Being a Christian in a Pluralistic Society
Religious pluralism is a fact of life in Canada. We need to consider how we might best understand, respect and co-exist with people of different beliefs.
Did you know? Throughout the months of November and December Canadians of a variety of faith traditions will be celebrating holidays of special significance. Here are just a few of them:
There [is] no “one size fits all” solution for spreading the good news.
Deepavali (Diwali)—November 5, 2010 (Hinduism): Known as the “festival of lights,” Deepavali is perhaps the most popular Hindu festival. It is dedicated to several deities, and Hindus traditionally adorn their homes and temples with many lights.”
Birthday of Baha’u’llah—November 12, 2010 (Baha’i): This Baha’i holiday commemorates the birth of Baha’u’llah, the divine messenger and founder of the faith. Baha’is attend a worship program on the evening of the 11th and refrain from work on the 12th.
Shichi-Go-San—November 15, 2010 (Shinto): This is a Shinto celebration for young boys and girls. In this celebration, “the children take part in a ceremony …whose meaning is gratitude for life’s blessings and the request for future protection and good fortune.”
Eid al-Adha—November 16, 2010 (Islam): Muslims throughout the world pray with pilgrims in Makkah to observe Eid al-Adha. This is the Feast of the Sacrifice, a four-day observance in memory of God’s sparing of Ismail (Ishmael), Abraham’s son. It includes sermons, the giving of presents, and special dinners with friends and relatives.
Birthday of Guru Nanak—November 21, 2010 (Sikhism): Sikhs commemorate the birthday of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the first teacher of the community of disciples that became known as the Sikhs. His songs in praise of the formless and transcendent God are a cherished part of the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth.
Chanukah—December 2—December 9, 2009 (Judaism): Chanukah on the Web describes this holiday as “the Festival of Lights, …a celebration of the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple. It also commemorates the miracle of the oil that burned for 8 days.”
Bodhi Day—December 8, 2010 (Buddhism): The Buddhist Temple of Chicago writes, “Bodhi Day—Usually observed December 8 or the Sunday immediately preceding, it is the date, according to Mahayana tradition, of Siddhartha Gautama’s realization and presentation to his fellow seekers of the Four Noble Truths.”
Christmas—December 25, 2010 (Christianity): This is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity.
Source: The Pluralism Project at Harvard University
Insights of experts
From the earliest days of church history, Christians have lived, worked and ministered in pluralistic contexts. In this article some of Canada's Christian leaders offer their insights.
Dr. Hans Foerster (HF) holds a doctorate in Early Church History from the University of Vienna, and has published four scholarly books and numerous articles on various topics covering New Testament studies, early church history, papyrology and Coptology. His current research focuses on the Coptic text of the Gospel of John. He has contributed to various newspapers in Austria, communicating his research to a wider audience and teaches classes during summer school at McMaster Divinity College.
WorldWatch (WW): It’s been observed that the Church of the New Testament grew up in a pluralistic society. Describe that society to us.
HF: The Roman Empire covered a huge area, making it a society with many different social, racial and religious groups. The mobility of some groups within the Empire meant mingling of these groups, especially within the larger cities, which could have had well over 100,000 inhabitants. Rome - as the largest city of the Empire—probably had close to one million inhabitants. Unrest in religious matters was not tolerated, as can be seen in the expulsion of Prisca and Aquila (and others) from Rome in Acts 18:2.
WW: What were the greatest challenges the Church faced as a result of that pluralism?
HF: They had to respond to different audiences in different ways. In Athens, Paul spoke to philosophers (Acts 17:16ff), in a style we might refer to today as academic discourse. At Ephesus (Acts 19:23ff) the same Paul had to deal with those who profited from the cult of Artemis (or, as she was known to the Greeks, Diana). Thus Christian missionaries had to understand the society and intellectual climate they were working in. There was no “one size fits all” solution for spreading the good news.
And the question of how to approach different audiences lead to hot discussions and disagreements among Christians, as can be seen in the Acts 15 discussions between Paul and the other Apostles concerning his missionary approach.
WW: How was Christian ministry conceived in New Testament times and in what way was that context different to our own experience of pluralism today?
HF: The context of the mission was that there was no question as to the existence of gods. This is just the opposite to today. In the New Testament context, the radical concept of Christian monotheism was perceived as such a radical denial of the existence of gods that they were accused of being atheists. Thus, they had to defend the fact that there is only one God against a plurality of local cults for different gods.
At the same time religion was perceived as an integral part of the culture. Today the question centres on whether there is more to life than matter alone. Evolutionists claim that religion is just a delusion. Thus, there is no consensus that there is a higher being called God.
