability of the New Testament text. As he did at the recent Greer-Heard Forum at which we both presented, he pointed out the startling contrast in textual scholar Bart Ehrman’s approaches to popular-level audiences, on the one hand, and to scholarly audiences on the other. Ehrman is misleading when writing to popular audiences, but more sober-minded and conservative to the scholarly. To the former, he suggests that Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and Incarnation are affected by variant textual readings and that the fact that there are more textual variants than there are words in the New Testament should lead us to skepticism regarding its reliability. To the latter, however, he has (in his work with his esteemed late mentor at Princeton, Bruce Metzger) argued that the New Testament’s textual reliability is sound. In fact, in his paperback (i.e., post-hardcover) edition of Misquoting Jesus, he had to qualify his popular-level skepticism by inserting that essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament and that this position doesn’t stand at odds with Metzger’s. By the way, Lee Strobel had interviewed Metzger for The Case for Christ, where Metzger clearly stated that his Christian faith had been strengthened—not weakened—through the abundant and reliable New Testament manuscripts available to us. (If you want to read further, see Dan Wallace’s article on this Ehrman: http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=3452.)
Sean McDowell, who also helped organize the conference, did a great job addressing the topic of Christianity’s allegedly being a “copycat religion” of Mediterranean mystery cults. If anything, it was the Christian faith that had an influence on these other religions! (In addition to Lee’s Real Jesus book, see Ronald Nash’s Gospel and the Greeks for a thorough refutation.) According to New Testament historian N.T. Wright, efforts to find parallels between Christianity and these mystery religions “have failed, as virtually all Pauline scholars now recognize,” and to do so “is an attempt to turn the clock back in a way now forbidden by the most massive and learned studies on the subject (What Saint Paul Really Said, 172, 173).
Of course, Lee Strobel was also there. He told his own story of how he, as an atheist, investigated the claims and evidences surrounding Jesus life and ministry, and this investigation resulted in the real, historical Jesus’ transforming his life!
I guess it’s starting to look like my blog is a report on the conference! Actually, I do want to write about some of the things I spoke on this past weekend. I addressed the topic of religious pluralism—the idea that all (ethical) religions, though culturally-conditioned, are equally capable of bringing salvation or liberation, which is evidenced by the production of “saints” in the various religions—Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama. My talk began by citing Oprah Winfrey, who claimed on her show that it’s a big mistake to believe there is just one way to salvation: “There are millions of ways to be a human being and many paths to what you call ‘God’; . . . there couldn’t possibly be just one way” (February 15, 2007).
In my next blog, I’ll offer a few critical responses to religious pluralism. One of those criticisms is that religious pluralists surely don’t act as though their view is merely culturally-conditioned. They seem to assume that they’ve risen above their own cultural conditioning to give us the actual, objective scoop on religions. (Just as pluralists say, “If you grew up in Saudi Arabia, you’d probably be a Muslim,” we could reply, “And if you grew up in a society of religious pluralists, you’d probably be a religious pluralist.” It’s hard to know what conclusion to draw from the “geography argument.”) Religious pluralists sound quite similar—indeed, logically equivalent—to orthodox Christianity, which claims that God has broken through the confusions of cultural conditioning to reveal himself in Christ! Oprah is basically saying, “All roads lead to ‘God,’ and all those who think otherwise about this point are wrong.”
Well, back to a few points on religious diversity! Next time I’ll look at some concerns with religious pluralism itself.) When trying to come to grips with the uniqueness of Christ in the face of the world’s religious, we should first remember that all truth is God’s truth — whether within the Christian faith or outside it. Some Christians make the mistake that if God’s revelation in Christ is wholly true, then all other religions are 100% false. This is inaccurate. Romans 2:14-15 reminds us that Christians and non-Christians can agree about a lot of moral truths since we’ve all been made in God’s image. Consider Paul’s exemplary communication at Athens. In Acts 17, Paul cited pagan (Stoic) thinkers who spoke of God as the Creator and Sustainer, who is not contained by man-made temples. So Christians should pay attention to commonalities and bridges with other religionists by affirming God-originated truth when we come across it. Buddhists or Confucians believe in honoring parents or in religious freedom. Muslims maintain that an eternally existent God created the universe, with which Christians readily agree. Christians can work together with Muslims or Buddhists in opposing tyranny and oppression throughout the world. Because all persons are God’s image-bearers, Christians can affirm that the poor or illiterate need to be helped without making basic aid or education contingent on receiving the gospel.
We can add that that Christ truly fulfills the deepest longings of all religions—the need for grace, hope, forgiveness, and purification; the need to connect with the transcendent and immortality, and so forth. Rather than focusing on trying to “refute” religions (although there is a place for discussing truth and error in religious beliefs), Christians haven’t been very good about understanding other religious perspectives sufficiently to graciously show how Christ comes as the answer to the intellectual resources, weighty problems, and felt needs raised by these religions.
Second, non-Christians who think Christians are narrow-minded for believing in Jesus’ uniqueness need to remember that he spoke of it first. Non-Christians who are offended by claims that Jesus is the only Savior need to know that this claim originated with Jesus; Christians didn’t make this up. The earliest Christians were simply faithfully abiding by the implications of Jesus’ identity claims, his authoritative actions, and his resurrection from the dead (for example, Matthew 11:27; John 14:6; compare Acts 4:10; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 2 Corinthians 5:19). The critic must ultimately contend with Jesus’ own authoritative and staggering identity claims—not with Christians who take his them seriously.
Third, religious dialogue requires equal respect, not equality of belief. Here is a common interfaith scenario: Christians are invited to prayer breakfasts, dialogues, and panel discussions, but they’re told that they can’t pray in Jesus’ name or mention Jesus’ uniqueness because this might offend Jews or Muslims. But isn’t that restriction offensive to Christians? Why is it permissible to offend Christians but not Jews and Muslims? After all, Christians don’t know how to pray except in the name of Jesus. So a Christian invited to such events needs to be allowed to pray as a Christian, not as a Deist praying to some generic deity. In dialogue, he needs to graciously speak as a Christian rather than accept a lowest-common-denominator approach to the discussion.
Religious dialogue must begin with the equality of persons, not belief. Participants can discuss their individual views and experiences openly, and all sides can benefit from empathetically listening to clarify views and to prevent the creation of caricatures and stereotypes (James 1:19 reminds us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak”). Furthermore, each participant should be allowed to give publicly-accessible reasons for believing what he does.
Fourth, religion—including idolatrous conceptions of God within Christendom—may prevent people from knowing the living God. As with many religious leaders in Jesus’ day, religiosity may hinder people from salvation and from savingly encountering God. In India, I have witnessed Hindu festivals in which people cut and gouge their bodies. Rather than being “happy as they are,” many religionists live in bondage to evil spirits or are oppressed by karma, bound by superstition, and paralyzed by fear of death. The true Christian, who has experienced grace, forgiveness, and hope, shouldn’t be arrogant when passing on the good news. Rather, she should be like one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread—indeed, the Bread of life (John 6:35)! As one Muslim convert to Christ declared, “The more I see of the world’s religions, the more beautiful Jesus appears to me.”