Ours is a global village. With hundreds of religions laying claim to truth, what should be the Christian response? More specifically, does the Wesleyan tradition within Christianity provide any tools to answer the challenge of religious pluralism? InWith Cords of Love: A Wesleyan Response to Religious Pluralism (Beacon Hill, 2006), Al Truesdale, assisted by Keri Mitchell, answers with a resounding “Yes!”
Al Truesdale, a retired professor of systematic theology, does a commendable job presenting the problem before offering solutions. Religious pluralism – if understood as a multiplicity of faith systems – is nothing new on the world scene. What is new is the recent response to it in some Christian quarters. Truesdale observes (p. 32):
What is relatively new, particularly in what was once called the Christian West, is the conviction held by many that no single religion contains truth that people of other religions oughtto embrace. Instead, the truth of each religion is relative to the community that finds fulfillment in it.
Of the various themes addressed, two that are particularly important are the nature of the Gospel and the concept of prevenient grace.
What is the “Gospel of God?” In answering this question, Truesdale is not content with a self-centered response. He insists (pp. 83-84): “If the gospel is all about my salvation apart from God’s plan to unite all things in heaven and earth in Christ (Eph. 1:9-10), then the gospel has shriveled like a rotting orange.” The Gospel of God is the Gospel of the Kingdom, a “global, cosmic, socially as well as personally transforming order” (ibid.). Our individual relationship with God through Christ is vital, but is not the only concern of the Gospel. God wants to restore persons to relationship with Himself because we are part of His larger restorative project, His plan to renew all creation. Sadly, when we lose this larger picture, the Christian message loses its winsomeness, particularly for a generation concerned with issues like ecology and social justice.
Al Truesdale has hit upon a theme of crucial importance as a new generation of theologians of mission reflects upon what it means to do missions in the 21stcentury. In Africa, for example, the Church of the Nazarene has done well assembling groups of believers to sing on Sunday mornings, to hear the preached Word, and to occasionally celebrate baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but is there more? Our message of holiness – that following our conversion, we are to grow in the likeness of Christ, both gradually and through a crisis moment of entire sanctification – is a powerful and transformative message that resonates in the hearts of listeners.
African Nazarene theologians like Chanshi Chanda in his book Christlike Justice and the Holiness Tradition (Prairie Star, 2010) have begun asking what the message of holiness has to say in local contexts where the very people that Christ died to save and sanctify wholly are suffering. Do we have a prophetic word to say to what Chanda calls the “powers”? As this reflection and dialogue continue, carried on by Africans and others aground the globe, the nature of this Kingdom Gospel and its relevancy for both the hereafter and the here-and-now will become more evident.
Beyond the nature of God’s Gospel, a second issue raised by Al Truesdale is the role of prevenient grace in the consideration of religious pluralism. A metaphor for the work of God the Holy Spirit, prevenient grace was John Wesley’s way of describing the low-key presence of God in the life of the non-Christian. Truesdale observes (p. 147): “Through prevenient grace the conscience can become a vehicle of sensitivity and response to the prevenient Spirit whatever a person’s religion might be.”
When a Christian speaks of “what God is doing in my life,” we understand that he or she is giving credit where credit is due, that our growth is divinely fostered, is a result of God’s grace. The idea of prevenient grace merely acknowledges that Christ is not only the Christians’ light, but the light of the world (John 1:9). Whether we’re speaking of honesty, good deeds, love or justice, while we can expect them in greater degree in one who has come to Christ, they exist in some degree even in those of other religious faiths. This is not a damper on Christian missions, but an encouragement to persist. Truesdale comments (p. 149):
The goal of prevenient grace for all people is an evangelical encounter with the crucified, risen, and exalted Christ… Understanding prevenient grace should make evangelism and missions more urgent, not less so. Only as the Holy Spirit opens the mind to hear and obey what the Scriptures say regarding the Lord can his prevenient work be brought to completion.
Truesdale approvingly quotes Randy Maddox’s suggestion that prevenient grace is a “crucial degree of regeneration.” However, he makes no mention that other Wesleyan scholars – including Kenneth Collins – have criticized Maddox for attributing too much to prevenient grace, as important as it is. Nevertheless, Truesdale leads the way by applying the ramifications of this important Wesleyan concept to the topic of religious pluralism, and does so in a helpful and creative way. For this, he is to be applauded.
Despite its overwhelmingly positive contribution, With Cords of Love is not without flaws. Unfortunately, the book has no index. Further, while Truesdale correctly cites John Wesley’s maxim, that there is “no holiness, but social holiness,” his application is wide of the mark. The context of Wesley’s quote is not justice, but Christian community and his concern that Methodists attend the weekly class meeting. Wesley had a heart for the poor and downtrodden, but to make this point, Truesdale will need to look elsewhere in Wesley’s writings.
With Cords of Love is an ambitious book. Al Truesdale traces the steps that led us to the brink of religious relativism, followed by an analysis of post-modernism. Along the way, he summarizes the core of the New Testament Gospel and the Wesleyan “way of salvation.” Jesus is not just another menu option in a religious smorgasbord, but unique, the apex of God’s revelation. To Truesdale’s credit, he is not content to rest his case there, but puts theory into practice with chapters on “telling the story in a Wesleyan way” and “living in a pluralistic world.” The cumulative effect is an argument not to abandon the Christian missionary enterprise, but rather to re-double our efforts, to engage the whole world with the whole Gospel. There is nowhere we can go where God the Holy Spirit has not gone before us. What a promise!
Gregory Crofford, Ph.D., is a missionary with the Church of the Nazarene. He is Director of the Institut Théologique Nazaréen, and author of Streams of Mercy: Prevenient Grace in the Theology of John and Charles Wesley (Emeth Press, 2010), available here through Amazon.com. Crofford lives in Nairobi, Kenya.