Tag Archives: Religious Pluralism

Huston Smith and the Doctrine of Religious Pluralistic Experimentalism

Huston Smith (1919-2016), pioneering scholar in the field of comparative religious studies, died on December 30, 2016.

Huston Smith (1919-2016), pioneering scholar in the field of comparative religious studies, died on December 30, 2016.

Anyone who has an interest in the “religions of the world” remembers Huston Smith. For well over fifty years, Smith’s The Religions of Man has remained as the standard textbook in secular universities for the study of comparative religions. Republished in the 1990s with the more friendly title, The World’s Religions, Smith’s work has had a profound impact on the religious outlook of millions of Americans, directly and indirectly.

Huston Smith, remembered in this New York Times article, grew up in China, the son of Methodist missionary parents serving in that country. Early on, he hoped to follow in his parents’ footsteps, but his years in college back in the United States redirected him towards the scholarship of world religions, a growing field in the wake of World War II.

Smith had become enamored with the variety of human religious experience, making him a 20th/early-21st century version of the late- 19th/early-20th scholar of the field, William James, the Harvard author of The Varieties of Religious Experience. Smith’s work has indeed proven helpful over the years, particularly for those who have known little about the diversity of global religious expression. But Smith went much further. He was not content in merely obtaining academic knowledge. Rather, he wanted to experience the world’s great religious traditions in all of their profound mysticisms. He studied under a Buddhist Zen master, lived in a Hindu ashram, and sought after the wisdom of Sufi Islam.

Huston Smith befriended British author and mystic, Aldous Huxley, mythologist Joseph Campbell, and Harvard psychologist Ram Dass, among other religious celebrities. As a professor at M.I.T. in Boston, in the early 1960s, Smith met with Timothy Leary to experiment with acid, or L.S.D., for the inducement of mystical experience. He publicly defended the use of peyote as a sacramental drug, for use in Native American religious rituals. He studied Buddhist monastic chanting in Tibet and introduced the Western world to the Dalai Lama. Though hidden in academia for years, journalist Bill Moyers made Smith famous in a popular PBS multipart series in the 1990s, ” The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith.”

By his own admission, Huston Smith saw the dangers of spreading oneself religiously too thin:

I liked what a teacher in India once said to me. If you are drilling for water, it’s better to drill one 60-foot well than 10 6-foot wells. And generally speaking, I think a kind of smorgasbord cafeteria, choosing from here and there is not productive (NPR remembrance, an interview with Terry Gross, 1996).

Not “productive?” As cautionary advice, which Smith hardly seemed to have taken himself, this is a vast understatement. For if there was one doctrine that Smith himself clung to tightly, it was the doctrine of religious pluralistic experimentalism. The lure of diversity in world religious mysticism was too difficult for Smith to resist. Huston Smith was the academic, respected face of the New Age Movement.

Huston Smith's classic on comparative religion studies: The Religions of Man.

Huston Smith’s classic on comparative religion studies: The Religions of Manfirst published in 1958.

Though Smith said that he had never forsaken his Methodist Christian identity, he rejected any Christian exclusivist claim to truth. Biblical statements such as that of Jesus, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), or Peter, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12), are to be understood in Smith’s mind as merely symbolic metaphors to the extreme. Contrary to the context of these Biblical statements, and the original intent of the New Testament authors, Smith sought to ground any notion of Christian exclusivist truth claims in some alternative, broader truth claim undergirding the whole of human, world religious experience. Smith was strangely optimistic, believing that particular, conflicting religious truth claims can be sidestepped. Smith would also contend that religious mystical experience is not the goal, in and of itself, but rather, it is through such mysticism that the development of character springs forward.

This is a noble aim, but did Huston Smith represent the teaching of the Bible rightly? Upon his recent death, where is his soul now? Can that question even be answered, from the perspective of those who take Smith’s view? After reading Smith’s 2005 book, The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great TraditionGospel Coalition blogger, Trevin Wax, responded with this critical observation: I was left wondering if Smith understands Christianity as well as he thinks he does.

These are my thoughts exactly.

According to friends and admirers, Huston Smith was a really nice and likable man. But I also know of other really nice people who believe some rather strange things, masking the presence of darker elements of the human experience. Is it possible that the spiritual diagnosis of the human condition, offered by the prophet Jeremiah, is more profound than we think?

