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Robert R. Wadholm
Mary Pat Fisher’s book Religion in the twenty-first century published in 1999 in Saddle River, New Jersey, by Prentice Hall is an introductory book on religion in the modern world, and is from the series Religions of the World, edited by Ninian Smart. The following critique of Religion in the twenty-first century will include a) a description of the framework and major movements and arguments of the text, b) an interpretation of the message of the text, c) a criticism of the text, and d) a personal integration of the text’s message. The question that the present critique seeks to answer is “Is Fisher’s text suitable for use in an undergraduate class on major world religions?” The conclusion that is reached in this critique is that Fisher’s text fails to adequately and objectively address modern religion in our world, yet it is a fine example of pluralistic analyses of modern religions, and should be seen as a clarion-call to Western Christians to present faithfully the exclusivist claims of their faith in an increasingly pluralistic West.
A Description of Religion in the Twenty-first Century Religion in the twenty-first century (Fisher 1999) is an introductory text on religion. It differs from other introductory texts on religion, such as those of Hopfe and Woodward (2005), Hume (1959), and Hall, Pilgrim, and Cavanagh (1985), in that its focus is not merely on introducing and analyzing the various major world religions: it assesses the traditions of major world religions in light of modern developments. In addition, Fisher’s (1999) book provides close-ups (specific examples illustrating important generalizations) of various aspects of religious life, traditions, and
developments (for instance, see Fisher’s analysis of the rise and impact of Swami Prabhupada on the modern world religious scene [75–76]). Fisher also goes beyond presenting the traditional and modern developments of major world religions and attempts to develop a synthesis of all religions in the context of other syntheses of religion (such as Ba’hai, Sikhism, and conciliatory interfaith dialogues) (100–116). The central problem that Fisher grapples with is “How should the major world religions be understood and practiced in the light of modernity and postmodernity?” Fisher attempts to “illustrate ways in which religions are evolving to meet the new challenges” (8). The central message of the book is that modern world religions are complex and fill an important role in the modern world, and only a properly informed and synthesized pluralism can deal responsibly with these great complexities (8–9). Fisher’s stated purpose for writing the book is to “deepen our own links with ultimate reality, by whatever path we approach it” (9). Fisher accomplishes this purpose by first examining various modern and postmodern global processes that affect all religions (10–28). Second, she explores the teachings and expressions of six major world religious perspectives (29–72). Third, she analyzes new religious movements (73–99). Fourth and last, she attempts to synthesize the religions into one theory of religious unity within diversity (100–117).
An Interpretation of the Message of Religion in the Twenty-first Century In Fisher’s first chapter, entitled “Global Processes,” she assesses the effects of modernization, globalization, exclusivism, humanism and scientific inquiry, and postmodernity on modern religious perspectives. Due to modernization, religion has taken on a more specialized and subjective role, and has given rise to a “vibrant
pluralism” (11–12). Due to globalization, religions have spread to every part of the earth, have come in contact with each other, and have subsequently entered into positive interfaith dialogue and synthesis (12–19). Due to exclusivist tendencies in religions, some people have developed “reactionary” fundamentalist movements that are “absolutist,” “authoritarian,” and “anti-permissive” in their ethical formulations (21). Exclusivists have used their religious identities for political purposes, and have separated themselves from the wider cultures in which they live (23–24). Racism and racist violence have resulted from some extreme forms of exclusivism (24). Due to humanism and scientific inquiry, religious adherents have become more atheistic and secular, and have engaged in rational critiques of their religions and their understandings of the physical world, leading them to reject Western traditional and fundamentalist religious perspectives in favor of Eastern mystical monism and a cyclical view of time (24–27). Due to postmodernity, religious