CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On Other Worldviews

Jul 30, 2007

We live in a pluralistic world, with a plurality of ideas, philosophies, beliefs and religions. How are we to treat these various belief systems and worldviews? Just how should the believer interact with those of differing faiths, or no faith at all?

The answers to these questions are complex and lengthy, and there has been a heated discussion among believers for some time, with various points of view being advocated. Perhaps I can address the issues by referring to a recent email I received. This friendly critic said he does not always agree with what I write, and went on to say that we have to be cautious in how we deal with other belief systems and worldviews. This is what he had to say:

“I think we have to be careful not to be offensive and disrespectful to other people of different faiths and philosophies. Paul in fact was very diplomatic and well respected among a variety of different thinkers. He was able to act with the Jews as a Jew and as well as interact with Christians, Romans and Greeks. We are not doing Christianity any favour by name calling and insulting other philosophers and academics. It just creates an even bigger distance between Christians and others and further alienates us, and increases the ‘them and us’ mentality.”

This is a fair comment which raises some important issues. My short answer would be this: yes, we are to treat all people with respect and dignity, but we do not necessarily have to treat all philosophies, ideologies and religions with respect.

Let me unpack that a bit. It is clear from Scripture how we are to treat people. Paul says in Col. 4:6,
“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

Or as Peter puts it, “Show proper respect to everyone” (1 Peter 2:17). And in the next chapter, he says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (3:15).

So in one sense, whether we are talking to an atheist or a Buddhist or a radical Islamist, we are to treat them respectfully and politely. But what about their actual teachings, beliefs, worldviews or religions? Must they all be treated with respect? If we look at the Scriptures, it becomes clear that not all beliefs and religions are seen as equal, and often false beliefs are treated accordingly: with decided disrespect, censure and out and out opposition.

Consider some of the ways that the New Testament writers treated competing beliefs and theologies. Jesus himself could be quite strong about false teachings. Consider Matt. 7:15: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”

And in the book of Revelation, Jesus could tell John of “the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate”. (Rev 2:15) Can you respect a doctrine while at the same time hating it?

Paul also could be quite abrupt and impatient with what he regarded as false teachings or counterfeit gospels. Consider for example Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 8-10 on idols, especially in 10:19-21, where Paul argues that participating in pagan religious feasts means becoming partners with demons. And in 1 Tim. 4:1 he could speak of “doctrines of demons”. How are we to be respectful of other people’s beliefs, when according to Paul, some of these teachings are actually demonic in origin and are leading people astray? We are nowhere in Scripture told to respect demons, yet we are clearly told that some beliefs and religious teachings have demonic elements in them.

Attacking the person?

It is also interesting that not only are these false beliefs attacked with vehemence, but sometimes the carriers of these false doctrines are as well. John the Baptist of course was not always a paragon of tact and diplomacy. Calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 3:7), was hardly conciliatory, bridge-building language. Indeed, the line “oozes with sarcasm” as Craig Blomberg points out.

Jesus could say of the unbelieving Jews, “you are of your father the Devil” (John 8:44). And of course he also had some very harsh things to say about the Pharisees, calling them “whitewashed tombs” and the like. Elsewhere he could call them “blind guides” and “blind fools” (Matthew 23:16-17). Not very polite or respectful words there.

And consider Paul, whom my critic mentions. Is it true that he was always “very diplomatic” with those he spoke with? Generally, probably yes. But quite often, not. In Acts for example we read of Paul calling Ananias a “white-washed wall” (Acts 23:3).

And in Galatians 1:6-9 Paul says that if any one brings another gospel which is not the one true gospel, “let him be accursed”. Those are very strong words indeed. He is saying such people should be eternally condemned. Such is the seriousness with which Paul views such matters. This does not sound like diplomacy and respect. Instead, them’s fightin’ words.

And things do not become more polite or conciliatory in Phil. 3:2: “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh”. This is extremely strong language which Paul uses here, but he is rightly concerned about those who would pervert the Gospel.

Paul says this of false teachers in 1 Tim. 6:3: “If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing.” Other such passages can easily be produced. Thus I am not sure if Paul is being “very diplomatic”, at least on numerous occasions.

