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Editor’s Journal: Religious tolerance—really?

This week’s Editor’s Journal is written by Casey S. Shutt Senior Writer for the Baptist Messenger. This year, the Bill Moyers Journal aired a documentary on religion titled “Beyond Our Differences.” The film operated from the assumption that all religions have a large degree of commonality and, therefore, we must move “beyond our differences.” This religious pluralism is widespread, and it is assumed to be the more hospitable approach to religion in a religiously diverse context, particularly given the recent (and not so recent) violence done in the name of religion. In fact, the film was largely a response to this violence.

In the film, Deepak Chopra calls “dogma” and “ideology” the great problems for religion (never mind that this is a dogma itself). These dogmas and ideologies lead to the divisive “my-God-is-better-than-your-God” sort of thinking, says Chopra. At a glance, Chopra’s familiar refrain sounds open-minded, peace-inducing and humble. But there are problems. All those interviewed shared Chopra’s assumption on religion. The film did not contain one interviewee who was at variance with Chopra’s pluralistic impulse. Sure, there was a range of religions represented (Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc.) but all the adherents were operating from assumptions similar to Chopra.

Despite the appearance of diversity, the interviewees were glaringly homogeneous in their religious pluralism. As a result, a significant portion of religious adherents, namely, those believing in some sort of exclusive religious claims, were cut-off from the conversation. A more fruitful discussion would have included religious practitioners that do not presuppose that there are a number of valid paths (Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, etc.) to the divine.

Even worse, though, is the religious imperialism inherent in the film. Not only were those maintaining exclusive claims about religion not allowed a voice in the conversation, but their views also end up being revised by Chopra and others in the film. In the film’s relentless effort to maintain religious inclusiveness, it ends up importing its own faith assumptions into the various religions represented. In the film, Christianity, for example, is said to be a religion that is just as valid as Buddhism. Many Christians disagree, and for good reasons. To completely neglect those reasons and represent Christianity in this manner is to invade and exploit Christianity to serve one’s own idea of what God is like. At the very least, those maintaining more exclusive faith positions are less inclined to tinker with other religions in order to make them fit their preconceived understanding of the divine.

In the end, the film fails to get “beyond our differences” for two interrelated reasons. First, the film stifled diversity because of the homogeneity of the interviewees; they all shared the religious pluralistic inclination. The film had a dogma (one marked by religious pluralism) and aggressively excluded those dissenting from that dogma from having a voice. Second, because of the interviewees presuppositional pluralism, the film glossed over crucial doctrinal differences between the world’s faiths. As a result, any “differences” discussed in the film remained superficial.

The film’s perspective regarding religion is a common one. While recently studying at Oklahoma State University’s library, I noticed writings and drawings that littered the study carrel where I was writing. It was a veritable billboard of life by today’s students. To my surprise, the dialogue inked upon this study spot concerned, not the vulgarity that usually characterizes vandalism, but religion. One vandal, apparently a Christian, wrote a brief description of the Gospel. Another vandal responded to the Christian’s message saying this: “don’t force your religion on people.” There are a couple of problems in this comment.

First, the non-Christian vandal’s claim that the Christian was “forcing” religion upon others seems grossly exaggerated. Simply stating a religious claim, as our Christian did, is not an enforcement of religion. On the contrary, evangelicals, according to sociologist Christian Smith’s Christian America?, want to avoid any coercive tactics in evangelism. Put differently, evangelicals want to keep intact free choice in evangelism.
The second problem with the non-Christian’s claim is that it fails to realize its own enforcement. Ironically, this person is forcing the Christian out of the dialogue based upon the Christian’s “forcing” of their religion upon that person. This does not seem fair. Those taking a more “inclusive” view of spiritual matters are allowed to silence those taking a more exclusive view of spiritual matters.

Whether expressed through a highly produced and well made documentary or inked upon library property, contemporary culture’s aversion to Christianity is widespread. Such aversion is related, in part, to Christianity’s exclusive claims. In this context, it is important for the Church to both herald with resounding clarity the uniqueness of Jesus, the Christ, and point out the exclusionary tendencies of much of the so-called tolerant, inclusive spiritualities and religions that dominate our spiritual landscape.

Author: Casey Shutt

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