Religion and Truth in a Pluralistic Culture

This short write up is well worth the 3 mins on Pope Benedict’s conception of interfaith or ecumenical interaction. Its starting point in an event that just took place in Assisi. 25 years ago the previous pope was at the same place involved in prayer with “Buddhists chant[ing] to the accompaniment of gongs and drums, Zoroastrians tend[ing] a sacred fire, and an American Indian medicine man in traditional headdress smok[ing] a peace pipe and call[ing] down the blessings of the “Great Spirit.” Benedict has a different view, even if the picture nearby might not say speak that.

The great religious question of our age is inclusivity vs. exclusivity. Were all those people praying to the same God, or was it an example of syncretistic worship on the level of ancient Israel’s “high places”? (1 Kings 12:27-32) Do all roads go up the same mountain, or is Jesus Christ the way, the truth and the life? (John 14:6) Let’s make it real clear. We read it in worship a couple of Sundays ago. Isaiah 45:5 – “I am the Lord, there is no other, beside me there is no other.” If the bible counts as your scripture, you can’t hold the “all roads view”. And holding worship services with people chanting, tending and smoking to other dieties hopelessly confuses things. It is no wonder people might just assume that there is no truth in any of them. Then Cardinal Ratzinger said as much:

The cardinal later wrote that “multireligious prayer” of the kind offered there “almost inevitably leads to false interpretations, to indifference as to the content of what is believed or not believed, and thus to the dissolution of real faith.”

Such prayer should occur only rarely, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, and to “make clear that there is no such thing . . . as a common concept of God or belief in God, that difference not merely exists in the realm of changing images and concepts” but in the substance of what different religions claim.

It is the now Pope Benedict’s next step that is almost uniquely Lutheran.

As he told a European ambassador last week, social justice is based on norms accessible to all, derived not from divine revelation but from “reason and nature”—that is, from “universally applicable principles that are as real as the physical elements of the natural environment.”

He is using Catholic natural law language there. A Lutheran would appeal to two concepts: a theology of two kingdoms and the fundamental law and gospel distinction. We are able to work together in social justice areas because social justice is part of the law or part of the kingdom of the law. The law is universally written on all hearts. (Romans 2:14-15) And the law is good and wise. There is a righteousness that comes from the law – a civil righteousness. But the civil righteousness is not the saving truth of the gospel. In worship – we are separate. Because all roads don’t lead to the same place. Because we proclaim Christ crucified, risen and ascended as Lord. He is Lord, there is no other. Confusing law and gospel only leads to loss of faith.

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