My critic also claims that Paul was “well respected among a variety of different thinkers”. But with all due respect, when I read the book of Acts and the Pauline literature, I find a very different picture. Aside from people getting saved, the main reaction to Paul’s preaching was hatred, persecution and attempts to kill him. I am not sure how these negative responses can be viewed as ’respect’. It is clear in Paul’s letters that he has numerous enemies to contend with, and plenty of opposition. A lot of people not only did not respect Paul, they hated him and his message. And this is something Paul in fact glories in! See 2 Corinthians for example.

(For more on the issue of dealing with others and their views, see my article, “Rhetoric, the Bible, and the Believer”.)

Is unity always possible?

Notice that my friendly critic warns against creating an ‘us against them’ mentality. But is it really possible to fully follow Jesus Christ and not have division and strife result? Indeed, is unity at all costs something we should be aiming for?

The Bible seems to make much of the fact that God’s people will bring division and separation. Many examples can be cited here. In Matthew 12:30 Jesus said that “he who is not for me is against me”. In Luke 16:13 he said we “cannot serve two masters”. Again, in Luke 12:51, he says, “Do you suppose that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, No; but rather division”.  In the same way Yahweh said through Joshua, “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15).

Throughout Scripture men are forced to declare their hand, to let it be known which way they will go. Thus to follow the true God will always result in an ‘us against them’ mentality. This happened wherever Jesus went: he caused division. Consider just a few passages:

“On hearing his words, some of the people said, ‘Surely this man is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘He is the Christ.’ Still others asked, ‘How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?’ Thus the people were divided because of Jesus” (John 7:40-43).

“Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.’ But others asked, ‘How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?’ So they were divided” (John 9:16).

“At these words the Jews were again divided” (John 10:19).

But perhaps even more importantly, Jesus warned about a kind of false ecumenism, wherein everyone is happy with what you say: “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets. . . .  Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:22-26).

Indeed, Jesus often spoke of how the true prophets were rejected in the past, just as he was being rejected. In a sense, speaking God’s truth will always bring opposition. While we are not to go out of our way seeking division and controversy, it will nonetheless follow those who stand up for Jesus Christ. It is inevitable.

Conclusion

In the end, my critic seems to overstate his case. Being a true follower of Jesus will mean divisions will ensue, and unity will not always be possible. While we must treat all people with respect, we are not called to treat false doctrines or non-Christian religions with respect. We instead are told to contend for the gospel, and speak truth into a world that no longer believes in truth. Such proclamation of truth will always offend and insult some.

That is why religious vilification laws are so mischievous. Whenever a person stands up for religious truth claims, those who do not support that view will take offence or feel vilified. It is the nature of truth claims to cause division, and set one group against another.

As but one example: when a Christian insists that Jesus died on the cross and rose again, a Muslim will find that offensive, because Islam teaches the exact opposite. Are we really, in the interests of all getting along and not being offensive, to water down the gospel and not proclaim those truths which will cause others to get upset or take offence?

There may be a place for ecumenical endeavours, and inter-faith dialogue, but never at the expense of Biblical truth and radical Christian discipleship. Compromise, and watering down the gospel, so that we might get along with others, and/or not offend others, is not the way to go.

By all means, we need to be gracious and respectful of others, but it is the nature of the gospel message that when it is proclaimed in all its fullness and power, division and opposition will arise. Jesus promised this, and church history bears witness to it.

So while I will try to take on board the spirit of what my critic has to say, I must reject some of the faulty assumptions that lie beneath it. I repeat, we must not go out of our way to be offensive and insulting. But standing up for biblical truth will certainly offend some. That is the way it must be.

[1890 words]

31 Responses to On Other Worldviews

  • Excellent response to a thorny topic and a common tactic used to silence Christian apologetics, Bill.

    Paul wrote to the Corinthians on this very point at 1 Cor 11:18-19:
    “In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it.
    No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.”

    John Angelico

  • Dear Bill, Your writer’s comment, “I think we have to be careful not to be offensive…,” makes, in my opinion, a faulty exegesis based upon 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Your writer has confused accomodation with compromise, which, if he/she cares to take the trouble, can be solved by reading the following:

    http://www.founders.org/blog/2006/05/1-corinthians-919-23-paul-on.html

    David Skinner, UK

  • Bill, another excellent post.
    Stan Fishley.

  • Thanks again Bill.

    Watering down the gospel to get along with others is a key part to how the Uniting Church was able to be formed. It ‘united’ some churches from three Protestant denominations. This has been disastrous. You don’t have to look outside the Church to see the consequences of watering down the gospel.

