Who Do You Say That I AM? Christians Encounter Other Religions

Darrol F. Bryant

The Conrad Grebel Review 17, no. 2 (Spring 1999)

Who Do You Say That I AM? Christians Encounter Other Religions. Calvin E. Shenk. Scottsdale, PA and Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1997.

Shenk’s central question is “Can we respect other religions and still view
Christ as normative for all?” His answer, presented in the thirteen chapters of this volume–beginning with an “introduction to religious plurality” and
concluding with “style of witness”–is yes. But I was not persuaded. My problem was both the question–is this the question that is central to Christians as they encounter other religions?–and the response, one that I found laced with troubling ambiguities if not self-contradictory.

     In the Preface, the author describes his academic and missionary background. It begins in 1961 in Ethiopia, where his teaching included African traditional religions and comparative religious philosophy, and moves through “religious study tours” in India, Nepal, Taiwan, Japan, and Turkey (to name a few) to his current teaching at Eastern Mennonite University and research at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. In this long career, Shenk candidly acknowledges that “my interest in religions is not merely academic . . . I bring a missiological perspective to other religions” (17). Shenk encounters other religions from the perspective of an evangelical Christian faith which has as its core confession the “uniqueness,” “finality,” and “normativity” of Christ.

     Thus in the first chapter Shenk moves quickly from an awareness of
religious plurality to a critique of the “ideology” of religious pluralism. This
ideology is a “theological or philosophical assessment of other religions which celebrates plurality” (29) and “relativizes all claims that any religion makes about the truth of its doctrine or practices” (30). Thus, “religious plurality forces us to rethink the uniqueness of Jesus Christ” (31) and to ask “Is Jesus Christ merely a savior, one among many, or is he the unique Savior of humankind?” This seems to require us “either to accept religious pluralism and thereby cast doubt on the uniqueness of Christian faith, or to reject religious pluralism to remain faithful to the Christian tradition.”

     But are these the alternatives? Shenk believes so, I do not. Chapters 2
and 3 then discuss responses to religious plurality – exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. None of these responses is adequate for Shenk, but pluralism is especially reprehensible. The reasons are that pluralism “disavows the uniqueness and particularity of Jesus as the definitive, final, and normative revelation of God for salvation” (53), “assumes that everyone will be saved by whatever means available” (58), “leads to a relative understanding of truth” (62), “seeks to accommodate Christian faith to other religions by discarding distinctive doctrines of Christian faith” (66), “makes a judgment that all religions are true” (67), and “undermines a traditional understanding of mission” (71).

     Such reasons would be sufficient to reject pluralism, if this were what
pluralists affirmed. But no writer that I know favoring a pluralist approach
holds all, most, or even any of the positions Shenk ascribes to pluralism. At the same time, Shenk affirms that “Christians do not claim too fully and finally comprehend God . . . we don’t pretend to exhaust the divine nature” (65) and that Christians “need to be loving and tolerant” (70). How do these assertions hang together?

     Chapters 4 and 5 deal with biblical perspectives on religion. Other religions are not “merely human fantasy. There is something of God in them” (99). But finally we must avoid “Jewish perversions” (110), “false gospels,” and “syncretism” (111) and come to affirm the uniqueness of Christ. These themes are again taken up in chapter 6, “Theological Issues Concerning Religious Plurality.” Here Shenk says that “the Bible provides convincing evidence that human beings have awareness of God” and that there is a “general revelation” (115). But “special revelation uses the light of Christ, who is the fullness and pinnacle of revelation, to discover and unveil what is hidden in other religions” (117). This allows Shenk to turn to “Assessment of the Religions” in chapter 7. Here he again affirms that “we can believe in the finality of Christ and still value positive aspects of other religions” (142). But what these positive aspects are never comes into view.

     Moreover, Shenk argues that affirming these aspects does not mean that “all religions are the same” (who argues this? I don’t know). While he rightly points out that “religions not only face in different directions, they also ask different questions” (144), this insight is not developed. Nor does he heed his own advice to avoid overgeneralizing about other religions. Instead, he says the Hindu belief in cyclical time is wrong (145), Buddhists don’t have revelation from God, and Muslims wrongly understand it (146). The Quran is “silent about redemption” and there is”a lack of ethical sensitivity” in Hinduism (147). This discussion leads back to Shenk’s central question “Who is Christ?” in Chapter 8. Not surprisingly, he reaffirms his understanding of Christ as “final” and “normative” as he turns in the remaining chapters to discuss Christian witness in the context of other religions.

    According to Shenk, witness to Christ is the first–and apparently only– duty of the Christian in relation to others: “our task is to witness to Christ as the center of our faith” (178). Since all are called to follow Jesus, then all Christians must all the time be inviting others to that end: “when Jesus is the norm, all other claims are relativized” (176). Yet Shenk says that “this does not deny the reality of the knowledge of God that people had before Jesus came, or the true knowledge which people have today where he has not been named” (181). But such knowledge is seemingly unimportant since “the task of Christian mission is to interact with other religions so there can be an encounter with the Christian message” (183). This theme is pursued in chapter 10 on the “Forms of Witness: Church, Presence, Service, Evangelism.” Shenk argues that “the Christian gospel is conversionist” (204); indeed, it is for him the only theme of the Good News.

     Even dialogue is, in Shenk’s view, a “form of witness” (209). This I find not only troubling but suspect. Dialogue between persons of different faiths has emerged in recent decades as an important new development in the relations between persons of different faiths. Dialogue is not witness, nor is it aimed at conversion. But this is not Shenk’s view. He says that dialogue contributes to “mutual understanding and growing friendship” (213) and that “we listen with sympathetic appreciation to other religions” (214). But finally he argues that dialogue is a “prelude to witness, [has] witness dimensions, and [can] be a witness in itself” (219). If so, then it becomes, as many non-Christians suspicious of Christian invitations to dialogue allege, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” a covert strategy of evangelism. Saying that “we need genuine respect and appreciation for other religions” does not make it so, when the reason for such knowledge is to enhance Christian witness to Jesus Christ. As Shenk remarks, “when we befriend Muslims . . . people may be more willing to discuss personal faith issues . . . in this context witness can be both person-centered and truth-centered.” (255) This, alas, is not authentic dialogue.

     Yet Shenk also says that in dialogue we need “genuine respect and appreciation” for other religions. How can this be, if dialogue is understood as a form of witness? This is the contradiction that lies at the heart of this volume.

     For Shenk the only question in a Christian’s relating to people of other faiths is that of witness. Anything else is, seemingly, a betrayal of the Christ that stands at the heart of faith. But is this the relevant question? Why does the fact that some people are Muslim, some Buddhist, some Hindu, some Sikh, etc. call into question central claims of the Christian faith? Why is the Christian called in relation to persons of other faiths to the single note of witness to Jesus as the Christ? Does the multiplicity of faiths challenge the Way to God present in Jesus Christ? Shenk seems to think so, I don’t. The reality of other faiths is better approached under the doctrine of God’s revelation to humanity then under the heading of God’s redemption in Jesus Christ.

DARROL F. BRYANT, Renison College, Waterloo, ON