Sermons, Articles, and Quotations on Religious Pluralism

These quotes,articles, and sermons can give you inspiration for preaching and leading worship on Pluralism Sunday.


Philosopher/theologian John Hick: Is Christianity the only true religion, or one among others?
Adam Walker Cleaveland’s blog site re: pluralism – with posts from many contributors.

Rex Hunt, retired Uniting Church of Australia pastor, offers sermons/liturgies on pluralism here.

Ian Lawton is pastor of Christ Community Church in Spring Lake, MI. Here are a few of his sermons with an interfaith, pluralistic theme:
Living Buddha, Living Christ
Jesus Through the Eyes of Rumi, a Sufi Mystic
Hinduism and Christianity: A Fine Balance

Jim Burklo is a United Church of Christ pastor and is the author of BIRDLIKE AND BARNLESS and OPEN CHRISTIANITY (available at the “store” at The Center for Progressive Christianity.– He’s the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California:
Jesus and Krishna
Jesus and Mohammed

Quotations From Religious Leaders Regarding Christian Pluralism

“The single largest difference between fundamentalist Christians and liberal ones is not who they think Jesus is, or how they read the Bible, and certainly is not their stance on homosexuality or abortion. While there are large differences between fundamentalists and liberals in these respects, and all of them are connected, the greatest difference by far has to do with their understandings of other faiths. If you take away the notion that Jesus is the ONLY way to God, you undermine ninety percent of the power of fundamentalism. With it, you take away a sizeable portion of fundamentalism’s power to influence moderate Christians, a number of whom quietly ride the elephant of exclusivity within the Christian faith.”

Dr Eric Elnes, pastor of Countryside Community UCC in Omaha, Nebraska

“Through the years I have found my own faith not threatened, but broadened and deepened by the study of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Sikh traditions of faith. And I have found that only as a Christian pluralist could I be faithful to the mystery and the presence of the one I call God. Being a Christian pluralist means daring to encounter people of very different faith traditions and defining my faith not by its borders, but by its roots.”

Dr. Diana Eck, founder of the Pluralism Project at Harvard (in her book, “A New Religious America”, p 23)

“As a Christian, there was a time when I thought Christianity was the only way – the only true religion. It was part of the inherited belief of my childhood. There came a time when this belief crumbled, and all religions looked like human inventions. The disappearance of my belief in the uniqueness of Christianity was accompanied by a skepticism about religions in general. In more recent years, my appreciation of religious pluralism – my acquaintance with a number of the world’s religions, and my studies of religious experience across cultures – has reversed that skepticism. The parallels among the religions (especially at the level of experience and teaching about “the way”, though not very much at the level of doctrine) suggest that there is something here worth taking seriously.”

Marcus Borg (in his preface to “Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings”, pg 11.)

“There is no outward distinction, including between Christians and non-Christians, that ultimately separates us from each other in Spirit.”

Rev. Stephen Glauz-Todrank (in his book “Transforming Christianity” p 72)

“There is a big difference between respectful politeness and an open-hearted, open-minded approach to people of other religious beliefs. There is a profound contradiction in claiming to have faith in a God who is greater than our ability to fully comprehend, and at the same time claiming that traditional Christianity is the only true faith in that God… We are called to worship God, not Christianity. What is divine is our encounter with God, something that is available to Christians and non-Christians alike.”

Rev. Jim Burklo, coordinator, Pluralism Sunday (in his book, “Open Christianity”, p 200)

“…the notion that Christianity provides the only way of salvation and all other religions are of no use .. excludes dialogue and fosters religious intolerance and discrimination. It does not help.”

Thich Nhat Hanh (in his book “Living Buddha, Living Christ”, p 193)

Sermon by Hugh Stephenson, pastor, Peace United Methodist Church, Shoreview, MN, 3-30-08:

Many, perhaps most, churches claim to have answers to the basic questions of human living. Progressive churches claim to ask the right questions. Beyond that, progressive churches see as their function to question the answers commonly given. Progressive Christians come together in community to help one another live with the questions.

Here are two of the more confrontational questions I hear: (1) Do we have to believe that Jesus is God in order to believe that Jesus is worth following? (2) Do we have to believe that Jesus is the only way to God in order to truly follow Jesus?

My guess is that many people think those questions but most of us would feel like we would be shamed and shunned for asking them in church. In progressive churches questions like that are the glue that holds the people together in a unique community.

Progressive churches don’t claim that our religion is superior to others. Rather, we believe we get closer to God and increase immeasurably our compassion by understanding more about other religions. Perhaps we understand our own traditions best when we understand more about the traditions of others with whom we share the planet earth.

Progressive churches aren’t perfect. What we do best in asking our questions is to deconstruct Christianity as most people have learned it and know it. We know all the problems with the easy answers so often heard among Christians but often have no real answers of our own. I suppose our only real answer is that it is better to live with the questions than to settle for answers that will misguide us and do harm to others.