    Matthew Mulvaney

  • One thing we need to do is confess fear, any and all kind of fear, except the fear of God. Put all fear at the foot of the cross and let Jesus set us free. Move through the cross to the other side with only what God wants us to carry, do, say, think. Because perfect love casts out fear.

    I say this, Bill, because I sense fear in the comment you quote from your friendly critic. If we can acknowledge it we can confess it and we can be free. Jesus came to set us free.

    And our unfriendly critics, Jesus came to set them free, as well. That’s His kind of love, that He doesn’t want us to be in any hurtful way, personally hurtful or hurtful for the community.

    Rebecca Field

  • Bill, your critic sounds like the typical inter-faith dialogue advocate. In line with what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, sometimes we have to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.” For too long the church has largely avoided challenging the anti-God philosophies of our age. One of the clearest examples of this is how most of the church deals with the philosophy of evolution. Intimidated by the (pseudo-) science of evolution, the response of many churches is simply to capitulate to this false religion. The effect on the health of the church has been baneful.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  • Since you quoted me, I thought I might jump in. What’s interesting is that uniformly when Jesus and the apostles use the harshest rhetoric, it is against the conservative religious insiders to their movements who are well-enough trained to know differently from the false teachings they are promoting. When it’s an outsider or the stigmatized insider, they bend over backwards to love them into the fold. The closest I find to harsh rhetoric against the false teaching of the complete outsider is when insiders (Christians or Jesus’ disciples) are being warned against it, not when those who hold those views are directly being addressed. Food for thought. . .
    Craig Blomberg, Denver, USA

  • Conflicting religious worldviews are often rooted in differing assumptions about sacred books. Your view makes sense given your presupposition that the Bible is the word of God and therefore authoritative. What about those who feel the same way about the Koran or question the divinity of any book? Do you dismiss them or agree to examine your presuppositions? Doesn’t your approach consign civilization to a future of closed-minded religious factions?

    Charley

  • Many thanks Craig

    As a long-time follower of your work and scholarship, I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to add your thoughts. And I think it is quite right to say that most of this strong rhetoric is aimed at fellow believers (insiders). This is certainly true of the strong language used by Jesus, although probably most of what Jesus said – both positive and negative – was directed primarily to Jewish audiences.

    I guess the purpose of this article was two-fold: to argue that we must tolerate and respect others, but we do not necessarily have to tolerate and respect other worldviews, religions and belief systems; and to challenge some of the more mushy aspects of the ecumenical and inter-faith movements, which greatly downplay truth in general, and what the NT authors consider the demonic elements behind certain non-Christian beliefs and practices in particular.

    That is why I raised 1 Cor. 10, and Paul’s concern about demonic elements in paganism. I guess I also had in mind things like Eph. 6:12, and how we are to understand the whole issue of the powers or elements (stoicheia). It seems the NT writers do show concern about belief systems opposed to the Gospel, whether perversions by insiders, or threats by outsiders. I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on this broader issue, if time permits.

    Thanks again for your time and thoughts.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Taking the Bible as a whole, there is much harshness against atheists and idolators. Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal, even using what we would call “toilet humour”. Isaiah scoffs at the foolish idolators who take half a piece of wood to burn for warmth and bake, and carve the other half to worship (Is. 44).

    The Psalmist says, ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”’ (Ps. 14:1). Paul strongly denounces atheists as willingly ignorant with foolish hearts (Rom. 1:18 ff).

    Paul tells us to demolish arguments against Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

    So there is no biblical reason to be a WFJ (Wimp For Jesus) when dealing with the evolutionary nonsense that drives misotheists like Clinton R. Dawkins, Sam Harris and their ilk.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Thanks Charlie

    You raise some valid issues here.

    Yes, I do come from a Christian perspective, so yes I do argue for the truth claims of my worldview, as opposed to others. And yes, I do base it on the Old and New Testaments, the Bible.

    As to your first question, I would say people should judge each religious text on its own merits. Various issues can be assessed: what about the contents, doctrines and teachings? How reliable are the documents? How do the truth claims contained therein square with reality?, with what it is to be a person?, and so on.

    There is nothing wrong with critically examining the various religious writings, both in terms of comparing them with one another, and of assessing their own worth and integrity.

