Have you noticed? Carefully selected clergy have presided over prayer meetings all across America in the wake of the terrorist tragedy of September 11. Many organizers for such meetings have made a point of having Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders standing side by side.
Efforts to present a united front against terrorism have renewed a sense of civic religion” in America. There is a general feeling that Islam, Judaism and Christianity must set aside their differences, if we are to work together under a benevolent democracy for the common good. This is the “big tent” philosophy of religious pluralism.
Thank God that the United States has long recognized the place of religion in the public square, where people of various persuasions can assert their views, independent of one another. But the force of recent events has pushed us a step further toward a melding of spirituality, a yoking together of various traditions under one “acceptable” religious/social voice.
If you feel uneasy over this new wave of religious “unity,” it is for good reason. Pluralism in its best sense means that people recognize the rights of others to believe differently than they do, so that we co-exist peacefully despite our differences. But the kind of religious pluralism that presents itself today insists that various religions are really not so different—or that if they are, the differences don’t matter because a. we can’t know what is ultimately true, or b. there is more than one ultimate truth, or c. there is no ultimate truth. This is not merely pluralism, it is a religion of pluralism spurred on by the dogma of today’s tolerance. And frankly there’s nothing as intolerant as today’s wacky strain of “tolerance.”
Religious tolerance ought to mean that people are free, not only to hold opposing points of view, but also to argue peaceably for their viewpoint without fear of retribution. But religious tolerance has deteriorated into a shrill insistence that anyone who challenges another person’s belief—no matter how peaceably or respectfully— is intolerant. The religion of pluralism with its doctrine of tolerance condemns those it deems “intolerant” with precious little respect or compassion. With its lack of patience for the concept of absolute truth and its high praise for a blurring of distinctions, the deeply disturbing implications of this trend are syncretism and universalism.
Religious syncretism, the blending of differing—and often conflicting— religious beliefs, is a distortion of tolerance, as is universalism, the doctrine that all people will eventually be saved regardless of their religious convictions. Today’s new religious pluralism is a strange melange of syncretism and universalism. Yet this “new” pluralism is an age-old problem.
In ancient Israel, syncretism led to the downfall of the nation of Israel and to God’s judgment on the people of Judah. The Jewish people were worshipping the God of Israel at the Temple in Jerusalem, while at the same time sacrificing to the gods of the Canaanites on the hillsides. These religious systems were diametrically opposed, theologically as well as ethically. Yet many Israelites tried to embrace it all. They didn’t see the contradictions.
Such ancient syncretism is often looked on today as primitive, but these religious chameleons were the true modernists of their time. They had the same spirit as today’s religious pluralists who hold that all religious sentiment is good, as long as it doesn’t hurt others or make exclusive claims.
In the wake of recent events many today are seeking to embrace Islam along with other world religions, experimenting with inclusive forms of worship in order to show tolerance toward all religious views. They argue, “Why cannot Islam, Judaism and Christianity hold hands together in our new global environment? After all, these three faiths share a common commitment to monotheism, a belief in one God, as well as many other shared values. If we all believe in the same God then those things that divide us are minor, secondary, unimportant. Joining hands can only further those shared values and help bring peace to the world.”
The answer to this is twofold. First, there is no reason we cannot respect people and treat them with dignity and compassion while strongly disagreeing with their beliefs. The world recognizes that people have always used religious beliefs to justify sinful acts against those who believe differently than they do. And the world wrongly deduces that this sinful behavior somehow stems from believing deeply in any religion.
The second part of the answer is that while all three faiths claim belief in one God, that one God never said He is approachable through three faiths. In fact, “faith” is a misnomer for religious beliefs. What does Ephesians 4 say? “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (verses 4-7).
Faith is not merely a belief. Faith is a true belief attached to a reality, the reality. What does the New Testament teach about that reality? “No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23).
We should not disrespect the people who seek to follow the religions of Judaism or Islam, but we need to remember that both deny that Jesus is the Messiah; therefore both are false according to Scripture, since neither “has the Father.” (Although we are Jews, we Jews for Jesus do not claim to follow the religion taught by rabbis who do not know Jesus, nor do we define our Jewishness according to the majority opinion of our fellow Jews.)
As for Islam, its central tenet is, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” Both Judaism and Christianity reject this assertion. Neither faith accepts Muhammad as a prophet or the Koran as holy writ. What is more, Islam has little capacity to tolerate a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East. Muslims the world over will always be fundamentally opposed to Israel.
Islam and Judaism, on the other hand, deny Jesus’ claim to be the one true Messiah, and reject the New Testament as holy writ. Both religions are strongly opposed to the Christian duty of evangelism and proclamation of the gospel. Efforts to offer Jews and Muslims the gospel are frequently met with anger and, in Muslim countries, often with violence.
We cannot paper over these basic differences or pretend they don’t exist. But that is what secularists and religious pluralists do. In fact, they say, it is not these three religions that are bad, but the fundamentalists from each who cause all the trouble. And they paint fundamentalists with a very broad stroke. That is, any belief in the exclusive claims of one religious view over another is fundamentalism—and the fundamentalist is one step away from becoming a terrorist.
Andrew Sullivan encapsulated this sentiment in an article in the New York Times Magazine, asserting, “It seems as if there is something inherent in religious monotheism that lends itself to terrorist temptation.”
We can hope and pray for Muslims, Christians and Jews to treat one another with respect, and we should certainly treat all people as precious in God’s sight. But we will not end terrorism by ignoring the fact that these three religions teach something very different about the one person who is the key to lasting peace. That person is Jesus.
Those who try to establish a new syncretistic, universalistic religion may be very well-intentioned, but there can be no real peace apart from truth. It is a failing of human nature to believe we can make our own truth, and from this failing come wars, within and without.
We should be concerned about the rush of so many who ought to know better to join hands with neo-pluralists in pursuing a one-world religion. Those who claim to follow Jesus yet agree that all the great religions are on the same path not only deceive themselves, but they also encourage others to continue on toward a Christless eternity.
As Jews for Jesus missionaries stand out on the streets proclaiming the good news of the gospel, we often have opportunities to meet people who attend synagogues and mosques. They frequently engage us in vigorous debate and discussion about who God is and whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. That debate must continue. If those on a crusade to stop the debate gain the upper hand, freedom of religion will truly be lost. Ephesians 4:14,15 urges us, “that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love…grow up in all things into Him who is the head—the Messiah…”