“The Lost World:” Winding our Way Toward Truth

If you’ve been following along, you know that these blog posts have all centered on the sermon series “The Dirt Under His Nails” at Tri-State Fellowship.  Following the message “How far is Heaven?,” we’ve looked at the way culture has a longing for “home.”

One of the ways people look for that sense of grounding, or “home” is Read more

“How far is Heaven?”: Study Guide

For those who missed yesterday’s sermon, “How far is Heaven?”, you can click the link below to download a printable study guide for small groups, personal reading or to share with friends and coworkers: Read more

How far is Heaven?: The Pluralistic Challenge to Jesus

The following video is “Yahweh,” by the band U2.  The name “Yahweh” is one of the primary names for God in Hebrew.  It was a deeply personal name, so much so that when the name “Yahweh” was printed, the Hebrews used to switch to the name “Adonai” (analogous to “Lord”) out of reverential fear.

In U2’s video, however, the name “Yahweh” is invoked in the context of a wide variety of religious symbols.  Read more

Responding to Mormonism Question

Recently I was asked to defend my claim that Mormonism is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity, which is a very fair challenge.  The questioner asked this: 

Please show me in the Bible where it states what one must believe regarding the Savior in order to be a Christian. Please also show me where it states that YOU have the right to decide who is and who is not a Christian. Thank you.

I post my written response here not only for my love of hard questions, but because some may find themselves asking the very same question themselves, not just of Mormonism but of religious diversity as a whole.  I freely admit that the following is only a start to answering these questions, but this was my response:

This is a fair question and I’m glad to answer it. I’d like to address your second question first, as it directly relates to your first question.

I am not personally defining someone “out” of Christianity. Christianity and Mormonism both make exclusive truth claims. These claims contradict each other. Logically, these claims can both be wrong, but they cannot both be right. To put it another way, if you are speaking with someone who embraces Republican values, then claims to be a socialist, you rightly raise an eyebrow – because these two value systems make very different claims. So if I stress a difference between Christianity and Mormonism, these claims are not originating from me; I merely observe the fundamentally different claims each faith makes.

Which leads me to your first question. The question Jesus asked of Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” is indeed an important one (the Gospel of Mark is hinged on this very question: Mk 8:29ff). Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ,” or “Messiah” reveals that there is an objective identity to the person of Jesus, irrespective of rival interpretations and opinions. We learn this identity from (among other places) the Gospel of John, whose first chapter emphasizes Jesus as God in the flesh (Jn 1:1-18), a fact repeated by Paul (Phil 2:5ff, Col 1:15). In John’s letter, John makes clear that those who do not see Jesus in this way are not Christians (1 Jn 3:19-27; 4:2-3). In Galatians, Paul addresses yet another issue: the people he was struggling with believed in Jesus but taught that they must perform Jewish customs to be saved. Paul says that any other gospel (even one revealed from “an angel in heaven,” which would include Moroni) is to be “condemned” (Gal 1:6-8). Again, these are not claims that I am making, but come quite explicitly from the writers of the Bible.

Now, one argument I’ve heard is that not everyone is taught all of this, therefore, can’t someone be a Christian and not believe some of these “details?” First, these details are hardly insignificant: they are vital parts of Christian doctrine. Secondly, while I admit that not everyone believes these things from the time they become a Christian, Mormonism by its very nature denies these claims. To say it another way, there’s a great deal of difference between a lack of understanding of who Jesus is, and a denial of who Jesus is.

I realize the brevity of a comment box precludes a fuller discourse, so if I seem at all terse I apologize. Again, I do not wish to slander the Mormon faith. I follow Jesus not because of what I’m not (I’m not a Mormon, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist, etc.) but because I’ve tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and that no man comes to God except through Jesus (Jn 14:6 – a claim that Jesus Himself makes). My prayer is that regardless of where you are spiritually, that Christ would be made more vividly real to you, and that you come to understand the true “pearl of great price,” a Savior so valuable that all else is worth abandoning for its pursuit.

I’m afraid I’ve already gone far beyond my time constraints, so I’ll suggest two resources: (1) http://www.carm.org/is-mormonism-christian – a link to a website that addresses this very issue in more detail and (2) Jesus Among Other Gods by Ravi Zacharias, who looks carefully at the uniqueness of the Christian witness.

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Creation Care Part 1: Animal Rights and World Religions

The recent oil disaster has prompted a great deal of discussion over what it means to care for the environment, most certainly including the animal species contained therein.

The Washington Post recently published a panel discussion aimed at answering the question: “Do animals have rights?” (thanks to my friend Leah for sending the link) Panel participants responded to the following question:

Expensive and time-consuming efforts are being made to rescue and rehabilitate animals threatened by the Gulf oil spill. Do animals have rights? Do animals have souls? What does your faith say about animal consciousness, suffering, sacrifice and stewardship? Dr. Paul Waldau, a lecturer in animal law at Harvard Law School , says, “Religion is a major player in the way humans think about other living beings.” What does that mean to you?