WW: How is it similar?
HF: Probably the most important similarity is that there is no consensus as to whether Christianity—and today even more fundamentally, any religion—is positive for society. Huntington speaks of a “clash of civilizations,” which is often perceived as a clash of different religious systems. Thus, the question of whether religion is good
for society is answered by leading figures in today’s culture in a negative way. This situation is very similar to the first encounters between Christianity and the Roman administration. Emperors—especially Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century when Christianity had become a substantial subset of society—tried to marginalize
Christians and persecuted members of the Church. They were convinced that Christianity was not good for Roman society.
WW: What one thing would you like Canadian Christian leaders to know about Christian responsibility in a pluralistic society?
HF: The first Christians in the Early Church did not try to change society as a whole. They wanted to live according to their faith. Problems like those in Ephesus arose when too many saw Christianity as attractive. Thus, Christians should refrain from provocative actions which might divide society, and rather try to live what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:43-38. It has been argued—and might well be correct—that the willingness of
Christians to care for others—and to see strangers as brethren—was what made the Early Church attractive to non-believers. Having a similar willingness today—to see strangers as brethren—might also do much to change perceptions of Christianity as a dividing force in contemporary society.
Dr. Chawkat Moucarry (CM) is Director of Inter-Faith relations for World Vision International. Fluent in Arabic, English and French, he has a Masters degree in Christian theology and a PhD in Islamic Studies. He is the author of several books including The Prophet & the Messiah: An Arab Christian’s Perspective on Islam & Christianity, and The Search for Forgiveness: Pardon and Punishment in Islam and Christianity.
WW: What do Canadian Christian leaders need to know about relating to people of other faiths or no faith?
CM: Canadian Christians live in a society very similar to that of the early Church when Christians formed a minority (and sometimes persecuted) community. We are all human beings, and we should relate to all people as such. Everyone has a certain understanding of God; those who belong to no faith also have spiritual aspirations, which they express in different ways. Therefore, it is important to take a positive approach to people’s spirituality. Sin distorts all human religions, so we must take a critical look at human spiritualities, including our own, in the light of God’s revelation in Scripture. As we engage with other faiths we need to be humble, willing to learn and to be challenged, while still being open about our Christian identity, ready to explain it, and to respond rationally and courteously to any objections we receive.
WW: Why is it important for Christians to build bridges of understanding and friendship with people of other faiths or no faith?
CM: We need to engage with people whoever they are for the common good of our society, both as citizens and as Christians. Our future depends on our ability to work together despite our differences. The issues we face are too big for just one group of people, and we each have a unique contribution to make to address the challenges inherent to multiethnic, multi-faith societies. As Christians we are expected to love our neighbours and to share our faith with them. The best way to know people is to befriend them. It is not uncommon that people of one faith have all sorts of misunderstandings and even prejudices about other faiths. Reading books about other faiths is not enough; we need to build personal relationships with people. Genuine relationships can lead to better understanding, mutual respect, cooperation and witness.
WW: What are some practical ways to go about doing so?
CM: Natural opportunities for meeting people—in the work place, neighbourhood, clubs and so on—are the best ones. The trouble is that we in Western countries live in individualistic societies. It isn’t easy to get out of our comfort zones in order to reach out beyond our familiar circles. Yet doing so is a must if we want to be faithful to our calling.
WW: What are the dangers of not reaching out?
CM: If we do not intentionally reach out our mutual ignorance and prejudices will be reinforced. People will live in ghettos—each group according to their ethnic or religious background—ultimately undermining society and potentially leading to its fragmentation. If we live within the wall of our community we run the risk of getting self-centred and preoccupied with petty internal debates, in danger of spiritual pride and intolerance. We will fail in our mission if we don’t walk the extra mile to meet our fellow human beings, whatever their faiths.
WW: What cautions would you give to a Christian leader who might be inexperienced at interfaith dialogue, but who wants to begin connecting in a meaningful way with people of other faiths in their community?
CM: Don’t expect people to make the first step, take the initiative especially if your potential dialogue partner is not Canadian-born.
Hospitality is a great way of getting to know people; we share much more than food over a meal. In certain circumstances it might be easier to do this as a family. Respect their culture and traditions. Ask them about their own faith and background. Make no assumptions about people’s beliefs as there is a wide diversity within every religious community.
Don’t feel you have to share your faith with people the first time you meet them. When appropriate feel free to discuss religious issues, and acknowledge the failures of Christians and/or western governments rather than being on the defensive. Avoid using Christian jargon when talking about your faith.
The Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton (KH) is General Secretary of The Canadian Council of Churches and a minister in The United Church of Canada. Since January 2009, she has chaired the 2010 InterFaith Partnership, the body of 47 denominations, faith groups and faith-based organizations, who, along with the University of Winnipeg hosted the 6th Annual InterFaith Leaders’ Summit to challenge and inspire the G8/G20 when they met in Canada in June 2010.
WW: Please give us a brief overview of the G8 World Religions Summit.
KH: Since 2005 the senior faith leaders of the world have been gathering in whichever country was hosting the G8 (now G8 and G20) meetings to come to consensus on a statement to challenge and inspire the G8 (and G20) on such issues as extreme global poverty, care for creation and the need to invest in peace. There has been a constant focus on the Millennium Development Goals and the reality that the G8 has made many promises on behalf of the vulnerable people of the world, but their compliance rate with their own promises sits at an average of only 51 percent.
Meanwhile every three seconds a child in our world dies unnecessarily of poverty-related causes and every thirty seconds a child in our world dies unnecessarily of malaria. Malaria has been treatable and preventable for 100 years. The leaders of all of the world’s faith traditions feel deeply called to come together and to speak and act together for justice and healing.
WW: Why should Christians put energy into multi-faith work?
KH: It is not a question of Christians feeling that they ‘should’ put energy into multifaith work but rather it is a biblical and theological imperative. Two examples of many in the biblical text: in Isaiah 45:1, God calls King Cyrus of Persia ‘the anointed one’ because he does the will of God even though not knowing Him. In Matthew 1, the genealogy of Jesus contains the names of four women who were not of the people of Israel. Our calling is clear throughout the biblical text that we are to care for the widow, the orphan and the sojourner and when we work together as all the faith traditions of the world we not only work more effectively but we have a stronger voice with bodies such as the G8 and G20. The vast majority of the people of the world are people of faith. Together, we represent the vast majority of the world’s people.
WW: Could you share some personal insights (or an anecdote that might help readers understand) the significance of the summit?
KH: I had the opportunity to speak with former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin about the 2010 InterFaith Leaders’ Summit last spring, prior to the Summit taking place. His response was immediate and enthusiastic. He said, “...those are the things that really make a difference!”
A second anecdote...there is a researcher tracking the results and influence of the Summit and in surveying the 80 faith leaders who were there and having heard back from only some of them so far, she estimates that a half a billion people are, through their faith tradition, connected to the work and the statement (A Time For Inspired Leadership and Action).
A third crucial example. I have, since the 2007 InterFaith Leaders’ Summit in Germany, been building a relationship with the Canadian G8 office. I have sent them the Leaders’ Statements from 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. I sent the 2010 one, “A Time For Inspired Leadership and Action” on June 23rd, the day the Faith Leaders’ Summit ended, by the next day, the day the G8 meeting was beginning, the Canadian G8 office had taken the time to read the statement and respond to me.
WW: Any final thoughts on the value of building bridges across faith lines?
KH: We are called to care for God’s people. We must speak, we must act. How many children have died unnecessarily in the time I have written these words, in the time readers have read these words. We are more effective, we are more faithful when we act and speak together with others who share our passion for justice.
Christian Responsibility in a Multiethnic Society. A position paper by Dr. Chawkat Moucarry World Vision works to improve child well-being and to serve people around the world regardless of religion, race, gender or ethnicity. For more information on how we work and why, click here:
A great way to reach out into your community with the love of Christ is to partner with World Vision in our “Partners to End Child Poverty” program. Check it out.
Distinctly Welcoming: Christian presence in a Multifaith Society. Richard Sudworth. Scripture Union, 2007.
Faith to Faith: A Christian Arab perspective on Islam and Christianity. Chawkat Moucarry. Inter-Varsity Press, 2001.
Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Christine D. Pohl. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999.
The Gagging of God: Christianity confronts Pluralism. Don A. Carson. Zondervan Carr Books, 2002.
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Lesslie Newbigin. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1989.
The Pluralism Project at Harvard University—Helps people engage with the realities of religious diversity through research, outreach and the active dissemination of resources. Includes links, an e-newsletter, resources on faith groups, up-coming conferences and events, etc.
The website of the Summit which is still live and contains both the 2010 statement and the web-casts of such speakers at the Summit as Senator Romeo Dallaire, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Justice Murray Sinclair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Dr. Lloyd Axworthy, the General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches etc.
Originally published in World Watch, November/December 2010.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2010 Christianity.ca.