I use Saturdays to summarize, reflect, and chase rabbit trails.
I spent some time this week addressing the hostility some Christians have toward Eastern religions. (This video by David Platt is an example). The hostility stems from some implicit and explicit assumptions of Evangelicalism.
We need to distinguish between “evangelism” and “evangeliCALism.” Evangelism simply means “sharing good news.” It comes from the Greek root words eu (good) and angel (messenger). But it is ironic that the related word, “evangelicalism,” has come to mean conservative, exclusive, and hostile to other religions and cultures. When Paul was confronted with the philosophical paganism of the Greeks, he did not lambaste them about false religion or worshiping idols. He found points of connection so that he could share the good news (Acts 17:16-34).
I’m part of the United Methodist Church, which was formed when the Methodist church joined with the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB). My grandfather was a member of an EUB church. They were evangelical because their mission was to spread the good news. I’m a preacher—my vocation is to tell people about Jesus! I am evangelical because I spread good news. I want people to have a life-altering conversion experience with Jesus. But Evangelicalism has come to mean the politicization and weaponization of the Good News. It has become a toxic word.
I find it telling that what Evangelicalism finds most threatening about Hinduism and Eastern religions is not the existence of many gods and demigods (as in the Paul story above), but the assertion that the Self is divine. Hinduism is largely philosophical about its collection of many tribal and local gods of myth and legend. “These all point to an ineffable God or Ultimate Reality, Brahman, that transcends them all,” says Hindu philosophy—which is not terribly different from the perspective of some authors of the Bible! (See Psalm 82).
But what evangelicalism can’t abide is the notion that there might be something good or divine in us, something that makes us worth saving, because it believes—incorrectly—that this idea might take away our need for Jesus Christ. The reasoning goes that if people believe they have a divine Self that simply needs discovering within, they won’t look outside themselves to the saving action of Jesus Christ on the cross. They wouldn’t need a personal relationship with him because they would already have a sense of God’s love, peace, and forgiveness in their hearts.
“And wouldn’t that be tragic!” I say in my sarcastic voice.
I want to make clear that Evangelicalism’s biggest problem with Hinduism is not a theological one. It is a rhetorical one. A theological problem would be the existence of many gods, or maybe the uniqueness of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Instead, the fear is that people won’t be persuaded to give their hearts to Jesus: “How can we save people if they don’t understand how awful and sinful they are?”
In the coming weeks, I’ll continue to share why I think this reasoning is short-sighted and simply demonstrates the limits of our mental models for what God in Christ is doing in the world. I believe, as Paul said, “God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.” (Acts 17:27)
God, you have expressed your creativity and joy in the diversity of cultures and religions you have brought forth on the planet. You are never far from us.
Thanks again, Dave, for a good and much needed word…and series. One of the most difficult theological things I’ve done is to no longer refer to myself as evangelical, despite the etymology of the word. It has been hijacked and counterfeited. I am in a Gospel recovery mode, and I am finding Celtic spirituality to be a means for that recovery–a means that flowed into the Wesleys. John Philip Newell is being of great help to me, showing (among other things) that original righteousness is where we begin, not original sin. The Wesleys believed this too. This beginning sets a trajectory that contemporary evangelicalism has lost.