Shuck and Jive

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Jesus Was a Pluralist

On Pentecost Sunday we will be celebrating the life of the Spirit. In so doing we will acknowledge the life of the Spirit in other religious traditions as well as our own. We are calling it Pentecost/Pluralism Sunday. One way to think of it is that since Pentecost is sometimes understood as the church's "birthday" why not invite all our friends (in this case other faiths) to the party?

Pentecost has always been my favorite Sunday. In previous congregations we would wear red, yellow, or orange to symbolize the fire of the Spirit. I am encouraging our congregation to do that this year as well. We will read scriptures in different languages to celebrate the passage in Acts 2:4-6:

"All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each."
We will acknowledge that while we make boundaries of ethnicity, language, culture, and creed, the Spirit does not recognize these boundaries. The Spirit moves us beyond tribalism. Lively music, a celebratory spirit, and humility before the Divine Mystery will mark our worship.

I am a pluralist not because it is a politically correct or hip thing to be. I am a pluralist because that is what I think it means to follow Jesus who shows us the way. Admittedly, while there are many scriptural texts that have been interpreted exlusively (and may have been intended as such by the authors) there are many more that are pluralistic.

John 14:6 is offered as evidence of an exclusivist position, where Jesus is reported to have said:
"‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
Yet, in that same Gospel, Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well who asks him which mountain is the proper place for worship and Jesus responds:
‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ (John 4:21-24)
Jesus was not anti-Jew. He was a Jew. Neither was he anti-Samaritan. Jesus showed a way beyond the tribalism of religion and ethnicity. He reached out from within his own tradition
to embrace others. When his disciple, John, complained that someone not in the club was casting out demons in his name, Jesus told him not to worry about it:
‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.' (Mark 9:38-40)
From the Gospel of John, in the beautiful chapter about the good shepherd, Jesus says:
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:16)
I don't select these texts or many others I could select to proof-text or to prove my point. It is just that when I read the gospels, in fact, the whole of the Bible, I read (hear, see) a Jesus (and God) who is inclusive and deeply so. I find a Jesus who doesn't particularly care about our traditionalism, but who cares deeply about how we live. I also read the Gospels as ultimately, not about the historical person of Jesus, but the Cosmic Christ, who is much larger than Christianity.

I would further add that this Cosmic Christ is revealed in other religious traditions, in nature, and in many ways. The Cosmic Christ speaks with a variety of voices. I can hear the Cosmic Christ in a Hindu proverb or a Zen Koan. I see the Cosmic Christ struggling with the oppressed for freedom, in the agnostic who is not into religious belief but lives with compassion for others, and in the dreamers who yearn for a world filled with justice, joy and praise. Finally, when the Spirit gets me over myself, I see and hear the Cosmic Christ in the person who I really do not like very much (ie. the Samaritan in Jesus's parable).

In a time of religious tension, and in what I see as increasing tribalism, when Christians think the only way to peace is to convert Muslims to Christianity and when Muslims think the only way to peace is to convert Christians to Islam, I think Jesus would shout: "Enough! Convert yourselves! Listen and discover the better way."

A final point (for what seems to be turning into a sermonette) is this:

I am a Christian. Christianity is unique and it has much to offer our world. But being unique does not necessarily mean being right or being the only way to be. Hinduism is also unique, as is Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Wicca, Native religions, you name it. We all have truths and shortcomings. We all have something to offer. We all have something to learn from one another. Pentecost is a great day to listen to the Spirit's voice present in other traditions as well as our own.

Thanks to Rev. Jim Burklo, pastor the Sausalito Presbyterian Church for coordinating this effort. He also designed the logo to the right.

Many congregations will be celebrating Pluralism Sunday in one way or the other on Pentecost. You can find a list here.

The Unity Church of the Tricities and First Presbyterian of Elizabethton are the only congregations that are on the list from Tennessee to do so, but others may intend to do so and are not listed.

For ideas about Pentecost/Pluralism Sunday you can go to The Center for Progressive Christianity.


  1. John,

    Two disagreements. I think you might have a change of mind if you look at the word "truth" in John's Gospel. See what Jesus calls truth (John 17:17) and how he refers to that referant (John 10:35).

    Secondly, Muslims do not believe that the only way to achieve "peace" is to convert us. They are also happy to either oppress Christians into dhimmitude or kill us.

  2. But being unique does not necessarily mean being right or being the only way to be. Hinduism is also unique, as is Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Wicca, Native religions, you name it. We all have truths and shortcomings. We all have something to offer. We all have something to learn from one another.

    That is very well put. This is a matter that I feel very strongly about.

    There aren't very many churches in the SF Bay Area that have signed on to Pluralism Sunday. Of course, Jim Burklo is just over the bridge in Sausalito. :)

  3. Hi Seeker,
    Thanks. I often wonder how it came to be that so much of Christianity focused on exclusivism and in the importance of being right. It didn't seem to me to start with Jesus. But somewhere along the line, the idea that to be religious or spiritual was to be right as opposed to wrong.

