Christianity and Religious Diversity Part 6: Building Bridges
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
In yesterday’s post we encountered the need for Christians to do a better job of bridge-building with those of other faiths.
I retain the use of the term “bridge-building,” if for no other reason than the fact that such conversations are not to be seen merely as a time of sharing, but also can be a time for pointing that person to Jesus. The key, then, is not only to talk with them, but to help them understand the Christian faith on their terms, not merely ours.
To that end I suggest that there is no greater method than simply asking what they believe. Too often Christians (usually a 20-something white guy who has read one too many Norm Geisler books) try and “target” people rather than actively listen to what they have to say.
But the task is often daunting.
WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE?
This is the question, though it is also composed of many smaller, related questions:
- Why do you believe what you believe? This question addresses the realm of both personal experience as well as the ultimate source of authority. Many are quick to relate a personal story (“the way I was raised,” “a decision I made,” etc.), though it is equally important to discover their source of authority (the Bible, Qur’an, Talmud, Gita, Upanishads, etc.).
- What is God? This is a challenging question, but fundamental to all other questions. Religions differ wiiiiidely on how they view God. Is He the Creator? Judge? Father?
- What is man’s problem? No religion would say that “everything’s fine.” But they differ quite widely on why things are the way they are. Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism wrap things up in the karma-samsara cycle: man’s problems are brought on by bad karma.
- What is the solution? Given the problem, how can it be solved? This is another point where religions differ remarkably. Most often religions offer salvation through the strict adherence of a series of rules and rituals. Christianity – despite its many historical perversions – has always emphasized salvation by grace alone.
BUILDING THE BRIDGE
The next task is to share your faith in such a way that it touches on these fundamental categories. The idea is to communicate your faith in a way that it addresses the answers given to these above questions.
AN EXAMPLE: DAOISM
As an example, let’s look at Daoism.
Daoism is among China’s most prominent philosophies and religions. However, Daoism has not remained isolated to the East. The pluralistic climate of the United States has brought Daoism to American cities and neighborhoods, often popularized in the form of mass media and entertainment (e.g., The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Daoism can be categorized in two distinct schools of thought: Religious Daoism and philosophical Daoism. Religious Daoism and philosophical Daoism are worlds apart in terms of their philosophy and ideology. The following is a discussion of each, with emphasis on the basic questions of worldview.
Compared to its philosophical counterpart, religious Daoism is far more complex. The following is an evaluation of the broad scope of beliefs within religious Daoism.
(1) What is source of authority?
The Dao de Jing holds special significance for all Daoists, though religious Daoism places special emphasis on immortality, a subject not addressed in the Dao de Jing. Thus, the source of authority for religious Daoists is usually the teachings of a particular school of thought or teacher, of which there are many.
To that end, religious Daoism is unique in that rather than learning a method of salvation from an ancient text, the teachings were created (often, as shall be mentioned shortly, through trial and error) to describe man’s solution of immortality.
It should be mentioned that religious Daoism elevates Lao Zi to the status of a god. Lao Zi, after death, became elevated to the status of one of the members of the Daoist “trinity.”
(2) What is God?
Immortality is the ultimate focus of religious Daoism. So, beginning in the second century A.D., Daoism took on a strongly religious character. Daoism holds that first the universal, impersonal Dao, which breathed out its qi (or ch’i) which in turn gave birth to the dualistic natures of yin and yang.
Somehow this process also gave birth to a pantheon of gods and mythic heroes. These lesser gods exist under a supreme trinity of the unnamed supreme deity, Lord Dao and Lord Lai. The supreme deity represents the Dao, while Lord Dao is a personified form of the Dao, and Lord Lau is Lao Zi in his godlike state.
Therefore the trinity has not eternally existed, but rather has been created during human history. Additionally, theses ideas emerged to satisfy the human desire for immortality. This stands in sharp contrast to the eternally existing Trinity, who exists to be worshipped and glorified by man.
(3) What is man’s problem?
Man’s chief problem is mortality. Interestingly, religious Daoism makes room for the concept of sin. Though the exact teaching varies according to religious school, the basic premise is that man’s sinfulness mars his Chi, preventing him from achieving immortality.
