Friday, October 7, 2011

Does Religious Tolerance Stand in the Way of Christ?

It has been said by some Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians that religious tolerance stands in the way of Christ.  This attitude has all but prevented many Christians from engaging in interfaith dialogue with those of other faiths, for fear that they will appear to be endorsing the truth of these other religions, or at least endorsing their right to exist and to be considered equally valid methods of salvation and approach to the divine.  Seen from their point of view—from an exclusivist perspective in which Christ is the only way, and that any compromise of this standpoint is tantamount to denying Christ— they are correct.  However, whose conception of Christ are we speaking of?  How would Jesus Christ himself feel about this? 

To answer these questions is not as simple as most would believe.  It has been very easy for people throughout Christian history to claim that their conception of Christ, his teaching and his current will, are the only valid perspective and interpretation of the Christian message.  And those who misquote Jesus and twist his words to suit their own theological platforms are guilty no less a crime than what was done to the Christians by their Roman persecutors, an attempt to silence them. 

What is the proper understanding of Jesus’ apparent exclusive claims to truth?
Many Christians claim that Jesus’ intent was that Christianity should supersede all other religions and therefore nullify them.  In fact, there is little evidence that Jesus of Nazareth ever intended to create a new religion, but that he worked for an inner Jewish reform movement in which the contemporary Temple priesthood, which he considered corrupt, would be judged and rendered negligible (either directly by God or by an overwhelming movement to replace them), and the iniquities of the many contemporary sects of Judaism would be brought to light and changed—or proven to be wanting at the moment of the apocalypse.  Seen in this light, any statements made by him in the gospels, to the effect that his is the only way, should be seen as directed toward his opponents within Judaism and not seen as condemning all Judaism and all other religions.  The claims of Christians who believe that Jesus intended to found an entirely new religion that should supersede Judaism are unfounded.  Even in the Gospel of John, he states that he has other sheep not of this fold.  His statement therein that one comes to the Father only through him also needs to be seen in context: within the framework of a mystical sect of Christianity which sought reunification with the divine through the journey of the soul and envisioned the world through the lenses of a confluence of Hellenistic cosmologies, created by an emanation or personification (hypostasis) of the rational mind of God and accessible and understandable through the revelations of this semi-divine being. Other than that, Christianity becomes unintelligible, a mere watered down and popularized version of a highly complex devotional pathway to the divine.  To claim that Jesus meant that all religions of the world were to be replaced by his ‘new religion’ is patently to misunderstand Christianity. 

In addition, what Jesus highlights as the most important element of all Jewish belief, and therefore the key to his own mission is that one must love God above all else, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  The trappings of Trinitarianism, a fourth century AD doctrine conceived of initially as a compromise between warring theological factions; the insistence upon the subjugation and suppression of all other religions; the vilification and even demonization of the Jews, as a people, as if they were wholly responsible for the death of Jesus—all of these are concepts which spring from years of ecclesiastical development and not from Jesus himself.  To deny someone their right to worship God in the manner they see fit is exactly what Jesus was battling against in the form of the religious legalism of his opponents.

Christian supersessionism and domination
Throughout Christian history, there have been many attempts to supersede and suppress other religions, and even variant attitudes and sects of Christian belief.  Oftimes, these have been very bloody and merciless, as if to torture someone to death in order to exact a confession of faith were actually a valid and righteous method of spreading Christianity.  The theme of Christian supremacy has continued into modern times, through centuries of holy wars, colonization, forcible missionization and other protocols which do not truly jibe with the Christian fundamentals of peace, nonviolence, and compassion. 

In 1893, the Parliament of the World’s religions was convened in Chicago, a momentous attempt to reconcile between the religions of the world, many of whom hold competing theological and salvific claims.  But there was not universal support for this movement.  There were, of course, Christians who refrained from granting support for the very reasons given above.  On the Wikipedia article on the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the author quotes an early criticism of this momentous and far too seldom repeated conference. 

“As far back as 1925, G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man,

The Theosophists build a pantheon; but it is only a pantheon for pantheists. They call a Parliament of Religions as a reunion of all the peoples; but it is only a reunion of all the prigs. Yet exactly such a pantheon had been set up two thousand years before by the shores of the Mediterranean; and Christians were invited to set up the image of Jesus side by side with the image of Jupiter, of Mithras, of Osiris, of Atys, or of Ammon. It was the refusal of the Christians that was the turning-point of history. If the Christians had accepted, they and the whole world would have certainly, in a grotesque but exact metaphor, gone to pot. They would all have been boiled down to one lukewarm liquid in that great pot of cosmopolitan corruption in which all the other myths and mysteries were already melting.”