    I have never been to Sausalito although I think I heard it mentioned in a rock song somewhere. I did enjoy the post on your blog about your continued quest to find a congregation to attend (especially one with good parking!) : )

  4. The exclusivism started with Jesus:

    For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

    John 3:16ƒƒ

  5. John, I'm glad you enjoyed that posting. Of course, that was Jim Burklo's church. :)

    The Sir Douglas Quintet did a song called "Mendecino". I don't know of a song about Sausalito, though.

  6. Great post, John.

    Sad to see "Chris" still spouting fundi rhetoric and ignoring the facts.

    The Koran clearly depicts Jesus having a direct conversation with God. A distinction shared by Mohammad according to that text. For the benefit of those who's minds have been poisoned by Falwellesque inaccuracies, that makes Jesus a holy man according to Islam.

    Perhaps "Chris" should study a little of what he's talking about before spouting. I have lived in Saudi, Yemen, and the UAE. There were Christian churches there too.

    Knowledge is your friend, Chris. Embrace it rather than reject it. You know absolutely nothing about Muslims, their religion, or even your own religion for that matter.
    Only what the Politicians you worship, and the lying preachers you listen to tell you.

    I'll pray for your recovery.

  7. Dear John,
    Yes the Holy Spirit does move beyond “tribalism.” But the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity lifts up Jesus Christ not other religions or religious leaders. “But the helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you (John 14:26).” “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another helper, that he may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see him or know him, but you know him because he abides with you and will be in you.”

    You also refer to Jesus’ reaching out to the Samaritan woman, which of course he did. But he also told her “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” And “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” Wow! He must really be unique to give us living water! Only God could do that. And certainly he did reach out to her in order that her heart might be open to him.

    The person that Jesus referred to when he said, “Whoever is not against us is for us” was after all casting out demons in Jesus name, not Buddha’s or Krishna’s.

    The other sheep (John 10:16) do hear his voice not the voice of Mohammed or Kali.

    It seems to me that you are putting words into Jesus mouth of your own making which is rather like making your own god. Instead, the Father states of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him (Matthew 17: 5b).”

    I don’t think you should be making comments about violence, Islamic or otherwise. Both your tone and your statements in other places such as here: , where in referring to some Evangelical Christians and some who are yes, extremely radical, you write “Deal with them violently if necessary.” I think everyone should be aware of this so that you will quit insulting everyone.

  8. I didn't say there weren't Christian Churches in Muslim held lands. I just said that they existed in a state of dhimmitude. People that I very much trust (and who have lived in various parts of the Middle East since the 1950s) have said the same thing.

    As far as the Islamic "witness" to Jesus / Issah, maybe you should look more critically (i.e. not here. They say he had multiple wives and didn't die on a cross. Who are you going to believe? The Koran (600 years after the fact, and debatably the rantings of a mad pedophiliac) or the New Testament (written 25-50 years after the fact, with oral sources going back further and archaeologically verified information as well as non/anti-Christian testimony to the same).

    And you have the audacity to say that I'm ignoring the facts. I just posted what Jesus said about himself. If you've got a problem with that, it's a problem with Jesus - not me.

    Now, I'm gonna go pray for Falwell to return and take us all to fundi heaven where we can do violence to people that disagree with us. Wait...that's reserved for peace-loving Middle Eastern countries. Not "theocracies" like the Southern portion of the US.

  9. Dhimmitude is frankly quite enlightened compared to what Christians have done prior to secular democracies. Throughout Europe being Muslim was punishable by death or forced conversion. The reconquista and the crusades were based on the premise that Christians couldn't allow Muslims to even exist in territory where Christians had formerly lived.

    See the numerous testimonies of Orthodox saints from Constantinople after the fourth crusade about how they received better treatment from the Islamic Turks than from Latin Christians.

    Consider that while Europe was deporting Jews they were going to Islamic lands because they were welcomed and treated with respect there - as were the Christians who had been living there all along.

    Historically, Islam is far more tolerant than Christianity. There are no stains in Islam's history similar to the treatment American Natives received by Christian Missionaries.

    All religions (even Buddhism, which is the most remarkably peaceful of religions) have been used to justify horrendous actions at various times. Attacking other faiths is arrogant and hateful, not at all Christ like.

  10. As to the question of Pluralism: Everyone is using John so heavily, but Pentecost is a Lukan story and he clearly is using it as a symbolic reversal of the Tower of Babel. It implies the end of the curse of misunderstanding and the ability of all peoples to be in communion with one another. It is a very pluralist assertion.

    In fact, the Bible is essentially pluralistic in nature. It represents a variety of viewpoints. It argues at times for completely contradictory truths and doesn't try to reconcile them. It presents a shocking array of different language and imagery for God and many opposing ideas of who God really is.

    Israel understood itself in a pluralistic context. Israel's calling is to be blessed to be a blessing to all the nations (plural).

    In the same way Jesus calls us to be salt and light. It is not our job to go turn other people into copies of ourselves. It is our job to love those people. Pluralism is a response that is very consistent with love of neighbor.

