by Rev D. M. Boyd
The Inter-Faith Movement: The New Age enters the Church by Herbert J. Pollitt.
The Banner of Truth Trust, 1996, Paperback, 214 pages, £6.95, reduced to £5.50; ISBN 0-85151-680-7
Available from the F. P. Bookroom, 133 Woodlands Road, Glasgow, G3 6LE.
WHAT has Prince Philip to do with the inter-faith movement? How has the Virgin Mary assumed such importance in the inter-faith dialogue between the Roman Catholics and the Muslims? How much New Age and inter-faith worship is tolerated in the Church of England? The answers to these questions can be gleaned from this publication.
This book aims to demonstrate “the marginalization of Christ in the emerging global religious, cultural and political consciousness of the age”, and that “a combination of academic theologians, leaders of main-line denominations and inter-faith activists, agree that the great world religions all express an identical transcendence. All lead to the knowledge of God, and therefore all are possessed of a common unity”. However, Dr Pollitt, who spent his teaching career in schools and colleges of education, sets out to demonstrate that this modern consensus is wrong, because “the ‘divine’ allegedly found in each religion is as different as the religions themselves, and that the message of historic Christianity cannot be adjusted to any idea of a universal faith”.
In a preliminary survey of the inter-faith movement, familiar names crop up. The World Parliament of Religions, which commenced in 1893, and Sir Francis Younghusband, who was the founder of the World Congress of Faiths (WCF) in 1936, are introduced. In 1986 the WCF celebrated its jubilee year by inviting the then Archbishop of Canterbury to address its 10th annual lecture. In this lecture Dr Robert Runcie demonstrated how far he had moved from the exclusive and unique claims of Christianity.
Dr Pollitt then profiles some prominent theologians who are involved in the inter-faith movement, either as pluralists (those holding the “position which abandons all insistence on the superiority or finality of Christ and Christianity and [who recognize] the independent saving validity of other faiths”; pluralism has become a more common term than ‘inter-faith’), or as syncretists (those who believe that present religions, although containing divine revelatory elements, are inadequate and so the best aspects of each need to be harmonised into a new religion), or as both.
In the next chapter, Dr Pollitt gives much interesting information about the New Age movement’s involvement in Roman Catholicism, the World Council of Churches and the Church of England. Those who are not familiar with this will be surprised to discover how much is tolerated in the Church of England. For example, there was an inter-faith service in Newcastle Cathedral in which Rama (the seventh incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu) was worshipped as “Lord, King and Lord of all”. A Hindu idol was brought into the cathedral to the accompaniment of chanting, dancing and the offering of flowers. Muslims, Sikhs and Baha’is adored their own deities. The name of Jesus was not mentioned. Pollitt says that Christian principles have been flouted in the inter-faith events during the Commonwealth Day Observances. The Queen has given too much support to these events, and we may mention in passing that the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland has repeatedly protested to Her Majesty about this.
In a further chapter, on Environmentalism and Inter-Faith, Pollitt seeks to bridge the gap between these two movements by introducing his readers to Martin Palmer’s new age influence on the World Wildlife Fund for Nature and the Church of England. In 1983, Palmer founded his own religious and educational consultancy, the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture (ICOREC), which sought to promote a greater understanding of the religions and cultures of the world. In Palmer’s new age theology “nature is given the divine prerogative of forgiveness”. This has its roots in the “creation-centred spirituality” of the Roman Catholic Dominican, (now turned American Episcopal priest), Matthew Fox, and the “theology of evolution” of the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin.
In the final chapter, the common ground between the inter-faith movement and the New Age movement is illustrated from Martin Palmer’s influence upon the Church of England. “With so much common ground between them, it is not surprising that supporters of the inter-faith movement have provided a platform for the New Age movement.”
