Saturday, December 15, 2007

Evangelism, Religious Liberty, and Tolerance

Does believing in religious liberty and that every person has the right to practice and propagate his beliefs necessarily suggest that we are promoting an acceptance of differing religions and religious beliefs?

Of course it does not, unless you confuse tolerance with acceptance, which many do. Tolerance says that I accept your right to believe what you believe, even (and especially) if I believe that you are absolutely wrong. But I will not compel you to believe others or hinder you from practicing your religion just as long as you do not harm someone in the process. I can still respect your rights and at the same time try to convince you of your error. But I cannot and will not force you to change your mind. This is a far cry from accepting your beliefs as just a legitimate as my own or suggesting that the differences really don't matter or are insignificant.

What got me thinking about this were a couple of things that came across my desk this week. The first was a letter from a man in Alberta who accused VOMC of glorifying persecution without suggesting any solutions to the problem. He suggested that it was wrong to believe, as we do, in religious liberty; that everyone has the right to practice and propagate his beliefs. In the light of Islamist terrorism and religious persecution, this was naïve and wrong, in his opinion. His letter and his self-published book that he included were rather unclear on just how he wanted people to respond effectively to the threat of Islam, but I gathered (as best I could) that he wanted the West to rise up and suppress Islam.

The second was the Doctrinal Note on evangelism released yesterday by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome. While I am not a Roman Catholic, as a theologian I have come to appreciate the doctrinal emphasis of Benedict XVI. In this Doctrinal Note (a summary is available here and a photocopy of the full document here), the statement is rightfully made that "respect for religious freedom and its promotion does not in any way make us indifferent towards truth and goodness. Indeed, love impels the followers of Christ to proclaim to all the truth which saves." This document affirms that evangelism is the right and duty of the Christian but also insists that "coercion or improper enticement that fails to respect the dignity and religious freedom of the partners in that dialogue has no place in Christian evangelization." This 14-page document is apparently the result of a process begun by the present pope when he was still the prefect of the CDF as he saw a pressing need to challenge a pluralistic theology of religion which essentially states that all religions are equally valid in leading a person to salvation.

I share this concern and strongly hold that we can hold a belief in religious liberty and a belief in the exclusive claims of Christ at one and the same time. It's just too bad that some of my zealous brothers and sisters who believe so strongly in truth seem to feel that they must silence those whom they perceive to be a threat. It was just this spirit that led to some of the horrible persecution instigated in the name of Christ against fellow Christians in the past.

Richard Bell, in his 1925 Gunning Lectures at Edinburgh University, made an astute observation about one of the possible reasons for the rapid collapse of Christianity in the seventh century in the face of the Islam. Bell suggests that it was largely due to the fact that, over time, church leaders lost sight of some significant truths as they engaged in the crucial battles over the nature of Christ and the Trinity during the fourth to sixth centuries. The Christians of those ages, proud in the possession of the truth, appear to have lost faith in the power of the truth ultimately to triumph over error, and the duty of love towards fellow-men, not to speak of fellow-Christians, was forgotten in the zeal for orthodoxy. Having gradually gained political power through the legalization of Christianity with the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, Christian leaders increasingly called upon the secular authorities to enforce fidelity to the decisions of various church councils. In the process, they seemed to forget that force is no attribute of God and, therefore, neither should it be an attribute of His people. Doctrinal orthodoxy is unquestionably essential to the Church, but its enforcement must be in line with the character of the God. Bells suggests that the trouble with the Church in the sixth century lay not so much in its intellectual activity and theological speculation as in the impatience of the Church. This is not to say that error should go unchecked. However, it should be done with tears and not a clenched fist.

In the same way, evangelism and apologetics need to take place without apology for holding to and proclaiming truth but always in a spirit of love and respect, trusting God for the results

1 comment:

nachtwache said...

Amen! It's so simple, why is it so hard for people to see?
Free will, God gave it to us, who are we to try and take it away?
About the letter writers aim at Islam, terrorism needs to be dealt with by governments, terrorists commit illegal acts, thus the legal system has to deal with them. It's not up to Christian groups and churches to take that on except in the way that we pray for these lost people and keep sharing the gospel.