Challenges of Defining “Religion” and the Significance of Pluralism

June 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Defining religion is challenging due to both the depth and breadth of the construct. Certainly a multidimensional construct, the term “religion” is often too varied and vague to be useful making it nearly impossible to establish a consensus on the precise meaning. Various dimensions of “religion” are: system of beliefs, symbolic archetypes, moral codes, trans-formative experiences, ritual acts (worship) and practices (prayer), shared worldviews, identity and ideology and social group bounded by the above . However the great missiological concern is how the gospel can be taken to those who have not heart it and how missionaries can best carry out the great commission. The missiological focus is often on the interaction of world religions with the Christian faith. In these terms religion is often best defined by function. The function of religion is often based on the answer to four questions: 1. What is the ideal or perfect state of present or future existence? 2. What has gone wrong such as sin, disorder, or ignorance? 3. How can things be made right such as a call to action, repent and believe, or submission? 4. How should we live as a result? (Adapted from Dr. Martin, Lecture 1)

The key challenge in defining religion can be summed up in two interrelated tensions: the difference of religion on the levels of institutional versus personal, and the difference of ‘religion’ versus relationship. At the individual or personal level it’s important to note that ‘religion’ in itself doesn’t save, only a relationship with Christ based on repentance and belief. Most Pharisees in the Bible were devout religious persons however Christ made it clear that only those who followed and trusted him would meet the Father. The second tension is between the institutional and personal levels of religion. A relationship with Christ leads the follower to express worship to him in the community of believers. This takes the unit of analysis from the individual level to the group level. However, at the group level; practices, codes, systems of shared beliefs and social groups bound by shared worldview, identity and/or ideology have a tendency to institutionalize. By institutionalization I mean the tendency to forget or drift from the true reason, mission or purpose the group was organized in the first place. It’s the practice of religion at the institutional level and the inclusion of adherents without personal relationships to Christ that creates the challenge.

Religious pluralism concerns the value, understanding, co-existence, acceptance and promotes the tolerance and freedom of persecution of adherents of various religions. An ideological perspective argues that religious pluralism is a good thing because it provides a rich mosaic in which to live. Another perspective is that religious pluralism is a reality of the world in which we live. Globalization allows people from all backgrounds and nationalities to interact in ever easier ways. Immigration continues so the ‘world’ is literally coming to our footstep. As competition in the religious marketplace continues to increase it’s important for Christians to be prepared to share the gospel in culturally sensitive ways. At a macro-level, the acknowledgment of religious pluralism is important to better understand global political systems and to be able to use our influence to push for the freedom of religion in currently closed countries. The situation today is different from the past in that we no longer have a choice to acknowledge religious pluralism if we hope to be effective missionaries for Christ, both locally and globally. (Adapted from Dr. Terry Muck, “Religious Pluralism,” lecture given at Asbury Theological Seminary, Fall 2001)


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