F.A.Q. #5: What about Other Religions?

We live in a world of many faiths. A basic glance at a world religions textbook (or a night watching T.V.) reveals a plethora of different religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, and Sikhism are just a few of these. And each one has different sects, too. Islam is largely bifurcated into Shiite and Sunni camps; Conservative Jews worship differently than Messianic and Orthodox strains; and Christianity itself is fractured into some 3,000 separate denominations by some estimates. At the end of the day, what do we make of them all? At the end of the world, will everyone be saved equally — or is only one of us right?

Three main view dominate the discussion about the veracity and accuracy of world religions. Exclusivism, probably the most prominent, states that only one religion is correct is any sense (generally the religion of the one espousing said opinion). Only those who follow Allah will gain Paradise, for example. Or those who follow Torah. Or the gospel of Jesus Christ. Or the Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths (although this one gets you to Nirvana). You get the idea. Generally speaking, Christianity is an exclusivist religion (notable exceptions to follow). Christians look at passages such as John 14:6 — “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” — and Acts 4:12 — “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” — and declare the only path to eternal life with God is the salvation offered by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those who do not personally know Christ as savior are damned. On the flip side of exclusivity is the problem of “What happens if the missionary gets a flat tire.” If someone never hears about Christ, are they consigned to eternal punishment by default? Would God really deny them eternal life simply because they remained ignorant of the sacrifice of Jesus through no fault of their own? Difficult questions for the exclusivist to answer. With that said, this remains the dominant view (in my opinion) of most Christians and most persons of other theistic religions.

A bit more “lenient” mode of thought is inclusivism, which states that anyone of any faith will be granted entry into whichever concept of heaven turns out to be correct. If we say Christianity offers the true idea of eternal life, then the pluralist will say devout Christians as well as devout Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. will enter the Christian heaven after the end of the age. Christian faith per se isn’t necessary for salvation; all that’s needed is a dedication to some sort of faith. All faith is attributed to being faith in God/the true deity and thus rewarded. People without a religion or who only nominally adhere to any given faith still suffer from whichever schema of eternal damnation as might prove to be true (such as the Christian hell). Inclusivism thus retains the central notions of salvation and damnation, but it broadens the scope to allow anyone with faith to be rewarded appropriately. (A subset of inclusivism allows for multiple eternal destinies: Christians are saved to a Christian heaven, Jews to a Jewish heaven, Buddhists to Nirvana, etc.). Some Christian theologians have gone along with the Christian iteration of inclusivism. Perhaps the most well-known is C.S. Lewis. In the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Last Battle, Lewis saves all non-Narnians who still served their own religions well (all good deeds being attributed to faith in Aslan and not Tash, for example). Other theologians have followed suit.

The final main view of world religions is religious pluralism (not to be confused with the concept of pluralism which simply acknowledges the reality of a multiplicity of faiths). Pluralists, sometimes referred to as universalists, believe everyone regardless of faith — or the lack thereof — will ultimately be saved and granted eternal life/entry into paradise. A specific statement of faith or salvific experience is not necessary. As long as you’re alive, you’ll make it at the end. This school of thought has gained ground in some progressive/liberal theological circles, but it’s never been the dominant opinion of any theistic religion (that I know of).

I keep saying “theistic religion”; what does that mean? It means any religion which believes in a single god, whether it’s God/Yahweh or Allah. There are polytheistic religions containing a pantheon of gods (think Zeus and Apollo and that lot), and there are pantheistic religions (wherein everything is god — yes, even the lettuce in your salad, you deicidal maniac). Christianity is of course a theistic/monotheistic religion: we believe God is a single God who alone rules the cosmos.

As Christian theists, then, what do we do about other religions? Do we take the exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist stance? Which one most accurately reflects biblical truth?

My seminary philosophy professor summed it up well: we need to avoid denominational leanings and side with historical, ecumenical truth. In this instance, historical truth and interpretation reflects the exclusivist view. Scripture promises all will have a chance of salvation, and Paul speaks of creation itself as a general revelation of the existence and character of God. And even if the missionary gets a flat tire (in my own view), God will grant unreached peoples a chance of the salvation made possible through the cross of Christ. Other religions will ultimately fail and be exposed as false. In our contemporary society, this isn’t a particularly popular view, and many well-meaning Christians (and others) will attempt to remake God to suit their own convictions to allow for inclusivism or universalism. Historic orthodoxy, however, will continue to refute these claims, even if it means exclusivists are made out to be hateful, vengeful villains.

What makes other religions false, then? First of all, they fail to acknowledge the gospel of Christ. We live in a post-Incarnation age, and since Jesus has been born, dead, and resurrected, the Torah is insufficient for salvation. The Quran fails to recognize the true nature of God. (Allah would never condescend to have a son, for example. For this reason and others, I do not — and scholars of Islam agree — equate God/Yahweh with the Islamic Allah.) Since they do not mandate faith in Jesus Christ and acceptance of his offer of salvation through the Holy Spirit, other religions cannot save; they cannot be true. Speaking personally, a second reason other religions are false are because of their origin. I consider them all works of Satan, as he is the father of lies. Any deity set up over against the Judaeo-Christian God is a false god — and quite possibly a demonic entity trying to get people to worship it on the one hand and prevent them from worshiping God on the other. Nothing born of hell is beneficial to humanity.

