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What’s an Evangelical to think when 200 world religions meet in Toronto?

A sneak peek at an article to be published in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue. By James A. Beverley. Photos: Courtney DeCaire/TPOTWR.

When it comes to religion, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” This phrase from the English satirist Alexander Pope came to mind during my recent visit to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto in early November.

The parliament was a time to learn about different religions. Photo: Courtney DeCaire/TPOTWR

The religious marketplace of that conference – a kaleidoscope of plenary speakers, hundreds of exhibitions, an enormous quantity of online discussion – is a perfect snapshot of the bewildering, confusing and overwhelming religious world that surrounds us all.

Imagine 200 religious groups showing up for the eight-day marathon of spirituality. Most Faith Today readers know about Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism and New Age, not to mention Christianity. But that’s only seven groups. What are the rest?

The 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto had an Indigenous Peoples’ program with the theme “The spiritual evolution of humanity and healing our Mother Earth.” Photo: Courtney DeCaire/TPOTWR

Okay, there were also atheists (including Gretta Vosper, the controversial United Church pastor), witches, plus members of the Bahai faith, Zoroastrianism and African tribal religion. We’re now at 12 groups, but still a long way from 200.

Delegates of all faiths attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto in November 2018. Photo: Courtney DeCaire/TPOTWR

Part of the reason for the big number is all the factions within each larger religious tradition. For example, variations on Hinduism included Brahma Kumaris, Meher Baba, Sathya Sai and others. Buddhist groups included Soka Gakkai, Tzu Chi, Mahamevnawa Meditation Center, etc. Islam included Sunni, Shia and Sufi groups and their subgroups. For Christianity think Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant (on Protestant think Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Church, etc.).

You also reach 200 by factoring in many new religions distinct from the larger and well-known traditions. So this parliament brought followers of Daesoon Jinrihoe (Taiwan), Cao Dai (Vietnam), His Divine Eminence Ra Gohar Shahi (Pakistan), Joseph Communications (USA) and Shinji Shumeikai (Japan), to mention a few.

Even when we wrap our minds around the 200 groups, it’s still daunting to think about all the different views of truth and goodness.

And how do we respond to the endless refrains at the parliament that “All religions are one” and “We all follow the same God”? This view was popularized by Swami Vivekananda, a famous Hindu teacher, at the first parliament in Chicago in 1893. It has been a constant message at every parliament (Chicago 1993, Cape Town 1999, Barcelona 2004, Melbourne 2009, Salt Lake City 2015 and Toronto 2018).

But if all religions are ultimately the same, why continue to evangelize? If all humans follow the same God, why be concerned about people knowing Jesus as Saviour?

Apart from some Hindu and Sikh disagreements in the first couple of days, an incredible harmony existed at the parliament. Despite over 7,500 registrants from the hundreds of groups – it was basically a mood of peace. Isn’t this proof that the pluralist, inclusivist understanding of religions is the right path to take?

John Longhurst of The Winnipeg Free Press reported on his “sense of wonder and amazement so many people from so many places and so many religions could all gather peacefully in the same place – and no arguments about who was right or wrong broke out.”

Wow, if religions get along so well, there’s no need for John Lennon’s famous musical appeal to “imagine … no religion.” Should we then “imagine one religion” or at least “imagine all religions on equal standing?

To help us respond, let’s consider ten principles I have developed over more than four decades of study and teaching about the world’s religions and philosophies.