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

It should also be noted that Smith’s antagonism towards the particularity of evangelical faith is also extended towards disbelief in God, as well. In one of his last works in 2009, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, Smith condemns “scientism,” the elevation of science to the status of a final metaphysical truth claim, a judgment that evangelical Christians can find some agreement with. Attempts to explain the whole of the world scientifically, without talk of God, is rejected as a modern ideology. I sincerely doubt that Huston Smith would find too many friends among disbelieving atheists. Yet despite the differences between Christian faith and atheism, both hold to an objective notion of truth that remains elusive to the religious, pluralistic relativism championed by Smith.

It is as though Biblically-informed, evangelical faith is sandwiched between these two contrasting doctrines: the doctrine of a world without God, promoted by secular atheism, and Huston Smith’s doctrine of religious, pluralistic experimentalism.

However, Huston Smith’s years of teaching do point out a great deficiency in how many people reared in a familiarity of the Bible come up short:

Many of my students, they’re – I have come to call them wounded Christians or wounded Jews, meaning that what came through to them from their traditions was two things – dogmatism – we’ve got the truth, everybody else is going to hell – and moralism – don’t do this, don’t do that (NPR remembrance, an interview with Terry Gross, 1996).

If Christian faith is anything, it is more than a set of dogmatic beliefs or a set of moral rules. Rather, it is about having a relationship with the Creator and Redeemer of the Universe. But unlike the mysticism of the world, that looks to religious experience as a form of human achievement and seeking, authentic Christian faith is instead a response to the advances of a loving God, a God who seeks to heal that which is wounded in every person, regardless of religious background. This “scandal of particularity,” a scandal that Huston Smith sought to transcend through a broadly defined mysticism, lies at the very center of Biblical Christianity.

My greatest concern with Smith is that he set up a false dichotomy: Either embrace the pluralism of world religions as all true, at least the more mystical or friendly elements, or be stuck in your arrogance. Huston Smith rarely addressed the dark side of religion, particularly the problem of religious violence, whether it be Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or otherwise. But if we truly follow the example of Jesus, it is possible to cling to the uniqueness of Christ as the only means of salvation… and still not be a jerk to other people.

Winfried Corduan's Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions, is a great alternative to Huston Smith's textbook, The Religions of Man.

Winfried Corduan’s Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions, is a great alternative to Huston Smith’s textbook, The Religions of Man.

My well-worn copy of Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man still serves as a valuable, helpful resource on how not to be jerk when dealing with people who have different religious experiences. Smith’s work remains an invaluable contribution in helping people understand one another, appreciating those aspects of others’ spirituality that seem foreign to us at first, but that are often closer to our own experiences, upon further inspection. However, the cognitive dissonance in The Religions of Man ultimately forces the reader to make choices that are not necessarily helpful. I am more inclined these days to recommend Winfried Corduan’s Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions, which presents the same type of accurate, sensitive material that Huston Smith does, but Corduan accomplishes his work in a manner that does not betray the fundamental conviction regarding the uniqueness of Christ, and the imperative to share the Gospel with a hurting and wounded world.

Christian faith, in this respect, ultimately comes down to a commitment to a Person as Truth. To fail to grasp this is to fail to grasp the Christian message. You can still be fully committed to Jesus, and His mission to the world, without being a jerk. Just as it is possible to be married to one person, and still have deep, abiding friendships outside of that marriage, so it is possible for a committed follower of Jesus to love Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and others for the sake of the Gospel. Let is us not treat our attitude towards the world religions as those who would rather endlessly “date” a myriad of people, seeking after a variety of religious experiences, forever experimenting, without ever making an exclusive commitment to a single person. A Biblical understanding of marriage shows us what this type of genuine commitment looks like. Let the follower of Jesus stay true to Christ, and love others around us with that love that only Jesus Christ can give.

For a more detailed look at the problem of religious pluralism from a Christian perspective, read this Veracity four-part series, #1, #2, #3, and #4.


Do Jews and Samaritans Worship the Same God?

Wheaton College professor, Larycia Hawkins, in "hijab." (Facebook)

Wheaton College professor, Larycia Hawkins, in “hijab.” (Facebook)

The suspension of Wheaton College professor, Larycia Hawkins, in response to her “same God” comments about whom Muslims and Christians worship, has reignited a long-standing controversy within the church. Yes, on the one hand, theological clarity is at stake, but at the same time, having a measure of wisdom, that emphasizes shared values as a starting point in developing relationships of trust in the midst of cultural tensions, is just as important. Jesus never compromised on the truth, but He never compromised on His love for those who need salvation either.