Having completed his survey he holds up these unbiblical movements to the light of Scripture and to the claims and all-sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ. Pollitt believes “that the ‘divine’ allegedly found in each religion is as different as the religions themselves”. This is a point well worth repeating and emphasising. He also points out that “the message of historic Christianity cannot be adjusted to any idea of a universal faith”. The reinterpretation of Christianity and the Bible is the error of the times which needs to be exposed. Interacting with Palmer, Pollitt points out that it is not good enough to write that the cross of Christ “shapes my understanding of all life”. “Palmer’s rejection of the objective nature of the atonement follows from his rejections [sic] of penal substitution. The cross which is significant to him is not the biblical cross.”
The title of this book gives the impression that the inter-faith movement is the effect of the New Age movement, which is slightly misleading. Besides, as a word, ‘inter-faith’ does not convey the idea that ‘multi-faith’ does. ‘Multi-faith’ gets across the idea that the protagonists are taking on board more than one religion at the same time, that is, that no one religion is sufficient. In the midst of all the facts and details supplied by Dr Pollitt, it is rather easy to lose the line of his argument. However, the overall impression is clear enough, which is “to demonstrate the marginalization of Christ in the emerging global religious, cultural and political consciousness of the age”.
This reviewer found the section on the Roman Catholic Church particularly enlightening. The first declaration of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Lumen Gentium, “holds out the hope of salvation to the adherents of all faiths and to those who seek God apart from Christ”. This attitude had been anticipated by two Roman Catholic mystics, the English Benedictine monk, Dom Bede Griffiths, and the American Trappist, Thomas Merton, whose mysticism enabled them to promote the rapprochement of Romanism and Eastern religions. The Vatican II Documents accept other major religions as true preparations for Romanism.
This inter-faith thinking is behind the World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi, in which the pope took the initiative and personally brought together 160 leaders of world religions at Assisi on 27th October 1986. These leaders included Dr Robert Runcie of the Church of England, the Dalai Lama, and representatives of Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and ‘Protestantism’, together with American medicine men who called on the Great Spirit, snake worshippers from Togo, African animists, and Zoroastrians. This meeting was a follow-on from the Vatican II document Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions which sets the tone for inter-faith dialogue.
Further, an informative explanation is given of the dialogue between Romanism and Islam. The devotion of the present pope for the Virgin Mary is well known. He attributes his survival from the assassin’s bullet to “Our Lady of Fatima”. Fatima seems to be a cross-over point for dialogue with Islam, for Fatima was the name of a daughter of Mohammed who is venerated by Muslims. “When a ‘Pilgrim Virgin’, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, toured Africa and Asia, millions flocked to venerate the statue and learn of Our Lady’s ‘Peace Plan from Heaven’. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs were particularly enthusiastic. The Muslims, who have a certain devotion to Mary and recognize her Virgin Birth and Immaculate Conception, were intrigued by the fact that Mary had appeared at Fatima, which was the name of Muhammad’s favourite daughter and regarded by the prophet as the highest woman in Heaven after our Lady.” The pope John Paul II believes that Christians and Muslims both worship the same God. In his opening address at the Assisi meeting, he declared that whereas the faiths were to pray separately, yet they would be praying to the same God. It is noticeable that many of the central characters in Pollitt’s survey of the inter-faith movement are Roman Catholics, and that the pope himself is involved. Rome is no guardian of “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints”.
This reviewer does not think that the Roman agenda has changed one whit. The ecumenical and inter-faith language of Vatican II, and the current activities of the pope and his cohorts, is simply a cynical manipulation of other ‘faiths’. Whereas there is a token acknowledgment of the religious faith in other religions, Rome has not moved one iota from its declaration that the ‘fulness’ of God’s revelation is still to be found only with itself. The outcome is plain; other religions must be persuaded to accept this. This is to be accomplished by ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue. In these ecumenical and inter-faith worship sessions, Rome studiously avoids mixing its own ceremonies with that of others. It will not allow the impression that one form of worship is as good as another. Church of Scotland ministers call for inter-communion, but Cardinal Thomas Winning bleats that it is unfair to hurry the process. If Winning was frank, or if there were journalists who knew enough about the subject to press the point, we would discover that Rome cannot and never will compromise its own rites by mixing them indiscriminately with those rites of other faiths. The Roman cry is, ‘No surrender of our claims.’