  1. Contrary to the popular message of pluralism at the parliament and elsewhere, all religions and philosophies are to be measured by the final revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The binding Christian confession of Jesus as the only Son of God and as God’s final and ultimate Word (Acts 4:12) is the foundation for all assessment of religions. The Bible does not teach that all roads lead to God. The Apostle Paul did not adopt a pluralist stance when he shared the gospel, whether with pagans in Athens or Jews in Corinth. The Christian tradition has always taught the uniqueness and supremacy of Jesus. To use the words of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, Jesus is the one distinction between truth and error.
  2. We should be glad a loving spirit prevailed at the parliament. After all, commitment to Jesus demands love be paramount in all humans do, Christian or not. That is the message of 1 Corinthians 13 and the two great commandments. It is no small thing that there was harmony at the parliament. That is better than acrimony, hatred, bigotry and ignorance. (And see the sidebar in this story about the need for a loving, gentle witness about the gospel.)
  3. Christian response to religions involves a commitment to truth. The love for truth means not only dedication to Christ as the Truth (John 14:6), but also a devotion to accuracy in understanding all worldviews and religions. The commandment not to bear false witness against your neighbour includes avoiding lies, half-truths and distortions about all religions and philosophies. No, not all Buddhists are nihilistic. (When I interviewed the Dalai Lama in India in 2000, I was impressed by his zest for life.) No, Baptists are not all close-minded. (Robert Sellers and Larry Greenfield, two of the top leaders at the parliament, are Baptist.) No, not all Sikhs are militant. (Canadian Sikhs at the parliament engaged in langar, the practice of providing a free meal to anyone who showed up – in this case 20,000 meals.) No, witches are not always fighting with each other. (There was a real spirit of unity among the witchcraft leaders I heard in one of the sessions.) No, Christianity is not the only religion that teaches salvation by grace alone. (Some forms of Buddhism teach that enlightenment is given the same way.)
  4. Christians must recognize the contradictions that exist among the religions of the world. The Abrahamic faiths confess one God whereas Hinduism is often polytheistic, as are many African tribal religions. Jews and Muslims do not accept Jesus as the Son of God. Christians do. Some New Age groups deny evil is real, a view not accepted by almost every other religion. Many religious groups support the necessity of war while Jainists won’t even harm a fly, literally. Christians look to Calvary as the way of salvation whereas Muslims deny Jesus even died on the cross. Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions to the point of death – all other religions accept the medical procedure. Many Muslims support terrorism, most do not. Most religions believe in God while many Buddhist groups do not. These huge differences and opposites prove, not that the parliament’s harmony is not real, but that it is partial and incomplete.
  5. Disciples of Jesus can celebrate every true, good, and beautiful part of a religious group and in people of little or no faith. The artistic element at the Parliament (dance, painting, crafts, music, dress) was often inspiring, for example. In terms of the common good, many of the groups at the parliament work effectively to fight poverty, injustice against Indigenous peoples, discrimination, misogyny, damage to the climate and other ills of our world. The parliament’s Global Ethic declaration is powerful, even if it leaves out major divisive issues like abortion. Since 1979 Human Concern International, the oldest Canadian Muslim charity, has given $100 million in aid to 30 countries. The Boroujerdi group works at defending civil liberties, particularly in relation to Iran. The parliament also issued a statement (written with consultation from Kim Campbell and Romeo Dallaire, two of the most famous Canadian attendees) urging the world to commit to eliminating nuclear weapons.
  6. Those who trust the gospel of Jesus must recognize the power of the dominant pluralistic and inclusivist perspective on religion and religious study. Since the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, the acceptance of all religions as equal paths to God has grown. Mainline denominations often downplay the missionary enterprise, as has the World Council of Churches. Some liberal theologians have gone extreme and argued Jesus is not the only Saviour and Lord. Diana Eck, a Harvard professor, claims her Methodist faith is consistent with worship of deities at Hindu temples. John Wesley, her spiritual forefather, would weep at such practice.
  7. The Christian Church must affirm the mercy and love of God shown in Jesus is more than enough to answer concerns about God’s fairness in relationship to God’s judgment on our world’s philosophies and religions. The Christian must resist attempts to downplay the supremacy of Jesus or to overstate the unity of religions as a means of making Christian faith more acceptable in the contemporary climate of relativism. The wideness of God’s mercy is shown best by the immense grace given at Calvary. This grace should lead us to be wary of judgmentalism, as Jesus commanded in the Sermon on the Mount.
  8. Those who trust in the Christian gospel must not forget the wrath of God that stands against the wickedness of a fallen world. The message of God’s justice is a necessary balance to overstatements of God’s mercy and grace. This applies to both secular and religious worlds since the Lord’s name is taken in vain in both. The good news in Jesus is a word of judgment about the folly and sin of lost humanity. Paradoxically, trust in God’s judgment can be an anchor of hope for those who have experienced evil and injustice.
  9. Christians must recognize the ways in which the Church has not allowed the gospel to critique the Church through the ages. Karl Barth has argued prophetically that the message of Christ must be heard by all religions. Barth was correct to recognize that religion can be unbelief, even among those who claim to follow Christ. The story of Christianity stands under the judgment of the gospel, sometimes more than other paths, as when German Christian groups endorsed Hitler, American Christian churches practised slavery and Canadian Christians committed heinous injustices against Indigenous peoples.
  10. A Christian response to religion must include respect for human liberty. Christians must defend the right of all humans to exercise their free choice on religious matters (apart from undisputed criminal actions). A decision for the gospel is real only if made in freedom. The Christian should respect the freedom of humans to reject any religion, including the Christian gospel. Conversely, non-Christians should fight for the religious liberty of Christians, especially now that Christians are under enormous attack, as clearly explained in Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea (Thomas Nelson, 2013).

