Just the other day I heard the song by George Harrison called "My Sweet Lord" on the radio. Beyond the simple delightfulness of the tune typical of a Beatle, there is something about this particular song that always makes me pause to focus and reflect. I think it has something to do with its honesty, and its almost desperate longing and desire. This is a song of worship, even as it identifies the object of worship as transcending the traditional expressions of praise in the religions of both East and West. (See sidebar on page 18 for lyrics.) In a general sense, the song is an invitation for us to see our particular religious traditions not as ends in themselves, but as serving the higher end of knowing a God who stands equally "behind" them all. It's interesting that George Harrison's close friend and fellow Beatle John Lennon wrote another immensely popular song along the same lines: "Imagine." This song expresses the same feelings of longing and desire; although here we are invited to envision a society of justice, peace, and freedom that transcends the oppressive and divisive institutions of government, ideology, and religion that are also mistaken as ends in themselves.
It seems to me that together these two songs have come to provide our culture with a simple yet significant and poetic expression of what might be called "popular religious pluralism." (For a good definition of religious pluralism, see Patrick Smith's sidebar on page 24.) When I say popular I don't mean superficial, I mean widely held. John Lennon may have apologized for his off-the-cuff statement - taken out of context in America at the time-that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, but that doesn't change the fact that in defining the beliefs of our contemporary Western culture, he may have been close to right. This was impressed on me while watching the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, when Peter Gabriel sang "Imagine" on a world stage to the response of thousands of affirming cheers. The fact is, and recent data supports this, the popular vision of religious pluralism as expressed in these songs is now the more widely held in our culture, even among professing Christians, and even among professing conservative or evangelical Christians.
My point here is not to minimize the power of this popular vision. It ought not to be caricatured as merely a superficial self-contradicting slogan of postmodern culture. The popular religious pluralism that I'm talking about really can reflect a sincere longing for the divine and an appropriate dissatisfaction with the current state of world affairs. In fact, far from being easily dismissed, this popular religious pluralism has actually become entrenched in our culture as a higher expression of religious exclusivism. This religious vision unites all the particular religious visions. This religious narrative makes sense of all the particular competing religious narratives. All the hope expressed in the world's religions is fulfilled together in the ultimate hope of religious pluralism. It is left only for the sincere adherents to the particular religious traditions of the world to accept this one tradition as ultimately true and normative. This is the only way in which it will work, the only way in which the religious pluralist vision and hope can be realized. To focus on only one of these particular religious traditions as true and to make that one tradition normative is to impede the progress of humanity toward that ultimate goal as expressed by both Harrison and Lennon.
How should we respond to this popular religious pluralism now so pervasive in our culture and churches? As a Reformed and evangelical Christian, I see the basic theological task of the church as witness. Thus, the first and most important question for me is whether or not the church is being a faithful witness to the Word of God today. For this reason, I think the more critical issue to address is the widespread and growing affirmation of this position in our churches-in other words, the Christian acceptance of religious pluralism as the normative context for Christianity. Stated in a way more directly relevant to our present topic, the question is: Can a confessing, evangelical Christian affirm both the vision and hope of orthodox Christianity and the vision and hope of popular religious pluralism at the same time? Even more specifically: Are the positions of religious pluralism and orthodox trinitarian Christianity compatible or mutually exclusive? I will seek to answer this theological question with a brief outline of orthodox trinitarianism as that simple yet significant and poetic confession of what it means to be a Christian.
Simply stated, trinitarianism is the truth that God is one, and that this one God is our Father revealed to us in God the Son our Savior and in the communion of God the Holy Spirit. Our Christian trinitarian confession of faith results from our saving encounter with this one living God in the message of the biblical gospel concerning Jesus Christ. In this most basic Christian truth and experience, we see at once our God in both unity and distinction. From the beginning of our engagement with Holy Scripture, heard and read within the community of faith, we learn of the one God and all his dealings with us in these terms. God's work of creation is understood in terms of God the Father who is the ultimate source of all creation, God the Son who executes the decree to create, and God the Holy Spirit who manifests the divine presence in the creation (Gen. 1:1-3ff; Ps. 104:30; John 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16). God's work of redemption is understood as God the Father's electing plan to redeem the world through the sending of God the Son into the world to accomplish the redemption that God the Holy Spirit applies to you and me (John 3:5-8, 16; 6:38; Gal. 4:4; Eph. 1:9-10; Heb. 10:5-14; Titus 3:5). Our response has been to confess this knowledge of God in our own Christian lives as we think and talk about, pray to, worship, and serve the one true God in trinitarian terms. We know the Father in the self-revelation of the Son by the ministry of the Holy Spirit; we pray to our Father in the mediating name of the Son and with the testimony of the Holy Spirit; and we worship and serve the Almighty Father in the truth of the Son and in the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
Recognizing that both this unity and this distinction in God is clearly revealed in Holy Scripture as the normative authority for our Christian faith, the ancient church bequeathed to us two very effective terms for aiding our articulation of this biblical trinitarianism with precision and beauty. The first term, homoousia, concerns our understanding of the oneness of God even as we reflect on the distinctions among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. With this term we affirm that the divine being (ousia) of the Father, the divine being (ousia) of the Son, and the divine being (ousia) of the Holy Spirit are identical (homo). When we say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are homoousia, we mean that they each possess the fullness of the divine being, and that they each possess the fullness of one and the same divine being! Many analogies have been offered throughout Christian history to try and help us conceptualize this truth, but they all fall short simply because no analogy of the created world can capture the reality of the divine being of God who is Uncreated Spirit.
