John Stackhouse is the Samuel J. Mikolaski
professor of religious studies at Crandall
University in Moncton, N.B., and the author of
Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian
Epistemology (Oxford University Press, 2014). Find
more of these columns at www.faithtoday.ca/
How often have you heard the following saying? “Religion is man reaching up ward to God, while Christianity
alone speaks of God reaching down
to man.” Perhaps you’ve heard it in
a sermon or book?
Or what about this old chestnut?
“Other religions offer salvation by
works. Only Christianity preaches
grace.” You might even have used
that one yourself.
Now that the world has come to
Canada, in the form of immigrants
of every race and religion, we have
to re-examine inherited “truths”
and beware of perpetuating stereotypes.
These two timeworn clichés
among Evangelicals need to be retired and replaced with something
both truer and better.
Both are ignorant, for example,
of the Hare Krishnas. For a time
they were a common sight in our
airports and on our street corners,
banging their drums, chanting
their prayers and offering flowers
or books for sale. Some had distinctive haircuts, bald but for a
ponytail. What was that about?
It was about Lord Krishna hearing their prayers and reaching
down to pull them up by those
ponytails into a heaven they could
not otherwise merit. Indeed, the
most popular forms of Hinduism
generally are bhakti – devotion to
a god (Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva and
the like) who will reach down to
give the faithful the help they need
to avoid the strict outcomes in reincarnation of their respective
Another major religion that
speaks of God reaching down is
Buddhism. Popular forms depict the
Buddha as a heavenly being who,
moved by compassion, came to Earth
to be born as Prince Siddhartha and
grow up into the sage who would
bring enlightenment to all.
And Judaism, which shares ancestry with Christianity in ancient
Israelite religion, thus shares with
us Christians belief in a God who
came down to speak out of a burning bush, give the Law on the top
of a mountain, and dwell with His
people in a tent and then a temple.
As for the second cliché, is it true
that Christianity is the only religion
preaching that the Supreme Being
offers us unmerited favour, gifting
us with blessing beyond our deserts? We need look no further than
Islam for a counterexample.
Yes, Islam’s God is often depicted
as using a dread set of scales in
which our actions are weighed to see
if we merit his approval, and certainly much folk Islam is of this sort.
But so is a lot of popular Christianity
equally legalistic and moralistic.
In fact the Qur’an speaks of God
as “the Compassionate, the Merci-
ful.” Every major division (or surah)
begins with this same phrase: “In
the name of God, the Compassion-
ate, the Merciful.” (Actually, all but
one begin that way, and many
scholars therefore conclude the
exceptional surah is merely the
second half of a surah inadvertently
severed early in the tradition.)
The most popular form of Buddhism in Japan is Pure Land Buddhism, which trusts the Amida
Buddha to graciously help us arrive
after death in his Pure Land, an
optimal place in which to meditate
to achieve final nirvana.
Indeed, the largest segment of
Buddhism globally is Mahayana, the
“Greater Vehicle,” which offers the
assistance of dozens of buddhas and
bodhisattvas – enlightened ones
who, out of compassion, voluntarily
delay their release into nirvana to
attend to the prayers of devotees for
aid along the Noble Eightfold Path
of deliverance from suffering.
We Christians therefore must
stop repeating these oversimplifications. They are wrong and can be
offensive to our neighbours.
We must celebrate, instead, that
the most popular forms of religion
in the world feature the opportunity
to call for help from supernatural
beings, rather than rely on our own
merits. Isn’t that interesting? And
isn’t that a lovely opportunity in
which to share the gospel?
And we must proclaim that
gospel, which has at its heart a God
who not only reached down to
humankind to offer grace, but actually became human to suffer and
die in our place, and unite humanity to Himself in resurrection, so
He might call all of us to join the
circle of divine love forever.
That is the global salvation and
amazing grace found in Christ
We must stop repeating these over-
simplifications. They are wrong and
can be offensive to our neighbours.
CHRIST & CULTURE IN CANADA
JOHN G. STACKHOUSE JR.
Celebrating grace in all religions
– and especially ours
Let’s stop oversimplifying differences in what religions teach
32. 8 MILLION)
HO W CANADIANS
SELF-IDEN TIF Y