Saturday, November 8, 2008

Part 1: A Tapestry of Faiths

Below is part one of an interview I conducted with Winfried Corduan regarding his book A Tapestry of Faiths: The Common Threads Between Christianity and World Religions (InterVarsity, 2002).

RV. You authored a book called Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions. How is A Tapestry of Faiths different?

CORDUAN. Neighboring Faiths is basically a survey of the different religions, their history, beliefs, practices, and so on. All of the major religions, such as Islam or Hinduism, get a separate chapter. Even though the book is written from a Christian perspective and includes pointers for how a Christian can relate the gospel to adherents of the various religions, it is basically a description of the various religions.

A Tapestry of Faiths goes in the other direction in that it is basically a comparative study. It is a thematic book, explaining the similarities and differences between Christianity and the other religions.

RV. Both books contain material on what is termed "Original Monotheism." Could you briefly explain this concept and how it differs from other perspectives regarding the origin of religions?

CORDUAN. Original monotheism is my basic presupposition, my organizing principle if you will, for understanding the relationship among the world's religions. I believe that all of religion originated with the one God, who created the world and revealed himself. Subsequently, human beings moved away from this starting point, and religion degenerated into magic, ritual, animism, and idolatry.

Now, one might say that, obviously, as a Christian I would be expected to hold the view that religion began with God. After all, isn't that what the Bible teaches? The point is, though, that in addition to this being a position that is compatible with my faith, it is also the position with the strongest academic credentials.

In the late nineteenth century there were many scholars advocating various theories of the origin of religion, such as that the earliest religions were based on magic or nature worship. However, due to the work of the anthropologists Andrew Lang and Wilhelm Schmidt, it became clear in the early twentieth century that the least developed cultures in the world held to a relatively pure monotheism.

I believe that it is a testimonial to the success of Schmidt's work that by and large today non-Christian scholars in comparative religion today avoid the question of the origin of religion or give it a purely psychological explanation because Schmidt has shown that, if you hold to strict scholarly criteria, original monotheism ends up on top.

RV. When it comes to apologetic questions that arise regarding the relationship of Christianity to other religions, you note in A Tapestry of Faiths, "Among evangelicals, this discussion has almost exclusively focused on the question of whether salvation is possible apart from a direct response to the Christian gospel" (p. 9). While you also address this question in your book, this is not the primary focus. What is your emphasis in A Tapestry of Faiths?

CORDUAN. The additional emphasis is on the many apparent similarities between Christianity and other religions. After all, other religions also have scripture and such concepts as sin and salvation. Even if we stipulate (as we should) that they do not lead to true salvation, there are some important issues. How is it that other religions can have similar ideas? How deeply do the resemblances run? Can there be particular truths within religions that might be false as a whole?

A lot of the resemblances are, in fact, pretty superficial. For example, many religions have scriptures, but if we look at how those scriptures function within their religions, we see that it is nothing like how Christians think of the Bible. We view the Bible primarily as a source of information of what God has revealed for us as sufficient for faith and practice. Many other religions use their scriptures primarily for ritual purposes for chanting or worship while paying little attention to the content.

RV. In your chapter on "Morality and Guilt," what are some of the common ethical factors you conclude various religions share? Why is this the case?

CORDUAN. This chapter really illustrates the ambiguity that I encountered throughout the entire study. Over against contemporary relativism, which tries to say that there are no universal moral norms, you're not going to find any religions that do not advocate some basic values of respect for property, truth, and human life.

However, when you look at their moral norms in more detail, you will realize that even the most basic moral obligations are colored by their religious frameworks, and that religions will have various commandments that do not overlap. For example, if you line up the biblical Ten Commandments with the Buddhist ten precepts, both prohibit murder, but in both cases, the meaning of life is viewed very differently.

Furthermore, the Ten Commandments contain explicitly religious obligations, such as observance of the Sabbath, while the ten precepts have special rules that apply only to Buddhist monks. So, there are certain universal norms, but they are also embedded in highly divergent religious settings.

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