Alister McGrath on Religious Pluralism

I finished More Than One Way? last night, while I was watching my Moses marathon. Today, I will touch on Alister McGrath’s essay.

McGrath basically argues that the religions are different, so we can’t affirm that they’re all saying the same thing. Ironically, I was reading this article while watching a 7th Heaven episode that touched on this issue. The episode I had on was about a Muslim family, which was struggling to find acceptance in the neighborhood. Ruthie was telling her little brothers, Sam and David, that Muslims believe in God. Sam and David then asked, “Well, if we all believe in God, then aren’t we the same?” The dog, Happy, then says “Rrrr,” as his ears perk up. I interpreted that to mean “Good point!” or “That’s something to think about!” (I’m an Aspie, but I can still read dogs.) But, anyway, I saw this whole exchange while I read McGrath state the following:

“It is perfectly possible for the Christian to engage in dialogue with non-Christians, whether of a religious persuasion or not, without in any way being committed to the intellectually shallow and paternalist view that ‘we’re all saying the same thing'” (158).

Coincidence? Who knows? It was a funny incident, though.

I don’t really care what Sam and David said, for their acting is rather stilted (although I was touched when they prayed for Simon at the end of one episode). But I have a hard time disagreeing with Happy. I love that dog! If only he were on more 7th Heaven episodes.

Here’s my reaction: We are all the same, in the sense that we’re people who need, want, and deserve love. But our beliefs are not necessarily the same, or even compatible in all areas. And, yet, there’s a lot of overlap. I agree with Hick that most religions have some sense of the transcendent, along with an ethical maxim of loving one’s neighbor.

But, even here, there can be nuance. I was thinking about this last night as I watched Cecil B. Demille’s Ten Commandments. Egyptian religion had ideas of love for the poor and oppressed. We see this in Egyptian literature, but even Pharaoh Sir Sethi Hardwicke said on the movie that he nourished the poor and the orphan. Yet, Egypt also had slaves and treated them like dirt. Cecil B. Demille talked about this at the beginning: “But each sought to do his own will, for he knew not the light of God’s law. The conquered were made to serve the conqueror. The weak were made to serve the strong.” There was an ethical sense even in Demille’s Egypt, so, contra Cecil, it didn’t completely lack the light of God’s law. But that ethical sense wasn’t consistently applied. The culture had blind spots! You can see that contradiction in probably every culture.

I got a kick out of one of McGrath’s statements: He said in opposition to Hick that different cultures have contrasting ideas of salvation. McGrath then refers to the “Rastafarian vision of a paradise in which blacks are served by menial whites” (171). I can detect some scorn in that reference. Christians, after all, believe in the equality of Jews and Gentiles, so it is obviously better than the racialist Rastafarian vision! And, yet, the Bible presents a vision that resembles the Rastafarian notion of paradise:

“[T]he house of Israel will possess the nations as male and female slaves in the LORD’s land; they will take captive those who were their captors, and rule over those who oppressed them” (Isaiah 14:2 NRSV).

This is my problem with McGrath: He says that different religions contradict one another and cannot be reconciled, but he ignores the diversity within the Bible itself. The New Testament presents an image of Jews and Gentiles being equal in God’s community. That was Paul’s whole point: He wanted the Gentiles to enter God’s Israel as Gentiles, without having to become Jews first (through circumcision and Torah observance). But not all of the Bible favors that sort of equality: Isaiah 14:2 presents the Gentiles as menial servants of Israel after her eschatological restoration.

Here are a few more points about McGrath:

1. He seems to know all sorts of people. He mentions Satanist acquaintances, for example. It’s good that he reaches out to all kinds and tries to understand their perspectives. I’m not as good as making friends, but, when I look back at my life, I realize that I’ve met all kinds of people–not Satanists, but people from other religions.

2. McGrath disputes the notion that God’s plan rests entirely on Christians. Often, in my experience as an evangelical, I felt as if people’s eternal destiny depended on me. I thought I needed to sell the Gospel–through good arguments, through being nice, through being impressive. But life is not that neat. Non-believers have arguments for their non-belief. Arguments such as “Jesus was Lord because he wasn’t a liar or a lunatic” do not silence non-believers, at least not in the real world (they might on evangelism videos!). Plus, should I feel guilty of sending people to hell just because I make a social faux pas? Ridiculous!

Yet, God does involve us in his plan. We shouldn’t kick back and expect him to do everything. We are participants in what he is doing. But we’re not generating every aspect of what he is doing, through our own strength, wisdom, and perfection.

I’ve always been familiar with questions on religious pluralism, but the issue really hit home for me when I was at Harvard. There, I encountered people from all sorts of religions. As I saw Jews with their yarmulkes in the Law School library, I thought to myself, “Are they going to hell?” Of course, I held fast to annihilationism, the idea that God will destroy the wicked rather than tormenting them forever and ever, but that didn’t make things better, at least not in my eyes. Does God have a plan for that Jewish person with the yarmulke? Or is his intention merely to burn him up? That Jewish person probably knows Christians, but is God’s plan for him solely based on what Christians do?

In those days, I was reading Isaiah, and the scenario that appeared throughout the book was as follows: God will restore Israel, the nations will be impressed with God’s power, and they’ll come to Jerusalem to worship God. God acts, and that draws the nations to God. Yet, Israel still participates in what God is doing: She follows God and becomes a holy society, one that is a model to the Gentile nations. How different is that from what we see today? Now, there are all sorts of religions, and no way to prove which one is right (in my opinion). How is God acting today to draw nations to himself? And what role do we play?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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