The second term, hypostasis, concerns our understanding of the threeness of God even as we reflect on the unity of God's singular divine being. With this term we affirm that the person (hypostasis) of the Father, the person (hypostasis) of the Son, and the person (hypostasis) of the Holy Spirit are truly and eternally distinct. The reason why this term is helpful is because of the unique meaning it conveys in this context. Unlike how we might be inclined to think of what it means to be a person, this word as it was used in the ancient church tries to point us to an understanding of "person" as somewhere between totally separate components (such as the shell, white, and yoke of an egg), and merely alternating modes of something more basic (like the way H2O alternates among the modes of solid, liquid, and gas). Thus the Godhead is not established through a mere aggregate of three totally separate persons, nor is the Godhead something more basic, or standing "behind" these three persons as mere modes of its historical manifestations. God is one in three, three in one; and the one infinite Godhead is always in all eternity distinguished as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! Again, possible analogies have been offered, but the wholly other uniqueness of God breaks through them all.
So, as biblical Christians we initially come to know God and subsequently to learn of God as the one God who permits us to bear true witness to him as both unity and distinction. God is one divine community of being (homoousia) who eternally exists in three distinct and coequal persons (hypostasis). This understanding of the nature of God flows from our sacred text and our shared experience; and it is always properly marked by wonder and amazement. Even this very brief discussion of trinitarianism demonstrates just how remarkable our Christian confession is among the diverse teachings of the world's philosophies and religions. As faithful witnesses to God in this world, we must always resist the impulse either to dismiss this trinitarianism as too abstract or impractical, or to attempt to work out its mysteries speculatively as if it were a logic puzzle. For God has given us a revelation that is truly a self-revelation; and because it actually reveals who God is, it is really God's self-interpretation for us. Thus, when our Christian reflection and confession are guided by this divine self-interpretation, it is most properly (and reasonably!) guided by what God has told us concerning himself. But the question remains: How does this Christian trinitarianism address our concern about Christianity's compatibility with popular religious pluralism? We can now develop an answer by looking further at the term homoousia and at how it helps us to understand who our Lord actually is.
This concept of trinitarianism becomes intelligible only if understood in the context of the Christian confession of Jesus Christ as the self-revelation of God. Here we are especially following the apostle Paul, who bears witness to Jesus Christ with phrases such as "declared with power to be the Son of God" (Rom. 1:4), "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6), "who being in very nature God" (Phil. 2:6), "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), and "God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him" (Col. 1:19). This testimony to God's self-revelation contains the idea of an identity of essence (homoousia) between the Father, who is the author of the revelation, and the Son, who is the content of the revelation. When we confess that the Father and the Son are homoousia, we are affirming this identity. We are confessing that God in all the fullness of his divine being is as much the content of his self-revelation as he is its author; that God in this revelation actually discloses who he really is (Heb. 1:1-3; John 8:58).
Indeed, if this were not the case, if God in his revelation did not reveal himself in this way, we would not know who God actually is; and thus we would still have to look for the author of this revelation standing "behind" it. But this is not the case! In Jesus Christ we have met God the risen Son incarnate, and we do confess with all of Holy Scripture and orthodox Christian tradition that God the Son is homoousia with God the Father. We testify with the apostle John that "no one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known" (John 1:18). In God's self-revelation in the Son we know in a strict sense that the medium through which the author of revelation makes himself known is not alien to himself. This would diminish a self-revelation and make the content of that revelation a mere pointer to something else. But Jesus Christ is the content of this true and ultimate self-revelation of God, in all the fullness of his divine being as God the Son incarnate. For this reason alone does Jesus Christ point us to God by pointing to himself: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works" (John 14:9b-10). In light of all this, I think at least three clear implications can be drawn in response to our concerns about popular religious pluralism.