(4) What is the solution?
One would be hard pressed to find a definitive path to immortality within the teachings of religious Daoism. Throughout the history of religious Daoism, there has been a variety of methods purported to lead to immortality. These methods may include alchemy and chemical potions believed to lead man to immortality, good deeds, meditation, prayer and the control of one’s outward conduct.
Religious Daoism also concerns itself with the idea of balance and harmony of opposites, visually represented in the Chinese symbol of the Yin Yang. The Dao can be thus viewed as a wholeness of the balance between opposites, light/dark, summer/winter, male/female, etc. One writer describes the harmony in these terms:
It is close at hand, stands indeed at our very side; yet is intangible, a thing that by reaching for cannot be got. Remote it seems as the furthest limit of the Infinite. Yet it is not far off; everyday we use its power. For the Way of the Vital Spirit fills our whole frames, yet man cannot keep track of it. It goes, yet has not departed. It comes, yet is not here. It is muted, makes no note that can be heard, yet of a sudden we find that it is there in the mind. It is dim and dark, showing no outward form, yet in a great stream it flowed into us at our birth. (Quoted by Arthur Waley, The Way and Its Power)
The strange and reflexive nature of this philosophy is what makes it often difficult for western minds to grasp, and at the same time, so attractive to those seeking alternative forms of spirituality. Within religious Daoism, a variety of methods are employed to bring one’s qi into balance and achieve immortality.
The relative success or failure of these methods (usually couched in Chinese folklore) led to the development of a variety of different “schools” that held to different teachings. The earliest school was the Chang Family’s school, which began in the second century A.D. This school believed that through right relations with evil spirits (the leader emphasized the use of charms to ward off demons) and by giving portions of rice to religious leaders, repenting of their sins and lived righteously they might be forgiven of their sins. In the afterlife, one would enter the underworld and, after a period of time, if one’s deeds were sufficient, would be released to the Mystical Garden, the Daoist version of Heaven. And, much like purgatory of Roman Catholicism, the family of the deceased could pray for the soul to be released.
This was the earliest and most clearly defined school of religious Daoism, but far from the only school. Other schools reflected the diversity and syncretism that characterize the mystical religion of Daoism.
For example, the interior Gods hygiene school held to the belief that by controlling one’s body (diet, sexual restrictions, ingesting potions, etc), immortality could be achieved on earth. Another school, the School of Pure Conversion held that immortality could be achieved by holding philosophical discussion, writing poetry and engaging in non-normative social behavior.
BRIDGE BUILDING WITH RELIGIOUS DAOISM
- Need for personal God: Religious Daoists can be affirmed for their desire to look for a personal god. In Acts 17 Paul speaks of men who would “search for God…though He is not far from each of us (Acts 17:27).” Like Paul in Acts 17, we may affirm the “religious” character of Daoism, all the while directing them from the “unknown gods” of the Daoist trinity to the Christian God.
- Salvation and Grace: In contrast to the wu-wei of Philisophical Daoism, religious Daoists employ a variety of (often bizarre) means of achieving immortality and salvation. Christians are once again uniquely poised to advocate the grace of God by virtue of Christ Jesus. Daoists are constantly trying to cross the bridge of immortality to find God. But within Christianity it is God who reconciles man to Himself through the atoning work of the Savior (2 Cor 5:18-21).
- Christ and Lord Dao: Religious Daoism advocates a trinity wherein Lord Dao is the embodiment of the Dao. In Christianity, Jesus is something similar in that He is the incarnation of the living God. In Colossians, Paul speaks of Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, 16 for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him– all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers– all things were created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him. 18 He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things (Colossians 1:15-18).”
Daoists might be reached in sharing the news that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh. Rather than man achieving the status of a god (as was the case for Lord Lau), God condescended to become man so that in this humble state He might redeem a fallen creation and reconcile them to the Creator.
This is only an example. The people in your life may differ widely from such generalizations.
Note that it takes time. Learning another faith is a matter of discipline. Tomorrow I will share some resources that will provide a better understanding of world religions.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
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.