The responses were numerous, and reflect the diverse philosophical/religious climate in the Unite States. Ultimately, the question comes down to one of worldview. A “worldview” is simply that: a way of seeing the world.

Worldviews are numerous, but may most broadly be categorized based on belief in god: (1) atheism, (2) pantheism and (3) theism (thanks to Dr. J. Scott Horrell of Dallas Seminary, whose theology classes are often begun with these definitions).

I realize, of course, that I’m throwing out categories, and some may object to being put “in a box.” I know. Think of these categories as the walls of your office cubicle: just because you can’t lean on them too hard doesn’t mean they can’t provide a useful boundary. And, for the sake of honesty, I myself am writing from a reformed Christian perspective, for those who’d like to see a box around me as well.

The purpose of this post is to outline the various ways that these three systems identify human and animal rights (you can’t discuss the former without the latter).


Atheism is, by definition, a lack of belief in (a) god(s). This means that the universe is, in the words of Carl Sagan, “all there is, ever was, or ever will be.”

In the absence of a creator, life can ultimately be reduced to matter. Complexity is the by-product of an evolutionary process – Monod’s definition of “chance and necessity.” Which is why Richard Dawkins suggests that “everything about the human mind, all our emotions and spiritual pretensions, all arts and mathematics, philosophy and music, all feats of intellect and of spirit, are themselves productions of the same process that delivered the higher animals.” (Quoted from the article ironically titled “There is Grandeur in this View of Life”)

Hence, it’s historically been very difficult to find a firm basis for human dignity or uniqueness as compared to other animals. Herb Silverman, a Jewish atheist interviewed in the aforementioned article, simply states that “Knowing we human animals are lucky enough to have evolved from single-celled organisms makes me feel sufficiently humble.”

The struggle, of course comes down to this point: if humanity and animals are both the products of heredity and environment, then humans and animals are all equally valuable or – stated negatively – equally worthless.

Which is why Dawkins, despite language of the “grandeur” of his worldview, equally admits that “The universe is howling, uncaring chaos and we’re fungus with pretensions.”

Of course, the other end of the spectrum is to see such equal value that humans and animals are granted entirely equal dignity. Silverman references Peter Singer, the noted ethicist from Princeton University, who suggests dignity is measured by cognitive ability, which means that potentially a fully-developed animal is superior to a newborn child. This point is pressed farther still as he suggests that animals should be our equal companions – both in and out of the bedroom (and yes, dear readers, that’s exactly what you think that means).

To be fair, Silverman distances himself from Singer’s obscure views, but never comes clear on the question of why animals (or humans) have rights other than our share in the evolutionary process. Hence, morality is reduced to matters of ecology. I love my atheistic friends. But on this issue we could not be at farther ends of the table on the question of human dignity and morality.


Pantheism is considerably different. Pantheism acknowledges the existence of (a) creator god(s), but links the two such that “creator” and “creation” are one and the same. This view colors many “eastern” religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and certain forms of Taoism, though there’s recently been an increased interest here in America through the influence of both New Age spirituality and Neo-Paganism.

Starhawk, a Wiccan interviewed in the article, claims that “Pagans see all the world as animate, imbued with life and spirit.”

If nature and god are – in some way – united, then it follows that animals do have “souls” (though not all would use the term) and therefore dignity. Ramdas Lamb, an ex-Hindu monk and professor, says that India’s religions “promote a kinship with all life forms that is unique among the world’s major religions. Although not all their adherents follow it, these traditions as a whole take non-violence seriously, and one of the central reasons that most do is the belief that animals have souls….Clearly, when it comes to the treatment of animals, these religions stand out and lead the way.” ( as an FYI, notice that the claim of “lead[ing] the way” can be taken as a claim of religious superiority – a claim that every religion makes on one level or another)

While I differ markedly from the claims of pantheist religions, I must admit that they make the question simpler: if all created things are endowed with some sense of soul or divinity, then care for the created world is of great importance.


Theism is the belief in a creator god, and usually this is meant to include the so-called “Abrahamic” religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity), though the conceptions of God in each faith differ quite markedly.

Theism affirms the existence of a creator but makes a firm division between creator and creation. God, in this sense, is much like an artist: reflected by the work yet never united to it.

The principle difference between these faiths is the question of authority: Where do our ideas about God come from? Despite numerous additions and modifications, all three of these religions affirm at least some portion of the Bible (or at least the Hebrew scriptures), meaning conceptions about nature derive from the Book of Genesis, where man is spoken of in terms of uniquely bearing God’s “image” and having “dominion” over nature (issues we’ll get to eventually). Such language has often been taken to mean that man is unique, and animals do not possess this same “soul.”

Drawing from this material is the journalist Cal Thomas, who adds his voice to the panel: “Animals do not have souls because they are not created in the image of God. But they were created for our enjoyment and Genesis says we humans have ‘dominion’ over them. Like other creations of God they are deserving of our love and respect, which is what my cat demands of me!”