life is increasingly jaded, spiritualistic, and pluralistic (27–28). According to Fisher, the modern global processes are pushing religions toward pluralism; Exclusivism is a dangerous and world-denying position that is untenable in our postmodern world. In Fisher’s second chapter, entitled “Religious Traditions in the Modern World,” she focuses on the evolution of indigenous traditions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, within a pluralistic framework (29). Indigenous traditions (i.e. basic religions) were once globally practiced, and have always had a distinctively synthetic nature. Various aspects of indigenous traditions have been absorbed by the other major religious traditions of the world. Indigenous religions center on the spiritual interrelationship of all things. Certain forms of exclusivist religion (Fisher specifically condemns Christianity’s role here) have nearly destroyed indigenous traditions in the
world (33). Neo-paganism has developed in our modern world as an attempt to get back to indigenous religious roots (34–37). Hinduism has traditionally been polytheistic, and has focused on union with the Eternal. Hindus utilize yogic practices and personal devotion to gods and goddesses to achieve this unity. Modern Hindu groups such as the Self-Realization Fellowship have expanded the influence of Hindu thought on the world religious scene, and have sought to establish the universality of a common religious experience with the Ultimate (40–43). Buddhism has traditionally focused on enlightenment and escape from suffering. While one of the conservative forms of Buddhism (Theravada) is nontheistic (and thus incompatible with other religions that seek unity with the Eternal), the most popular form of Buddhism (Mahayana) teaches reverence for the “Buddha-nature as a universal, eternal principle in the cosmos” (44–45). Modern Buddhism has greatly impacted Western religions (45), has become less chauvinistic (46–47), and has developed social action programs that are pragmatic and universalistic (47–49). Judaism has traditionally been monotheistic, and has focused on God’s covenants, words, actions, love, and the universality of his plan. Modern Judaism has split into different groups; some (like Reform Jews) seek to be more modern, feminist, and universalistic, while others (like Orthodox Jews) reject modernism and universalism and cling to authoritarianism (52–53). Fisher is quick to point out that Orthodox Judaism is not very popular (52). Even some of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups (such as that of Lubavicher Hasidism) find their basis in mystical union with God (53–54). Christianity has traditionally focused on the life and teachings of its founder Jesus, who taught about the kingdom of God. According to Fisher, “sometimes, Jesus
seemed to refer to the kingdom of God as an inner state of bliss which can be obtained only by turning solely toward God” (57). Modern Christianity is characterized by liberalizing trends such as multiculturalism, social emphasis, feminism, and ecumenism, and conversely by conservative trends such as politically active fundamentalism, evangelism, and a reemergence of charismatic experience. Fisher states that conservative “rigid and exclusive” Christians are closing doors (72) while liberal Christians are opening doors and building “bridges of fellowship between Churches of different Christian denominations, as well as with people of other faiths” (60). Fisher typifies Pentecostalism as religious emotionalism that crosses racial, gender, and economic barriers (72). Islam has traditionally focused on submission to Allah (the one true God). Muhammad, the founder of Islam, criticized polytheism and embraced the unity of humanity (64–65). The fifth pillar of Islam, the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), is a living symbol of the unity of humanity (66). Modern Islam is characterized (like Christianity) by liberalizing trends of pluralism, secularization, and feminism, and by conservative trends such as traditionalism, authoritarianism, and consequently the resurgence of shariah (Muslim law) (67–69). Throughout Fisher’s analyses of the various world religions, she systematically focuses on positive aspects of liberalizing pluralistic tendencies in each religion and negative aspects of exclusivism in some of the religions (particularly within conservative Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). She attempts to show that indigenous religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all potentially compatible with a universalistic synthetic and pluralistic form of world religion.