There is indeed much truth to Chesterton’s claim.  It was Christianity’s insistence upon rejecting other deities that gave it its tenacity and will to survive in the face of nearly overwhelming persecution.  But Christianity’s erstwhile acquiescence to Roman syncretism was not the only alternative open to it, as far as the current discussion goes.  The Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Toleration, issued in 312 AD, allowed the Roman people to practice religion as they saw fit, effectively decriminalizing Christianity, but certainly not declaring Christianity the official, or the only, religion for the Roman Empire.  Nor did it replace Christianity with Paganism as the proscribed and prohibited faith.  And this was a wise action on the part of the emperor.  But eventually, Christianity, still under the aggressive and oppressive personality of the cultural matrix from which it drew adherents, continued to suffer from a pernicious and bullying mentality.  Just because a person became a Christian, did not mean that they were any less of a Roman.  And with this came the same attitude that caused the Romans to persecute Christians in the first place; but now, Christianity was the hegemonic paradigm, rather than paganism.  And so the traditional deities and practices of Rome were either stomped out or absorbed by the growing syncretism of the Late Roman Christian Church (to wit, adoption of a date for Christmas significant to pagans; the adoption of the Virgin Mary as what may be considered a secondary deity).  But the insistence upon vanquishing and superseding all other religions as the sole religion of the world is not the source or Christianity’s success or survival.  Christianity’s key features of mercy and tolerance were all too often suppressed, causing it to become no better than the bullies that they had just vanquished. 

 How can Christianity be insistent upon its prominence or its success without weakening its message? 
The beauty of Christianity is that Christians may be required to preach the message of Christ, but they are not required to use physical and political or economic force to oppress and coerce people into accepting their own particular point of view.  Therefore there is no sin for a Christian to heartily explain his or her gospel to a non-believer and then give that person the right to continue to practice their faith as they see fit without fear of repercussions or retaliation.  A Christian’s soul is safe from condemnation even if they congregate with non-believers, conducting themselves peacefully within the same society, allowing these others the same freedoms that are afforded them as Christians.  There is no sin in going about one’s business after preaching the gospel and letting the other’s own conscience direct them to the anticipated rewards of conversion or to allow them to make their own choice to face judgment.  As long as the gospel is preached, the Christian is not directly responsible for the salvation or damnation of those to whom he or she has preached. 

Therefore, it may be of good use to the conversation of religious tolerance for all Christians to come to the table, even if they do not believe in a pluralistic model of the value of religions.  Even if they continue to believe that their particular sect, denomination or conception of Christianity is the only valid form of Christianity, and moreover that theirs is the only valid faith in all the world, there is still value in peaceably coming to the table to talk with others of different faiths, coming to some level of accord for the greater good of humanity, working together for common goals. 

If every Christian, be they fervently against the shared validity of other faiths—or not—were to conduct themselves as compassionate, selfless servants of Christ, seeking nothing in return for their favors, seeking not even the credit for conversion of others, they would stand out as fine ambassadors of their faith and would indeed win more converts that way.  However, the implied or expressed requirement of conversion and acceptance of Christ as a prerequisite for receiving Christian charity cheapens the Christian message.  One perfectly polite and kind web designer who initially took interest in our project rescinded his offer to assist us with free web design services when he came to a full understanding of our ecumenical and interfaith mission.  Evidently, he, too, believed that religious tolerance ‘stood in the way of Christ’.  There were, indeed, strings attached.  However, I cannot completely fault him.  If I were in his shoes as the talented web designer looking to share my skills with a Christian organization needing charity, but which refused to acknowledge religious freedoms, I probably would not have assisted him either.  Ultimately, it was a Unitarian Universalist, web designer, driven not by a mission of convincing us of his point of view, but who liked our peace-driven mission, who stepped up and became our web designer—and perhaps one of our best allies. 