Still others, drawing from personal experience rather than the pages of scripture suggest otherwise, such as one panelist whose experience with her beloved pet led her to conclude that animals do, in fact, have souls, and therefore are worthy of protection and care.


The one common thread is that all panelists seemed to indicate (in varying degrees) that animals and creation are worthy of respect and care, though having widely differing reasons as to why.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the uniqueness of the Christian view of nature and the world, and eventually push toward some thoughts on what it means to care for the environment.

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Paradise LOST: The Afterlife and World Religions (Part 5)

“Moving on.” This is the phrase used of the Oceanic Flight 815 survivors (at least the “important” ones) in LOST’s much-discussed finale.

If you watched the show’s finale, you now know the finale’s biggest shock. The events of the “flash-forwards,” while described as “real,” depict some type of “afterlife.” Yep; that’s right: Jack’s dead (I think I saw that Bruce Willis movie…).


Which raises a whole slew of questions about the exact nature of this afterlife. The church has traditional features, but notably mixed with symbols from a variety of religious faiths. The stained glass window, in particular, features symbols from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism and a Dharma wheel – ambiguously referring to the Dharma Initiative of the show or Buddhism.


The presence of such symbols allows for perspectivalism to dominate the show’s conclusion, a conclusion that offered a slice of paradise that all faiths supposedly can relate to (at least, as long as you can find a date….sheesh…).





For instance, Anthony M. Stevens, writing for The Washington Post, suggests that the show’s depiction of the afterlife strongly resonates with Roman Catholic theology – most notably the concept of purgatory:


“Keeping with the Catholic theme, there is one character, Benjamin Linus, who stays outside the church because he is “not ready” to join the others. Only denominations like Catholicism that believe in purgatory can comprehend this “saved-but-not-quite-yet” category.”


The problem, of course, is not simply that the show makes no explicit mention of purgatory, but that Christian Shepherd tells his son that this timeless “place” was created by the survivors for the purpose of eventual reunion. Nor does that place bear any resemblance to traditional Catholic understandings of purgatory (derived, mind you, not from the Bible itself, but extant Jewish sources and the writings of the early church).


Still, the not-quite-heaven, not-quite-hell locale seems to resonate with what might be called purgatory.


But still others suggest that the afterlife of LOST be interpreted through an altogether different grid. Tracie Egan, writing for Jezebel.com, sees in the finale strongly Buddhist themes:


A component of Tibetan Buddhism, bardos are the different phases the deceased experience between dying and rebirth. It’s a dream-like reality, created by the “awareness” (or a soul) that is freed from the body upon death. Because of the disconnect of the awareness from the physical body, the deceased doesn’t immediately realize that he or she is dead. In the different bardo phases, the “awareness” needs guidance – from different deities, or, you know, guides (hello, Desmond)—to attain enlightenment, i.e., realize that they’re dead. A karmic mirror (remember all those mirrors?) is held up to the deceased so that s/he can reflect and eventually recognize. Once this happens – and it can happen in any of the bardo phases, depending on how much emotional baggage a person has packed for the afterlife – the deceased achieves Nirvana, and can “move on.” Depending on your belief system, this can be heaven, reincarnation, or some kind of simulated reality, like Eloise Hawking for herself and her son.


Mind you, this is a Buddhist interpretation (specifically, the Tibetan variety); Buddhism is actually a highly nuanced collection of different belief systems, some of whose beliefs are markedly different from other forms of Buddhism.


But such an interpretation seems to fit with similar eastern themes throughout the show (Dharma, 108, etc.). And it also seems to make sense of the essentially pluralistic themes that dominated the end of the show.


But how accurate is this? That is, can all religions be satisfied with such a conclusion?




The problem is that the religions depicted in the stained glass window have remarkably different perspectives on the life-after-death question. Before I go further, I do want to emphasize that what I’m about to say reflects the traditional teachings of these religions; I am well aware that not everyone who identifies themselves with these systems adheres completely to traditional doctrine.


The Tibetan Buddhist explanation aside, most Eastern religions do not believe in an afterlife in any traditional sense. The cycle of Karma/Samsara (Karma and reincarnation) terminates ultimately in Moksha or Nirvana, a state of peace whose descriptions often vacillate between non-existence and some, non-descript union with “the divine.” A “real” existence after death goes against the fundamental beliefs that reality is an illusion, a central tenet to most forms of eastern pantheism.


But the theistic forms might be a bit closer to the mark, right? Islam, Judaism and Christianity all believe in a god in some form or another.


But Islam’s conception of the afterlife is a bit less flowery. First, no one can really be certain of their place in heaven. And that’s if you’re a man. According to the Hadith, 99% of women go to Hell (Bukhari 2:28, Kanz al-ummal 22:10). Sounds like Kate, Juliet and the rest were among the lucky 1%.


Judaism has historically been varied. All believe in a “world to come” (Olam ha-ba) but differ radically on just how literally they can interpret the concepts of resurrection. Many contemporary Jews think that speculation on the nature of resurrection and the afterlife is far too presumptuous, presumptions that Christians are accused of making.


