World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Study I: Living in a Religiously Plural World

01 January 1986

1. Texts
Listen to these stories of how three persons became aware of religious pluralism in their own life situations:

a) In Sudbury, Canada, the pastor of a local church has just returned to his study in his new pastoral charge. He himself is of East Indian origin. Suddenly, he stops a moment, sure that he is hearing Sanskrit chanting. He shakes his head and wonders if he is hearing things, but then walks towards the source of the chanting in the basement church hall. There he finds the local Hindu community holding their weekly service, and is invited to join in their celebration. Later, in discussing his discovery with the elders of his church, he finds out that the Hindu community has been using the church hall for over 12 years and that it was such an accepted part of their community life that they had forgotten to mention it as anything special to their new pastor. The Ganges has truly come to the north shore of Lake Superior.

b) I was born in a Muslim community in Kenya, but my parents were Christians. So we as their children inherited the Christian faith and lived in it all through our lives. My sisters, my brother and I love the Lord Jesus as our personal saviour. This did not make us hate our fellow brothers and sisters in the Islamic faith, but we loved them as equally as ourselves. Mother and father reminded us that we must love them all the time. Also some of my extended family belonged to the Islamic faith. I lived with relations who were Muslims...

c) My grandmother, when she came to the United States from Sweden in 1911, had only one book: the Bible in Swedish. She had never met a Hindu or Muslim. She had never read the Bhagavad Gita or heard the Qur'an recited. Although I went as a student to India to study Sanskrit and Hinduism, she could not fully grasp what I was up to. Until the day she died, she thought of me and introduced me to her friends as "my grand-daughter, who is a missionary in India". What else, in her worldview, could I possibly be doing there? Without diminishing in the least the integrity of her faith, I must say that to be a Christian is, for me, very different from what it was for her. I have lived for years in India, in the sacred city of Banaras. I have seen the faith of Hindus, as they embrace the joys of life and struggle with its sorrows. I have Read the Bhagavad Gita over and over, and have found new insight there. I simply cannot bracket these things and put them out of my mind and heart when I consider what it means to be a Christian today, living in relationship with neighbours, teachers, and loved ones who are Hindu.

2. Comment
These three stories illustrate how religious pluralism and its consequences became real in the lives of three persons. A great number of Christians have lived for centuries in religiously plural societies. Today, as more and more communities and nations become multi-religious, we as Christians need to respond thoughtfully and faithfully to the fact that many of our neighbours, with whom we live and work, live their lives by other faiths.

In places that have become newly multi-religious, Christians are reacting to the new situation in a number of ways. Some simply ignore the changes around them. They continue their previous forms of community life and worship as if they were unaware of the transformation around them. Or they choose to move to another neighbourhood or town, where they will not have to face the issue. In some places Christians feel threatened and become hostile to neighbours of other faiths. They try to make things difficult for them in the community. They may make it hard for a local Muslim group to build a new mosque or for the local Hindus to hold a festival. Often, however, the attitude of Christians is one of indifferent tolerance. They are outwardly pleasant but inwardly indifferent.

In societies where Christians have lived with people of other faiths for centuries, especially as minorities, attitudes are shaped by long historical experience. The relationship is sometimes characterized by defensiveness and a polemical spirit. More often, however, living relationships have led to the sharing of common life and discoveries of similarities in religious experience. The affirmation of common cultural and national identity has helped transcend confessional barriers in daily life.

In situations of religious conflict, Christians may be tempted to isolate themselves from the rest of society and develop a minority-centred attitude, socially, politically and religiously. Others may try to accept any experience of suffering they encounter as a minority in a spirit of "evangelical" humility and love, faithful to their vocation as a church, but at the same time struggle together with their fellow citizens for justice and peace.

All the three stories deal with situations where Christians have been brought into contact with people who live by other faiths. These contacts have the potential to enrich their relationship with them. For the members of the Sudbury church there is relationship with Hindus, in fact and in potential, because a Hindu community worships in the church hall. To the African Christian in Kenya, life with Muslims is part of family life and relationships. For the grandmother of the woman from North America, she could do nothing better in India than be a missionary. But she herself has been challenged and changed by the Hindus she has met and come to know. Many Christians throughout the world have similar experiences. They remain firmly grounded in the Christian faith, and yet are moved, enriched and enlivened by the insights and the faith of others who are not Christian. How has Christian theology been able to speak to those who have had such experiences?

Theological responses to religious pluralism have been varied. Some have maintained what might be called an "exclusivist" Christian response: that there is truth and salvation only in the way of Christ. Others have developed what might be called an "inclusivist" view: that the Christ event is cosmic and inclusive, and Christ is present and at work even among those who may not know Christ as such. In this view, people of other faiths are included in God's plan of salvation through the grace of Christ. Still other Christians take a third position which might be called a "pluralist" view: that God, or what followers of some other religions call "reality", can be known in many different ways. Those who take this view see the activity of the Creator God within the plurality of the world They seek to discern the activity of the Spirit even beyond the boundaries of the church. And they affirm God's saving activity in many places, within many traditions and in many ways.

3. Discussion and questions

Begin by describing your local religious situation. What are the different religious communities in your town, in your area, in your country? Make notes perhaps on a blackboard, about your local situation.

Think together about the world situation. Map the "religious world" as best a you can. What do you think is the percentage of Christians in the world? Jews? Muslims? Hindus? Buddhists? (See below for answers.) Where do people of different religious traditions seem to live together in harmony? in conflict?

Think about your own church or churches. What has been done in your church to understand and relate to neighbours of other faiths? Describe any initiatives that have taken place to relate to or work with them.

Think about your own personal experience. What kinds of contacts have you had with people of other religious traditions? Share the experiences so that as you begin your work as a group you have a sense of your collective history and experience with people of other faiths. What are the attitudes, or theological positions, held in relation to other faiths? Have your attitudes changed over the years? How do you assess them now, as you pursue this study? What is the attitude of neighbours of other faiths to the Christian community in your plac

Note on the Global Statistics of World Religions:
Christians: 32.4% Muslims: 17.1% Hindus: 13.7% Buddhists: 6.2% Jews: 0.4%

Source: World Christian Encyclopedia, ed. David B. Barrett, London, Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 6