Muslim Priest and Buddhist Bishop-Elect Are Raising Questions About Syncretism
Jesus saves, the Episcopal Church teaches, but a growing number of its clergy and leaders believe other faiths may lead to salvation as well. Long divided and distracted by questions of sexual ethics, the Episcopal Church (along with most mainline Protestant communities) are facing a cultural and theological shift towards religious pluralismthe belief that there are diverse paths to God.
The debate is not just academic. In two current cases, Episcopal clergy are under scrutiny for practicing and promoting other religions. On February 12 a devotee of Zen Buddhism was elected bishop of the Episcopal Church's Northern Michigan diocese. Meanwhile, a Seattle-area priest has been given until March 30 to decide whether she is a Muslim or a Christian as her bishop will not permit her to profess both faiths.
The Episcopal Church's problems with syncretismthe blending of belief systemscomes as no surprise to Wade Clark Roof, professor of Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara and a leading sociologist of religion. "Clearly there are people, including religious leaders, [who find] spiritual wisdom in faiths other than their own," he told Christianity Today.
This openness to other faiths is "in some respects good in an age of global religious diversity when tolerance and respect are essential to our peace if not our survival," he said. There is also something healthy about seeing "Christ in the face of the other," he said, quoting Thomas Merton. "It implies not just acceptance of the religious other, but something of the intrinsic similarities among people despite their differences."
But the spread of syncretism within mainstream Christianity is an even greater threat to the church than the 2003 election of a gay bishop, Episcopal theologian Kendall Harmon of South Carolina told Christianity Today. It imperils interfaith dialogue by detaching Christianity from its doctrinal and historical core, he argued. "To be a Christian is to worship Jesus," Harmon said. "To lose that is to lose the center of Christian truth and identity."
The shift towards pluralism has been long in coming. In his 1993 book, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, Roof reported that surveys of American baby boomersProtestant, Catholic, or Jewish, liberal or conservativeall showed a trend towards religious consumerism. The values of the new generation were focused on choice, tolerance of different lifestyles, blending faith and psychologya cafeteria-style religion where you believe in whatever works best for you.
Roof called this individualistic religious consumerism "transformed narcissism," and predicted it would come to dominate American religious life. The results of an August 2008 study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life appear to bear him out: a majority of American Christians (52%) believe that some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life.
Even a significant minority (47%) of evangelical Christians in the U.S. believe that many religions can lead to eternal life, the Pew Forum found. Of these evangelicals who say there are multiple paths to salvation, 35 percent believe that Islam and 33 percent believe that Hinduism can lead to eternal life, while 26 percent believe that atheists can achieve eternal life.
While the question of salvation outside the Christian faith is not new, the recent cultural movement toward religious pluralism has found champions among theologians. "Pluralists" such as the Presbyterian theologian John Hick and Roman Catholics Paul Knitter and Raimon Panikkar have argued that Christianity does not have the right to make an exclusive claim to the truth.