    As to your last question, I would say that as long as there are competing truth claims, and competing worldviews, there will be factions. Whether they are closed-minded or not depends on the group. And religion is not the sole issue here. There always have been, and always will be, factions and conflicts and debates and divisions, as much regarding secular beliefs as religious ones. There are in fact plenty of closed-minded secular factions in the world as well.

    (PS – I have let you in here, even though you did not provide a full name, as per my blog rules.)

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Dear Bill, Jesus Christ was being tempted not to have a closed mind by the devil in the wilderness, so as to put himself at the centre of the world. One major difference between the Christian faith and all others is that Christians are taught to die for others. Paul in Romans could say in Romans 9: “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” All other religions and philosophies are self-serving and “do-it-yourself.”
    I believe that Katharine Jefferts Schori, the new head of the Epsicopal Chruch in the USA, is challenging and attacking the three major pillars (truth, morals and being) on which the Christian’s beliefs are established, as the devil did with Christ. She is replacing God’s wisdom with human wisdom. We need to say to her:
    “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’.” (truth)
    “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’.” (morals)
    “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’.” (being)
    David Skinner, UK

  • Great post Bill.
    What a great challenge we have to stand for Gospel truth in a postmodern world. Biblical faith compels us to stand firmly “on the Rock”, whereas postmodern sensibility compels us to be accepting of every other faith. This tension cannot be resolved.

    Mr Blomberg has noted that Jesus and the apostles did not use harsh rhetoric against outsiders and stigmatized insiders. Rather, they “[bent] over backwards to love them into the fold.” Love and truth are both elements of the very nature and character of God, and neither can be truly present without the other. Doesn’t the love we have towards these people compel us to proclaim the truth to them as well?

    There will always be division when the absolute Gospel is proclaimed in a relativistic world.

    Luke Beattie

  • It has become a disturbing trend to use emotionally charged and politically loaded language such as “offensive and disrespectful” to silence what is otherwise mere disagreement. I do not agree with the beliefs and rituals of some faiths, but I accept that other points of view do exist and that in a pluralist society they are entitled to their space. Just as they are entitled to express their view, even if contrary to mine, they too must accept when others espouse theirs. In fact, it is only through open mature discourse and healthy debate that we are able to reflect upon and critically examine our own views and those of others. To keep silent would be contrary to fostering robust discussion. It is views like those of Bill’s critic that have allowed the passing of vilification laws in Victoria that have been used to silence discourse even within congregations. Thank you Bill for the interesting posting.
    Frank Norros

  • Insulting somebody’s religion is kind of like insulting their mother. Even if what you say is true, you’re likely to offend them. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say it, if you need to.
    Amanda Fairweather

  • It seems to me to be difficult to separate a person from their religion.
    For instance, Islam. “Death to the Unbeliever”
    How does one be polite to that threat?
    Ivan Cox

  • May I commend Dr Alan Clifford whose recently published words through Christian Watch, concerning Islam are truly astounding in their frankness: http://www.nrchurch.co.nr/ I am amazed that he has not been thrown into prison.

    Click on the link to “Islam”

    David Skinner

  • Then surely, Bill, you would understand that a person of another belief system, who holds their beliefs to be Truth as strongly as you do, would not wish to water down their teachings either?
    Zenobia Frost

  • Thanks Zenobia

    Sure. And I have not suggested that they do. But strongly believing something to be true does not of course make it true. Thus competing truth claims have to be compared, assessed and judged.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • “But strongly believing something to be true does not of course make it true.”

    I’m glad you acknowledge this. Well said.

    Zenobia Frost

  • Thanks Zenobia

    And truth is that which is objectively and universally true. Thus the mark of a good and coherent worldview – an indicator of its truthfulness – will be how it corresponds to reality.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Could you list some of these objective and universal truths for me?

    Thank you.

    Zenobia Frost

  • Thanks Zenobia

    What about these for some simple starters? Sydney is south of Brisbane. The Berlin wall came down in 1989. Two plus two equals four. I am alive as I type this response.

    Those are all objective truth claims. What may be more important however is where you are going with all this. What are you implying? That there is no objective truth, and that all is relative?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • They certainly are objective truth claims. Of course objective truth exists.

    I think you assumed I had taken a sarcastic tone in my last post; I was merely clarifying what you had meant in your last post.

    So where am I going with all this? Well, we were talking about religious belief systems. I was wondering whether you were claiming that one religious belief system can be objectively and universally true.

