Can Christians Belong to More than One Religious Tradition? (LOP 65 E)

Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of a paper delivered at the Consultation of the Lausanne Theology Working Group in partnership with the WEA Theological Commission, ‘The Whole World’, held in Beirut, Lebanon 2010. © Lausanne Theology Working Group. Download the full PDF


Other Papers in this Series

The Whole World – Statement of the Lausanne Theology Working Group (Beirut 2010) (LOP 65 A)
The World in the Bible (LOP 65 B)
Towards a Missiology of Caring for Creation (LOP 65 C)
The Global Public Square (LOP 65 D)
Case Studies (LOP 65 F)


CONTENT
I. Perspectives on Non- Christian Religions
1. Pluralism
2. Exclusivist Perspectives
II. Can Christians Belong to More than One Religious Traditions?
III. Models of multi-religious belongings
1. Multiple Religious Belonging: A Radical Pluralism
2. Multi-religious Identity: An Internal Reality
3. Dual Belonging: A Contextual and Mission Approach
IV. Some Methodological Considerations, with special reference to Insider Movements
V. Is Dual Belonging syncretistic?
1. Complexity of Culture and Religion
2. Contributions from Anthropological Insights
VI. Towards A Critical Appreciation of Dual Belonging


I. Perspectives on Non- Christian Religions

This paper seeks to explore the notion of multi-religious belonging and evaluate whether it is theologically possible for a Christian to follow Christ while retaining some form of identification with one’s previous religion such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Chinese religions. Instead of a total rejection of past faiths, is it possible for a Christian, without falling into syncretism, to belong to more than one religious tradition?

Traditionally, categories of a theology toward other religions are grouped in the threefold typologies of pluralism, inclusivism and exclusivism. This categorization was criticized for its sharp distinction between positions on the non-Christian religions, and for its failure to take into account the complexities between various proponents of religious encounter. For example, many Evangelicals will be exclusivist in their position on the finality of Jesus for salvation but will be open to incorporating the insights from other religions for life and faith. New models are still being proposed and debated with no real consensus on this evolving debate on the theories of religion.

1. Pluralism

John Hick, Paul Knitter, Raimundo Panikkar, Stanley Samartha, and others have championed the relativist positions which are untenable for Evangelicals holding to exclusivist claims of Jesus. Gavin D’Costa and Mark Heim have presented scathing critiques on the pluralist positions, namely, that pluralists deny others the right to alternative positions, which is a contradiction to the pluralist position. Once conversions and truth-validations are made illegitimate within religious conversations, then the rigour and quality of dialogues diminish radically into mere religious chatter.

Important critiques from Evangelicals on the relativistic positions focus on the problem of criteria for evaluating truth claims, the requirements to first sacrifice any faith positions, and a reductionism of the diversity of religions into a monolithic faith.[1]

These types of pluralism, tracing their roots from liberal modernism, fail in relation to their own goals of respect to all religions and of allowing plurality of discourse. In addition, they move beyond the ‘controlling beliefs of orthodox Christianity’.[2]

While these relativistic positions have gained acceptance in Western academia, such positions are seldom reflected on the field of religious encounter between firm religionists (for example, among Muslim theologians) in Asia or Africa. Even Buddhists who are open to other religious insights will eventually still insist on the more adequate path of Dharma for achieving enlightenment.

2. Exclusivist Perspectives

Recent evangelical positions on non-Christian religions straddle between inclusivists such as Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, Mark Heim and exclusivists such as Gerald McDermott, Timothy Tennent, Ajith Fernando and Don Carson. Gerald McDermott argues from scripture and the writings of Jonathan Edwards that Evangelicals will discover new insights when we engage with the teachings of other religions. As long as we retain our commitment to the Bible, such engagements with non-Christian truths are necessarily shaped and coloured through a distinctively evangelical lens. McDermott presents biblical arguments that God wants Gentiles to know him, people outside the Jewish and Christian churches have known him, and God’s people can learn from those outside the Jewish and Christian churches.[3] Evangelicals can learn from other religions not only truths arising from creation and general revelation but also new insights found in these religious traditions.