And of course, Christianity. Protestant Christianity emphasizes the immediacy of the afterlife: “absent from the body…present with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). Which stands against Roman Catholic conceptions of purgatory, a concept rejected by protestants because (a) it is absent from traditional Biblical interpretation and (b) because Christ’s atoning sacrifice makes such punishment unnecessary.


Chris Seay also observes:


Despite its strong spiritual themes—many of them quite biblical—Lost ultimately embraces many religions. Without Jesus as Messiah, we are left with a do-it-yourself path to salvation, and no matter how many religions statues, symbols, and icons you pile upon one another— as Lost did at the church in the finale’s closing moments—it lacks true hope and any inkling of radical grace. The joy of heaven will not be the presence of friends and family, it will be the beauty of living in the presence of Jesus the Liberating King.




But what’s it matter, anyway? Aren’t all religions basically the same?


Anthony M. Stevens, whose article we mentioned above, suggests that “the Catholic Church…sees Catholicism as the fulfillment of different religions.” (not quite true, but that’s another post for another day)


Steve Turner writes (satirically, if that’s not obvious) in a poem called “The Modern Thinker’s Creed:”


We believe that all religions are basically the same-at least the one that we read was. They all believe in love and goodness. They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.


Trivial matters right? And, if you read above, then you must admit that the world’s religions have markedly different views on the afterlife. LOST can assemble these religious symbols only at the cost of the uniqueness of each faith system.


David L. Edwards writes that to claim that “religions ‘teach the same thing’ is to insult them profoundly by claiming that all they really teach is a view of life so vague that practically any interpretation of it by creed, code or cult is equally valid.” (David L. Edwards, The Future of Christianity, p. 277)




“I don’t need no one to tell me about heaven,” intones the lead singer of Live. “I look at my daughter, and I believe.” Such lyrics reflect today’s tendency to find truth through self-discovery rather than revelation.

Which is why such discussions about a TV show actually do matter, as people are surprisingly apt to allow film and media to shape their spiritual beliefs (recall that Cilian Murphy became an atheist after working on the movie Sunshine).




Still, we can conclude with a ray of hope. As mentioned in the previous posts, we can at least admit that American’s proclivity for spirituality also demonstrates a desire for something more: Home. “If I have a desire that nothing on earth can satisfy,” writes C.S. Lewis, “it must be that I was made for another world.”


In the end, for many who truly feel “lost,” Christianity offers a unique hope, far more electrifying and beautiful than the glowing lights of a finale, and a hope offered freely to those who would shift their burdens to One who continually welcomes us home.

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Coexist: Day of Prayer Ruled “Unconstitutional”

Coexist,” the bumper sticker reads. At face value, such a message is a very positive one – despite the fundamental differences between religious faiths, they can nonetheless exist together without threat of violence.

Problems come in when the message of “coexist” becomes predicated on a lack of difference among religious groups, and the implied command toward the privatization of religious beliefs.

We are speaking, of course, of “pluralism,” the state wherein a diverse group of religious belief are given freedom to express these differences, so long as these expressions do not threaten the safety of others. But, as author Leslie Newbigin points out, pluralism can be descriptive (i.e., merely describing the diversity of culture) as well as prescriptive (insisting that we celebrate all religions as being equal). In the latter case, “tolerance” means more than “putting up with” the differences of others – it means to celebrate all differences as having equal validity.

And so it comes as no surprise that a recent ruling declared the National Day of Prayer “unconstitutional.” Among the many reasons cited is the “Establishment Clause,” which – thankfully – prevents the nationalization of any particular religion.

Yes, while Franklin Graham’s earlier comments regarding Muslims received much attention, the faith he represents is considered quite equally objectionable. The Huffington Post makes clear that “Even if Graham had never uttered a single disparaging word against the religion of Islam, his invitation would still have been in violation of several Department of Defense regulations.” The article goes on to cite precedent for disallowing “preferential treatment” of any religious entity.

But where the rubber and road fully meet is on two key issues that are highly representative of our culture: (1) Pluralism and (2) Privatization (and from here on, I will be using the term “pluralism” in its prescriptive sense for the sake of simplicity).

1. Pluralism: All religions are the same.

A column in USA Today drives home this point, referring to the “The National Day of Prayer (to-Jesus-or-get-your-own-show) Task Force.” The views of the Christian leaders organizing this event are criticized for not making “room under this salvation umbrella for Muslims, Jews, and other non-Christians — including those wearing the uniform for the USA.”

Please note the language used here: it is not that other faiths have an equal right to representation (which would fall under descriptive pluralism) but that they have an equal claim to salvation (prescriptive pluralism).

2. Privatization: Religion is entirely private.

When the court made the ruling regarding the National Day of Prayer, it cited the (assumed) personal nature of faith. Judge Crabb was reported as saying that the “sole purpose [of the National Day of Prayer] is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that services no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to the individual conscience.”

Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gayor are co-presidents of a watchdog group, who make their views quite clear: “Whether to pray, whether to believe in a god who answers prayer, is an intensely precious and personal decision protected under our First Amendment as a paramount matter of conscience.”


The problem with this claim is simple: superficial similarities between religions often mask fundamental differences. While many religions share similar moral values, they differ quite radically on issues such as the nature of God, the basis for morality, man’s purpose, destiny, the problem of suffering and the means of salvation.

Therefore, you cannot simultaneously affirm the value of “diversity” and claim that all religions are equally valid, for in doing so you minimize the very differences that create diversity in the first place. Pluralism – in its prescriptive form – provides the illusory comfort of the moral high ground, all the while concealing the Stalinizing tendency to homogenize conviction and minimize conversation.

In a recent article, Steven Prothero of Boston University writes of the danger of this mindset (and I’d encourage you to read the full article):

This naive theological groupthink — call it Godthink — is motivated in part by a laudable rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or nirvana or paradise. For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves — practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, and purveyors of fanciful myths. This way of seeing has given us religious violence from the Crusades and the Holocaust to Rwanda and Nigeria. In response to such violence, the 18th- century Age of Enlightenment popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it.

I understand what these people are doing. They are not describing the world but reimagining it. They are hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. In the face of religious bigotry and bloodshed, past and present, we cannot help but be drawn to such hope, and such vision. Yet we must not mistake either for clear-eyed analysis.

When it comes to safeguarding the world from the evils of religion, including violence by proxy from the hand of God, the claim that all religions are one is no more effective than the claim that all religions are poison. As the New Atheists (another species of religious lumpers) observe, we live in a world where religion seems as likely to detonate a bomb as to defuse one. So while we need idealism, we need realism even more. We need to understand religious people as they are — not just at their best but also their worst. We need to look at not only their awe-inspiring architecture and gentle mystics but also their bigots and suicide bombers.


Faith is expected to be excluded from public life.

The popular American Express slogan warns us: “Don’t leave home without it.” But with regards to faith, privatization exclaims just the opposite: leave your faith at home, for it has no place in the public workplace. For further evidence, you have only to look at a current law in Virgina banning police officers from mentioning “Jesus” in public prayers (from an article sent to me by a good friend). Note that prayer is allowed, but it must be a prayer that does not exclude anyone. Not only does this fall into the danger of pluralism, but it forces officers to privatize the distinctives of their beliefs.

But as Christians, we know that faith can never be private. We have the resurrection to thank for that. The claim that Jesus literally, historically rose from the dead cannot be dismissed as a merely “personal” or “religious” question. It is a claim that must be carefully examined by all responsible students of history.

In his recent book, Knowing Christ Today, Dallas Willard writes:

Can we know that Christ arose from the dead? Yes, if we will but “do the math.” That he arose is the only plausible explanation for what happened after his death and what still exists today as a consequence. The established mental habit of many people today is to say with no thought, no hesitation, that he did not arise. For one thing, to many people this is a “religious” question, and therefore it automatically falls outside the domain of facts and knowledge. …Many such people are simply bored with a question they take to be irrelevant to real life anyway and don’t want to be bothered with it. Also, allowing that it might be known that Christ arose is to concede that it actually happened, and that puts an entirely different light on individual life and human destiny….Suddenly reality is no longer safely secular. The apostle Paul’s statement to the Athenians – that God “has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31) – would then be frighteningly plausible….It looks as of we are all going to be held responsible to God for what we do and who we have become.

The resurrection prevents us from dismissing faith as being based on “private” or “sentimental” reasons.


In answering this question, let’s first affirm the fact that we live in a diverse world of many differing spiritualities. Let’s not make the pluralistic error of homogenizing them, but let’s also not make the error of demonizing differing faiths. The Christian proclamation, I would argue, is of such attractive character that it need not be spread through coercive means, nor would such means harmonize with the very character of the message itself. To that end, we may rightly tolerate those of other faiths, and though we certainly cannot celebrate their beliefs we may find common ground on which to build a bridge to the risen Savior.

And let’s also recognize the culture we live in, where both pluralism and privatization have – quite apparently – become socially accepted. Let’s not be indifferent to these trends, but let’s not be alarmed or embittered by them either.

Jim Daly of Focus on the Family offers such wisdom on this in a recent article in Newsweek:

“Judge Crabb’s ruling is now rightly under appeal. I am optimistic. But for perspective regarding the way forward, believers might look to a wonderful lesson in the New Testament’s Book of Acts. There, in Chapter 4, we read of two men, Peter and John, who were arrested and imprisoned for talking openly about Jesus. They were later released. When they returned to their people and explained their plight, their group did a curious and counter-cultural thing. They didn’t gripe or grumble; they prayed for their captives and asked for courage to keep the faith and stay on message…Now is the time for believers to be bold but humble, courageous but compassionate.”

