“It’s the leadership of this church giving up the unique claims of Christianity,” Harmon said. “They act like it’s Baskin-Robbins. You just choose a different flavor and everyone gets in the store.”
Jesus saves, the Episcopal Church teaches, but a growing number of its clergy and leaders believe other faiths may lead to salvation as well. Long divided and distracted by questions of sexual ethics, the Episcopal Church (along with most mainline Protestant communities) are facing a cultural and theological shift towards religious pluralism—the belief that there are diverse paths to God.
The debate is not just academic. In two current cases, Episcopal clergy are under scrutiny for practicing and promoting other religions. On February 12 a devotee of Zen Buddhism was elected bishop of the Episcopal Church’s Northern Michigan diocese. Meanwhile, a Seattle-area priest has been given until March 30 to decide whether she is a Muslim or a Christian as her bishop will not permit her to profess both faiths.
The Episcopal Church’s problems with syncretism—the blending of belief systems—comes as no surprise to Wade Clark Roof, professor of Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara and a leading sociologist of religion. “Clearly there are people, including religious leaders, [who find] spiritual wisdom in faiths other than their own,” he told Christianity Today.
This openness to other faiths is “in some respects good in an age of global religious diversity when tolerance and respect are essential to our peace if not our survival,” he said. There is also something healthy about seeing “Christ in the face of the other,” he said, quoting Thomas Merton. “It implies not just acceptance of the religious other, but something of the intrinsic similarities among people despite their differences.”
But the spread of syncretism within mainstream Christianity is an even greater threat to the church than the 2003 election of a gay bishop, Episcopal theologian Kendall Harmon of South Carolina told Christianity Today. It imperils interfaith dialogue by detaching Christianity from its doctrinal and historical core, he argued. “To be a Christian is to worship Jesus,” Harmon said. “To lose that is to lose the center of Christian truth and identity.”
The shift towards pluralism has been long in coming. In his 1993 book, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, Roof reported that surveys of American baby boomers—Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish, liberal or conservative—all showed a trend towards religious consumerism. The values of the new generation were focused on choice, tolerance of different lifestyles, blending faith and psychology—a cafeteria-style religion where you believe in whatever works best for you.
Roof called this individualistic religious consumerism “transformed narcissism,” and predicted it would come to dominate American religious life. The results of an August 2008 study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life appear to bear him out: a majority of American Christians (52%) believe that some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life.
Even a significant minority (47%) of evangelical Christians in the U.S. believe that many religions can lead to eternal life, the Pew Forum found. Of these evangelicals who say there are multiple paths to salvation, 35 percent believe that Islam and 33 percent believe that Hinduism can lead to eternal life, while 26 percent believe that atheists can achieve eternal life.
While the question of salvation outside the Christian faith is not new, the recent cultural movement toward religious pluralism has found champions among theologians.
“Pluralists” such as the Presbyterian theologian John Hick and Roman Catholics Paul Knitter and Raimon Panikkar have argued that Christianity does not have the right to make an exclusive claim to the truth.
For the pluralists, the Shema of the Jews, the Christian Creeds, the Muslim Shahada (There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet,) and the Buddhist belief that at the heart of reality there is the emptiness of Nirvana, all have their own saving power.
In an October 18, 2006, interview broadcast on NPR’s “Here and Now,” Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori stated, “Christians understand that Jesus is the route to God. That is not to say that Muslims, or Sikhs, or Jains, come to God in a radically different way. They come to God through human experience—through human experience of the divine.”
Jesus Christ is the way and the truth and life for us, Canadian Anglican Bishop Michael Ingham argued in his 1997 book Mansions of the Spirit, but there are other “diverse paths to God.” The Bible stands as an account of “emerging God-consciousness,” he argued, but our knowledge of God is not solely confined to Scripture, as there is “a yet wider view of God’s self-disclosure” through human mystical experiences.
“We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine,” Jefferts Schori told Time magazine in its July 10, 2006, issue. “But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.”
Protestant and Catholic Church leaders have largely rejected these views, from the Council of Florence’s 1438 declaration that there was “no salvation outside the church” to the 1974 Lausanne Declaration by evangelicals that there was “no salvation outside a personal and explicit confession of faith in Jesus Christ.”
Anglican theologian J. I. Packer defended the exclusive role of Jesus in his 1994 book, Jesus Christ the Only Savior, while Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict XVI, in 1996 called this interreligious relativism “the fundamental problem of faith in our time.”
In 2000, the Roman Catholic Church clarified its position in Dominus Iesus, which stated “the thesis that the revelation of Jesus Christ is of a limited, incomplete, and imperfect character, and must be completed by the revelation present in other religions, is contrary to the faith of the Church. … This position radically contradicts the affirmations of faith according to which the full and complete revelation of the salvific mystery of God is given in Jesus Christ.”
“If Billy Graham or Pope Benedict” were asked the questions Episcopal leader Jefferts Schori were asked, they would respond that “Jesus is the Way, the Truth and Life,” Harmon said. In a time of doctrinal confusion, “good leadership claims its particular identity from the stability of its historical faith,” he argued.