Some say religious inclusivity is necessary in a shrinking world, but those who practice it sometimes pay a steep price
Bishop Carlton Pearson said something during a sermon four years ago that would virtually destroy his personal and professional life.
Before that moment, he was an evangelical superstar. President Bush invited him to the White House. He was a regular on Trinity Broadcasting Network, a national evangelical cable channel. He routinely appeared in national Christian magazines like Charisma.
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Today Pearson says “90 percent” of his 5,000-member congregation in Tulsa, Okla., has left him. His church, Higher Dimensions Family Church, is in foreclosure. His alma mater, Oral Roberts University, publicly denounced him. When he was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, not one of his preaching buddies bothered to call, he says.
Pearson’s offense? He started preaching “a Gospel of inclusion.” He declared that God accepts not only Christians, but Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims. He says that Christians who believe that they have a monopoly on eternal truth have fallen victim to “condescending elitism.”
“They’ve cut me off completely,” the 53-year-old pastor says of his former supporters. “People I’ve gotten out of jail have abandoned me. People who I’ve written $1,000 checks to keep their ministry going have dropped me.”
In the post-Sept. 11 world, people are urged to respect and learn about other faiths. But those calls for tolerance come with a dilemma for those who cross religious boundaries. How can one accept the legitimacy of other faiths without betraying one’s own?
The people who once supported Pearson decided that he could not remain a Christian and preach universal salvation. But Pearson could have provoked the same backlash if he were a Muslim imam or Jewish rabbi. Virtually all of the world’s great religions contain claims of absolute truth, says Huston Smith, an author and expert on comparative religion, best known for being featured in the Bill Moyers PBS special “The Wisdom of Faith.”
“In earlier times, religions were more or less concerned with their own and didn’t have to bother with different civilizations or cultures,” Smith says. “We are now in the age of globalization. The problem of our time and for all religion is: How do we remain true to our own faith while accepting the validity of other people’s faith?”
One answer to Smith’s question has been repeated calls for religious tolerance. But that word has often been dismissed as a call for retreating from one’s convictions or embracing a watered-down, politically correct faith that believes nothing and accepts everything.
Critics also say the calls for tolerance don’t acknowledge the profound differences among varying faiths. How can a Hindu, for example, accept a Christian who says Mahatma Gandhi was consigned to hell because he didn’t accept Jesus as his savior? How can a Muslim accept non-Muslims, who are considered infidels? How can a Jew even talk about God with Buddhists when the Buddha didn’t believe in a personal God?
Adopting a more inclusive view of religion, however, doesn’t mean people should become “wimps” who agree about everything, says Rabbi Hillel Norry. He has left interfaith services more convinced than ever about the validity of Judaism.
“Is every way equal? No,” said Norry, rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood. “I’m not prepared to give up my intellect and my discernment. I’ve studied some other religions and some of them don’t make a lot of sense to me.”
Religious inclusiveness means something else to Norry — admitting that other faiths can also possess “the truth.” It also means being humble.
“I understand that I don’t know everything there is to know about God,” he says.
Bruce Feiler, best-selling author of “Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths,” created “Abraham Salons” after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center to encourage interfaith tolerance.
He also rejects the notion that embracing religious inclusion means surrendering one’s religious identity.
“The goal is not one religion,” Feiler says. “It’s not about all of us dancing around the campfire singing ‘Kumbaya.’ The goal is to have your own faith. She has her own faith. We respect one another but we don’t have to become one another.”
Smith, the religion scholar, says he stays true to his Christian faith by living by the adage: “God is defined by Jesus but is not confined to Jesus.” His lifelong study of religion has made him a Christian “universalist” who believes that God is revealed in many religions.
“Christianity has been from the very start my meal, but I’m a strong believer in vitamin supplements,” says Smith, whose book “The World’s Religions” is considered a classic.
“My life is woven by these spiritual vitamin supplements from other faiths.”
Re-examine sacred texts
But what about religions that have strict dietary restrictions, claiming absolute truth and commanding followers to convert others?
