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The Fabric of Religious Belief: A Review of A Tapestry of Faiths: The Common Threads between Christianity and World Religions By Winfried Corduan, InterVarsity Press, 2002, 248 pages. Reviewed by Gordon R. Lewis

© Copyright 2004 by Gordon R. Lewis, Senior Professor of Theology and Philosophy, Denver Seminary.

I highly recommend this book to all who train for Christian leadership in this pluralistic world and all thinking Christians who talk with relatives and friends influenced by other faiths. It is not a book, however, for quick, easy answers. The many-faceted relationship between Christianity and other religions deserves multi-layered answers.

To bring out those facets, the Rice University Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Taylor University urges “Asking the Right Questions.” (1) Does salvation apply to any who have not believed on Christ? (2) What are the similarities and differences in the content of teaching in the religions? (3) To what extent, if any, is general revelation present in other religions? (4) If truth claims apply, by what method resolve them and how apply the conclusion in each case? (5) How do the moral systems compare? (6) How communicate the truth of Christianity in a practical way that is based on appropriate theory (13-15)?

For a quick comparison of twelve religions, Corduan lists their origin, Scriptures and major contemporary divisions: Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam, Baha’i. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Daoism, Confucianism and Shinto. He also contrasts traditional tribal religions with enscripturated religions, western religions with eastern religions, and beliefs with observances and rituals (cultus).

Corduan sets forth his Christian presuppositions and asks whether world religions are in (1) complete continuity with Christianity, (2) complete discontinuity, (3) continuity on the basis of superiority and inferiority or (4) a discontinuity of the whole (i.e. systems) with some common elements. Wisely, he defends the latter view.

He traces some of the common threads between Christianity and non-Christian religions to an original monotheism. Historical evidence, he argues does not support an alleged evolution from an original animism to monotheism. Rather, the evidence indicates that the religions began with the worship of one God. That conclusion is consistent with the doctrine of general revelation. It also explains why Christianity shares with other religions a fundamental awareness of God and a moral sense (54).

In a chapter on “Special Revelation and Non-Christian Scriptures,” Corduan lists the sacred writings of twelve religions. However, he hastens to add, “few things are as misleading as tables of this sort” (55-56). Why? Among the followers of no other religion do their Scriptures function theologically or practically in the way the Bible does for Christians (70). He traces the similarities in the scriptures of other religions to general revelation and borrowing from biblical revelation.

His chapter on “Morality and Guilt” finds agreement in wording on two to four of the Ten Commandments, but does not regard this a basis for the one- world ethical system sought by the Parliament of World Religions. Even when religionists can agree on a fairly acceptable common core of ethical values, they may not apply equally to men and women (104) The appearance of a religious consensus is often illusory if the statement expresses the opinions of many, but not of all” (105).

Christianity differs from other religions in that redemption involves deliverance from the fallen order, not merely from the order of creation (107). The Christian doctrine of original sin makes Christianity distinct from both eastern and western patterns. (116). In two other religions, however, he finds examples of grace. First, according to one school of Bhakti Hinduism, “just as a mother cat carries her kittens in her mouth in such a way that the kitten makes no contribution to its transportation, so Rama saves us through his actions alone” (121). Leaders of this “cat” sect say, that all works of devotion are expressions of gratitude, not means toward salvation (121). When finding this doctrine “very similar” to the Christian doctrine (123), Corduan fails at this point to note that an amnesty without an atoning propitiation is arbitrary and unjust. In Christianity grace is provided only in Christ’s atonement that fulfills the requirements of divine justice. Corduan finds a similar doctrine of grace in a Japanese version of Buddhism, based on a Buddha named Amida (123). Finally, Corduan does note that “grace” in these religions has a very different context from grace in Christianity (125). More specifically, I would add, in Christianity, justification is not vaguely “centered on” Christ’s atonement for our sins; it is founded on Christ’s loving satisfaction of divine justice by his atoning sacrifice. Hence God’s declaration of justification is not arbitrary, but just.

Is mystical experience a common thread among world religions including Christianity? On a secondary level it is “undeniable that in virtually all religions there are mystics who witness to experiences that resemble each other a great deal” (130). But “there are clear differences in the meaning of the experiences in their home contexts” (131). So Corduan does not find the similarities sufficient to support acceptance of “the perennial philosophy” that Christian and non-Christian mystics alike link up with the same ultimate reality (131-312). Mystics do not encounter “Reality,” they encounter Jesus, or Allah, or Brahman, etc. Hence, “The adjudication of truth claims needs to be done on some other basis than simply the report of the experience” (132). Corduan wisely concludes, “Mystical experience is not part of the Christian theology of redemption” (132) and mystical experience is not necessary to bring [salvation] about (133).