In Fisher’s third chapter, entitled “New Religious Movements,” she explores how new religions arise, evolve, and spread. Fisher discusses the importance of charismatic founders who received divine revelations (including Muhammad, Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Sikh gurus, and Swami Prabhupada) (74–75). These revelations are manifestations of some truth that has been hidden (76–77). Another characteristic of new religions is a focus on millennial expectations, which may also be found in many of the world’s major religions (81). Some groups, such as the New Age movement, highlight positive aspects of future change. “The emphasis is on direct mystical experience, faith, inner transformation, surrender to the divine, spiritual healing” (80). Groups that emphasize apocalyptic aspects of millenarian hopes are typified by Fisher as alarmist, elitist, and separatistic (81–82). Fisher goes on to discuss religious syncretism, which is a mixing of religions that occurs as religions spread and come into contact with one another. Fisher states that “syncretism may also expose an underlying unity between otherwise differing faiths” (85). After discussing the importance of organizational development within religions, Fisher goes on to assert that “the founders of new religious movements have always been persecuted” (90). She compares the persecution of Muhammad, Jesus, and Baha’u’llah by the religious establishments of their own times (90). Fisher argues that there are both new and established religions that persecute outsiders and brainwash insiders (90–92). Specifically, some exclusivist forms of established religions “intimidate people by issuing dire threats of hellfire, and lure them to conversion by promising salvation” (91). When the founders of new religions die, their place is often taken by the theological and organizational structures that are developed by their successors (99). Fisher reminds the reader that many new movements will soon become thoroughly
established, and will then be “woven into the variegated spiritual fabric of the planet” (99). From start to finish, chapter three is aimed at showing the evolution, diversity, subjectivity, and relativity of religious traditions (in light of the development of new religions) in order to show the underlying unity of all religions that remain open to truth, pluralism, and modern liberalizing trends. In Fisher’s fourth chapter, entitled “Relationships between Religions,” she presents her own theory of universal religious synthesis in light of other historical religious syntheses. She begins her last chapter with a brief review of the disastrous effects of exclusivism in religion (100). “Misunderstandings, intolerance, and competition between the various religions, and even versions of the same religion, have historically been significant sources of conflict” (100). The question Fisher seeks to address in this chapter is the following: “Are there some underlying similarities which, if recognized, could help to ease tensions between religions?” (100). Religions differ as to rituals, holy days, founders, scriptures, practices, underlying worldviews, historical developments, and doctrines (101–102). Fisher admits that “comparisons among religions must therefore be drawn on the level of broad generalizations” (101). She acknowledges that some scholars of comparative religion have concluded that the major religions are fundamentally incompatible because they have basic differences in their concepts of ultimate reality (especially concerning divinity) (102). These differences lead to different solutions to basic questions of life, such as suffering. To these scholars who proclaim incompatibility between the different religions, Fisher responds with a warning: “Boundaries perceived between religions may be sources of violence” (103). However, “in some way, all faiths urge people to be more
loving, altruistic, morally upright, courageously truthful” (102). While their methods differ, all religious practitioners seek to escape from inner evils. For Fisher, though, it is not the doctrines, ethics, or spiritual practices of religions that are all-important—it is experience with the Ultimate that all religions share (103). Fisher goes on to present the universalistic theory of religions (“cross-religious typology” ) of Johan Galtung, founder of the International Peace Research Institute. At the center of the theory is an illustration of a circle with the various religions as slices of a pie in the circle. When individuals come closer to the center of the circle (called “soft” or “warm” religion) they are more attuned to the “mystical union with ultimate reality” and there are “no formidable boundary wall(s)” between the different faiths (105). The further from the center of the circle people get (called “hard” religion), the further they get from mystical union with ultimate reality and the more they represent “faith as an exclusive claim to truth, a sense of being chosen to carry that exclusive truth to the world in order to save everyone,” and they have a tendency to look down on other faiths (106). “Here even violent suppression of other religions may be justified” (106). The major boundaries between religions were created by exclusivist religious institutions, not by the founders of the religions (106). Several major world religions have been developed which explicitly accept this universalist position—Sikhism and Baha’i. Sikhism is rooted in the mystical experiences of Hindu and Muslim saints of northern India, and particularly in the mystical universalism of the ten Sikh gurus (106). Because Sikhism is a universalist faith (all faiths already contain the truth), the movement has not focused on the conversion of individuals to their faith (107). On the other hand, the Baha’i faith, another major world religion that is rooted in universalism, has been
widely evangelistic (107). The founder of the Baha’i faith, the Iranian Baha’u’llah, taught the unity of all religions. God has given manifestations of himself to the founders of all of the major world religions (110). Baha’is teach the “oneness of all humans, oneness of the source of all religions, and oneness of all the prophets” (110). They seek a new world order of future harmony between different faiths and cultures. Fisher (1999), following Diana Eck, former chair of the World Council of Churches, points to three possible paths of interfaith relationships (110). The first path, exclusivism, only leads to “a hardening of religious boundaries, schisms, and conflicts” (110). The second path, inclusivism, teaches that all religions fit comfortably under one general umbrella, and leads individuals to downplay the dissimilarities between religions. The third path, pluralism, teaches adherence to one’s own religion and openness to others’ religions. The last approach is the aim of various interfaith movements (111). Interfaith dialogue is increasingly common in our modern global village. Such organizations as the World Council of Churches, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the United Religious Initiative, the World Conference on Religion and Peace and religious leaders like Hindu Swami Vivekananda, Christian monk Wayne Teasdale, and Christian Bishop William Swing are all seeking to establish a unity and pluralism within the world’s major world religions (111–113). Many questions remain as to how all religious perspectives would be represented in a global religious pluralistic community (113); nevertheless, many people of different faiths have already begun to establish interfaith worship fellowships (114). Fisher’s conclusions on the modern religious landscape at the end of her book are thoroughly pluralistic in outlook. She states that out of the chaos of modernization and
globalization are “arising many new possibilities and incentives to realize the ancient visions of the prophets of all religions” (117). The purpose of religions is not to practice rituals, but to love others, to care for the sick and oppressed, and to reaffirm the value of living. “Prophets and founders of all religions have tried to show us the way to a better future” (117). Fisher looks forward to the twenty-first century because she hopes it “will contain many forms of religion which will uplift the human condition” (117). Her hope is that an increase in religious complexity will bring with it also a proportionate increase in pluralism and unity.