Wisely said. I don’t know that the trends I’ve mentioned will be reversed in my lifetime, but I can certainly affirm the Christian duty to wisely and courageously navigate this culture. Dallas Willard writes:

[T]he world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians and religious leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes – a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger to the Christian church today is that of pitching its message too low. (Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines)

The loss of a “National Day of Prayer” should certainly not dissuade us from lovingly and courageously proclaiming God’s truth in love (many are choosing to observe the day anyway), nor can they prevent Christians from taking the time for prayer. The Christian faith needs no representation from the State to be effective – in Church history the times of greatest persecution also became the times of greatest growth.

Our greatest prayer, then, should be for open doors for the gospel (Colossians 4:3) so that the love of Christ can be shared in our communities.  Despite the two trends we’ve addressed, our culture is more open to spiritual conversations than ever before.  Let’s make sure we pray for the chance to have them.

Comments are welcome. Please read the comment guidelines before posting.

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Christianity and Religious Diversity Part 7: Recommended Reading

As I promised yesterday, today’s post is an annotated list of resources to better acquaint you with the subjects of pluralism and the world’s religions.


The Reason for God, Tim Keller. Highly recommended for this issue and countless others. Keller lucidly addresses this issue in the opening chapter. I have a pastor friend who told me of an acquaintance who loves the book so much that he buys it by the case – and gives copies away to strangers.



Jesus Among Other Gods, Ravi Zacharias. This book is extremely popular and easy to read. Zacharias argues intelligently and passionately for the supremacy of Christ over the competing worldviews present in today’s culture.




Encountering Religious Pluralism, Harold Netland. This book is considerably more exhuastive, but provides the most comprehensive analysis and response to the current climate of religious pluralism, especially how it impacts our expressions of faith and our mission to the outside world.


Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions? Gerald R. McDermott. According to the author, the answer to the titular question is “yes.” McDermott focuses on points of contact between Christianity and world religions. While I disagree with some of his method (the standards for comparison do not always seem consistent, and he is not always clear on the issue of scripture), the book is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in religious dialogue.


The Baker Pocket Guide to World Religions, Gerald R. McDermott. Everyone should own this. It is a very concise (less than 200 pages), easy-to-use book full of charts, useful quotes and other information on world religions. Hear about Buddhism on the news? Want to know what they believe? In five minutes, you have a clear (though not exhaustive) picture of their religious beliefs.


The World’s Religions, Huston Smith. Smith is widely known for his ability to distill religious truth for the masses. This book is an excellent single volume work on the world’s religions. Written from a secular perspective.




Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions, Winfried Corduan. This work is considerably more advanced and detailed, but provides a valuable resource for those needing still more information regarding a specific faith system.




A World Religions Reader, Ian S. Markham. This is a very useful resource to have, as it takes selected texts from the various religions and organizes them in one volume so that you can easily learn about other faiths from the primary source.

Christianity and Religious Diversity Part 6: Building Bridges

In yesterday’s post we encountered the need for Christians to do a better job of bridge-building with those of other faiths.

I retain the use of the term “bridge-building,” if for no other reason than the fact that such conversations are not to be seen merely as a time of sharing, but also can be a time for pointing that person to Jesus. The key, then, is not only to talk with them, but to help them understand the Christian faith on their terms, not merely ours.

To that end I suggest that there is no greater method than simply asking what they believe. Too often Christians (usually a 20-something white guy who has read one too many Norm Geisler books) try and “target” people rather than actively listen to what they have to say.

But the task is often daunting.


This is the question, though it is also composed of many smaller, related questions:

  1. Why do you believe what you believe? This question addresses the realm of both personal experience as well as the ultimate source of authority. Many are quick to relate a personal story (“the way I was raised,” “a decision I made,” etc.), though it is equally important to discover their source of authority (the Bible, Qur’an, Talmud, Gita, Upanishads, etc.).
  2. What is God? This is a challenging question, but fundamental to all other questions. Religions differ wiiiiidely on how they view God. Is He the Creator? Judge? Father?
  3. What is man’s problem? No religion would say that “everything’s fine.” But they differ quite widely on why things are the way they are. Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism wrap things up in the karma-samsara cycle: man’s problems are brought on by bad karma.
  4. What is the solution? Given the problem, how can it be solved? This is another point where religions differ remarkably. Most often religions offer salvation through the strict adherence of a series of rules and rituals. Christianity – despite its many historical perversions – has always emphasized salvation by grace alone.


The next task is to share your faith in such a way that it touches on these fundamental categories. The idea is to communicate your faith in a way that it addresses the answers given to these above questions.


As an example, let’s look at Daoism.

Daoism is among China’s most prominent philosophies and religions. However, Daoism has not remained isolated to the East. The pluralistic climate of the United States has brought Daoism to American cities and neighborhoods, often popularized in the form of mass media and entertainment (e.g., The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

Daoism can be categorized in two distinct schools of thought: Religious Daoism and philosophical Daoism. Religious Daoism and philosophical Daoism are worlds apart in terms of their philosophy and ideology. The following is a discussion of each, with emphasis on the basic questions of worldview.

Compared to its philosophical counterpart, religious Daoism is far more complex. The following is an evaluation of the broad scope of beliefs within religious Daoism.

