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On September 14, 2001, as the United States was still coming to grips with al Qaeda’s assault on New York and Washington, D.C., dignitaries gathered in the national cathedral to memorialize the dead and show forth the country’s resolve to stand united against its attackers. Though ostensibly a Christian house of worship, the clergy leading the service did not all represent the Christian faith. In fact, a rabbi and an imam both had roles in the “worship,” which was opened with an invocation calling upon the “God of Abraham and Mohammed and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
The most striking thing about this service was not that non-Christians took an active part therein. Rather, it was that few adherents to the belief systems represented spoke out against those clergy who, by sitting alongside one another on the platform, implicitly affirmed Judaism, Islam, and Christianity as valid pathways to the Creator. Setting aside questions of whether any of these three systems are true or false for a moment, any objective observer must wonder how those clergy could have thought of doing what they did. Given that these major religions hold vastly different ideas of God, the human predicament, and the deity of Jesus Christ, a committed believer in any of these creeds could never find it acceptable even to imply that Jews, Muslims, and Christians all serve the same God.
However, this assumption that all beliefs are equally true and valid is precisely what our culture is trying to force upon us each and every day. In the name of tolerance we are told that it “does not matter what you believe, as long as you believe it sincerely.” The truly enlightened, it is said, do not only accept the existence of other religious truth claims, they also affirm them all as paths by which we can find our way up the mountain to God, whoever we want Him to be.
This appeal to “tolerance” is the way our secular culture responds to the reality in which we now live. We find ourselves today in a brave new world. If a mosque has not yet opened in your town, it will probably not be much longer before the minaret appears in the skyline. Perhaps your next-door neighbor today is a Christian. Do not be surprised if a practicing Buddhist moves in tomorrow. You might hear a knock at your door from a friendly Mormon missionary as you read this article. The world, with all its vast religious diversity has come to our neighborhoods, opening up all sorts of new economic and social opportunities. Taking advantage of this situation requires us to get along with those holding these vastly different worldviews, and the easiest way to get along with these individuals is to avoid “rocking the boat.” Of course, the only way to avoid rocking the boat is never to tell someone that they might be wrong, especially in their practice of religion. For the good of all we must “tolerate” those around us.
Of course, to construe tolerance in this way is to grossly misunderstand the virtue. Tolerance is a good thing, when rightly practiced. For example, I can tolerate my atheist neighbor by being charitable and friendly toward him, respecting him as a person, and seeking to understand his views honestly rather than some caricature of his ideas. But there is a distinct difference between toleration and affirmation. We have embraced affirmation and not toleration if tolerance means that I cannot tell my atheist friend that he is mistaken regarding God’s existence.
That our culture is really pursuing affirmation and not toleration can be seen in the outrage that is voiced any time Christians tell the media that Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). If our society really practiced toleration, then people would not have such a visceral reaction to such statements. They might not agree with us, but they would refrain from calling us ignorant or arrogant when we are faithful to the message of our Lord and Savior. Were our culture to practice toleration authentically, they would not attempt to silence us even if they could not embrace our position. It is clear therefore that the so-called “tolerance” our society embraces is actually the most insidious form of intolerance. Western culture at large freely “tolerates” any worldview as long as that worldview does not claim that other views are false. The only exclusive claim one can make is that no one can make an exclusive claim.
As a result of such “intolerant tolerance,” evangelism is more and more being seen as the greatest crime against humanity. For example, you might be labeled anti-Semitic if you suggest that Jewish men and women, as much as anyone else, need Jesus to save them. In any library it is easy to find anthropology books bemoaning the conversion of tribal peoples to the Gospel or guidebooks for religious dialogue that advocate a surrender of the exclusivity of Christ as the only way to have an authentic conversation with the non-Christians around us. The pressure to surrender the biblical and historic affirmation that salvation comes only through personal, conscious faith in Jesus is enormous and will only increase in the years ahead unless we see great revival in our land.
In this situation it is tempting for us to be on the defensive, to hunker down in our churches and adopt an “us against them” mentality that keeps us in a Christian ghetto and does not propel us into active outreach to the lost around us. Yet this cannot be our response. The very first Christians faced a similar world wherein different religions were “tolerated” as long as their adherents did not make a stir, but they did not build walls around themselves. Instead, they went forth to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. We are to do the same. Despite the confusion and problems that come with having people with vastly different worldviews living around us, we must recognize that God has brought the nations to us. We are able to share the faith with people who originate from countries that are closed to the Gospel. This is a tremendous privilege and opportunity for us to be an integral part of our Father’s plan to bring some from every tongue and tribe into His kingdom (Rev. 7:9–12).
How can we make the most of our opportunity to reach the world in our own backyards? I would suggest five ways:
First, we must make sure that we have a solid grasp on the basics of the Christian faith. The Gospel way of salvation is vastly different than the system found in any other religion, and it runs contrary to the salvation by one’s own good-works mentality to which fallen humanity is inclined. We can never know too much about our Savior and must constantly remind ourselves of the core doctrines of Christianity so that we are able to proclaim them accurately. The editors of Tabletalk endeavor to provide readers each month with articles and resources that affirm orthodox, biblical Christianity. Catechisms, books, and countless other materials from all eras of church history are available online, in bookstores, and in libraries across the United States.
Second, we need to have a good understanding of those with whom we dialogue. In discussing religious differences it can be easy to mischaracterize the beliefs of those who do not follow Christ. Such mischaracterizations prevent us from accurately critiquing other worldviews and show no respect for the non-Christian. Both of these errors violate 1 Peter 3:15–16, which implores us to defend the truth with gentleness and respect. If you have a Muslim friend, learn about Islam and its differences with Christianity. Understand your neighbor’s particular Buddhist tradition so that you can counter the errors she believes with the truth. Do what you can to address real issues, not hastily constructed straw men.
Third, let us help the unbeliever question the assumption that religious truth is less absolute than mathematics or science. We do not say it is alright for some to believe that two plus two equals four while others can believe that two plus two equals five. Why should we approach religious truth any differently?
Fourth, help the religious pluralist see that he does not really believe that all roads lead to heaven. If he did, then he would not express outrage at suicide bombings, human sacrifice, and other such practices that even staunch religious pluralists find abhorrent. One cannot consistently embrace religious pluralism and relativism and at the same time object to any religious belief or practice. If sincerity is all that matters for salvation, religious terrorists who sincerely believe their god calls them to kill others do nothing wrong when they obey him. To condemn even one religious belief is to appeal to some ultimate, normative standard by which we may evaluate religion, establishing that standard as the one, true religion — and there can be no one, true religion for the honest religious pluralist.
Finally, we must love those who in this pluralistic culture do not yet trust Christ. Let us pray for their salvation and preach the Gospel, but may we never see them as nonentities or mere ideas that need refuting. Befriend them. Do good to them. Go the extra mile and understand their concerns, hopes, and fears (1 Peter 2:15). Since God loved us when we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8), can we do any less than to love those around us?