The chapter on “The Grace and Redemption Debate” weighs the views and arguments of (1) exclusivism, (2) aggressive, reductionistic pluralism (John Hick), (3) a bashful pluralism (William Alston) and (4) inclusivism (Karl Rahner). Responding to Pinnock’s appeal to God’s love, Corduan writes, “in attempting to address the issue biblically, one must avoid simplistic appeal to partial biblical truths as well as inappropriate appeals to apparent silence” (155). The author carefully exegetes relevant passages about Melchizedec, Naaman, the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, God-fearing Greeks, Apollos, and disciples of John the Baptist. Then Corduan concludes, “apparently, when there are people who have not yet heard the gospel but who have responded to God with limited information, God will send someone who will provide the gospel message for them” (167). Believing in divine providence, I have defended this “somewhat modified exclusivist position” for many years. I am encouraged to find it well expounded here.

I agree with Corduan on salvation in the Old Testament, when he writes, “After all, the object of faith still needs to be Jesus Christ (159). Can that be implicit rather than explicit? He answers, Yes, “if there is an immediate, explicit object of faith that can serve as a conveyance of the person’s faith implicitly to Christ” (159). I would add that a person’s faith became explicit when he or she heard the divinely revealed promises of the coming Messiah. Varied amounts of implicit or explicit faith in God’s Old Testament people do not alter our modified exclusivist position.

The chapter on eschatology helpfully surveys views of the future in the different religions and finds that they are not the same. “Christianity exhibits time in a linear mode, beginning with creation, centering on the cross, and ending with the Second Coming and final state.” “In Christianity,” Corduan concludes, eschatology is not just the final chapter, let alone an afterthought, but the summation of what Christianity is all about; the redemptive work of Christ, for individuals and the cosmos” (192).

While Corduan holds to the uniqueness of Christianity’s objective truths, he finds some similarities in the phenomenological experience of adherents of other religions. So conversations may appeal to their awareness of the Holy (Otto), the role of hierophanies or sacred practices (Eliade) and subconscious patterns (Jung, Richardson). The presence of these schemes in a milieu that began with general revelation reveals how people can have what looks like a genuine religious experience even through the object of their experience is false. Christians can seek to build bridges to non Christian thought by emphasizing truth, morality and the need for a transcendent” (220).

Corduan’s last chapter, “Living out the Hope” has helpful suggestions for dialogue with people in other religions. The kind of dialogue he supports does not just talk about the weather nor just seek to evangelize. He engages in dialogues geared to understanding each other’s faiths (222). Corduan has done this when bringing guest speakers into the classroom, on field trips, in international traveling and in panel discussions. These occasions are not with the intention of global ecumenism, but simply to learn from each other about what we respectively believe (223). Such dialogues are pointless, however, apart from a commitment to truth, that there is any truth to begin with and that it matters whether one has it or not.

Corduan’s view of truth is correspondence to reality. The difficulty of comparing ideas with things is that we compare one idea with a second or later idea of the thing. I suggest that we have truth to the extent that our ideas correspond with God’s ideas revealed in creation, Christ and Scripture. Our ideas correspond to God’s when we interpret his general and special revelations coherently, that is to the extent that without logical contradiction we account for all the relevant data and can live by our conclusion with existential authenticity. To the extent that our ideas thus correspond to God’s ideas, they also conform to reality.

Genuine dialogue requires seriousness, openness and humility. Corduan illustrates this view with the mathematical value of pi (3.14159). He does not fall into the postmodern trap of arguing that any community’s view of the value of pi is truth for their community or that because I cannot recite the value of pi beyond four decimal places, I know no truth about it. What we know is true as an approximation (229). “By way of application to interreligious exchange, we must insist on the objectivity of Christian truth, we must take the matter seriously, we must not make things too simple, and we must maintain a spirit of humility. Humility follows, not despite having truth but precisely because are allowed to have truth” (229).

Corduan adds some significant observations about the church, its worship, music, spiritual discernment and evangelism. Evangelism needs to be thought of in theological terms for it invites people to partake of the truth. It is not an exercise to entice people into an organization. Evangelizing is not proselyting.

Telling the truth does not exempt us from the obligation to contextualize the message. Christians presenting the gospel must go through self-inspection to distinguish their cultural factors from the revealed message. Then they must find the right concepts from the culture of the hearer of the gospel in order for the hearer to understand it accurately. As difficult as contextualization is to accomplish fully, we must try. If contextualization were impossible, Corduan notes, Christianity would have died with the early Jewish church. Instead, it spread to “Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Although the early Christians, like their Lord, adapted the message to their hearers’ interests, I must add, they did not accommodate the message to their erroneous views.

Here is important reading for students, church leaders and all perceptive Christians concerned about relatives and friends with alternative religious beliefs and practices.

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