Criticisms of Religion in the Twenty-first Century Fisher is heavily influenced by her own religious background (as are we all). She was raised a Methodist (7). Her grandmother was a Roman Catholic, and introduced her to the world of the convent with its nuns, relics, and religious devotion. At the age of thirty she had a near-death experience followed by a profound mystical experience of she-knew-not-what. She became a religious seeker and experimented with Lutheranism, Native American indigenous religion, Hasidic Judaism, Hindu yoga, Buddhism, Islam, Russian Orthodox Christianity, Scottish mysticism, Taoism, and finally Sikhism, which she was still involved with at the time of writing the book (8). Fisher’s adherence to Sikh pluralism and universalism within diversity permeates her whole work. Fisher tells the reader that her reason for writing is to teach other people more about all religions so that they can understand and appreciate the modern processes affecting religions, and deepen their “understanding of and sensitivities to other people’s points of view in our increasingly pluralistic world . . . (and) deepen our own links with ultimate reality, by whatever path we approach it” (9). The book is written with intentionally pluralistic
purposes, and accomplishes these purposes through negative critiques of exclusivism, emphases on the compatibility and relativity of all religions, and conclusions regarding ultimate compatibility. Fisher’s personal tendency toward pluralism follows several general trends in modern world religious development (especially in the West), which she identifies in chapter one (specifically globalization, modernization, and pluralism). These general trends have been identified and analyzed by other commentators on religion in the West (Comino and Lattin 1998; Henderson 1998; Kavanaugh 1991). Religious consumerism is on the rise in the West (Comino and Lattin 1998, 23; Henderson 1998, 54–55). Many people are “shopping for religions,” and mismatching various pieces of religious traditions and perspectives in an eclectic fashion (Kavahaugh 1991), leading to hybridization (synthesis) of religious traditions (Comino and Lattin 1998, 26–27). Many Westerners are looking to the East for spiritual answers to life’s ultimate questions (Comino and Lattin 1998, 20–22) and are taking a pluralistic stance toward established religions (120–123). The focus of much modern religious development is on experience as the key to unlocking the door to unity with the Ultimate (23). Fisher’s personal religious history and scholarly emphasis on plurality can be seen as a natural outflow of these general trends in modern religious development (especially in the West). The intentionally pluralistic purposes of Religion in the twenty-first century contrast sharply with the mostly unbiased and objective treatment of the world’s religions in the introductory text on religion Religions of the world by Lewis M. Hopfe and Mark R. Woodward (2005). Hall, Pilgrim, and Cavanagh’s (1985) Religion: An introduction evidences the same framework of pluralism and religious relativity as does Fisher’s text.