 It is not my intention to single Christianity out unfairly as the only religion of the world which persecutes or which insists upon its own predominance and supersession over other religions.  All religions which aggressively missionize and proselytize have the tendency to present themselves as the only option and at times tend to persecute dissent.  There has been much of this in Islamic history as well.  But frankly, there are elements of tolerance organically built into the Islamic faith, whether they are practiced during particular regimes or not.  These can be found readily in the Qur’an.  Conversely, these elements of toleration are much harder to find within the Christian scriptures and are in many ways overshadowed by some very enigmatic Biblical passages (like those mentioned above) which are easily interpreted in a manner that fosters religious intolerance and a supersessionist theology.  As a matter of fact, I recently told my students that at least up until recent decades, the Jews were perhaps better treated and flourished more steadily while living in Islamic nations, than those Jews living under in the highly prejudiced and oppressive Christian regimes of Europe.  While there were certainly periods of oppression and intolerance toward Jews and Christians within Islamic history, one does not see the same level of intolerance and outright oppression there as one sees in Europe, which led to regular pogroms, mass forced conversions, mass forced migrations or expulsions of entire populations, an Inquisition, and ultimately attempted genocide. These are the sins which Christianity has to answer for in its dealings with the Jews, as an example of its frequent history of intolerance. 

At its core, Christianity is supposed to be a religion of love, of compassion, one which is open to all nations.  It sets aside the earlier, restrictive rules of Second Temple Judaism that excluded pagans from holding membership in their fold unless these complex codes and procedures were followed.  Judaism, for better or for worse, had highly restrictive codes that caused others to look upon its members (erroneously or not) as elitist.  But early Christianity made the benefits of the Jewish message available to all, in a way that was still unavailable to the many allies of Judaism in Roman times who nevertheless were unable to convert completely but still maintained their support of the Synagogues.  These “God-fearers”, as Paul and others had referred to them, were highly supportive of Judaism but were denied the full benefits of the Jewish blessing, since they were unwilling to undergo circumcision, to follow the Kosher food laws and to effectively change their socio-political status within Roman society.  But Christianity carried the Jewish message of the One God’s love for all humanity to realms that traditional Judaism had not brought it to.  Christianity had tremendous potential as a religion of reconciliation and unification for peoples of disparate origins.  Were it not for the supremely oppressive, restrictive, and elitist protocols and doctrines of Late Roman Christianity after its decriminalization, perhaps Christianity would have met its mark in this potential. 

How do we honor and respect the autonomy and the self-determination of Christians who insist that Christ is the only way, while still preventing more violence and oppression of non-Christians? 
It appears that there has been a growing trend among Christian theologians, a liberalizing trend if you will, to allow for the equality of other world religions, to make provisions for toleration amid the program of spreading the Christian mission.  This trend, I believe, is what has caused many Christian denominations to be part of the ecumenical movement and to engage in interfaith dialogue, to see that there are commonalities between all the world’s faiths, to recognize that there are common problems that we all face and that we would do better to handle together rather than alone.  Still, there must be room made at the table for those Christians who still wish to believe that theirs is the only way, that their particular conception and formulation of Christianity is the only correct interpretation.  They must be allowed to state their claims and to still be offered the opportunity to make peace with those of other religions, provided they sheath their proverbial swords. Without them, the ecumenical and interfaith movement will be hindered.  If they are excluded, they will still seek to gain converts who will be taught to hate other religions and to silence them.  And these exclusionistic and elitist Christians will continue to fight against the interfaith movement, more or less successfully, but nonetheless providing an obstacle to be overcome. 

With them at the table, they will be prevented from crying persecution; they will have the ability to voice their concerns; they will gradually begin to see their opponents more as human beings and even allies, just as King Cyrus of Persia was viewed by Isaiah as an instrument of God’s will—even called a messiah (Is 45:1).  Their goodwill toward those around them, encouraged by their inclusion in the discussion, will help them to continue to survive and gain adherents, but primarily because they are good ambassadors of their faith, not because of the threat of violence or coercion against those who disagree. 

I leave the reader with a quote—the motto of the Institute.  St. Crispina, an early fourth century African Christian martyr, stated when interrogated for being a Christian: “Worthless is the religious devotion that causes people to be crushed against their will.”  This statement was intended for the Roman magistrate who threatened her with death if she did not relinquish her Christian beliefs, but it is just as valid for worshippers of any religion, even Christianity itself.  We are all going to have to find a peaceful way to conduct ourselves in relation to one another, solving common problems, and focusing first on our commonalities and then celebrating our differences.  In my opinion, religious tolerance is key to the survival of the human race.

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