Just a Few Other Gospels
Mansions of the Spirit: The Gospel in a Multi-Faith World
reviewed by Terry Mattingly
The first Parliament of World Religions brought 400 clerics and scholars to Chicago in 1893 and marked the birth of the modern interfaith movement. It also provides a pivotal scene in Mansions of the Spirit, a laity-level work of popular theology by Anglican Bishop Michael Ingham of Canada’s Diocese of New Westminster.
As Ingham tells the tale, the good guy is clearly Swami Vivekananda of Calcutta. The bad guy is the archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson—who symbolizes centuries of dogmatic, simplistic Christians who believe in heaven and hell and that where one spends eternity has something to do with a profession of faith in Jesus Christ and in the sacraments of his Church.
Many of the speakers at the 1893 gathering focused on how the world’s religions fit into a global, evolutionary move toward Christianity, broadly defined. But Vivekananda offered a dramatically different vision, stressing that truth takes many forms and that believers must learn to share each other’s truths—even if they clash.
His bottom line was the same as that proclaimed by many leaders in today’s Anglican establishment: the belief that the world’s many spiritual paths ultimately lead to one destination.
“Do not care for doctrines, do not care for dogmas or sects or churches or temples; they count for little compared with the essence of existence in each man, which is spirituality,” said the swami. “All religions, from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, are so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realize the Infinite, as determined by the condition of birth and association. . . . Every religion is only an evolving of God out of material man.”
Vivekananda drew rave reviews, especially from the newspapers. But the archbishop of Canterbury, who refused even to attend the meeting, was not impressed.
“I do not understand how that one religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions, without assuming the equality of other intended members and the parity of their position and claims,” wrote Benson. Four years later, a Lambeth Conference resolution reflected the same views: “The tendency of many English-speaking Christians to entertain an exaggerated opinion of the excellence of Hinduism and Buddhism, and to ignore the fact that Jesus Christ alone has been constituted Saviour and King of mankind, should be vigorously corrected.”
This Lambeth statement, notes Ingham, is a perfect example of an ancient theological perspective called “Christian exclusivism,” which still dominated the Church at that time. However, even a century ago, many Anglicans spoke out against the stand taken by their archbishop and the Lambeth Conference. And in the century since the Chicago parliament, “exclusivism” has come under constant attack.
At the World Congress of Faith in 1986, another archbishop of Canterbury summed up a very different approach to the gospel. Times had changed.
“Dialogue can help us recognize that other faiths than our own are genuine mansions of the Spirit with many rooms to be discovered, rather than solitary fortresses to be attacked,” said Robert Runcie, providing the title of Ingham’s book. “From the perspective of faith, different world religions can be seen as different gifts to the Spirit of humanity.”
Evolving into Inclusivism
For Ingham, the good news is that this more inclusive perspective influenced increasing numbers of mainline Protestant seminaries and churches during the twentieth century, especially the elite churches of Europe and North America. And he says there’s more good news: variations on this viewpoint have had a major effect on Roman Catholicism, in the era after the Second Vatican Council.
Yes, “Christian exclusivism” continues to shape the doctrines taught in legions of fundamentalist, evangelical, and Orthodox churches, and in most Two-Thirds World Anglican and Catholic churches. Nevertheless, Ingham’s book argues that people of faith can see a broader, more inclusive gospel emerging in postmodern Christendom.
The early Church’s dogmatic “exclusivism,” which warped the loving, prophetic teachings of Jesus, is giving way to a new age of religious pluralism.
“Claiming the authority of the Holy Spirit, the early church chose to proclaim Christ as liberator from the Jewish law,” writes the bishop of New Westminster. “A new covenant was proclaimed in place of the old. The church announced salvation through Christ alone.”
This was a tragic mistake, argues the bishop. The early Church was wrong. Today, after centuries of rigid orthodoxy, Ingham is convinced that more enlightened bishops, theologians, and mystics are outvoting the church fathers.
Along with many other members of the Anglican establishment, Ingham believes that the age of religious bigotry and intolerance is about to end. More Christians are grasping what the Canadian bishop believes is the universal imperative behind these words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.”
While debates over sexuality continue to dominate news reports, Ingham’s book represents a snapshot of what may in reality be today’s most pivotal doctrinal issue.
Malls of the Spirit
Researchers have consistently noted that conservative Christian churches, those that dare to mention heaven and hell and proclaim variations of “Christian exclusivism,” are growing, while more progressive, pluralistic churches are in decline.
Ingham’s viewpoint, however, is not radically different from the pop spirituality that dominates shopping malls and movie multiplexes. The issue is whether people will flock to this approach in mainline pews, as opposed to the more entertaining version offered on cable TV and other niches in the modern marketplace.
In short, Ingham operates on a much smaller stage than Oprah. There is little evidence that pluralistic believers will flock to liberal mainline pews, and bring their wallets with them, instead of worshipping at the mall, the multiplex, or on the comfy couches that face their television sets.
At the heart of the bishop’s 167-page book is its survey of three doctrinal positions on issues of salvation. These are “Christian exclusivism,” “Christian inclusivism,” and “religious pluralism.”
In Christian exclusivism the Church has rooted its classic teaching in verses such as John 14:6, which quotes Jesus as saying: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” Obviously, this stance can put a damper on interfaith work. One really needs to believe that all religions are true for constructive dialogue to take place, Ingham writes.
“If, on the other hand, one believes the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Muslim, and so on, to be a heathen and a pagan, mired in error and lost in darkness, then the opposite attitude will prevail,” he argues. “One might well adopt a posture of charity and compassion towards the other . . . but there will be no expectation of encountering afresh God’s truth, no hope of expanding the horizons of spiritual understanding.”