Here is a great example: When Jesus met the woman at the well in Samaria in John 4, He was quite clear in saying that Samaritan theology did not line up exactly with traditional Jewish belief. The Samaritans (still) worship God, believing that Mount Gerizm is the proper place for such worship. Traditional Jewry has always focused on the Temple in Jerusalem instead. Jews would purposely avoid Samaritan lands because of the latter’s heterodoxy. But notice how Jesus, who purposely passes through Samaria, approaches the woman:

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”(John 4:21-24 ESV).

I just do not see Jesus falling for the modern, popular tendency for the “sound-bite” theologies of the politically-correct: “Samaritans and Jews worship the same God,” nor the opposite, bigotry-sounding to some, in this day and age: “Samaritans and Jews do not worship the same God.” Instead, Jesus proclaimed the truth, but he did it in a way of great wisdom that built a relationship of trust with this woman, and she recognized Jesus at the Messiah.

If only some of our Christian leaders and theologians on both sides of  issues like this were to show such restraint and wisdom. You can be theologically correct and still miss an opportunity to demonstrate love and solidarity with those, like the Syrian refugees, who are marginalized, for the sake of the Gospel. Likewise, on the other side, one need not resort to confusing or misleading theological statements for the sake of avoiding the appearance of bigotry. For the most part, I will leave it to the reader to make such judgments as appropriate (for the content linked below).

So, do Jews and Samaritans worship the same God?  How about Christians and Jews? Do they both worship the same God? What does one mean by the “same” God? These questions are not so easy to answer. No matter what your “take” on all of this is, we should probably take our cue from Jesus as to how we approach the current debate over whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the “same” God.

Additional Resources:

 


Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Wheaton College professor, Larycia Hawkins, in "hijab." (Facebook)

Wheaton College professor, Larycia Hawkins, in “hijab.” (Facebook)

Christianity Today magazine recently reported that Wheaton College, an evangelical university in Illinois, has suspended political science professor Larycia Hawkins after she made statements that “Muslims & Christians worship the same God.” Professor Hawkins raised eyebrows on campus a few weeks ago when she adorned herself with the Islamic “hijab,” as an expression of solidarity with Muslims across the world. But it was her “same God” comments that motivated school officials to place her on administrative leave, pending a review of her statements in view of Wheaton’s statement of faith that all faculty must sign.

Wheaton College made a good decision here, and let me explain why. In view of the recent excellent series on “Basic Islam” (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5) by my Veracity blogging colleague, John Paine, it might be good to revisit why John’s interest in Islam is so timely and important. The question of whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the “same God” is complicated. It is sort of like asking whether or not someone likes the game of “football.” For most Americans, this means a game involving helmets, shoulder pads, and touchdowns. But for the rest of the world, “football” means nets, headers, and penalty kicks; that is, the game of soccer. So, it all depends on what you mean by the question.

For example, Professor Hawkins states that both Muslims and Christians are “people of the book,” assumedly the Bible. In a sense, this is true. But the problem is that Muslims and Christians have very different views of the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian New Testament. Christians believe the Bible we have now is the very Word of God, whereas Muslims believe that the current Christian Bible is terribly corrupted. Are these different assessments of “the book” not contradictory with one another? In one sense, Christian and Muslims both agree that the Bible testifies to the one “God of Abraham,” but they disagree as to what correctly represents the revelatory content of that Bible.

Professor Hawkins is evidently responding to various, unnecessarily Islamaphobic statements being propagated among the American media in the weeks following recent terrorist attacks in 2015. Sadly, many Christians are giving into an ethic of fear, when the Bible makes it clear that the perfect love of Christ casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). However, going to the opposite extreme only confuses matters. A lot more nuance is required before a professor representing a Christian college issues a blanket Facebook post stating that we all “worship the same God.” For a balanced view of what lies behind the recent controversy, I would encourage Veracity readers to digest Scot McKnight’s recent blog post at Jesus Creed.

As fellow human beings, we must learn to live peacefully in a pluralistic society with our neighbors who embrace very different perspectives of who “God” is. We must receive even the Muslims as our neighbors, and love them just as Jesus loves them. To this point, I hope professor Hawkins is able to make her case clear to the community at Wheaton College and eventually return back to her teaching position. But we must not sweep the differences between Christians and Muslims underneath the rug and treat them trivially.