The logical conclusion of an intrinsically pluralist framework for an exposition on major world religions is to distort the nature of each distinctive religious perspective. An overarching push toward universalistic interpretations of the major world religions tends to ignore (or, worse yet, condemn) the exclusivist presuppositions and tendencies of many of the world’s religions. Each religion is not treated at face value in an objective manner. On the other hand, an overtly exclusivist perspective of each world religion is dangerous as well. Robert E. Hume (1959), in his text The world’s living religions, fails to get past his own Christian exclusivist perspective, and subsequently his strict exclusivism shines through in every piece of his analysis and taints the whole work with an air of superiority (each religion is analyzed in light of Christianity before it is understood and analyzed in its own context). The author of the present critique is also a Christian exclusivist, but believes that each religion should be understood and analyzed on its own terms before it can ever be critiqued objectively within a particular exclusivist/inclusivist/pluralist framework. The logical consequences of Fisher’s religious pluralism reveal the inconsistency of her position. If universal pluralism is adopted, each religious perspective is valued for what it brings to humanity’s understanding of and experience with the “Ultimate.” However, a fundamentally exclusivist religious perspective simply will not fit into this framework. Therefore, exclusivist religion (in its general and more specific forms) must be rejected, condemned, or ignored. But if exclusivist religion is a valid form of religion (as Fisher admits in her text) it must be accepted for what it is within a pluralistic framework (without rejection, condemnation, or neglect).
Fisher’s universalistic theories (presented in chapter four) do not alleviate the problem. Fisher’s theory of universal religion (borrowed from Galtung) is untenable. If an exclusivist form of religion exists, and all religions have the same “Ultimate” at their center, and exclusivists have genuine mystical experiences with that “Ultimate” and yet still maintain their exclusivism, then exclusivism is a valid form of religion and the whole pluralistic framework breaks down. It is no mistake that Pentecostal Christians are by and large exclusivists. While Fisher acknowledges the contributions of Pentecostalism to Christianity and world religion, she fails to note that Pentecostals have mystical experiences yet generally remain exclusivists (61–63). While Pentecostalism has been ignored or condemned by the wider Christian church in the past, an increasingly large number of contemporary Christians are experiencing God in similar ways, and the value of charismatic and experiential worship is being appreciated by larger and more diverse groups of Christians. Fisher might respond that she would never deny the validity of Pentecostal experiences, only the validity of their exclusivism. But for many Christians, exclusivism forms the basis of their “mystical” experiences (if one may use that term). And in the end, it is the pluralists who are excluding exclusivism. Even in their supposed “mystical union with Ultimate reality,” in which all distinctions are blurred and all religions meet, pluralists continue to distinguish themselves from the outside crowd (those who dwell in the outer circle of “hard” religion). They are excluding all exclusivists. This makes pluralists like Fisher fundamentally exclusivist in their rejection, condemnation, or neglect of exclusivist claims and forms of religion. Fisher is inconsistent in her presentation of the fundamental compatibility between religions. Fisher asserts that the “hard boundaries between religions were not so
much established by their founders, as developed over time by the ensuing religious institutions, to advance their own interests” (106). As evidence, Fisher points out that neither Jesus nor Muhammad ever taught anyone to hate others (106). The religious institutions that took over after the original founders distorted the faith of the founders into exclusive claims to truth in order to “promote their mission” (106). Fisher’s denial of Jesus’ and Muhammad’s forms of excluvism and characterizations of exclusivism as “hating others” and “self-promotion” are not merely over-broad generalizations (hatred and self-promotion are not necessary corollaries of exclusivism), her statements are also incompatible with historical fact and with statements made earlier by Fisher (106). For instance, when she analyzes Christianity, she acknowledges that Jesus said “The gate that leads to life is small and the road is narrow, and those who find it are few” (56). Fisher admits here that Jesus spoke fundamentally exclusivist words, yet later denies this fact and argues that Jesus’ successors were the ones who introduced exclusivism into Christianity. Fisher also acknowledges that “according to the Qur’an, monotheism— belief in one God—is the original and basic religion of humanity” (65). Fisher also admits that these words were given by Muhammad. Muhammad professed monotheism and excluded polytheism, he condemned to hell all who failed to believe and act as true Muslims, and he excluded the worship of Jesus as sacrilege (65–66). Muhammad was fundamentally exclusivist. Fisher has unknowingly contradicted her own position. Fisher’s treatment of the various world religions (particularly Christianity) is at times misinformed. Fisher is misinformed when she claims about Jesus that “Nothing appears about him in historical records of the times” (55). No public records of Jesus’ historical existence have been found, but historical records of the times exist that help to
