A response to Mark Chan’s ‘Sowing Subversion in the Field of Relativism’
As I ventured out on my prayer walk early one morning, I became aware of the earliest sounds of a waking world. In the midst of a cacophony of noises – birds, chickens, cows, and the occasional automobile in the distance – my ears also tuned in to the sounds of religious devotion. First the drums, cymbals, and chants from a nearby temple; then the distant strains of the Muslim maulvi’s rising call to prayer from the mosque; and finally the sounds of worship from our own Bible College chapel as early risers gathered for morning devotions. Several burning questions that had haunted me for much of my life returned to me again.
Does God only hear the sounds of prayers from our chapel, and close his ears to the cries of the faithful Muslim worshipers and Hindu devotees? My closest neighbours and friends throughout my childhood were not Christians. Two of my close family members through marriage came to our family from other faiths: one, as a devout Muslim and the other, Zoroastrian. (One is today a radiant believer, the other has still not made a public profession of faith.) Much of my time in the early years of my ministry was spent on the streets and slums of one of the most densely populated cities in the world, Mumbai, and for the last four years I have lived in another of the world’s most populated cities, Kolkata. As I walked and prayed, I reflected on how I struggle to respond to sincere seekers who ask questions like: If Jesus is the only way to God, what about my Hindu parents and grandparents who never had a chance to hear about him, and my ancestors who lived and died before Jesus was born?
My entire life’s work has been devoted to communicating the gospel of Christ effectively to those who have never heard. Yet as I watch tens of thousands streaming in and out of a crowded train station or milling through the streets during festival seasons, it troubles me deeply as I realize the vast majority of them have never heard and may never hear the gospel. Will God send all of these millions to hell automatically just because I or others like me fail to tell them about Christ?
This response is meant to complement rather than critique Mark Chan’s competent treatment of the contemporary assault of relativism on the notion of absolute truth, a foundational assumption of evangelical faith. As Chan’s sound summary illustrates, relativistic pluralism is logically a house of straw built on epistemological sinking sand.
The average person, however, is attracted to the pluralistic response for socially pragmatic reasons rather than its logical appeal. Claims of superiority or finality in any religion seem to threaten peace and the delicate balance of social harmony in multicultural contexts. Religions which make absolute claims are seen as seeking to eventually eradicate every other religion from the face of the earth. If other religions take action to defend their survival, communal strife and social discord seem inevitable.
Before anything else, we need to reject the typology that classifies the historic Christian faith’s commitment to Christ’s decisiveness as “exclusivism.” The Christian worldview is no more exclusive than any other worldview, including pluralism. Our real challenge is to complement our cold defence of absolute truth with a warm existential response in which we offer people of all faiths and no faith the opportunity for an encounter with the living Christ. Such a response requires that we ground our witness, to use Chan’s phrase, “at the level of our common humanity”, sharing our experience of Christ with neighbours of other faiths as fellow pilgrims on a common quest for a genuine experience of God.
A firm commitment to the decisiveness and finality of Christ provides us with a basis to freely pursue truth, beauty and goodness even in the midst of non-Christian religions and cultures, and to use them as “bridges” or “landing strips” to communicate the gospel of Christ. This prepares the way for a non-threatening yet effective approach in communicating the gospel to people of other faiths.
Essential to this approach is the existence of an authentic community of Jesus’ followers who are experiencing true life in the Spirit and whose appropriation of the way of Christ is firmly grounded in the biblical testimony to the life and ministry of Christ. At the end of the day, for the follower of Christ, truth is more than just a set of propositions. Truth is a person – Jesus Christ, the decisive and final self-revelation of God. Truth is also an event – the Cross and resurrection – on the basis of which the living Christ today continues to invite people everywhere to accept God’s offer of forgiveness, reconciliation and eternal friendship.
Ivan Satyavrata is an Assemblies of God pastor in Kolkata, India, a Langham Scholar, and author of The Holy Spirit: Lord and Life-giver (IVP).
This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)