Menu Close

A Progressive look at learning from other faiths7 min read

Listen to this article

Recently, I came across the essays of John Cobb in The Dialogue Comes of Age: Christian Encounters With Other Traditions

Although Cobb is a Christian Progressive (not my camp, as you know ;), his book was filled with insights which I found illuminating and helpful in my own desire to learn from and appreciate other faith traditions, without having to be a syncretist.

1. Five principles for interacting with other faiths

  1. We must work for a context in which all can flourish
  2. We must seek dialogue to increase mutual understanding wherever others are willing to engage in it.
  3. We must seek relations with each tradition individually that express our appropriate connection with that community
  4. We must undertake to cooperate with all who are willing to so so on projects for the common good.
  5. We must undertake to formulate our own teachings in ways that discourage any sense of our own superiority or negative attitudes towards others.

These are kind of nicey nicey, and avoid addressing some of the obvious impasses we will have, such as being willing to condemn religious practices that violate human rights.  We ought to be willing to offend where necessary.

2. Differing religious claims may be true when they address different ends

One may affirming both (Buddhism and Christianity), not because they are two ways of saying the same thing, or because they point to two ways of attaining the same end, but because they are answers to different questions and suggest different goals for human life.

Religious claims are not always at odds when we think they are – rather, sometimes they are answering different questions. We can affirm, for instance, the value of the Buddhist perspective on alleviating suffering through releasing desire, without creating the straw man that they are offering that as their means of salvation (their soteriology).  In this way, we can affirm their truths without denying our own, and without engaging in intellectually dishonest and illogical syncretism, or relativizing (“my truth can be true for me, and yours for you.”)

This point came as a real revelation to me.  We need to compare apples with apples.  The central focus of Christianity may be salvation from the coming judgment, but we should not therefore assume that the central focus of Buddhism is trying to achieve the same end.

However, they may have a soteriology, and THAT we can compare to our own.  Apples.

3. Creating a positive perspective of other faiths

Clearly, we must transform our teachings.  In their dominant formulation in the past, they have been negative toward other religious traditions.  they must be reformulated so as to help Christians to understand that, precisely out of the depth of our faith, we are called to love and listen to others with admiration and appreciation for their lives and their insights.  Rather than thinking that the acceptance of other traditions as equal partners in our society is a compromise,w e must learn to see it as an expression of our faith in Christ.

While these are positive sentiments, I think that this approach lacks balance.  Our predominant approach should be one of respect and listening, since most spiritual danielgs are really just like us, trying to find the way with what they know so far, we should be ready to learn in case they have the TRUE way and we are not yet enlightened.

But also, since truth can be classified as either revealed or empirical, we should be on the lookout for empirical truths, or “common truths” that we can glean from others, even if we feel that their revealed truths (what happens after you die, what is God like, how can we be saved) are incorrect.

However, even if we take this as our respectful and intellectually humble first approach, we can not lose the other side of the coin, which is that false religions not only lie about Christ and lead them away from Him, they are often demonic in origin. This means not only that we should be cautious in our pursuit of other faiths, but that we should be willing to share that idea with people of other faiths at the right time and with the right attitude.

Deuteronomy 32:17
They sacrificed to demons, which are not God� gods they had not known, gods that recently appeared, gods your fathers did not fear.

1 Corinthians 10:19-21
Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything?  No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.

4. Negative formulations of other faiths can arouse animosity and hate

One of the main reasons that we want to try to articulate a positive approach to other faiths, besides the fact that it encourages dialog, and allows us to learn form others, while allowing them to more easily hear and accept the Gospel, is that negative formulations of other faiths leads to conflict. This general rule can be seen in examples of anti-semitism in the past.

All Christian teaching must be carefully reformulated so as, at a minimum, to avoid arousing animosity toward Jews.  Positively we need to go beyond this to cultivate in Christians a deep appreciation not only for our debt to ancient Jews, but also to contemporary Judaism.

5. We must not think that God has shown us everything we need to know yet – because the Kingdom is still coming.

In order to make the changes we need not only in our teaching about Judaism, but also in our general teaching, we must overcome the Christian tendency to suppose that all the truth we require is already given to us from our Christian past.  This idolatry of our heritage is repudiated within that heritage.  The New Testament itself points us to the future.  Paul writes: “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

According to John, Jesus promised to send us the Spirit of truth who will guide us into all the truth (John 16:12).  More fundamentally, Jesus taught us to pray for the coming of the realm of God in which God’s purposes will be fulfilled.  We live toward that future, not with all the knowledge and understanding that we need, but with the openness to learning from others and working with others towards that end.

Again, I think he is ignoring some valid principles, while communicating the principles (also valid) he wants us to focus on.  I totally agree that we idolize our heritage, and don’t realize that the LIVING God is still speaking and guiding and revealing truth.  However, he is ignoring the Biblical doctrines of canonical completion, of the complete revelation of the Gospel in this dispensation, and the clear doctrine of the coming Kingdom in which CHRIST will reign.