<Much of this article is discussed more in Sir Normal Anderson’s book “CHRISTIANITY AND WORLD RELIGIONS: THE CHALLENGE OF PLURALISM”(starting around page 169)>
“What view should the Christian take of non-Christian religions-…- as systems that profess to mediate salvation?” Anderson describes three broad viewpoints. To provide real-world illustration of these options, I am using the Longhouse Religion as founded by Handsome Lake, a Seneca Chief, in 1799. He was a man of his times, falling prey to many of the evils (such as alcoholism) in his tribe. Then he had a vision. In this vision, he was told (among other things) that there was only one God, and that the Seneca people must reject alcohol and other immoral behaviors. I am from Western New York, near the Allegheny Reservation of the Seneca Nation, so I am from near the center of this religion. Based on this revelation, the Longhouse religion was formed replacing the existing polytheistic system with a monotheistic system that has considerable similarities to Christianity, without really being what could ultimately be described as Christian.
View I. “There are those who, impressed by the elements of truth that can be found in most, if not all, other religions, and by the devotion and virtue of some of their adherents, regard them as a sort of praeparatio evangelia- as, indeed, all Christians would say of Old Testament Judaism.” (169) In other words, all religions contain a certain amount of truth from God. Don Richardson, in “Eternity in their Hearts” describes different religions that appear to have elements of God’s revelation in it.
Consider the Longhouse Religion. It was clearly a step toward Christian truth even if it did not go all of the way there. One might argue that this was a limited, distorted, interpretation of a revelation of God (the one true God) to Handsome Lake. One could argue that founders of Islam, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, and others received revelations that were distorted (by sin and the limits of fallen humans to understand the divine.)
II. “The second view which has been taken by Christians about other religions is the diametrical opposite of this: namely, that they do not emanate in any sense from God, but from the devil.” (171) As good as many religions seem in many of their ideals, they do all reject the true message and character of Jesus Christ.
Newbigin points out that “new converts (to Christianity) often surprise missionaries by the horror and fear with which they reject the forms of their old religion—forms which to the secularized Westerner are interesting pieces of folklore and which to the third-generation successors of the first converts may come to be prized as part of national culture.” (171) Newbigin also points out that it is often the highest forms of religions that are most threatened by the Gospel. It was, after all religious leaders who crucified Christ. Often it is the practitioners of folk religion, not the idealized forms of these religions, who are most receptive to Christianity.
For those who take this viewpoint, a different view of the experience of Handsome Lake emerges. The loosely structured polytheistic religion based on doubtful folklore of the Senecas was ill equipped to address the challenge of Christianity, so the “prince of lies” gave a revelation that was close enough to Christianity to address some of the challenge, but still would keep people away from it. In this form, some religions may be closer to the truth because they were meant to be an “inoculant” against conversion. One might see Mohammed’s experiences as a syncretistic attempt to innoculate the polytheistic tribes in Arabia. One might even see Joseph Smith in this light.
III. “The third view sees these religions as not so much divine revelation, nor yet Satanic deception, but as human aspiration- as man’s attempts (whether more or less enlightened) to solve the mysteries of life.” (171) All humans are seekers. We all seek the divine, with varying amounts of success. Some lump Christianity in with this idea. Therefore Christianity is simply a more successful attempt to understand the divine. Others, including myself, would place Christianity as the “one and only divine self-disclosure (with Judaism, of course, as a forerunner).” (172) In this case, all “other religions represent human attempts to climb up to heaven to discover God.” (172)
Returning to the Handsome Lake example, the issue of revelation (from God or Satan or otherwise) is ignored. In this view, Handsome Lake suffered from the problems in his culture and his revelations were an enlightened response to provide meaning in what was chaos. Additionally, the fact that the Longhouse Religion holds some interesting similarities to the Quaker Faith, Quaker missionaries having worked among the Senecas, one might suggest that this new religion was part of Handsome Lake’s quest to take what he saw as good in the Christian faith, while not letting go of what he saw as important in his own culture. The syncretism would then not be a distorted message from God, or a trap of Satan, but a very human effort to seek the good in human terms and by human effort.
Anderson sees all three views as having some merit. He believes Satan does use religion to deceive. God does reveal Himself and some religions take such revelation and incorporate it in a distorted fashion. And some religion appears to simply be an honest but flawed attempt by humans to know God or the gods. Personally, I think all three exist.
God Works in and through God’s Word and God’s Church. But God is also always at work in God’s World… because… ultimately… it IS God’s world (as creator, and ultimate restorer). Satan deceives and distorts the truth. We are left with an internal battle because our hearts and minds are alienated from God and rebellious to His will. Yet we also have a part of us that seeks, maybe not the Divine, but the divine. We recognize the need for truth, love, and peace. This quest does not in itself lead us to God, but it may lead us in directions that have some merit.
It is interesting that Jesus did not condemn the pagan groups of His time. He saved His condemnation for leaders of the true faith (Judaism) who, either due to Satan or due to selfishness, distorted the truth to the people. This might suggest that Jesus felt that the distortion of Truth revealed (due to human and perhaps Satanic influences) was far worse than false beliefs that were built on ignorance of the Truth. For these people, the Truth needed to be lovingly modeled and proclaimed.
Anyway, IF all non-Christian religions have all three elements in them (Divine Truth, Satanic Lies, and Human Aspirations and Delusions), how should that affect our interactions with people of other faiths? This is a major question in the area of Interfaith Dialogue and truth Encounter.