How far is Heaven?: The Pluralistic Challenge to Jesus

10 March 2012

Christopher J Wiles

pastor | writer | speaker

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.

We live in a culture that advocates pluralism.  Author Leslie Newbigin says that pluralism comes in two forms.  In its descriptive form, pluralism simply means that we live in a nation whose first amendment rights allow for the worship of a wide range of different faiths.  In its prescriptive form, pluralism means that all belief systems are superficially different yet fundamentally the same in their advocacy of peace, love, and moral behavior.

Christianity has long affirmed that in contrast to prescriptive pluralism, Jesus is the only way to connect with God.  The sermon “How far is Heaven?” describes the way that Jesus stands in contrast to other religious systems, of both His day and our own.

But we catch an earlier glimpse of this in Luke 7:1-10.  A centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant.  A centurion was a Gentile – though we’re told that this man held loyalty to God.  The elders of the Jews pleaded with Jesus that this man is “worthy.”  But when Jesus agrees, the man denies his own worthiness before Christ, instead affirming Jesus’ ability to heal from a distance.

The scene is significant, especially since Luke was a Gentile, writing to his Gentile friend Theophilus.  God’s blessing is poured out on someone other than God’s chosen race: I tell you,” Jesus says, “not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

The man knew two things: (1) his own lack of worth and (2) Jesus’ supreme worth.  And the fact that the centurion came from a background other than Judaism reveals God’s plan for all people:

“Whether it is a Jew whose tradition is fulfilled or a pagan whose appropriate response to the light available is completed, the way to Jesus involves some discontinuity with the past (hence the sense of unworthiness of sin) and a submission to a new authority (the lordship of Jesus).

For Luke, Jesus is the ultimate revelation toward which all others point.  Whether Jesus is related to other religious traditions primarily as judge or primarily as the fulfillment or completion depends upon the degree of discontinuity or continuity between the other traditions and the revelation in Jesus.  Even those religious traditions with the greatest continuity to Jesus still stand before him ‘unworthy’ and in need of submission to his ultimate authority.”  (Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke, p. 86)

The next posts will focus on the question, “How far is Heaven?” and the interaction between Jesus and the various beliefs of our own day.

If you’re interested in learning more about pluralism and Christianity, you can read a series of posts I did regarding the Brit Hume scandal a few years ago:

Intro: Tiger Woods, Brit Hume: Who Should “Repent?”

Christianity and Religious Diversity (Part 1)

Christianity and Religious Diversity (Part 2): Religion and All His Friends

Christianity and Religious Diversity (Part 3): Coexist or Else

Christianity and Religious Diversity (Part 4): The Problem with Pluralism

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

Christianity and Religious Diversity (Part 6): Building Bridges

Christianity and Religious Diversity (Part 7): Recommended Reading

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10 March 2012

Christopher J Wiles

pastor | writer | speaker

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

“We rightly equate silence with isolation. Both are enemies of God’s grand design.”

Human beings, as we’ve just noted, bear God’s image.  We “take after” God, so to speak—much as we might say that a child “takes after” his earthly father.  It means that we share with God some aspect of his character, his nature, even his gifts.  In the immediate context of Genesis, this means two things.  Because man bears the image of a Creator, we share in his capacity for creativity.  And because we bear the image of God’s divine community (Father, Son, and Spirit), we share in his capacity for relationship.

Or perhaps “capacity” is too clinical a term for such elemental gifts.  For these qualities are indeed divine gifts, just as human language likewise has its origin in God himself.  In his recent work on the clarity of Scripture, Mark Thompson notes that “God is himself the source of human language.  He is the first speaker and invests language with a deep significance for generation and nourishing personal relationships.”

If language is a divine gift, writing becomes a liturgical practice.  It is through language that the human needs for creativity and relationship are brought together. Surely writing is not the only means of human communication, but there is a uniqueness to the craft that cannot be so easily snuffed out by a so-called “post-literate” world.  When we write, we write to engage the world—or at least our small corner of it.  We write in order to hone our God-given skills of creativity and make a meaningful contribution to humanity’s collective imagination.  We write because it’s in our blood, in our hands, in our soul.

“If language is a divine gift, writing becomes a liturgical practice.”

Christianity says that God’s Word shaped God’s original creation, but God’s Word likewise takes prominence in God’s new creation.  “In the beginning was the Word,” John tells us—cribbing lines from the opening pages of Genesis.  The Word of God, once confined to the page now takes on human flesh in the person of Jesus.  Christianity calls this the incarnation, meaning that in Jesus God literally became a human being to walk among us, to share life with us, and to give his life that we might live.

Writing is part of the way we engage and share the gospel narrative.  Writing is therefore an incarnational practice, a means by which the story of God is translated into the various languages of human culture.

Living the gospel narrative means not only “take and read” but also “write and give.”  Every voice is different.  Every voice matters.

“Living the gospel narrative means not only ‘take and read’ but also ‘write and give.'”

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