Respecting Religion

Adam Hamilton, in the closing video of his series on World Religions, offers his congregation an explanation of why he finds Christianity compelling. As is always the case with Hamilton, it is a clear and compelling message. However, as an effort to show respect and openness it fails. For apart from Hamilton’s justifiable preference as a Christian for the reliability of the Christian witness to Jesus, his presentation is based on a misreading of both the teachings and the aims of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. In brief, Hamilton characterizes all of these religions as offering a hard road to an impossible to please God or an impossible to realize spiritual life.

This caricature of great religions is based on the assumption that resolving Hamilton’s own sin-drenched characterization of human life in relation to the divine is the only legitimate aim of religion. It fails to recognize, and state, that non-Christian religions don’t share this theological anthropology, and therefore cannot be understood as failed answers to a Christian question. Judaism never saw keeping the 613 commandments (as Hamilton enumerates them) as difficult, or strictly speaking necessary to a relationship with God.  And rationally speaking, by the way, that is far fewer laws that the average American must know and obey on a daily basis just to live in an apartment and drive to work. Buddhism, agnostic about God’s existence, offers a path toward true self-realization that is far more varied than Hamilton recognizes. And indeed in one form offers its followers their ultimate goal by grace alone.

From the standpoint of respect what Hamilton fails to realize is that real respect means understanding non-Christian religions as they are understood by their followers, not as they are understood from within a Western, Christian framing of reality. Saying this isn’t to advocate a pluralism in which all religions are equally valid; for that would assume some universal measure of validity that humans can grasp. Rather it relocates inter-religious discussion to the different ways in which it can be most useful.

The first of these is finding those shared goals and aspirations that will make up the basis for living in a shared community whether at a local or regional or national level. One thing is clear from the history of inter-religious interactions: Christians can live fruitfully with people of other world religions, but have never been able to fruitfully overcome entrenched theological differences with those religions. The great religions are incomparable, and have never been successfully synthesized. Nor have more than a thousand years of apologetics on the part of each (excluding perhaps Judaism, which shows little interest) succeeded in persuading a significant number of people to change their religious affiliation – certainly not among scholars and religious leaders most frequently engaged in such theological debates.

Which leads to a second point. Successful Christian evangelism does not take place when an incomparable worldview is used to advance an alien solution to an unknown problem. Rather it takes place when the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its fullness is allowed to address people as they understand themselves and their human need. Hamilton’s genius as an evangelist seems to have been his early ability to listen to the needs of marginalized and disenfranchised in society, accept them as Christ accepts his own, and address them with a gospel relevant to their desire for whole and fruitful lives. But in its beginnings, and even more now, he preaches to individuals who, however far from being religious, are deeply socialized into a Western Christian way of understanding themselves and their problems. To extend his genius into other cultural settings requires beginning with the process of listening and acceptance, then allowing the stories about Jesus, as found in their normative New Testament form, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to speak the Good News.

This model has no place for the other genius of Hamilton and his fellow American evangelicals: marketing and management. Beyond our cultural boundaries we can neither imagine how to pitch the good news nor how to efficiently organize an authentic response. Yes, American style marketing campaigns can sell Jesus like Big Macs, but the ultimate loyalty of the buyers may be as ephemeral as their love for suet drenched burgers whose visceral appeal hardly elevates their sense of taste. The American Jesus on offer in much of the world outside the U.S. likewise appeals, but too often appeals at a level that scarcely elevates the human Spirit to God.

The only truly useful quality the evangelist has to bring in crossing cultures is fidelity to Christ and a commitment to look for his face in that of the stranger. True, with a host of technological marvels we can cast our aspirations into the ears of people worldwide. Yet ultimately the Spirit in its freedom will choose to breath through our words or not, giving us cause for thanks, but never for self-congratulations or self-pity.

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