prove the validity of Jesus’ historical existence. Luke-Acts was intentionally written as a historical monograph in the Greek tradition, is based on eyewitness accounts, and was written not long after the events that it records (Luke 1:1–4; Palmer 1993). Tacitus (55– 117 C.E.), Pliny (writing in 112 C.E.), Suetonius (in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars [12:4]), and Lucian (ca. 125–190 C.E.) all spoke about Christ as a historical figure, and provide objective outside (and sometimes hostile) evidence for Christ’s historical existence (Cairns 1996, 49–50). Fisher is misleading in some of her assertions about Christianity. Her interpretations of various aspects of Christianity are highly speculative and do not represent majority interpretations. She states that “miraculous offerings of bread and wine prefigured the ‘Last Supper,’ when before his death, Jesus instituted a ceremony for his remembrance based on sharing of wine and bread as if they were his very blood and his body” (56), but Jesus never multiplied wine (though he did change water to wine, this miracle was never tied to his multiplication of the bread and fishes, and neither the wine nor the bread in these unrelated instances was ever referred to as prefiguring the Last Supper). Fisher refers to water baptism as “ritual cleansing with or immersion in water to remove one’s sins” (59). Protestant forms of Christianity deny any ritual efficacy in baptism. What matters is the inward heart being cleansed from sins, not the body being ritually cleansed from dirt (1 Peter 3:21). Fisher calls the Eucharist “one of the major sacraments in all forms of Christianity,” ignoring the fact that many forms of Christianity do not believe in any sacraments (for instance, most Pentecostal denominations deny the existence and saving efficacy of sacraments), and she goes on to say that “the sacraments are holy rites which are considered capable of transmitting the mystery of Jesus to those
who would worship him” (59). Most Protestant Christians believe that individuals are not saved by their own actions (even by sacred rituals performed by ministers of the church) but by faith in God’s grace alone. Fisher’s presentation of Christianity is highly liturgical, and evidences strong Catholic and anti-Protestant sentiments, and is therefore a misleading presentation of the totality of Christian beliefs (more than half of the world’s Christians are Protestants, and a majority of the Protestants, especially in the third world, are Pentecostals). In conclusion, Fisher’s pluralism forms an inadequate basis for analyzing modern world religions. Fisher’s position is at heart an exclusivist perspective, though she would perhaps never admit it, and her position is incompatible with the exclusivism of the founders of two of the world’s major religions (Jesus and Muhammad). Her treatment of the various world religions (particularly Christianity) is at times misinformed and misleading. The value of the text in objectively presenting the major world religions is questionable. Each religion is dealt with in such a summary matter (only forty-eight pages are devoted to presenting eight major world religions), and is compatibilized with Fisher’s own universalism so thoroughly, that the book holds very little value for instructing newcomers to world religions. Fisher’s text does not include a thorough enough analysis of each major world religion (indeed, several of the major world religions are left out entirely), and fails to maintain a proper sense of objectivity in its analyses (it is too overtly pluralistic in its tendencies to deal objectively with exclusivist positions). Because of these faults, Fisher’s text is probably not suitable for use in an undergraduate class on major world religions, though it might be suitable for use in an undergraduate or graduate class on modern pluralism or philosophy of religion. Her
argument for pluralism throughout the book, and her final syntheses of religions may be a useful starting-point for understanding the modern trend toward religious pluralism and the past, present, and future effects of pluralism on the major world religions. The strength of the text lies in its lucidity, its specific illustrations of various generalizations, its emphasis on modern trends, its focus on such issues as feminism and poverty, and its presentation of several theories of modern pluralism.
