March 2018 Pulse
It is perhaps common knowledge that Singapore is the most religiously diverse country in the world. According to a 2014 study from Pew Research, 33.9 per cent of its population is Buddhist, 18.2 per cent Christian, 14.3 per cent Muslim, 5.2 per cent Hindu, 2.3 per cent adhering to folk religions, and 9.7 per cent classified in other religious groups. 16.4 per cent of the population claim to have no religious affiliation.
In the wake of the tense security climate in the region – and indeed, worldwide – the Singapore government has repeatedly urged Singaporeans not only to be vigilant, but also to arrest the spread of extremist ideologies and keep in check exclusivist religious views.
However, the pairing of extremism with exclusivism may give the unfortunate impression that they are the ‘evil twins’ that are harmful and detrimental to the delicate social and religious harmony that we must all strive to preserve. Exclusivist views, especially religious ones, are invariably seen as divisive and a catalyst for fostering ill will between the different faith communities.
While the fundamental concerns of the government are very real and therefore should be taken seriously by faith communities in Singapore, some important clarifications are in order if we are to achieve a more nuanced appreciation of religious exclusivism.
These clarifications are important because Christianity makes exclusive claims about God and the world. It declares that the one God who created the universe is revealed in Jesus Christ, who is the way, truth and life (John 14:6) and therefore the only Saviour and Lord of all people at all times.
Of course, Christianity is not the only religion that makes exclusive truth-claims about God, the human condition and the world in which we inhabit. Most religions, especially the monotheistic faiths, present a vision of reality that it holds to be true in some absolutist sense.
In fact, anyone who is really concerned about the truth would have exclusivist convictions in one form or another. Even the religious pluralist, like the famous philosopher of religion John Hick, who argues that all religions point and lead to the one and the same Ultimate Reality is making a claim that has an exclusivist overtone.
Two fundamental reasons are routinely rehearsed for the current rejection of exclusivism that has become so pervasive in Western societies.
The first has to do with the view that exclusivism – especially religious exclusivism – is simply false. Exclusivism, it is argued, is the result of a kind of jaundiced or blinkered view of reality that is fostered by some version of religious authoritarianism.
And the second reason – which may or may not be related to the first – is that exclusivism is bad or even immoral. Exclusivism is arrogant, abrasive and hostile. It breeds intolerance and discrimination. It results in extremism and, in some cases, even violence.
The present relativistic culture that is so easily scandalised by the claims of objective truth, and where the careless rhetoric of inclusivism and pluralism dominates, has supported the attack on exclusivism by appealing to both its alleged falsehood and intolerance.
Christian theologians and apologists have written tomes to demonstrate the rationality and reasonableness of the Christian Faith. But Christians must also take seriously the second issue related to the modern war on exclusivism, namely, that it spawns intolerance, exclusion and violence.
Christians maintain that the truths they have received by divine revelation are not true only for the Christian community. Rather, as the missionary bishop and theologian Leslie Newbigin puts it, Christians are called to proclaim the Gospel because it is public truth.
Of the original communicators of the Gospel Newbigin writes: ‘They affirmed that the message which had been entrusted to them was one which concerned the destiny of the whole human race. The one who had died and risen again was the saviour and judge of the world. The news was of vital concern to every human being’.
While Christians must continue to uphold and proclaim the truths concerning God and the world they have received from Scripture, they must always do so with sensitivity and respect for people who do not share their convictions. Christian witness must always be governed by agape, a love that is both patient and kind towards the religious other.
This is clearly articulated in The Cape Town Commitment (2011), prepared by the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation. While the document states that the ‘[s]poken proclamation of the truth of the gospel remains paramount in our mission’, it is emphatic that this must always be done respectfully.
Furthermore, in a pluralist society Christian witness should always include dialogue. As Newbigin has succinctly articulated it: ‘To affirm the Gospel as public truth is not to assert dominance but to invite dialogue’.
In its paper on inter-faith relations entitled, ‘On Being a Neighbour’ (2002), the National Council of Churches in Singapore maintains that inter-faith dialogue must be seen as ‘an aspect of the larger matrix of social intercourse between persons’. It adds that ‘Christians should not be afraid to dialogue with members of other religions’.
Dialogue should not be seen as the sure road to syncretistic compromise or confused with some form of pluralistic theology where truth-claims are relativised and subjected to negotiations and revisions. Dialogue must be seen as part of Christian witness because Christian witness itself must always be understood relationally (and therefore dialogically).
This means that Christians should reject all forms of coercion and use of force to pressure the religious other to accept their vision of reality or their way of life. Rather, they must always respect the religious rights of others and therefore their inherent dignity by acknowledging their liberty of conscience.
As The Williamsburg Charter (1988), that was penned by Os Guiness and signed by 100 prominent figures in the States, puts it: ‘The right to freedom of conscience is premised not upon science, nor upon social utility, nor upon pride of species. Rather, it is premised upon the inviolable dignity of the human person. It is the foundation of, and is integrally related to, all other rights and freedoms …’
Finally, Christian exclusivism should never be arrogant or abrasive. The Church must see herself as God’s humble witness that is given the special privilege and an awesome responsibility to testify to God’s unimaginable love, grace and mercy that she has herself received (unworthy as she is).
It is out of this deep sense of gratitude and thanksgiving that the Church faces the world as God’s witness. As Newbigin explains, the Church faces the world merely as the ‘arrabon of that salvation – as sign, first fruit, token, witness of that salvation which God purposes for the whole’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.