By David Lewellen
As well as many languages and cultures, God has also ordained many religions, Emmanuel Lartey told the NACC conference.
“God wishes there to be many different religious traditions and for people to belong to many religious journeys,” said Lartey, a professor of pastoral theology at Emory University in Atlanta. It is a conviction born of his own experience as a native of Ghana, a member of a pluralistic culture that was open to many influences.
Christianity and other Western influences, of course, came to most of Africa under the banner of colonialism. But post-colonial African Christianity continues to re-evaluate colonial attitudes.
As an example, Lartey cited the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. The migratory people who settled and began to build upward were, he said, interfering with the divine diversity of creation. But in the hegemonic, name-seeking desire to dominate, the “variety intended to be characteristic of humanity was at risk. … This is the very essence of colonization. The language, custom, way of life of one people imposed upon all. God the creator of all diversity cannot abide such hegemonic control.” Far from being a punishment, in God’s creation of multiple languages, “Now each must have their own voice, each must speak for themselves. God pluralizes their culture and their way of life.”
Language is important to diversity, but so is religion, and Lartey cited examples from the New Testament, in Jesus’ encounters with the Roman centurion and the Canaanite woman. Both were of different faiths from Jesus, but Jesus praised both for the strength of their faith. In the latter story in particular, in response to the woman’s challenge, “Jesus has to reappraise his focus and recognize there are others outside his own ethnic/religious tradition who are also children of God,” Lartey said. “She challenges the master’s own ministry and life purpose. Even by his own stance he had to act differently.” But commentators hardly ever point out those differences of religion.
In religious dialogue, “doctrine is the least useful starting point,” Lartey said. Only after empathic interpersonal interaction will people be willing to hear others fully. “But this is what you all do, isn’t it?” he asked his audience. “As chaplains in different settings, you treat each other with respect and work with other people.”
For instance, when Lartey led a small church in Accra, Ghana, a member’s daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. As well as prayer and support from the church, the man also sought help from a traditional healer. Lartey joked that he was surprised to learn about it, but added, “Who was I to condemn him? Who was I to say, ‘Don’t do that?’ ”
In the Jains of India, Lartey found flexibility, tolerance, pluralism, as well as some useful metaphors about truth. It can be seen as the summit of a mountain, with many paths up, but failure likely if it is pursued as a conquest. The pursuit of truth is also like a cut diamond with many facets, but “whatever angle the stone is held up to the light, the light itself remains constant.”
Several audience members questioned how the pluralistic view reconciles with John 14:6, “None shall come to the Father except through me.” “How about if I understood that to be a Christological function statement?” Lartey answered. “It is Christ’s work to bring people to God. How he chooses to do it is not up to me. He may do it outside my particular congregation. …
“Religious plurality is divine,” Lartey said, and interreligious spiritual care can be one means to normalize it. But he asked his audience to cultivate respect and “acknowledge you do not know it all. … Shake off the shackles that have subjugated and kept people from expressing what they have experienced of God in their lives.
“God often reveals Godself through encounters with strangers, people of different cultures, languages, religious traditions. People we despise or ridicule,” he concluded. “May we use our traditions as steppingstone points of contact to reach out to God beyond us all.”