Thursday, April 7, 2011

Following Jesus Into a Pluralistic World

I have been thinking a lot lately about the possibility of being a Christian pluralist. Thank you to all who took the time to read my recent series of posts on the subject. Judging by the number of hits I got, it looks like this subject generated some serious interest! Of course, this is not surprising to me at all. Religious pluralism as a socio-cultural phenomenon is a reality, regardless of how we as Christians respond – with theological exclusivism, inclusivism, or some form of pluralism. As I wrote in my series on pluralism, globalization is a major reason for the changes in how everyone thinks about religion. The comparative theologian John Thatamanil writes that globalization “names an omnipolar movement of capital, technology, people, and ideas that renders obsolete an older story that speaks of a simple unidirectional flow of modernity from West to East.” And thanks to globalization’s dynamic movement of ideas, “Christians do Zen, Buddhists engage in social activism, and everyone does Yoga.”

With this globalizing movement comes greater awareness of the religious other in a way that is unprecedented in the history of the world. People respond to this phenomenon in various ways: they give up on everything associated with religion altogether (secularists, atheists, agnostics); they retreat into a narrow conservativism (fundamentalism); they become “spiritual but not religious” (everything from unaffiliated Christians who reject all labels but keep most of their beliefs to New Age and syncretism); they embrace “multiple religious belonging” (Buddhist-Christians, Hindu-Christians, Jewish-Buddhists, etc); or perhaps they become more theologically inclusive/pluralistic within a single tradition. At Claremont School of Theology, I know quite a few persons who embrace multiple religions in surprisingly thoughtful ways, but even more who are just pluralists of some form or another. One could also cite the recent book from Rob Bell, “Love Wins”, as an example of Christians moving towards a more inclusive spirit in response to globalization. Notice that Bell calls our attention to Ghandi - a rather unorthodox, though heroic Hindu - as a reason to rethink exclusivism.

If you have read my blog series on pluralism, you know how I am personally processing this phenomenon. I am interested in preserving as much particularity as possible while also affirming as much truth in the religious other as possible. This is a delicate balancing act, to be sure. However, as a follower of Jesus, I am convinced that it is worth the effort. Jesus’ most central teaching is to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. Although I express my love to God in various ways, love of neighbor is surely supreme. In a pluralistic context, love in the way of Jesus means more than mere tolerance – it means deep generosity and warm hospitality. Loving our Buddhist neighbor today means that we should actually open ourselves to their stories and insights, in the hopeful expectation that we might be moved, challenged, and transformed in some way by them. Love requires openness and even vulnerability towards the other. If we cannot be at least open to discovering genuine truth in the religious other, then our love for them is neither sincere nor Christ-like.

As the theologian John Cobb writes, “if we truly place Jesus at the center, we may be completely open to appreciate what happens in other communities with other centers.”

My prayer for all of us who follow Jesus is this:
May we develop the courage to build deep friendships with the religious other.
May we learn to listen to the religious other without the constant urge to convert them.
May we go beyond tolerance towards a love that hopes for mutual transformation.
May we faithfully follow Jesus into this new and exciting pluralistic world.

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