I do want to note, however, that I’m not saying they cannot possibly hold truth. They can, and that truth comes from God. But they then veer from or pervert said truth, creating a false religion. Or a cult. Or both.

Ultimately, how you choose to view other religions is up to you. And we should always be open to dialogue between faiths, sharing truth across religious boundaries to better serve the one True God. In all things, we show the love of God towards those of other faiths, respectfully inviting them into a relationship with the only personal Savior on the market.

Save the Baby Humans

I recently put my first bumper sticker on my car. Prior to this, I’d always had a sort of mindset which rebelled against using my vehicle (and thus myself) as free advertising for anyone, regardless of my feelings toward said entity or cause. (“I can’t let people know whom I supported in the election! If people want my opinions on things, they can ask!”) A few weeks ago, however, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse: a rather cute-looking cartoon member of an endangered species with a sign reading, “Save the baby humans!” And it was free! (I guess you get these kinds of offers after you sign so many petitions or join enough mailing lists.) So I got one and slapped in on the back of my car below my ichthus (Jesus always get free advertising space). Now my car boldly invites everyone to join the pro-life cause.

It’s a biblical cause, to be sure. To borrow some scare tactics language, legalized at-will abortion is nothing sort of a legitimatized genocide. Countless lives have been thrown away on a whim, simply because they were unwanted or inconvenient. Yes, the unborn are still alive in a very literal sense, even if our language says otherwise. Think about it: we rarely call a fetus a baby; no one would call a man a father before the birth of the child; and we count age beginning at the date of birth, not the (generally fuzzier) date of conception. For all linguistic purposes, we use a completely different vocabulary when discussing an unborn human being. And so they have no right to live.

Scripture tells us a different story. Repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, prophets and poets alike acknowledge the reality that life begins at conception. Job 31:15 speaks of God as “the one who made me in the womb,” acknowledging God’s hand in the creation of a new human being, a creative act carried out in the womb. It also implies God’s knowledge of the unborn as a distinct individual. Likewise Psalm 139:13-16 says, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” God’s knowledge of an individual life and his recognition of personhood clearly begins in utero, long before birth. Each person is known to God fully in the womb, and He considers them His creation from the time of conception.

Isaiah 44:2 and Jeremiah 1:5 are also standard passages in the discussion of personhood and abortion. Each acknowledges God’s hand at making them in the womb, but Jeremiah goes a step further. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” he writes, “and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5). Again, we are known to God before birth as distinct persons capable of being granted gifts and callings.

But the New Testament also tells us more than that. God knows us at conception — and we are capable of knowing him as well. The beautiful meeting between Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 1:39-56 makes this abundantly clear. Verses 39-41 read: “Now at this time [immediately after the conception of Jesus] Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” The unborn John the Baptist recognizes the unborn son of Mary as the Son of God in fetal form. There can be no mistaking this passage as meaning something else. Life begins at conception.

If life begins at conception, as it clearly does from a biblical viewpoint, we’re left with dealing with the ending of that life. The easy place to begin is the Decalogue. Exodus 20:13 gives us the relevant commandment: “You shall not murder.” (I know, I know; the King James says “kill,” but there are half a dozen words in Hebrew for killing. This one, ratsach, is the one for murder or slaughter.) That in and of itself should be enough, but let’s keep going. A chapter later in Exodus 21, the Torah lists the killing of an unborn child still being carried by his/her mother (or the causation of a premature birth so that the infant dies) as a grave offense (vv. 22-25). Not only is all life protected by the law of Moses, then, but also specifically the life of the unborn.

It seems fairly obvious that abortion constitutes the willful killing of a living human being. There remains debate in some Christian circles, however, about abortion in certain circumstances (such as a child of rape or a birth which would endanger the life of the mother). All I can do here is state my own opinions, as this isn’t going to be an issue resolved by someone’s blog (try though we may). I hold the belief that abortion in any situation is still murder. In the latter case, it’s a horrifying decision whether or not to terminate the pregnancy. Either way, someone is going to die, and either way, that death is going to come as a result of a conscious decision. I personally feel I would place both lives in God’s hands and pray for His miraculous intervention. (You’re thinking that this makes me a horrible person, I know: to gamble the life of my wife and unborn child on a literal miracle. And you’re also right: it’s not only my decision to make, and I haven’t been put in that position in the first place. You’re also thinking Christian ethics has long held it is permissible to lie and take a life to save a life under special circumstances. Your criticisms are all valid.) In the case of a pregnancy resulting from rape, it’s another horrific situation. A new life has been created because a woman was violated by a man she might not even know. How could we possibly expect her to give birth to and care for that child? Because it’s still a human life. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not something anyone would ever want to have to do. But it’s still a human life, and that’s worth something — even death on a cross.