Historically, “Christian exclusivism” has been associated with a very conservative stance on biblical authority, and with belief in the literal truth of such creedal doctrines as the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the visible return of Jesus Christ.
The bishop does not mince words: “The problem with exclusivism is that it presents us with a god from whom we need to be delivered, rather than the living God who is the hope of the world. The exclusivist god is narrow, rigid, and blind. . . . Such a god is not worthy of honour, glory, worship, or praise.”
A second stance—“Christian inclusivism”—tries to find safe ground between a radical pluralism and the belief that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ alone. This approach stresses biblical passages such as John10:16, which states: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
The key is that salvation can be found through other religious faiths, yet that salvation is ultimately the result of God’s saving work accomplished through Jesus Christ. Thus, other world religions may contain a partial, incomplete measure of the truth that is fully expressed in Christianity.
This stance, as articulated in the Second Vatican Council document, “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” essentially argues that the faithful, honorable followers of other world religions who live righteous lives are “anonymous Christians” and are following the teachings of Christ, knowingly or otherwise.
But Christian inclusivism raises problems, notes Ingham. For starters, this viewpoint still teaches that Christianity is a more mature faith than the other world religions. Thus, true pluralists believe that it is narrow and imperialistic. Also, this equation can be turned around. Islamic believers could, for example, argue that Christians are merely anonymous Muslims. Another major problem arises for those plagued by doctrinal candor.
“The fact is, the religions of the world are not saying the same thing in different ways,” he notes. “As a Hindu friend once said to me, ‘What you are offering is not what we are looking for! “Salvation” does not mean the same as “enlightenment.”’ Non-theistic religions are not doctrinally compatible with theistic ones. The Buddhist concept of nirvana is not the same as the Christian idea of the kingdom of heaven.”
The third position argues that the religious pluralism seen in the world is not a tragic, hellish mistake, but part of the “evident will of God for humankind,” writes Ingham. The truth is that God intended people to use many paths to reach the divine. Thus, all world religions possess a piece of the greater mystery that humans have called God, or the gods. All religions contain errors as well as truths.
Yet the bishop insists that pluralism does not have to lead to relativism, or the loss of belief in truth. It also need not lead to syncretistic attempts to blend the many world religions into a single system. In the end, he believes it is best if believers in the various religions remain unconditionally committed to their own faiths—yet accept the validity of other religious viewpoints. The mature pluralist merely becomes adept at mentally adding the phrase “for us” at the end of doctrinal statements. For example: “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life for us” (italics by the bishop).
United by Mysticism
But there is a problem. It can be very hard to define what is, and what is not, a valid religious tradition. Alas, some members of other world religions hold beliefs that are as embarrassingly dogmatic as those held by orthodox Christians. Alas, millions of believers around the world have not had the good fortune of earning graduate degrees from modernist seminaries. And then there are all those new sects and cults.
This could be seen during the 1993 Parliament of World Religions, an event that Ingham admits attracted “a number of new religious movements of sometimes dubious provenance, several ‘new age’ cults, and even a group of self-proclaimed pagans.” Thus, it was easy to wonder whether “this smorgasbord represented the genuine religious pluralism of modern society, or simply American cultural relativism. . . . Failure to distinguish between religion and sect invites substantial and valid criticism of interfaith endeavors.”
There’s the rub. Once it has been decreed that all religious paths lead to the same destination, all kinds of believers are going to want to create their own maps. Some of their paths may veer into embarrassing territory. At times, the bishop seems to wish that he could be part of some official interfaith board that would determine which spiritual paths are healthy and which are dangerous, which are refined enough to be admitted to the pluralist clubhouse and which are not.
But the bishop is sure that God’s work will be done one way or another.
In the end, religious believers must learn to seek unity in forms of religion that transcend logic, doctrines, and Scriptures. Ingham believes they will find it easier to express their common faith in images and stories and in terms of shared religious experiences—not in divisive attempts at linear arguments.
Believers may need to stop using the word “God” and speak of the Ultimate or the Real or the “Really Real.” They must learn to accept the Oneness of all things, including truths that appear to collide. They must grasp that a mature monotheism—rather than being radically narrow and absolute—can be expanded into a higher “God consciousness” as an ever-expanding circle of faith embraces what may appear to be many competing gods.
“The appeal to unity here is at the level of mystical experience,” he writes. “In the Hindu view, there cannot be any logical or theoretical reconciliation of religious teachings, but there is a common spiritual experience. . . . Buddhism would affirm this belief as well. The Buddha taught that ‘logic, inference, and reasoning’ are obstacles to enlightenment.”
This will trouble many Christians, he admits. But they will grow and mature, as they gain experience through dialogues in the interfaith movement. They will learn to embrace a pluriform concept of truth.
“If . . . we take the view that the growth of God-consciousness need not end with Jewish-Christians of the first century, that new understanding is possible and indeed necessary for world peace and survival, then we may feel ourselves impelled towards a yet wider view of God’s self-disclosure,” Ingham writes. “This would, in my view, be entirely consistent with Scriptural tradition taken as a whole and with the God of love made manifest in Jesus Christ.”
In other words, says the bishop: “A Christian is one who believes Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life. This is not to say there are no others.”
Terry Mattingly is a “journalist in residence” at the Washington, D.C. branch of Regent University. He writes a weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service. This essay originally appeared on the Anglican Voice website, November 24, 1998.
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“Just a Few Other Gospels” first appeared in the July/August 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Click here for a printer-friendly version.
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