It is not that progressive Christians enjoy belittling others. Rather we have concluded that is better to live with the mystery of divine energy in our midst than it is to claim to have bottled it for easy consumption. When we bottle it and sell it like snake oil, we can do tremendous harm.

Consider the damage done by the bottling of the Bible as a rule book. This is done under the notion that the words of the Bible are without error and every word is inspired and written just as God intended. Even the punctuation marks are dictated by God. Never mind all the questions about which words from which text from which ancient manuscript in which language, all of which are the products of human hands. There is also the bigger question of claiming that the Divine resides in any human creation. An idolatry results from this. Bibliolatry is the name when we claim God resides between the covers of our sacred book. I believe we are inspired by the content of the Bible but each word and verse is a very human and fallible creation.

Claiming that each verse is intended to write a rule for us is precisely what Jesus quarreled about with the Pharisees. Further, these rules have been and are being used to harm good people. When we claim to know all the rules and all the answers, we have missed the mark. Missing the mark is the literal meaning of the word sin.

There is a tough question for progressive churches. Can a community of Jesus followers continue to exist if it does not believe that it alone holds the magic elixir of life that gains us entrance into the heavenly kingdom? What other purpose do we have? For this we have an answer. We exist to give comfort, strength, encouragement and direction to fellow pilgrims as we make progress in our understanding of the divine mystery in our world and seek to align ourselves daily through holy living with the forces of good in our universe.

“JESUS:  THE WAY THAT IS OPEN TO OTHER WAYS”

Sermon by Dr. Paul Knitter, Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary, New York City

(Preached at First Presbyterian Church, New Canaan, CT  — June 15, 2008)

Readings:   I John 4:16-21; John 14: 5-10.

I have the honor of being the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary.  What Union wants me to do in that position is embodied, actually, in the title of my sermon for today: “Jesus as the Way that is open to other Ways.”
To explain that, I think it’s best for me to speak personally, about my own faith journey.  I hope –  I suspect –  that it may mirror aspects of the journey many of you are on.

THE ONE WAY POINTS TO OTHER WAYS … PARTICULARITY REVEALS UNIVERSALITY

I am one of those Christians whose faith has been uncomfortably challenged by a reality that has been with us since the dawning of humanity but has become even clearer and more pressing over the last century: that there are many ways to be religious.  There are many religions; there always have been; and, despite two millennia of Christian missionary work, it sure seems like there always will be.   The manyness, the diversity, of religions is here to stay.
This is the question that has perplexed and stimulated my religious life as a Christian and my academic life as a theologian: how to make sense of so many other religions and (perhaps even more difficult!)  how to make sense of my Christian faith in the light of these other religions.
I found that I was not satisfied with the usual answers that I had been given:  Either that the other religions are of no value whatsoever and are meant to be replaced by Christianity (this is the answer I was given in my Catholic catechism back in Chicago in the 40s and 50s); or that the religions are of great value but that such value is there to prepare them for conversion to and fulfillment in Christianity (this was the answer that I heard from the Second Vatican Council when I was studying in Rome in the 60s).
In light of my study of other religions, and especially in light of my friendships with Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews, I have not been able to believe either of those Christian positions – that Christianity was meant to either replace or absorb all the other religions of the world.
And in my teaching and in my speaking at Catholic and Protestant churches, I found that many, many of my fellow Christians were wrestling with the same questions.
So new questions lead to new discoveries – that, according to Paul Tillich, is the way theology —  really Christian life – unfolds: it’s a constant facing of new questions that reveal new opportunities for new answers, new discoveries in the Bible and tradition.
I can capture what I discovered – though there is no time to describe the theological journey toward that discovery – in the beautiful statement of John Cobb:  Jesus is the way that is open to other ways. Jesus is not the way that excludes, overpowers, demeans other ways; rather he is the way that opens us to, connects us with, calls us to relate to other ways in a process that can best be described as “dialogue.”
This, I believe, is the real meaning of today’s reading from John’s Gospel – a passage that is so often used – better, misused – to exclude others.  When Jesus pronounces one of those “I am” statements that are scattered all over John’s gospel, when he announces that “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” he is warning us that to understand him properly, we have to see him as part of a bigger picture. His “I”, his “ego,” represents, or it embodies, the larger reality of what he calls the Father – the Way, the Truth, the Life of the Father.
This is why he goes on to answer Philip’s request, “Show us the Father” with the rather curt reply, “Hey, dummy, after all this time with me, don’t you realize that when you see me, you see the Father. When you know me, you know the Father.”  (We might say, especially on Father’s Day, that Jesus saw himself as Daddy’s boy.)
Therefore, when he says that “no one comes to the Father except through me, the “me” is not the individual “ego” of Jesus but the larger truth, way, and life that are represented in him.  You might say that all of Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life, but not that all of the Way the Truth and the Life is Jesus. The Truth, like the Father, is embodied in Jesus, but it is greater than Jesus. “The Father (i.e. the Way, Truth, and Life) is greater than I,” Jesus reminds us.
So, Jesus is the way that must learn about other ways; the truth that must engage other truths; the life that must be lived with other lives.  Only by following Jesus as this kind of way, this kind of truth, this kind of life, can we come to the Father.
As Paul Tillich puts it:  The particularity of Jesus’ life and message points to the universality of God’s love and presence. We Christians believe that God is defined by Jesus; but that does not mean, it cannot mean, that God is confined by Jesus.  If we stress the particularity of Jesus and forget the universality of God, we make Jesus into an idol.
The Jesus-way can be, and needs to be, deepened through other ways. … Let me give you an example of how this has happened for me. For me, the way of Jesus has opened me up to the way of Gautama the Buddha.