Timothy Tennent, Associate Professor of Mission at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, recognizes that no longer can religious conversations be entered with Christians positing themselves at the head of the table, controlling the agenda and conclusions. Rather, Christians today need to sit at the roundtable and engage in dialogue with competing faiths. Tennent demonstrates what such roundtable discussions may look like through interactions with Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.[4]

Tennent presents the analogy used by A.G. Hogg about a man looking up at the moon, whose view is obscured by clouds. He needs to shift his position in an open field in order to gaze at the radiance of the moon. He lists two potential errors in exclusivism: first, a failure to fully appreciate God’s activity in the pre-Christian heart; and second, an unwillingness to engage honestly with the objections from non- Christian religions. Tennent then presents himself as an ‘engaged exclusivist’, ie, one who is committed to the uniqueness of Christ but also one who is more open toward general revelation and is serious about engaging the religions from a missiological perspective.

Evangelicals such as Harold Netland, Amos Yong and Terrance Tiessen and others are exploring new models for engaging with non-Christian religions. Amos Yong has pointed out that exclusivism is primarily a soteriological category, helpful for clarifying the question of the unevangelized, but not so adequate for developing a theology of non-Christian religions.[5] In dealing with the question of who can be saved, Tiessen proposed the following five categories:

  1. Ecclesiocentrism: salvation coextensive with the church;
  2. Agnosticism: Scripture is silent on this issue of who can be saved;
  3. Assessibilism: Hopeful (not simply agnostic) about the possibility of salvation beyond church boundaries. Non-Christians can be saved although non-Christian religions may not be regarded as instruments for salvation.
  4. Religious instrumentalism: God’s salvation is available through non- Christian religions, a form of inclusivism.
  5. Relativism: Many ways of salvations as part of God’s divine program.[6]

While remaining rooted in the evangelical camp, Tiessen proposed assesibilism as a new position for engaging with non-Christian religions. In an excellent chapter on ‘Is Assesibilism a new idea?’ he surveyed and argued that early church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and other Protestant writers such as Lesslie Newbigin and J.N.D. Anderson fall into this category of writers who both affirm the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the means of salvation while at the same time are more open in acknowledging God’s works among non-Christian religions.

II. Can Christians Belong to More than One Religious Traditions?

Multicultural identity is a growing reality in a global world. As a Malaysian Chinese, my identity is shaped by my ethnicity (as a Chinese) as well as my country of birth (as a Malaysian). As my wife is a Singaporean Chinese, our Canadian-born daughter grew up with contested loyalty and a sense of belonging to these three countries, with Britain (where we now live) as a growing contender! Is it possible to extend this hyphenated identity formation to the religious arena?

Multi-religious belonging is a phenomenon of individuals who identify themselves as followers of more than one religious tradition. Globalisation and multicultural realities have resulted in a new generation of Christians shaped by more than one religious tradition. People of faiths may find themselves in dual or multi-religious backgrounds due to inter-religious marriages of their parents, exposures to multi religious traditions or conversions to another faith. In the West, the phenomenon of multi-religious belonging occurs when a growing number of Christians are attracted to Asian religions. While some became Buddhists or Hindus, others decide to retain their Christian belonging while at the same time seeking to incorporate elements of Asian religions to their lives and practices. In mission contexts, there is a growing phenomenon of ‘insider movements’ or devotees of Jesus from Islam and Hinduism.

Previously, Christian theology has tended to treat non-Christian religions as tight and separate religious systems. Such a treatment is increasingly problematic as it does not reflect the multi-religious realities in Asia whereby influences and cross fertilisation of religious beliefs are daily faith experiences. In particular, there is a need to take into account the experiences and struggles of Christian converts from Asian religions, namely, the converts’ own relationship with their previous faiths. Often converts will reject their past faiths in the process of conversion to Christianity. However, some would argue that it is unrealistic to expect new converts to terminate previous faith suddenly and radically. The tensions of liminality and interidentity of dual belonging are hurriedly glossed over rather than given due space for analysis and synthesis.

Due to globalization and dynamic cultural changes, diaspora Christians (for example, Chinese Christians), continually struggle to make sense of ongoing religious and cultural diffusion, for ‘Hybridity is not only about fusion and synthesis, but also about ambivalence and incommmensurability, about the contestations and interrogations that go hand in hand with heterogeneity, diversity and multiplicity we have to deal with as we live together-in-difference.’[7]

Over time (after second or third generations), some Asian Christians may begin to rediscover their past reli

Kang-San Tan (DMin, TIU) is Head of Mission Studies at Redcliffe College, UK and is a Malaysian-Chinese missiologist; he served formerly with OMF International.