  11. Good call, Aric. Luke/Acts is about moving the Gospel to Rome and beyond, so the Jesus portrayed there is "pluralistic" in that sense. I find the challenge of reading the gospels is to make the distinction between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith" or the "Cosmic Christ."

    Jesus in the gospels is both. The Cosmic part is bigger than the Jesus of history, and it is that Christ that connects with other figures.

    I am still trying to figure all of this out!

  12. Aric,

    "No stains" on Islam? You don't call murdering everyone in a town during their missionary effort a stain? What about the way they fueled African slavery?

    And you may think of dhimmitude as enlightened (something that can only be said by someone who hasn't lived under it, since it is very much like what the PCUSA accuses Israel of doing to the Palestinians). I'm sure it was at the time. Heck - Paul's restrictions of women in mininstry seemed enlightened for the time - but I don't see you arguing for that now. The fact is, secular democracies arose in Christian settings. Every where else had the chance to do it, but they preferred their god-emperor or what have you. There's a theological reason for this: once you see that there is only one true God and that everything else is idolatry, you have a sense of how wrong it is to vest such trust and power in anyone but God. Did it take a long time to work itself out? Yeah...but it happened.

    One other thing you should note about Christianity versus Islam: Christianity does not enculturate its claims. We translate the scriptures and adapt local traditions (sometimes syncretisically, to our lament). Islam demands Arabic cultural hegemony. The Koran remains in Arabic (i.e., only personal study is allowed w/ a translation) and customs and names revert. Has some of that happened with us? Yes - but it is enscripturated in Islam.

    Righteous diversity honors God (and is expressed in the Revelation to John, among other places). A plurality of gods is idolatry. If you say that the God of the Bible (the creator of all that is) is the same as the Allah of the Koran, then it is because you fundamentally misunderstand one of the texts. It does not honor our tradition or theirs to smear it over with a pablam of falsehoods in order to ease tension or salve white male guilt.

  13. One Spirit, one Lord, one message.

    There is no pluralistic message at Pentecost - the message is the same; it is only the languages that are different. You are fashioning the Holy Spirit and scriptures into what you want them to say, not what is actually expressed.

  14. Hi Viola and Stushie,

    I think we find ourselves in a difficulty with interpretation. We have layers of interpretation, from the historical person of Jesus, to what others remembered of him, the gospels themselves, which while having many commonalities also have divergent pictures of Jesus.

    We also have our context which is quite different from the 1st century in regards to science, history, religion and many other things.

    The task I see is to how to be faithful to who Jesus was and who Jesus is today.

    I appreciate your comments. I do believe that Jesus echoed many of the same things other spiritual leaders said.

    I personally think today that spiritual maturity is not owned by one religion or another.

  15. John,
    I don’t think it is either I or Stushie who are having problems with interpretation, I think it is you. I don’t see layers of interpretation; rather I see four disciples of Jesus remembering their Lord as the Holy Spirit aids their memory.

    Of course if you don’t believe in the inspiration of scripture you can make anything you want out of the texts. However, when you consider how close the Q text might be to the actual time of Jesus and it may have been a written text, we have a very secular apologetic for accepting that part of Scripture. Add to that the early letters of Paul and no other texts, concerning literature or religion, that we look back on, have writings that were that close in time to the events they are speaking of.

    I am remembering a class taught by L. D. Hurst, a professor at both the University of Davis and Fuller Theological Seminary, in which he talked about the Gospels and the traditional views as to their authorship, that is, for instance that it was truly Matthew the disciple of Jesus, and Mark the disciple of Peter the Apostle, etc. who wrote the Gospels. His statements was (and I am paraphrasing) why should we be so quick to discount the church’s traditions? Traditions do have meaning and in this case they are recorded in an early church historian’s writings, Eusebius of Cesarea, who at times is quoting even earlier church historians.

    That each Gospel has a different focus is certain. But that they are presenting a different Jesus in each Gospel is silly. If I read each one separately, in un-connected books, I would still recognize the same Jesus.

    You write that we have a different context in science, religion and history. But not that much; human nature doesn’t really change. Christianity was born in the midst of pluralism. Historiography has moved back and forth between history as the acts of great persons and history as events, history as cyclical or history as linear. Etc. And science, well of course humans have discovered wonderful new things but the ideals of science, the structure of science, the way scientists see the world is also a rather revolving door.

    But this is about pluralism and that goes way beyond the text of the Bible to suggest that all religions are valid religions. That Jesus Christ is not ultimate Lord, and that salvation can be gained from any god, not just in Jesus Christ. Early Christians died rather than submit to the Lord of the Romans, they died horrible deaths in Gaul rather submitting to the gods of those particular tribes. More Christians have died in the twentieth century for Jesus Christ than in any other century. And it seems that the 21st century will be no different. I believe that it is a shame to call one-self a Christian and to not be faithful to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And by not being faithful I mean honoring other lords beside Jesus Christ.

  16. Hi Viola,

    Thank you for your comments. You may be right and I wrong about the authorship of Jesus and all the rest.

    It is not just me who thinks along these lines. I respect your opinion.

    Many Blessings,