THE WAY OF JESUS AND THE WAY OF BUDDHA
In my dialogue with different religions, Buddhism has been the religion that has most attracted, bewildered, challenged, and therefore enriched me. It has enabled me to understand, and therefore to live, my Christian faith in two ways:  On the one hand, it has deepened and expanded my Christian beliefs; but on the other, it has also clarified and, if I may dare say, corrected my Christian beliefs.  Buddhism has helped me, I think I can say, to see more clearly, or to remove the misunderstandings about, what the message of the Gospel can mean for us today.
Very briefly, and inadequately, let me give you two examples of how this has happened.  They both have to do with difficulties I have faced in imaging, talking about, and experiencing the Reality that we Christians call God.

God: the Holy Mystery beyond All Words.
Buddhism, as you know, does not talk about God. But to therefore call it an atheistic religion, as some Westerners have, is to grossly misunderstand it. It doesn’t explicitly deny God.  It just doesn’t want to talk about God.  To talk about God, for Buddhist, creates more problems than it solves. Why?
The Reality that Buddha experienced in his Enlightenment was something, he realized, that could never be put into words; never be put into ideas, and certainly not into images that made this reality into an object or a person.  And yet, Buddha did speak about what he experienced.  But he always prefaced everything he said with the warning that his words were meant to be means to and end; never the end in itself. The end was the experience of Enlightenment. In the well-known Zen saying (which Pastor Wilburn uses as the title for one of his sermons in his wonderful collection, The God I Don’t Believe In): all our words, all our images, are fingers pointing to the moon.  Don’t make them the moon itself.
This insight of Buddha has helped me tremendously.  It’s reminded me and made even more real for me what Tillich always insisted on: all our language, all our words, about God are symbols, even the word “God” itself. And as my colleague at Union, Roger Haight, S.J. reminds us, even Jesus is a Symbol of God.  For us, he’s the perfect symbol of God. That’s why we say he is divine.
Therefore, when we use words for God, we are to take them not as pictures of God, but as pointers – fingers pointing to the moon.   That means we are to take these words seriously, but not literally.  That applies to words like “Father” or words like “you.”  God is not literally a Father or literally a you.
When I realized that, it both freed me from having to take language about God literally and challenged me to ask what that language really means for my experience – which brings me to the second way in which Buddhism has helped me understand the God I do believe in.

God: The Connecting Presence
What, then, is the reality we can experience through and behind such words  as God, Father, Lord, you?
While Buddha did not talk about God, or an almighty Being, he did talk a lot about, in the Sanskrit, pratitya-samutpada, which is awkwardly translated as dependent origination.  What he realized in his Enlightenment was that nothing exists as a being, an entity, unto itself.  Everything comes to be, and continues to be, through relationships with other beings, or better, other always-relating beings.  Or as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it more clearly and engaging: we all live and move and have our being within a marvelous process of Interbeing.
For me, this a much more meaningful and helpful finger by which I can point to, and feel, the Mystery we call God, or the Mystery we call Father (or Mother):  The Divine is this energy of Interbeing, this loving activity that requires us, and enables us, to connect with others and with the physical world around us.  It’s the energy, the Presence, we feel when we are connected with others, when we love and are loved, when we open ourselves and when we give of ourselves.
And this, from a Buddhist perspective, is exactly what our first reading from John’s first letter is telling us. It’s the only “definition” of God we have in the New Testament: “God is love.”  Love is an interconnecting energy.  Love is inter-being.  When we love we know God, we feel God, we are God.        And I realized that we Christians and Jews (Muslims, too) already have a finger, a symbol that points to such an experience of the Divine:  Spirit. God as Spirit is our way of pointing to God as Interbeing.  But it has been the Buddhist image of Interbeing that enabled me to clarify, to deepen, perhaps to correct my understanding of what Spirit really means and how I can feel it in my life.
So I think I’m a Buddhist Christian.  Still primarily and fundamentally a Christian, but because of Buddhism I find that my Christian beliefs make better sense and therefore they make deeper demands of me.
If Jesus really is the Way that is open to other Ways, then dialogue with other religions and other believers, should be part of what it means to be a Christian.     As many Asian bishops and theologians are saying, today dialogue a new way of being church.  Today we are called to be religious interreligiously.  Committed to Jesus and the Gospel we must also be open to other religions and believers.
That is both challenging, and exciting.

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