(1) What is source of authority?

The Dao de Jing holds special significance for all Daoists, though religious Daoism places special emphasis on immortality, a subject not addressed in the Dao de Jing. Thus, the source of authority for religious Daoists is usually the teachings of a particular school of thought or teacher, of which there are many.

To that end, religious Daoism is unique in that rather than learning a method of salvation from an ancient text, the teachings were created (often, as shall be mentioned shortly, through trial and error) to describe man’s solution of immortality.

It should be mentioned that religious Daoism elevates Lao Zi to the status of a god. Lao Zi, after death, became elevated to the status of one of the members of the Daoist “trinity.”

(2) What is God?

Immortality is the ultimate focus of religious Daoism. So, beginning in the second century A.D., Daoism took on a strongly religious character. Daoism holds that first the universal, impersonal Dao, which breathed out its qi (or ch’i) which in turn gave birth to the dualistic natures of yin and yang.

Somehow this process also gave birth to a pantheon of gods and mythic heroes. These lesser gods exist under a supreme trinity of the unnamed supreme deity, Lord Dao and Lord Lai. The supreme deity represents the Dao, while Lord Dao is a personified form of the Dao, and Lord Lau is Lao Zi in his godlike state.

Therefore the trinity has not eternally existed, but rather has been created during human history. Additionally, theses ideas emerged to satisfy the human desire for immortality. This stands in sharp contrast to the eternally existing Trinity, who exists to be worshipped and glorified by man.

(3) What is man’s problem?

Man’s chief problem is mortality. Interestingly, religious Daoism makes room for the concept of sin. Though the exact teaching varies according to religious school, the basic premise is that man’s sinfulness mars his Chi, preventing him from achieving immortality.

(4) What is the solution?

One would be hard pressed to find a definitive path to immortality within the teachings of religious Daoism. Throughout the history of religious Daoism, there has been a variety of methods purported to lead to immortality. These methods may include alchemy and chemical potions believed to lead man to immortality, good deeds, meditation, prayer and the control of one’s outward conduct.

Religious Daoism also concerns itself with the idea of balance and harmony of opposites, visually represented in the Chinese symbol of the Yin Yang. The Dao can be thus viewed as a wholeness of the balance between opposites, light/dark, summer/winter, male/female, etc. One writer describes the harmony in these terms:

It is close at hand, stands indeed at our very side; yet is intangible, a thing that by reaching for cannot be got. Remote it seems as the furthest limit of the Infinite. Yet it is not far off; everyday we use its power. For the Way of the Vital Spirit fills our whole frames, yet man cannot keep track of it. It goes, yet has not departed. It comes, yet is not here. It is muted, makes no note that can be heard, yet of a sudden we find that it is there in the mind. It is dim and dark, showing no outward form, yet in a great stream it flowed into us at our birth. (Quoted by Arthur Waley, The Way and Its Power)

The strange and reflexive nature of this philosophy is what makes it often difficult for western minds to grasp, and at the same time, so attractive to those seeking alternative forms of spirituality. Within religious Daoism, a variety of methods are employed to bring one’s qi into balance and achieve immortality.

The relative success or failure of these methods (usually couched in Chinese folklore) led to the development of a variety of different “schools” that held to different teachings. The earliest school was the Chang Family’s school, which began in the second century A.D. This school believed that through right relations with evil spirits (the leader emphasized the use of charms to ward off demons) and by giving portions of rice to religious leaders, repenting of their sins and lived righteously they might be forgiven of their sins. In the afterlife, one would enter the underworld and, after a period of time, if one’s deeds were sufficient, would be released to the Mystical Garden, the Daoist version of Heaven. And, much like purgatory of Roman Catholicism, the family of the deceased could pray for the soul to be released.

This was the earliest and most clearly defined school of religious Daoism, but far from the only school. Other schools reflected the diversity and syncretism that characterize the mystical religion of Daoism.

For example, the interior Gods hygiene school held to the belief that by controlling one’s body (diet, sexual restrictions, ingesting potions, etc), immortality could be achieved on earth. Another school, the School of Pure Conversion held that immortality could be achieved by holding philosophical discussion, writing poetry and engaging in non-normative social behavior.


  1. Need for personal God: Religious Daoists can be affirmed for their desire to look for a personal god. In Acts 17 Paul speaks of men who would “search for God…though He is not far from each of us (Acts 17:27).” Like Paul in Acts 17, we may affirm the “religious” character of Daoism, all the while directing them from the “unknown gods” of the Daoist trinity to the Christian God.
  2. Salvation and Grace: In contrast to the wu-wei of Philisophical Daoism, religious Daoists employ a variety of (often bizarre) means of achieving immortality and salvation. Christians are once again uniquely poised to advocate the grace of God by virtue of Christ Jesus. Daoists are constantly trying to cross the bridge of immortality to find God. But within Christianity it is God who reconciles man to Himself through the atoning work of the Savior (2 Cor 5:18-21).
  3. Christ and Lord Dao: Religious Daoism advocates a trinity wherein Lord Dao is the embodiment of the Dao. In Christianity, Jesus is something similar in that He is the incarnation of the living God. In Colossians, Paul speaks of Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, 16 for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him– all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers– all things were created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him. 18 He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things (Colossians 1:15-18).”