In an age when doors to missions among most Islamic countries remain closed, American Christians have only recently encountered an incredible opportunity to share their faith. Many Muslims, including refugees from Syria, are making their way to the United States, living in our towns and neighborhoods. You do not need to go overseas to become a missionary to Muslims when Muslims are living next door to you, working in your company, or attending classes with you in your school. We betray the Great Commission of our Lord if we turn a blind eye to developing relationships with these neighbors for the sake of the Gospel. Some say that within the last ten years, more Muslims have come to faith in Christ than in the previous fifteen centuries. The fields are ripe for the harvest.

I have friends who are Muslim, and they are truly wonderful people. Frankly, there are times where I would much rather hang out with some of my Muslim friends, than others who proudly deny the values shared by both Muslims and Christians, in favor of a godless materialism. Nevertheless, like with anyone else on planet earth, every Muslim needs to hear about Jesus:  but not only my Muslim friends, but everyone who is my neighbor.

Let us not get muddled over questions that lead us towards a sound bite theology. Make it point to learn something about Islam. Read John Paine’s blog posts for starters! Go out of your way to introduce yourself to a Muslim and get to know them as a friend. Pray for the opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus with others and be obedient. Love your neighbor.

We all need the Gospel. We all need Jesus, Christians and Muslim and everyone else alike.

UPDATE: 12/22/15 See updates on the situation at Wheaton College here.


Bobby Conway: Contending for the Faith

Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.
Jude 3, NIV84

Clarke has been sharing quite a bit lately, through posts and comments, about religious pluralism and related topics. (Incidentally, one of my all-time favorite posts by Clarke is this one on particularism and the wideness of God’s mercy.)

Religious pluralism is a difficult and tattered topic. There are lots of recent bestsellers stirring up great controversies, but the song remains the same. There is no end to the number of writers who want to reinvent Jesus and conform Christianity to some type of “fair for all people” standard.

But do we really have that liberty? Would that liberty even make sense?

The Apostle John recorded in John 13:35 that the world will know we are His disciples if we love one another—so why can’t that be the bottom line on the Christian faith?  We should just love each other and everything will work out. You know, love wins. But…there are stern and passionate condemnations throughout the New Testament about not giving away the Gospel and the importance of contending for the faith that was entrusted to us. It all depends upon how we understand ‘love’.

This issue hits close to home for me. A friend from church recently told me how impressed he is with Rob Bell. While I can understand on a secular basis how Rob Bell’s teaching (‘doctrine’) appeals to a wide audience, given the plumb lines of Scripture it seems to me an insidious theological cancer. Our understanding of God is like a 20-year-old Oldsmobile? Really?! This is not a debate between creationists about how to interpret science and the Bible to determine the age of the earth. Nor is it a debate about Calvinism vs. Arminianism, nor whether baptism is a sacrament or an ordinance. It’s much more important than those questions. Why?

Here’s an excellent piece of on-topic teaching from Dr. Bobby Conway that lays out why it is so important to understand the Doctrine of Hell. It’s also a powerful example of why doctrine and theology matter.


A Year of Biblical Doubting #1

Rachel Held Evans first book.  She's young, church-going.... and not very sure about her faith.   Does she represent the future of "evangelical Christianity"?

Rachel Held Evans first book. She’s young, church-going…. and not very sure about her faith. Does she represent the future of “evangelical Christianity”?

How do you handle doubt? Some want to shove it under the rug. Some, frankly, never really go through serious periods of doubt. Others wallow in their confusion. Some simply rebel as an escape mechanism. Others are driven to God’s Word, study, prayer, and fellowship to find answers. Where do you go when you begin to second guess everything, if you ever do?

Part of what we are trying to do with Veracity is to provide tools to help folks to get into God’s Word so that God’s Word can get into us. What resources are available that can equip us to better understand our faith so that we can better serve the Lord in our worship and witness? However, there are times where doubt can plague us in our spiritual journey and threaten to derail us spiritually. Perhaps an explanation about the Bible we once heard no longer makes sense anymore. Or is there some assumption that we have made about the Christian life that no longer appears to be working? Perhaps we expected God to do something and things did not turn out the way we think it should.

Doubt is an enormous topic to tackle in a single blog posting. So I will be content for now to give you a partial case study.
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