Thursday, September 25, 2014

Overcoming religious divisiveness: Robert Hunt on Grace Upon Grace: A World Transformed by Grace

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director, Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology. Dr. Hunt is commenting on the tenth section of the document, "A World Transformed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Grace upon Grace draws upon a central concept, “Grace received is motive of mission.” (Para 61) to address two issues that remain as relevant today as when it was written: the ways in which humans are divided by "nation, color, clan, creed, or culture,” (para 62) and the reality of plurality of religions and ideologies. (para 63)

What is interesting at a distance of decades is that nation, color, clan, creed, and culture are seen as almost intrinsically divisive so that mission is “resisting principalities and powers to love across boundaries,” while religions and ideologies are characterized as part of the “broader community” in which God’s grace is preveniently present. Thus grace received motivates resistance on one hand and "listening sensitively" on the other.

Reading these paragraphs in 2014 I am struck by the naiveté with regard to religious differences, as if they could be dealt with in the framework of a universal prevenient grace in tension with the universal claims of the gospel rather than the divisiveness of the principalities and powers.

The fact is that we find across the Muslim world Islamist zealots engaged in the systematic killing of all non-Muslims and even Muslim sectarians as well as the complete destruction of non-Muslim culture. In Europe we have rising anti-Jewish acts and vitriol from across Europe’s religious and political spectrum. And in Jewish Israel there is the specter of rising violence toward Arab Muslims. In India a Hindu nationalist party has taken power, shaking further the tenuous ground on which non-Hindus, and particularly Christians already stand in a nation where thousands have died in recent years in Hindu attacks on Muslims and Christians. In Burma the UN has confirmed Buddhist attacks on Muslim minorities, leading to both death and widespread destruction. Nor are American Christians free of guilt in this regard. If not yet expressed so violently, Pew Foundation surveys show that Christian attitudes toward many non-Christian religions range from negative to virulently hateful.

But let us assume, for a moment, that those reading this document are, or want to be, free from that kind of bigotry. Is it enough to listen sensitively and with equal sensitivity present the claims of Christ?

I fear not. Religions and ideologies are every bit as much a creation of and tool of human sin as nation, color, clan, creed, and culture. We must recognize that they are, all of them including our own, a realm in which evil is actively at work in the world today even as we recognize that God’s prevenient grace is present also.

And this calls for a missionary analysis of the religions that goes much further that Grace Upon Grace.

A beginning would be to recognize that none of the so-called “world religions” has actually realized its claims to transcend human divisions based on ethnicity, culture, tribe, and clan. They are not what Grace Upon Grace imagines them to be. On the contrary they are, practically speaking, partners in divisiveness with these other forms of exclusive identity. All, including our own, are in thrall to the principalities and powers.

Put less abstractly, within none of them has there emerged a popular consensus regarding the actual social and political mechanisms necessary for fruitful living in a peaceful, multi-religious, nation and world. Christians are largely stuck in Enlightenment concepts of nationhood and civil religion. The great majority of Muslims continue to harken back to essentially medieval concepts of religiously plural states. Hindus have come no further, or at best are divided between pre-modern and modern views. Israel, supposedly a secular state for Jews, continues in an internal crisis of identity related to religion that is partially to blame for its failures with its neighbors. And where Buddhists control government (Thailand, Burma) they likewise cannot imagine a truly religiously plural society and are thus beset by sectarian conflict.

This is not to deny the existence of vigorous “public theologians” in the midst of these religions. It is simply to note that they are a tiny, largely unheard and unaccepted voice.

Seeing this requires that perhaps we view religions, including our own, differently. Religious traditions never interact. Only religious people and religious communities interact. Faiths never interact, only faithful people and communities. Religion never appears to us except in the guise of its gathered followers, just as Christ never appears to others except in the guise of churches.

And this means we need, now more than ever, a dialogue grounded in the political and social realities of a religiously plural world and not in airy conversations about theological abstractions. We need dialogue that leads directly to reconciliation and common action to build communities, not intellectual assent (or dissent) regarding irreconcilable dogmas. And we need a dialogue not among scholars and theologians, but among the real leaders of our religious communities and their real followers.

Above all we need a dialogue focused on the nature of a modern multi-religious state. Anything else is whistling in the rising hurricane of religious bigotry and violence that increasingly makes use of state powers.

Without this, dialogue itself becomes a tool of the very principalities and powers that we must resist.

At the center of paragraph 63 are two statements about what faith requires. Both should earn easy affirmation. “Our faith requires that we present our commitment with integrity; our faith requires that we respect the integrity of others.” Too easy.

In today’s world what Christian faith requires is a vigorous apologetic in the face of vicious intellectual attacks from both non-Christians  and anti-Christian ideologues. What faith requires is that we respect others enough to hold them accountable for their words and actions, and to hold ourselves accountable for our own undertaken in the name of Christ. What faith requires is that the innocent, the widow, the orphan, the weak, the poor, be protected regardless of their religion and often in spite of it.

What faith requires is an open eyed recognition that religion is at least as much a problem as a solution to the violent divisiveness in our world, and that unless all religious people find a way together to imagine otherwise, it will rightly be rejected by coming generations. There was a time before Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Unless religious people begin to engage in real dialogue there will come a time when they are no more.


  1. Very incisive analysis, Robert. Thank you. Echoing Barth's thundering against "religion," you, crucially, add the need for sustained social and political analysis in accounting for the complex and ambiguous way religions function today for good and ill. As far as the nature of dialogue: I remain impressed by the nuanced and multifaceted definition of mission put forward by the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences some years ago. They call for a fourfold dialogue in the multireligious context of Asia: (a) a "dialogue of life," pointing to people living in solidarity of common struggle and joy in everyday life; (b) a "dialogue of action," in which religious believers make common cause around questions of social and political betterment of their societies; (c) a "dialogue of theological exchange," which resembles our customary understanding of interreligious dialogue; and (d) a "dialogue of religious experience," in which religious believers share the wealth of the religious experiences with one another (contemplation, prayer, etc.). What strikes me most about this definition, in the context of your reflections above, is what I take as the goal of the dialogue the bishops envision: genuine friendship, grounded in shared living at all levels of life. Might not such friendship, borne of deep solidarity, not offer better possibilities for the "vigorous (prophetic) apologetic" you rightly call for?

  2. Hopefully dialogue in all its dimensions will build the kinds of friendships and trust in which we can both call each other into account and listen critically to other voices. Unfortunately this kind of dialogue takes two willing partners and a climate of relative trust and freedom. Right now, most notably in parts of the Middle East but equally in North Africa, the Subcontinent, and Southeast Asia there are strong forces using religion as a means and excuse to destroy or completely marginalize all religious difference. These forces are present in the West in calls for the purification of Christian countries of all religious difference, or at least the marginalization of non-Christian religions in the public square. Thus a robust religious defense of a plurality of religious voices, including Christian and non-Christian voices in the public square has become the necessary precondition for the kind of dialogue the Asian Bishops advocated, but which almost without exception is now impossible for their own communities. Put another way, I believe the bishops imagined, as we all did in Asia in the 1980's, that we lived in nations on the cusp of becoming modern, religiously and ethnically plural states. Now it appears that this confidence was premature. In fact modernity has not provided most of its denizens an adequate means of identifying themselves as human in relation to their fellow humans. Thus we need to step back and re-examine the terms of the social contract to more thoroughly root our acceptance of it in our distinctive religious identities, and avoid in the meantime destroying or being destroyed.