Daoists might be reached in sharing the news that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh. Rather than man achieving the status of a god (as was the case for Lord Lau), God condescended to become man so that in this humble state He might redeem a fallen creation and reconcile them to the Creator.


This is only an example. The people in your life may differ widely from such generalizations.

Note that it takes time. Learning another faith is a matter of discipline. Tomorrow I will share some resources that will provide a better understanding of world religions.

Christianity and Religious Diversity Part 5: Christianity’s Exclusive Claim

Thanks for reading. If you are just joining this discussion, please follow the earlier posts:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

It may come as no surprise that I will argue that Christianity is an exclusive faith system, and here I use the term “exclusive” in the sense I alluded to in Part 2: referring to a faith system that excludes non-adherents from salvation.

I have never sought to openly defend Brit Hume, although I have sought to defend against the faulty reasoning of his objectors.

The question still stands as to how to “speak the truth in love” to a world that is such a swirling mix of faiths and cultures.


Jesus tells His disciples that “no one comes to the Father” except through faith in Him (cf. Jn 14:6). In the Book of Acts, the disciples claim that “there is no other name…by which [man] may be saved” (Acts 4:10-12). At the same time, God is “not willing that any shall perish” (2 Peter 3:9).

As I search scripture I find two things to be true with regard to this subject:

  1. there is only one way to God
  2. God’s desire is for humanity to know Him

The accusation often leveled at Christians is that they are actively trying to exclude people of other faiths and cultures. But this is simply not true. I will make two additional points:

  1. Christians do not say that Jesus is the only way to God. Jesus said this. We merely affirm His statements.
  2. Exclusion is purely on the basis of unbelief. Never on the basis of cultural difference.

Thus, the real issue is the issue of unbelief. My concern is not that people not follow Islam or that they not be a Hindu. My concern is that they come to knowledge of Jesus. Dallas Willard makes this point when discussing what he refers to as “sin management:”

“When I go to New York City, I do not have to think about not going to London or Atlanta. People do not meet me at the airport or station and exclaim over what a great thing I did in not going somewhere else. I took the steps to go to New York City, and that took care of everything. Likewise, when I treasure those around me and see them as God’s creatures designed for His eternal purposes, I do not make an additional point of not hating them or calling them twerps or fools. Not doing those things is simply a part of the package. ‘He that loves has fulfilled the law,’ Paul said. Really. On the other hand, not going to London or Atlanta is a poor plan for going to New York. And not being wrongly angry and so on is a poor plan for treating people with love. It will not work.” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy)



People occasionally will ask me why I am a Christian. I offer three reasons:

  1. Christianity is an intellectually viable worldview. By this I refer most specifically to the historical reality of the resurrection, apart from which our faith, as Paul said, is devoid of meaning. Apart from the resurrection of Christ, I can find no satisfying answer for the validity of the Christian worldview over another.
  2. Christianity is an intellectually satisfying worldview. I affirm the words of C.S. Lewis: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Christianity is not only intellectually viable; it is satisfying. Christianity offers a means of understanding and interpreting the world that other worldviews do not.
  3. The Christian experience. While I do not wish to appeal too greatly to experience, which can prove deceptive, no defense of Christianity could ever be complete without affirming the transformative power of the gospel itself, a transformation seen in the lives of countless men and women throughout history, and a transformation that has been personally experienced in my own life as well.


In our pluralistic world, a firm stand for our faith need not occur at the expense of religious tolerance. True, we are not called to accept or affirm the beliefs of rival faiths, but we are called to reach “all nations,” panta ta ethne, all people groups with the gospel.

And in so doing we affirm that only Christianity can affirm diversity. Pluralism takes a Stalinist approach in attempting to normalize and control religious belief. Pluralism, ultimately, is a form of bigotry in its neglect of cultural and religious diversity.

Christianity, by contrast, takes seriously the diversity of religious differences, mainly because throughout history it has been the task of apologetics to answer these differences. Christianity affirms diversity because there has never been a concerted effort to equivocate all religions.

Further, only Christianity has a unique category for understanding the coexistence of unity and diversity, for only Christianity embraces a God who Himself exists in a state of unity (there is one God….) and diversity (…eternally existing as three persons). The Trinity gives us a better category than any other system for understanding diversity.


I realize that this is a larger subject than I am prepared to address in a blog post, but I will exhort all of you to pursue a greater understanding of the world’s religions (I will post some resources on this later).

In our pluralistic world, we must gain an understanding of what our neighbors and coworkers believe in order to build bridges with them.

Rather than say more, as I had originally intended, I will leave you on that subject until tomorrow’s post, in which I may provide an example of such bridge-building.

So stay tuned.