Integration of the Ideas Presented in Religion in the Twenty-first Century While Fisher’s text is inadequate in some regards, it is also quite lucid and well structured. Religion in the twenty-first century reads easily, and is informative in the area of religious pluralism. Fisher’s key idea of the compatibility of all religions is provocative and enlightening. Having worked in a secular environment for most of my adult life, I have come across many individuals that have held firmly to their faith in religious pluralism (to the exclusion of exclusivists). The tendency in the postmodern West seems to be to tolerate and celebrate differences, while at the same time pointing to the Ultimate compatibility of all religions. “All roads lead to heaven,” some might say. But such a universalistic outlook is overly optimistic. It fails to acknowledge the fact that religions are fundamentally different. Monotheism is fundamentally different than polytheism, pantheism, or eschatological monism (a view held by Sikhs). Ethics are fundamentally different in their motivations in the major world religions (i.e., Buddhists follow rules to attain enlightenment and escape from reincarnation, while Christians follow the law of Christ because they have already been saved from death and Christ is transforming them from the inside out). A linear view of time is fundamentally different from a cyclical view of
time. A feeling of mystical union with an impersonal “Ultimate” is fundamentally different than an experience of communion with a personal God who became a human and lived, died, and was raised to life again for the salvation of humans. Most of the adherents to the major world religions do not claim to worship the same God or gods as the other major world religions, and in fact, most forms of Buddhism deny the ultimate importance of any deities. To ignore these fundamental differences, or pass over them summarily as manifestations of “hard” religion is a serious mistreatment of the subject. Unfortunately, Fisher’s characterization of exclusivists as being hateful, bigoted, violent, and dangerous elitists has too often been true-to-life. Even in the Christian camp there are many who use Christianity as a mask for racism, hatred, and even violence. Fisher claims that now that just about every nation has been reached by Christianity, denominations “are competing with each other for the conversion of souls to their particular version of faith” (13). This is a lamentable fact, but it is not necessarily the exclusivism of the Christian groups that is to blame, but the feeling of superiority that often comes with knowing that you are right. This feeling of superiority is not only in the explicitly exclusivist camps, but is also evidenced in texts like Fisher’s, which attempt to reject, condemn, or ignore the importance and value of exclusivism in religions (which is an exclusivist position in itself), and interprets the world’s religions through the lens of a subjective framework like that provided by universalistic pluralism. Fisher describes twenty-first century religion using the well-known elephant illustration (10). Depending upon one’s point of view, twenty-first century religion will seem to be something that is perhaps not grasping the whole picture (some feel an ear, while others feel a tail or a trunk). How does Fisher escape from the subjectivity of interpreting modern religion? By
“stepping back” and generalizing, and by placing each religion and its modern developments in the framework of modern universalistic pluralism. However, this is similarly a particular and subjective point of view, and it has a tendency to gloss over various fundamental differences between religions (as we have already shown). Fisher has brought up several points that I would like to investigate and analyze further. First, is it ever possible (in this life as a human) to understand religions from a completely objective standpoint? Even if an individual were an atheist without religion (and would thus be a type of outside observer), he or she would still view religions from his or her own perspective (which is a religious perspective of disbelief in God), and would probably fail to understand and appreciate the seriousness and value of the theism of various other religious perspectives. Second, is the “Universal Rule” (the “Golden Rule” in Christianity) a universal constant in all major world religions as Fisher reports (104)? If so, does it carry the same meaning in each religion? And how is it applied in practical living (is it of primary importance in the religion as a whole)? Third, what is the relationship between the complexities of religions and the universality of religious truth? If there is but one universal truth—that is God’s truth (as Augustine purported)—what truth can be found in other religious traditions that do not acknowledge the Truth (i.e. Christ)? After attempting to understand the other world religions from within their own contexts and from a more objective point of view, what can Christians glean from the other major world religions that might help them to reach out more effectively (as Paul did at Athens)? Fourth, how closely are exclusivism and missionary effort related? To be sure, many pluralists, like Fisher, are zealous to spread their forms of universalism. But how far does an exclusivist position push individuals toward reaching out to people who
they believe are not following the truth? Perhaps motivations are a key factor (e.g. fear, a feeling of superiority, love and compassion for the lost, etc.). Fisher’s text should challenge mature Christians of every denominational stripe to seek the unity of the Spirit with other believers and to ensure that all believers understand and appreciate the exclusivity of the claims of Christ. Christ’s death was worthless if he was not the only way to get to God the Father. Christ was a fool to die to pay for our sins if we could be forgiven any other way. Our ministries as Christians in the West should combat the prevailing winds of universalistic pluralism by centering in on the exclusivity of Christ, and by showing the truth of our position by our love, not by our elitism. The gospel is for all humans, and there is in fact only one Truth, one Way, and one Life. It is by God’s Spirit that all Christians will be made one, and it is similarly by God’s Spirit that all Christians are empowered to teach the truth. This truth must be taught not in hate, violence, or in a self-serving elitist attitude. Instead, it must be taught by God’s love in us.
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