Should Christians be upset about other religions and non-Christian philosophies? Yes, if that is about concern for the lost, anger over evil, sadness over error, grief over the power of false religions and spiritualities, and disappointment that any human rejects the gospel of Jesus.

Should Christians be uncertain about the truth of the gospel in the world of religions and philosophies? No, especially about our conviction that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6), and that “every knee will bow . . . and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10–11, NASB). We should be utterly confident and celebrate that “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15, NASB).

James A. Beverley is professor of Christian thought and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, and the longtime “Religion Watch” columnist for Faith Today. 

Read a more complete version of this article in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of Faith Today, where you will also find three related items by James Beverley:
  • Resources on World Religions
  • Sharing: The Gentle Side of Witness
  • Witchcraft Then and Now
Subscriptions purchased before Christmas will start with that issue, plus you’ll also get two subscriptions for the price of one (great for gift giving!). Check out this great offer on Canada’s best Christian journalism.

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by Dave Addison

Toronto City Mission (TCM) is the oldest and longest-running mission in the City of Toronto. While our ministry has evolved from inner city relief work to preventive and proactive programs for children and families impacted by poverty, summer camp has always been a core part of our ministry.

Dave Addison is executive director of Toronto City Mission. He writes here about his faith-building experience during the Canada Summer Jobs funding difficulties.

Sonshine Day Camp provides a rich experience of daily programs including crafts, sports, singing, drama, Bible-based stories and day trips. Children are kept engaged and off the streets or away from anti-social behaviours while parents are working. Children who attend Sonshine Day Camp receive the gifts of belonging, confidence, and faith.

Currently, TCM hosts 7 weeks of summer camp for 125 children in 4 communities across the city that are impacted by poverty. To assure accessibility to those in need, camp is provided at no cost to the families. In order to run the camps, TCM hires 16 summer interns to work alongside nine (9) of our Outreach Workers as well as a large number of volunteers.

For the last 20+ years, TCM has received funding from the federal government to help subsidize the cost of hiring summer students (interns). In 2017, Canada Summer Jobs provided approximately $70,000 of grant funding to help cover the majority of this salary expense.

In December of 2017, the federal government released new guidelines for the Canada Summer Jobs program stating that employers would be ineligible for the grant unless they agreed that their core mandate and hiring do not discriminate on the basis of religion, and that they affirm the government’s views on abortion, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. This clause became known as the “Attestation.”

The Canadian Council of Christian Charities and The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada argued that the attestation requirement was an infringement of Charter Rights for freedom of religion, expression, beliefs, and opinion. This issue was well fought, but the government only made minor amendments to the wording. While this very fact was an admission that the attestation was flawed, the government stood their ground and required organizations to “tick the box” or they would not receive funding.