It is no surprise to discover the role that mysticism plays in the inter-faith movement. Mysticism exalts experience above doctrine. It declares that those who have similar experiences of ‘God’ are one in their worship whatever their doctrine is. Pollitt writes: “It is believed that this unity may be brought about by exploration of the mystical element in all religions.” Experience is considered to be more important than doctrine. Friedrich Schleiermacher’s influence promoted experience above doctrine in the 19th century Protestant world. In the latter part of the 20th century, the ‘second blessing’ experience of the charismatic movement has done much to promote ecumenism with Rome. Mysticism, the inter-faith movement and the New Age movement have in common the exaltation of religious experience above doctrine. The safeguard against being blown about with every wind of doctrine is to be firmly grounded in the truth of holy scripture and in the biblical method of testing the spirits to see whether they are of God (1 John 4:1). More than once Pollitt draws attention to the unhealthy spiritual influences which affected some of these inter-faith leaders while they were yet young people.
The New Age has its own counterfeit of the biblical doctrine of the new birth. It is a mystical experience that initiates one’s entry into the New Age, by a heightened stage of consciousness. The author gives examples of this experiential mysticism, for example, see pages 167 and 169. The author hopes to reclaim the “many who are participating, even marginally, in inter-faith activity, to make them aware of the extent to which they are being blown about by the spirit of the age instead of furthering the kingdom of God”. Dr Pollitt wishes to warn the evangelical world about the inter-faith implications of various activities. For example, he points out that the Greenbelt Festival (an annual so-called evangelical event) in August 1994 was inspired by the pagan Gaia (mother earth) concept rather than by the Bible. He explains the involvement of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the inter-faith movement. One month before the pope’s inter-faith gathering at Assisi, the WWF also held an inter-faith event at Assisi to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary. Under the aegis of its President, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, five religions took part, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. The Radio Times informs us that Prince Philip became interested in bringing the different religions together to buttress the environmental cause when he read a WWF-sponsored book Worlds of Difference by Martin Palmer and Esther Bissett, for use in schools, telling the creation stories of eight different religions. The Duke of Edinburgh brought in Palmer, who had founded the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture, to organise the WWF celebration on inter-faith lines in order to establish an alliance between conservation and the forces of religion. Palmer has written: “Sadly, it has to be said that the Church has tended to lose sight of the fact that salvation was for ‘everything on earth’ and has presented the atonement of Christ as basically of significance only to human beings.” The environmentalist inter-faith movement has now taken us beyond the 19th century double reference theory of the atonement to a triple reference theory! Christ’s atonement now has reference to the environment!
This cross-over between the inter-faith movement and environmentalism is very enlightening. The fear of environmental destruction is very real among environmentalists, and sometimes takes on the dimension of religious fear. Pollitt gives examples of services where the forgiveness of ‘mother earth’ is sought for man’s abuse of her resources. It is possibly a hang-over from the post-war fear of nuclear destruction. Matthew Fox considers the danger of a nuclear holocaust to be the most original sin of all. Martin Palmer sees redemption not just for mankind but for the whole of creation; and he bases it on the Noahic covenant. This is why the symbol of the rainbow is taking on more significance in environmental circles. Just as the red ribbon shows ‘AIDS awareness’, so the rainbow shows ‘environmental awareness’. Palmer’s foundation, ICOREC, has organised inter-faith festivals in several Anglican cathedrals. At one of these, the Dean of Winchester cathedral said: “As a priest, I can offer absolution from God for those sins for which we ask his forgiveness. Today we have to hope for forgiveness from Nature. We shall not know if Nature has forgiven us for many years to come.” Although there is much emphasis on the rainbow covenant, Pollitt legitimately points out that he thinks that these people are doubting God’s covenant “The Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done” (Genesis 8:21-22). The inter-faith environmentalists fear Mother Nature more than God; God will forgive but they do not know if Nature will. It is helpful to compare this fear with the Saviour’s words: “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mat. 10:28).
