Mission / Challenge of Religious Pluralism to Christian Mission in Malaysia
Challenge of Religious Pluralism to Christian Mission in Malaysia
HAVE you heard the ancient story of ten blind men trying to describe an elephant after touching different parts of its body? As the blind men announced their conflicting discoveries, a heated argument ensued. Awakened by the quarrel, the Rajah corrected all of them by saying, “The elephant is a huge animal and each of you touched a part. In order to know the whole truth about what the elephant looks like, you must put together all the parts!”1
The moral of the story is that no religion has privileged access to the whole truth. Each religious view is a partial experience of the same Reality from its own culturally-conditioned perspective.Religious pluralism sees all religions as equally valid in terms of access to truth and effectiveness in salvation.
This view is popular because we need to ward off violent fundamentalism in the wake of post-9/11 ‘war on terror’. After all, it is no longer politically correct to claim to have the truth while contrary views are wrong in a society of diverse religious perspective like Malaysia. Surely, there are many sincere, self-giving and authentic people in all expressions of faith!
The case for truth
On a closer look, religious pluralism is self-defeating since the pluralist has unwittingly assumed a ‘privileged position’ to truth even while he denied everyone the same access. Isn’t it exceedingly ironic that the pluralist took on the role of the all-seeing Rajah right after admitting his own limited percep-tion as one of the ten blind men? According to pluralism, all religions are deemed mistaken in supposing their basic beliefs are true. Sure, they all make contact with the elephantine Reality but not in the same manner in which the believers themselves think they are. Is the pluralists’ way of rejecting other religious beliefs as mistaken any more ‘tolerant’ than others?
More importantly, could religious pluralism really deliver its practical promises of peace and tolerance? In reality, it could only do so if adherents of all faiths relativize their conflicting truth claims in favor of pluralism. In the end, the only way humanity could attain unity is when they exclusively agree on a ‘faith’ different than their own.
The late Lesslie Newbigin wrote that it is precisely because we want unity that we seek the truth by which alone humankind can become one: “That truth is not a doctrine or a worldview or even a religious experience; it is certainly not to be found by repeating abstract nouns like justice and love; it is the man Jesus Christ in whom God was reconciling the world. The Truth is personal, concrete, historical.”2
Implications on Mission in Malaysia
Genuine peace could be attained not at the cost of dismissing genuine differences. In fact, tolerance itself implies disagreement. We do not ‘tolerate’ people who agree with us. They are on our side! If every religious person is a pluralist, what room is there for tolerance? Instead, genuine tolerance recognizes conflicting truth claims and does not press for artificial, minimal denominator. We respect and honor one another as persons who have the God-given right to believe, practice and propagate our faiths. We celebrate and not begrudge the fact that men of different creeds are capable of moral exploits, profound insights and creative aesthetics. Missionary Martin Goldsmith wrote, “Sin and the remnant image of God interact both in cultures and religions. We dare not dismiss them as merely demonic, evil or totally false.”3
Usually a pluralistic vision of mission tends towards ‘truth-seeking’ mode of interfaith dialogue as a substitute for evangelism. As a result, we shun away from such invitations even though the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi recently called for dialogues to promote social harmony at the WCC Faith and Order Commission meeting in Kuala Lumpur in August 2004.
However, dialogue and evangelism should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Missiologist David Bosch wrote, “We affirm that witness does not preclude dialogue but invites it, and that dialogue does not preclude witness but extends and deepens it”.4
Although the main goal of dialogue is mutual understanding, there is a sense of fair play in ‘interfaith forums’ that draw crowds who otherwise would not have stepped into a one-sided evangelistic meeting.
In all such endeavors, Newbigin wrote, “The Christian who participates in dialogue with people of other faiths will do so on the basis of his faith. The pre-suppositions which shape his thinking will be those which he draws from the Gospel… He cannot agree that the position of final authority can be taken by anything other than the Gospel – either by a philosophical system, or by mystical experience, or by the requirements of national and global unity. Confessing Christ – incarnate, crucified and risen – as true light and true life, he cannot accept any other’s alleged authority as having right of way over this.”5
Mission as dialogue
While there is certainly legitimate place for worldview encounter, other constructive themes deserve our attention such as promoting joint action in overcoming racism, AIDS, abortion and poverty. The church has yet to draw from the rich resources for social programs that spring from a common theistic outlook with Islam.
At the same time, dialogue-in-life should permeate the rank and file in the office, classroom, cafeteria and ‘rumah terbuka’ during festivities. That is, Christians should abandon a ‘ghetto’ mentality and actively pursue to be with the other, collaborate with them in action and discourse to understand and be understood.6
In summary, mission-as-dialogue would not be effective if the Malaysian grassroots were not trained to know what and why they believed. Leaders also have a responsibility not to “isolate” the church but to ‘inoculate’ them by accurately representing the religious views of others also. At the same time, we must decide to embrace unpopularity or persecution, if need be, as the cost of following Christ.
How shall we demonstrate that the gospel speaks to here-and-now Malaysian issues like the politicization of religion, AIDS prevention, good governance and economic equity? If our proclaim-ation is not embodied concretely, the world would see our faith as “privately engaging, publicly irrelevant”.
1. Lillian Quigley, The Blind Men and the Elephant, (New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1959)
2. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a pluralistic society, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), page 170
3. Martin Goldsmith, What About Other Faiths? Is Jesus Christ the only way to God? (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), page 116
4. David Bosch, Transforming Mission, (New York: Orbis, 1992) page 487
5. Lesslie Newbigin, The Basis, Purpose and Manner of Inter-Faith Dialogue, (Scottish Journal of Theology, volume 30, no. 3, 1977), page 255
6. Chia, E, Towards a Theology
David Chong currently worships at City Discipleship Presbyterian Church and writes for The Agora ministry (http://theagora.blogspot.com), which seeks to inspire and train lay people in the marketplace to live and proclaim the Lordship of Christ over every domain of their life.