Expanding the Scope of God's Grace: Christian Perspectives and Values for Interfaith Relations

By Thomsen, Mark W. | Currents in Theology and Mission, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Expanding the Scope of God's Grace: Christian Perspectives and Values for Interfaith Relations


Thomsen, Mark W., Currents in Theology and Mission


Questions and Challenges

Within the Christian community there are many who are skeptical about expanding our understanding of God's grace. Some are convinced that the expansion of God's grace is a modern perversion of traditional Christianity. There is only one truth, one way. Others are convinced that contemporary thought makes all religious values relative to a particular time and place. There are many truths, many ways.

We propose that the affirmation of Jesus as the truth and the way trusts that God's grace is neither locked up in the faith of Judaism nor confined within Jesus' message and mission. It is Jesus himself who declares that God is universally present and active in the world. This is my proposal for addressing from a theological perspective what I call "the Jesus vision." This vision is grounded in three "Jesus values": love of the enemy, recognition of God's universal presence and action, and the power of God's reign embodied in Jesus and manifest through vulnerable, non-coercive love.

In order to address a variety of Christian questions and visions concerning religious pluralism, I will address a variety of Christian individuals. For example, I am addressing Jack and Robert. Jack and Robert are two individuals with whom I have recently talked. They both grew up in conservative Reformation churches--Lutheran and Reformed. During a recent breakfast, Jack said he had been struggling with a question: "How can I say that Jesus is Lord, the Way, the Truth and the Life and still respect people of other faiths?" His traditional faith seemed to exclude Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews from the presence and activity of God. On another evening Robert had even deeper questions and was angry with the God of his confirmation class instruction: "How could the church possibly condemn everyone outside the Christian family?" Since he no longer believed that the church represented God or truth, he would rather not have anything to do with the church.

To both Jack and Robert I suggested that if we would seriously listen to the Jesus of the Gospel traditions, we would see that Jesus insisted that God is present and active to transform and save the world outside Jesus' ministry as well as through Jesus' ministry. An acknowledgment of God's work outside the Christian vision and church is neither a contemporary innovation nor a revision of orthodoxy. Rather, this message goes back both to the New Testament story of Jesus and to traditions in the Hebrew Bible. This vision has relevance for our interfaith conversation.

At the same time there is a younger generation of post-modernists who are very open to a multiplicity of truths and who question any affirmations of an "ultimate truth." While teaching in Chicago at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, I had many students who came from a variety or pluralistic perspectives. They were Catholic, Unitarian-Universalist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and others. Suzanne represents this perspective, which can be illustrated by the story from India of several blind men describing an elephant. One holds the tail and says an elephant is like a rope. Another explores the leg and describes the elephant as a tree. Still another feels the trunk encircling his body and says the elephant is like a snake. A wise man then suggests that the elephant is a mystery to the blind men. Only by sharing their limited experiences can they begin to explore all which they have encountered.

God, the ultimate mystery, is only partially grasped by peoples of particular faiths. Each faith community has a particular but limited vision of the ultimate reality in which we live, move, and have our being. Interfaith conversations lead to spiritual enrichment as we share our visions of God and our shared life together. However, there is one troubling question: Within our common search for Cod, in whom and where and how do we find life and hope right now? When our foundations shake, when stars fall and galaxies disintegrate, in whom or what do we trust? …

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