First, because revelation means that God assumes a form so that we humans can know who he is, we must understand that our true knowledge of God is only a result of divine self-accommodating grace. To know God in the way he has permitted us to know him is to know him in both unity and distinction. Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son is the visible revelation of the invisible God the Father, and therefore he must be distinguished from God the Father. Yet because he truly and ultimately reveals who God the Father is, there is a necessary unity or identity of essence between them. Therefore, we must confess with the Nicene Creed that the Father is known in the Son; that everything Jesus Christ made known about God and accomplishes "for us and our salvation" is affirmed by his deity; and that as the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ is worthy to be worshipped and adored.
Second, because this biblical trinitarianism assures us that everything Jesus Christ says and does on earth is God speaking and acting, it is only reasonable that our vision and hope should be grounded in his words and deeds. For this reason, the normative context for our Christian vision should be the message of the gospel concerning Jesus Christ; the normative context for our narrative should be God's redemptive plan culminating in Jesus Christ; and the normative context for our hope should be the promises of God made certain in Jesus Christ.
Third, and most directly related to popular religious pluralism, because Christian trinitarianism teaches that in the Incarnation of the Son there is a true and ultimate self-revelation of God, it is reasonable to take this self-revelation of God as definitive. This means that by definition Jesus Christ is the standard by which we determine the truthfulness of all other claims to divine revelation. To hold with religious pluralism that Jesus Christ is one of a number of different and even contrary revelations of a God who stands "behind" them all, is to hold that God has not revealed himself truly and ultimately in Jesus Christ, but at most only partially. This contradicts the concept of homoousia as the identity of essence that Christian trinitarianism affirms. God cannot be understood as having revealed himself in a different way in another self-revelation and still be the one who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. As trinitarian Christians, we have been graciously permitted to make the same confession as that of Simon Peter: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). Therefore, because Jesus Christ the Son incarnate is God, all other claims of divine revelation are to be assessed according to him.
So how should we respond to this? We began by asking the question: Are the positions of popular religious pluralism and orthodox trinitarian Christianity compatible or mutually exclusive? I think the above account of Christian trinitarianism shows that they are clearly not compatible on the grounds that divine revelation has been established once and for all in Jesus Christ alone. This leads us to two important applications.
First, since our basic theological task is faithful witness to the Word of God, the widespread and growing affirmation of popular religious pluralism as the normative context for Christianity ought to be reversed. There is no God standing "behind" God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ, and for this reason there is no God except the God who is with us in Jesus Christ, and there is no vision and hope that can lead us beyond the vision and hope that is established for us in Jesus Christ. Thus, Christians who are seeking to affirm both orthodox Christianity and popular religious pluralism together have an Elijah-on-Mount-Carmel type of decision to make (1 Kings 18:21).
Second, in affirming orthodox trinitarian Christianity, confessing evangelical Christians should not see themselves as having to bear some sort of heavy doctrinal burden. On the contrary, it is by grace that we have been gifted with this privilege and responsibility to speak and enact the liberating truth of our trinitarian Christianity in love. If our faithful witness to Jesus Christ is called to be prophetic over-against a culture that chooses to reject it, then our marginalization will be for the sake of righteousness. However, this isn't necessarily the case in an increasingly interconnected culture that is becoming more serious about interreligious dialogue. Because the new frameworks for this dialogue properly recognize the exclusivist nature of normative religious pluralism, they are careful not to stress adherence to this position as a prerequisite for participation. Examples of these new opportunities for our engagement in interreligious dialogue are developing every day: from Tony Blair's Faith Foundation and new university courses such as Yale's "Faith and Globalization" (co-taught by Blair and Miroslav Volf) to the call for a renewed interreligious dialogue in America by President Obama in his first address at the National Prayer Breakfast.
Therefore, as we humbly, respectfully, and faithfully live out our Christian witness to the world, we should remember to focus and reflect on the fact that our faith and confession make no sense without this trinitarian theological context. In a world where a multitude of "christs" point us to a God who stands "behind" their philosophies, religious traditions, and revelatory claims, Jesus Christ has stood up to point us to himself as the definitive self-revelation of God. Jesus Christ is God, the light of the world, and therefore all other christs, visions, and hopes are assessed according to this light and the vision and hope that he has made sure.
Peter Anders (MA, Wheaton Graduate School; MAR, Yale Divinity School; DPhil candidate, Oxford University) is lecturer of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, Massachusetts).
Issue: "Jesus Among other Christs" May/June 2009 Vol. 18 No. 3 Page number(s): 20-23
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