C. Peter Wagner, the leader of a “new” Evangelical movement was interviewed on Fresh Air yesterday. At the end of his interview, Terry Gross asked him how he could say he “respected” other religions while at the same time desiring to proselytize them. Wagner responded thus:
Well, we respect all religions, but we also respect the freedom of exercising our religion. And part of our religion is called evangelization. It’s called presenting Jesus Christ to others and persuading them to become followers of Jesus Christ and walk into the kingdom of God. So we’d like to maintain our right in religious pluralism of exercising our privilege of winning other people to Christianity.
Not a bad response, methinks. The transcript of the conversation isn’t online yet, but Terry kept probing, claiming Wagner’s position was contradictory. Her main assumption seemed to be that one can’t simultaneously respect another belief system whilst claiming one’s own as true and commending it to others.
Terry wanted more explanation from Wagner. Yet the burden of proof seems to be on her end.
Why must respect and proselytism be mutually exclusive? It seems that maintaining this position would require that EITHER one stop caring about one’s neighbor (and therefore refuse the attempt to free them from the error of unbelief) OR one stop believing that one’s beliefs are true absolutely
(and thereby concede the truth of theological relativism).
In other words, what Terry seems to mean by “respect” is an admission of theological relativism that ought to guide our interactions with one another. But theological relativism, just like any particular instance of theological absolutism (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.), claims a God’s-eye-view on the situation. It’s as if Terry wants us to take this attitude to members of other religions:
Well, my beliefs aren’t absolutely true, so I have no right to proselytize you. But neither are your beliefs absolutely true. If you happen to think that they are, then well, my friend, you’re under an illusion. If you agree with me that none of our beliefs are absolutely true, then we can sit and chat about the things that really matter, things that trade on facts and statistics–like whether the Astros will win the World Series this year, or how many milligrams are in an pound–and leave all these questions about values and the fundamental character of reality to those unenlightened pawns of fanaticism.
So any respect that stems from theological relativism has bound to be either rarified. Substantial, robust respect–real respect–stems only from real, acknowledged difference. But theological relativism allows only superficial difference among the world’s religions.
So what’s the solution? Here, I’ll break it down for you.
What you can’t do is believe that your god is the true God and refuse to share that with others. That’s simply insensitive. But what you can do is share your belief with others in a respectful fashion that exhibits love and care for them. It seems Terry Gross–along with others who think theological relativism is the only path to mutual respect among the world’s religions–has forgotten this option.
Let’s remind her by engaging our brothers and sisters of other religions with care and respect.
Oh, and listen to the new Feist album. It’s rad.