It is important to notice the extent to which false religion relies on faulty exegesis of scripture. For example, Moses’ anger with Israel is because “they were whoring after the past gods! They were worshipping the religion of the previous age, the Age of the Bull. They refused to face the new spiritual consciousness that Moses issued in, that of the Age of the Ram”, p. 133. The forcing of the New Age agenda is plain to those familiar with it, but even those who are unfamiliar with the New Age agenda would not be taken in by such ranting if they were even remotely familiar with the teaching of scripture. The willingness to receive such teaching reveals the extent of the biblical illiteracy in New Age devotees. But it also reveals that behind this faulty exegesis of scripture is the loss of confidence in the Bible as God’s inspired revelation, which therefore allows people to twist scripture into the mould which they wish; for examples, see pp.150,154. The remedy is clear to exegete scripture properly by prayerful familiarity with it.
This is a useful book for the areas which it covers. There is interesting information on the thinking of inter-faith movement theologians which will be of interest to scholars. Ecumenism has progressed to inter-faith ecumenism. This reviewer still awaits an exposure of the involvement of Freemasonry in the inter-faith movement. Freemasonry is in essence inter-faith and it has existed longer than the overt inter-faith movement (cf. the annual Religion and Morals Report to the Synod, Synod Proceedings 1988, p.6).
There are very few misprints in the book, (pp.162, 163, 177, 192, 206), maintaining the high standard of the Banner of Truth, and it is well-referenced, but the style of writing could have been clearer. Some readers may criticise Pollitt’s detailing of the mystical bent of mind of these theologians as rather turgid, but such is the nature of the subject; and Pollitt summarises it more succinctly in his chapter on “Common Ground”. The seven page index is welcome, but it is not very exhaustive. Pluralism does not occur in the index, nor does the World Parliament of Religions nor does the Church of Scotland appear, which Pollitt mentions because the General Assembly failed to affirm the uniqueness of Christ. In May 1993 the General Assembly rejected a resolution to affirm ‘the teaching of Scripture that Jesus Christ, the incarnate, crucified and risen Son of God is the only Saviour of men and women’ and to ‘restate the Church of Scotland’s commitment to worldwide evangelism’.
This is indeed the question. “What think ye of Christ?” “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets” (Mat. 16:13-14). Commenting on these words, Hugh Martin writes: “They carry their religion no higher than waiting on the ministry of men. Thou art somewhat in their estimation; and thy religion they cannot possibly quite get rid of. But it is only as if thou wert such an one as themselves; or, at least, some very holy fellow-creature, with whom they could take their own way. They deal with thee as if thou wert only ‘John’, or ‘Elias’, or ‘Jeremias’, or some sacred but human prophet.” “He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Mat. 16:15-17).
Pluralism is in danger of entering the reformed churches. In 1996, at the Reformed Ecumenical Council, Klaas Runia, retired president of the theological seminary of the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN) at Kampen, The Netherlands, read a paper which cast sufficient doubt upon the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation that some have said that pluralism will become the main focus of debate over the next 25-50 years in the churches, not women and worship. The GKN changed its church order regarding mission to the Jews. “In the past our church order said we have to witness to Jews on the basis of Christ, we now say we bear mutual witness,” said Runia.
The new inclusivist approach, which appreciates non-Christian religions, is challenging the exclusivist approach of historic and biblical Christianity. While inclusivists may refrain from saying that the non-Christian religion can itself save a person, it tends to accept that Christ is in these other religions and that it is always Christ who saves by His hidden presence in the other religion. Klaas Runia attempts to give historical credibility to this view by saying that it dates from the second century theologian Justin Martyr, and he says it is held today in various forms by a number of Roman Catholic leaders. Runia adds: “I can’t believe that God would not have heard the cries of the Old Covenant people when they cried out in Auschwitz. I would certainly not exclude the possibility of a Muslim in his deep distress calling out to Allah, that his prayer is heard by the God in whom we believe.” This is the more dangerous as Runia has been long regarded as one of the most prominent conservatives in his denomination.
There is as much need today to preach, even to religious leaders, what the apostle Peter preached before the Jerusalem council: “This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12).
“Many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:30-31).