After a time of discernment, TCM’s board and leadership team concluded that we could not sign the attestation. Making this choice would put at risk TCM’s grant application. Given the new minimum wage, hiring 16 interns would be at a cost of $100,000. Plans for summer camp were well underway and we knew that it is a vital part of our ministry.

With little hesitation, we responded to God’s call to step out in faith and proceed with camp as planned. We would put our trust in God’s provision.

I soon found myself being asked by the EFC, CCCC, MP’s, and the media to speak out against the attestation requirement. For me, the issue was first and foremost about religious freedom and secondarily about funding. I participated in an interfaith press conference organized by the EFC as well as three national news interviews.

Before we launched any official fundraising appeal, donations started to come in from people who saw the TV interviews.  A foundation who donated to TCM in the past made a significant donation to support the position TCM had taken. At my church, St. Paul’s Bloor Street, I was approached by a friend who had also seen one of my interviews. On the spot, he committed $5,000, then asked what more he could do. He wrote a compelling letter that he sent to a number of friends and associates appealing for their support and even more money was donated.

I vividly remember the day when I was sending an email thanking a donor who gave $2,000.

I typed “I continue to pray and put my trust in God.” It was at that moment that my faith wavered. This donation brought the total to $40,000, but I questioned if we could actually raise the remaining $60,000. I looked at the latter part of my sentence and wondered if I should end it after “I continue to pray.” I decided to leave it as it was written because only God was going to make this possible.

Less than 1 minute after I hit “Send,” my phone rang.

It was the pastor from a church that had long been supporters of TCM. He told me that it was on his heart that they should support TCM’s camp because of the position we took against attestation. He told me that he and the church elders decided to have a month-long appeal for TCM. Their ambitious goal for members of the church was to raise $30,000. He then told me that the church would commit to match dollar-for-dollar up to $30,000 donated.

If they achieved their goal, they would raise $60,000…the exact amount we needed to reach our $100,000 goal!

I started to cry, struggling to speak, I explained the email I had just sent and the faith battle that I was facing. I told him that his call was truly the answer to prayer!

One month later, the pastor called to tell me that the appeal was a success and they had raised $60,330!

God proved to us his faithfulness, abundance, and sovereignty.

As we look ahead to next summer, we pray that the government won’t have a values test associated with accessing CSJ funding, but we also know where we must put our trust…in God and His people!

Dave Addison is executive director of Toronto City Mission. Find out the latest about the Canada Summer Jobs situation. 

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by Michael Fleming

“What are the advantages of being a pastor’s kid ?” I ask. “There are none,” he says. That is the response when I ask my friend, pastor of my faith community, and father of two grown children.

I decide to ask another pastor, a retired Pentecostal minister with four adult children. I am particularly curious about his thoughts for a very personal reason: I am married to his youngest daughter. My father-in-law avoids the question. He directs the question to his wife. Perhaps the question makes him uncomfortable. Perhaps he, like my friend, doesn’t think there are any upsides to being a pastor’s kid (PK), but unlike my friend, my father-in-law is afraid to admit it.

My wife Beth, in contrast, often talks about the consequences of being a PK. “Growing up as a PK, I felt that the needs of the church were a priority over the needs of our family. There was also an intense pressure to do the right thing. As a PK, I felt like I couldn’t make any mistakes because it would be a poor reflection of my parents and the church.”

Studies verify my wife’s sentiments. Research by Barna Group finds that the number one reason why pastors think pastors’ children struggle with the development of their own faith is due to the unrealistic expectations others place on them. The research also finds 42 percent of pastors wish they had spent more time with their children.

My mother-in-law admits that being a PK is difficult, but she also sees how it can develop faith and resilience. “Beth was wonderful as a PK. She may have some scars, but she made us proud. We are so grateful that God has brought her through her life experiences with a confidence in Him that carries her through not only the good times, but the tough times.”