This leads to a fundamental question in the abortion debate: is this an issue of women’s rights? Is this a woman exercising her right to control what happens to her physical body, or is it something different? I will be the first to say a woman has every right whatsoever to make decisions about her body. No other person, male or female, has that right. Period. The problem arises when we realize, however, that in pondering abortion, she’s making a decision about another human being and another body. Is that human being inside her own and relying upon her for life itself? Yes. But it’s still an error to say it’s exclusively a matter of her own body; another human being is in the equation. And since that human being cannot speak for itself, someone else needs to.

I realize these are poorly-worded and probably unpopular opinions; I considered not voicing them at all and instead opt to explain myself in-person to those who ask, as it would be much easier to communicate tone and nuance that way. Regardless, the matter deserves the full treatment, even if it’s coming from a single white male who will never have the honor of being pregnant.

At the very least, we should all agree on this: while we lobby — and rightly so — to save the trees and the baby whales, we should be doing something to save the baby humans, too. And it might start with getting a bumper sticker.

F.A.Q. #4: What’s the Liturgical Year?

On the first day of Advent (two days ago, 30 November this year), I posted a simple “Happy new (liturgical) year!” on my social media profile. My seminary and ministry friends wished me the same, but other people commented or messaged me to ask, “What’s that mean?” It’s a question I hear a lot, particularly from people who attend or were raised in “non-liturgical” churches (everyone follows some sort of liturgy, though, whether they admit it or not). So today we’ll tackle the Christian calendar, seeking to answer the question “What’s the liturgical year?” or, as it may be more commonly asked, “Why do the colors in my church’s sanctuary change every so often?”

The word “liturgy” comes from two separate Greek words for “people” and “work” and literally means “the work of the people.” As we use it in church parlance, liturgy refers to the program/order of worship used in a corporate church worship service (sing a song, pass the peace, sing again, read the Scripture, hear a sermon, recite a creed, celebrate the Eucharist [or however your church does it]). The more formal or ritualized the service is, the more it has to be prayerfully programmed out, and so we say it’s more “liturgical.” The Roman Catholic Mass is a highly liturgical service, for example, with the parishioners playing a large role in the worship itself (this is also known as “high church”). Southern Baptist churches, on the other hand, while following their own liturgy of sorts, tend to be more free-flowing and sermon-oriented than the Mass and feature less congregational participation, and so we call it less liturgical (or “low church,” if you prefer).

In a broader sense, however, the Christian Church follows the Christian calendar, a.k.a. the liturgical year. Like any other calendar year, the church calendar features distinct seasons of worship. The first is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming Messiah (both in terms of Christmas and his second coming). Next comes Christmas — all twelve days of it, hence the song (which you are now humming). Christmas ends with Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the magi (for the West) and the baptism of Christ (in the East); either way, Epiphany is a day to celebrate the manifestation of Jesus to the larger world. After Epiphany is a brief period of Ordinary Time (which is exactly as it sounds; nothing major goes on) leading up to Lent. Lent is the forty-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and it is observed through fasting and self-denial, preparation for the crucifixion of Jesus. Next comes Easter itself, a fifty-day observance of the resurrection of Our Lord, ending at Pentecost (literally “fifty”). From Pentecost until Advent, we return to Ordinary Time. Throughout each season, other observances occur, such as feast days of saints, Candlemas, Trinity Sunday, Holy/Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, etc.

Each distinct season is represented by its own color. Churches will change the decorations in the sanctuary, known as paraments, to the color corresponding with each season, and in churches where clergy don vestments, the color of the vestments (such as the stole, chasuble, or dalmatic) will change as well (more on vestments later). Advent is either blue or purple; Christmas and Easter are white; Lent is purple; and Ordinary Time is green. Pentecost, and feast days where observed, are red. The colors can change for other reasons as well (such as for weddings and funerals). So when the colors in the sanctuary have changed, you know you’ve entered a new liturgical season — and if you can recognize the color, you’ll know which one it is! (The liturgical year: color-coded for your convenience!)

The church year helps us cover our bases in worship, if you will. After forty days of Lent full of fasting and totally void of any “hallelujahs,” it’s much easier to both sympathize with the passion of the Christ and be more eager to truly mean it when you shout “Alleluia!” While most people in our contemporary society tend to skip Advent altogether and start singing Christmas carols, the season teaches us about expectation and hope as well as reminding us that Our Lord will return one day. Pentecost, somewhat tritely known as the birthday of the Church, nevertheless recalls to memory our origins as a worshiping community and the awesome blessings of the Holy Spirit.

The liturgical year allows us great joy, great lament, and times of ordinary Christian service. It reminds us of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how the Trinity interacts with us in our worship and in our daily lives. The Christian calendar provides an easy way to orient those daily lives to the Christian message, giving us easy paths to let our faith be seen in how we live each day.

Some churches still say following the liturgical year is “too Catholic,” and so they retain their forms of low church worship. To be fair, the calendar certainly wasn’t in existence in apostolic times, although they celebrated Easter and other observances. But to me, the church year is a great way to be in fellowship with the larger global church, and its value when followed in corporate worship and discipleship shouldn’t be underestimated.

And so, two days later, I’ll say it again: happy new year!