    Perhaps you could expand on your comment, “Thus the mark of a good and coherent worldview – an indicator of its truthfulness – will be how it corresponds to reality.”

    Thanks. Zenobia Frost

  • Thanks Zenobia

    Most religions do claim to be universally true. For example, all three monotheistic religions make absolute truth claims. The task is then to compare them with one another, and with reality.

    Thus the law of non-contradiction (A does not equal non-A in the same time and in the same way) can be applied to religious truth claims. Christians claim that Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead. Muslims say he did not die on the cross and rise from the dead. Both statements cannot be true at the same time and in the same sense. One must be false. If Chrisianity is true in this area, then Islam cannot be, and vice versa.

    And the correspondence theory of truth, which goes back at least as far as Plato, says that a statement is true if it accurately describes a state of affairs; if it tells it like it is, in other words. Thus the following statement is not true: “Bill is not typing on his computer at this moment.” The fact is, I am now typing on my computer, so that statement is false.

    As far as religious truth claims go, we can do the same sort of testing. Some religions, for example, claim that evil is an illusion. Most people would argue that evil is real indeed, and thus this religious claim does not square with reality. And biblical claims about Christ can be tested historically, and in other ways, to see if they are in fact true, or correspond to reality.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • This is indeed something I would like to study in the future; I find it really interesting. I have plans to acquire a solid background in world philosophy, religion, history and sociology. It might take a while, but it would certainly be worth it.

    Out of interest, which religions claim that evil is an illusion?

    It can certainly be historically verified that Christ existed, but surely such events as His rising from the dead can only ever be faith-based. Contrariwise, Muslims surely cannot prove that He did not rise. In a way, it is a moot point.

    Zenobia Frost

  • Thanks Zenobia

    It sounds like you will be keeping busy.

    Christian Science certainly teaches the idea that evil and suffering are illusory. But the idea that not just evil, but this world as a whole, is an illusion, or Maya, is a common feature of eastern religions, particularly Hinduism.

    And no, the resurrection is not merely a matter of “faith”. It is a matter of examining the evidence. That would include assessing the historical reliability of the Gospels, and so on. The empty tomb has to be accounted for, and the idea of resurrection is one very plausible account to pursue.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Dear Zenobia, If one watches or reads any detective story, one finds that the investigator is lead to an explanation of a crime through evidence gradually discovered. The conviction of the detective become stronger and stronger as more and more bits of the expected evidence do in fact surface. As CS Lewis in Mere Christianity said, concerning the possibility of one true, as opposed to a fanciful, perception of New York, it is only possible if in fact there is a real objective New York sending out such pulses or data. This is not the same however as saying that if the receiver is switched off then the external reality ceases to exist. The fact that I might not believe in lions does not mean that I won’t be mauled to death if I step into a lion cage.

    Belief is not something subjective; it is dependent on something existing as opposed to not existing. When a jury is summing up the evidence, it is not searching for unity at all costs, based on the lowest common denominator, but an all encompassing truth. It is not enough to say that all ideas of God, or routes to Him, are true simply because all religions can point to the same evidence found in the created order; it also has to line up with morality and an intelligence that can be communicated.

    David Skinner, UK

  • Hi David, thanks for this post. I enjoy your many posts and I look forward to future comment.
    Stan Fishley, Melbourne

  • Dear Zenobia,

    As far as I understand, all beliefs about existence – the mesh or grid through which we interpret both the inner and outer world – are built upon three pillars: ontological, epistemological and moral truth which are described in Francis Schaeffer’s book “He Is There And He Is Not Silent.”
    Every belief system or world-view can be reduced to these three. It is then a matter of comparing them with one another; they might line up on one or two of these pillars but for one system to be totally in accord with another, such as Islam with Christianity, they must, like the navigation lights that guide ships safely into harbour, all three, line up.

    Specifically about the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, may I recommend you read the famous debate between the two lawyers, one Christian, Josh Mcdowell and the other Muslim, Ahmed Deedat: http://www.answering-islam.org/Debates/Deedat_McDowell.html

    May I also recommend the book “Who moved the stone?” by Frank Morison. It was written by a lawyer who started to write a book, the aim of which was to disprove the resurrection and in doing so ended up by arriving at a totally different verdict.

    David Skinner, UK

  • Dear David,
    Thank you for the links and references. I will have a read, in time.
    Zenobia Frost

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