Even Buddhism, according to Smith, contains strains of absolutism. A Buddhist legend quotes the Buddha at birth declaring: “As the footprints of all animals are contained in the footprint of the elephant, so are all dharmas [religions] contained in the teaching of the Enlightened One.”
One way to follow Smith’s advice is to look at your faith’s sacred texts again. Most sacred texts are filled with passages that encourage an inclusive view of faith, religious leaders say.
Great religious traditions reflected this inclusive view by freely borrowing from other faiths, Feiler says. His examples: Stories of a great flood appeared in several ancient religions, not just the Old Testament. The Christian halo, depicted in Christian art, was borrowed from the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Other examples abound.
Before interfaith dialogue became trendy, religions were already engaging in it thousands of years ago, he says.
“If you went back to Abraham and you said to Abraham that your religion was going to be the only religion, he would have thought of that as an absurdity,” Feiler says.
Ibrahim Hooper, a Muslim leader, says Islam also reflects this inclusive view of other faiths. It shares a veneration of Jesus with Christians, though it does not believe he is the Son of God.
Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national civil liberties group, says a good Muslim “cannot exclude anyone from God’s love or God’s acceptance.”
Hooper cites a verse that appears in the Quran (2:136), the holy text of Islam:
“Say ye: ‘We believe in God and the revelation given to us and to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) Prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them and it is unto Him that we surrender ourselves.”
Even Judaism, which calls its followers God’s “chosen people,” does not claim exclusivity, Norry says. Judaism teaches that there are many roads to God, he says, and the phrase “chosen people” means that God chose to give the Torah to Jewish people as a light to all nations.
“But nowhere does the Torah say go out and make everybody Jewish,” Norry says.
Christians, though, are perhaps best known for their exclusive claims revolving around Jesus. Evangelical Christians cite the Apostle Peter’s uncompromising declaration about Jesus in Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.”
That’s a claim that H. Ray Newman, a Southern Baptist minister and missionary, stands by. Newman has traveled as far as China and Korea to share his faith. He says he’s met good people of other faiths. But he cites Jesus’ admonition in the 14th chapter of John: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“I come down on the side of the Bible,” Newman says. “Those are the words of Jesus. I take those as literal.”
Yet there are other words in the Bible attributed to Jesus and Peter that say God accepts non-Christians, says Thomas Thangaraj, a professor of Christian Missions at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.
Thangaraj, a Christian who was born in India, says the New Testament is full of stories such as the good Samaritan where Jesus reveals to people that people outside their traditional religious boundaries are accepted by God. The Apostle Peter was forced to admit this in the Book of Acts when God forces him to accept the Roman centurion, Cornelius.
When people ask him about John 14:6, Thangaraj replies with another Scripture.
“One way I would answer is what about Acts 10:34-35 where Peter says, ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.’ “
Comfort in exclusivity?
Calls for religious inclusiveness, though, bump up against another obstacle besides religious tradition. They battle against a powerful human need, says Norry, the Atlanta rabbi.
Norry says there is a comfort offered by those who preach exclusive claims to truth. He says we live in an uncertain age where people are not sure of what’s right or wrong, how old the earth is, and if a good family is a husband and wife.
“In the face of that uncertainty, there is a natural religious tendency to reach out and latch onto something that is certain and to say: ‘This way is the way. I can be sure of it. It’s not relative.’ “
Yet Norry says he rejects that course.
“The logical conclusion to absolute certainty is violence to your neighbor.”
Calls for religious inclusiveness face another hurdle, too — money and status. Preaching tolerance doesn’t turn out the crowds. Preaching you have the truth does, Pearson says. He says he’s had ministers approach him in secret saying that they agree with much of his message of inclusion. But they tell him that they can’t risk losing their congregation.
“With a lot of these guys, it’s not theology as much as it’s a business decision,” says Pearson, who says he has recovered from prostate cancer. “They can’t afford to embrace me now because it will hurt them financially.”
Pearson, though, says he will continue to preach that salvation isn’t limited to Christians. He says more is at stake than his own personal ministry.
“The No. 1 threat to world peace is not nuclear bombs as much as it is fundamentalism in any religion,” he says.
“Once we stop vilifying and judging people along theological lines globally, there’ll be peace.”