Saturday, November 8, 2008

Part 2: A Tapestry of Faiths

Below is part two of an interview I conducted with Winfried Corduan regarding his book A Tapestry of Faiths (InterVarsity, 2002). View part one.

RV. Creation and Redemption are key theological concepts in Christianity. How is the Christian worldview unique in these areas?

CORDUAN. In Christianity there is a real difference between creation, the need for redemption, and redemption itself. Now, for someone who is familiar only with Christian concepts, that sounds pretty obvious because we believe that God created human beings without sin, but then human beings sinned, and God's work of salvation has to do with the problems caused by our sinfulness, not by the fact of us being created as finite beings.

However, in other religions, the essential problem to overcome is our very existence as beings in this world. Thus, in Eastern religions, such as Hinduism or Buddhism, the basic problem is that we are entrapped in a seemingly never-ending cycle of birth and re-birth within the cosmos, and so the object becomes how to escape from this fundamental human captivity. The problem here is not that we exist as fallen beings, but that we exist in this world at all. In contrast, Christianity's message is that we can be redeemed, not by escaping the world, but by becoming new creatures within the world.

Furthermore, Christianity also differs from the not-so-mystical Western religions, such as Judaism and Islam, because those religions do not believe in the full fallenness of human beings at all. Whereas Christianity teaches that there was a sharp break between our created state and our fallen state, in those religions that sharp break does not exist either. Thus, insofar as you can even talk about "redemption" in those contexts, you can only speak of a process of improvement that will hopefully lead to rewards, not an act of God that once-and-for-all reconciles us to him.

RV. Your chapter on these issues includes a section on "Grace in Other Religions." Evangelicals often stress the uniqueness of grace in Christian theism. What other religions do you find also include a grace component? How is grace in these religions different from Christian grace?

CORDUAN. We have to be really careful here, since not everything that calls itself "grace" really is grace. For example, some Hindus like to talk about the "grace" of Krishna exemplified in the Bhagavad-Gita because Krishna offers redemption to everyone, regardless of caste or previous sin, who is willing to become his devotee. However, what is actually required in receiving this boon from Krishna is a life-long total commitment to him in even the minutest aspects of life. This is not grace.

Nevertheless, if we define grace as receiving salvation without the contribution of any works by ourselves, relying on the divine person alone, then there still are some groups within some religions that have a genuine sense of grace. The two best known examples are the so-called "cat" school of devotion to the god Rama in Hinduism, whose adherents believe that just as a mother cat carries her kittens in her mouth without any help from the kittens, so Rama carries us to salvation without the help by any of our own works.

Similarly, the Pure Land school of Buddhism teaches that the Buddha Amida has created a paradise to which any being (not just humans, but gods and animals as well) can have access, simply by accepting Amida's work and grace. All that we human beings should do is to chant Amida's name, not to earn salvation, but out of sheer gratitude. Thus, there are some religions that seem to have a bona fide message of grace.

But a message of grace does not equate to the reality of grace. When you come right down to it, anybody can dream up all kinds of religions, and it shouldn't surprise us that there have been a few times when an idea of grace should have occurred to great religious thinkers of the past.

Still, even in these religions, there are some significant differences to Christianity. For one thing, the larger contexts of salvation give the word "grace" a very different meaning. In both of the above-mentioned religions, the point of salvation is for the human being to escape from the cycle of reincarnations, and the divine beings express their compassion by helping us do so. In Christianity, on the other hand, the basic issue is that our sinfulness has offended God and makes it impossible for us to every restore ourselves to fellowship with God. But then God himself, the offended person, took the necessary steps to reconcile us with himself. This is true and full grace!

Also, as I just mentioned already, we need to distinguish between empty claims of grace and the reality of grace. When Christians invoke the grace of God, they do so, not because it sounds like a really good idea, but because God has demonstrated his grace in the historical person and work of Jesus Christ.

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