I met Beth years ago. She was a principled, generous, and compassionate woman. Yet there was another intangible feature about her that I could not describe at the time. It was this mysterious quality that pulled me in. Over time, I came to discover that it stemmed from her relationship with God, a relationship that I wanted to experience myself. I embarked on a spiritual journey that continues to this day. At times, Beth guides me in the right direction. At other times, she challenges my rigid thinking. At all times, she sees movement. She sees movement and growth and love in a direction that views the world and people differently. Falling in love with Beth helped me fall in love with God. And for that, I am forever grateful.

These qualities were nourished in Beth, not in spite of her upbringing, but because of it.

Michael Fleming is an educator and writer in Peterborough, ON.
Subscribe to Faith Today, Canada’s Christian magazine. 

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The latest issue of our sister magazine for young adults, called Love Is Moving, features an interview with Catherine Fowler of the documentary called The Dating Project.

Here are some other highlights from their latest online edition.

Why doesn’t God stop my pain? The Bible speaks at length about suffering. It’s strange that we don’t
An invitation from Jesus. He will not force his love upon us
How do you see the homeless?
What happens when your self-betterment falls through?

Each issue now includes several Flipside articles for youth leaders. Highlights this issue include:

Donkey work: A poem
God after grief
The 5-5 leadership approach: Are you broken and useable?
What my pastor taught me about leadership: Soul care in a culture of performance
My mother and the media’s attention.

The Love Is Moving main contents page and Flipside contents page also highlight some articles but don’t list them all, so be sure to browse all the way through to the end.

Students and youth groups can subscribe to Love Is Moving for a special rate of only $2 per issue. Start a student subscription today! It’s only half the price of a regular subscription ($4.17 per issue).

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We’ve been inviting Canadians to share their palliative care stories in connection with the launch of the Palliative Care Toolkit, a free, practical resource on serious illness (great for small group discussion) published by The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. This is the last in the series. Thanks to all who shared their palliative care stories. It has been an honour to share them.

By Terence McQuiston

She was my mother’s sister, and I’d known her well all my life. The hospice was around the corner from my home in Toronto, so it was easy to spend an hour with her on most of her last days.

Terence McQuiston

My aunt shared her room with another patient and it was clean and quiet. Unlike some hospices where the rooms look like pleasant hotel rooms, this one looked just like a hospital. Food and fluids were offered but not urged on her. She was too sedated to use a call bell, so the staff checked in about once an hour. Nevertheless, on most visits I found myself looking for the nurses with questions or to alert them that she was groaning and needing a breakthrough dose of her pain meds.

How do you visit such a person? What can you say? What should you do when they don’t waken? How long should you stay?

I hit on an idea I’d seen in practice at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer hospital when a mother came to visit her weak and drowsy son. After his recovery he told of the visit this way:

My dear mother insisted on coming in every day, making a half-hour drive through Toronto traffic. One day when she came in, I had to say, “Mom, I really appreciate your coming, but today I’m so tired I just don’t have the strength for a visit.”

She replied, “That’s all right, dear.” She gave me a kiss, pulled up a chair beside my bed, opened a book and started reading to herself in silence.

I was thus excused from conversation and free to just doze in her motherly presence. Now and then, I’d waken and see her in front of the sun-filled window, reading in a lovely comfortable silence. After an hour she came over with a kiss and said, “I’m going now.”

Over my five weeks in the cancer hospital I had many visits from many well-meaning people, but of all those visits, that visit is the one I remember most fondly.”

I decided to do the same on my visits to my aunt. I’d come in and greet her with a kiss, on the off chance that she’d be aware of me. Then I’d pull up a chair to her bedside, take her hand in my left hand and hold my book in my right as I read to myself.

In the first visits she would very occasionally give my hand a weak squeeze. She spoke to me only twice in her last week, and that was in the first three days of our visits. Each time, she spoke momentarily, then quickly drifted off again. The first time, her eyes opened wide and with a big wide-open smile as if pleasantly surprised, she looked me in the face and said, “Terry!” The last time it was to say, “I love you.”

At one visit her best friend, who is godmother to her son, arrived at the same time as I. Looking at my aunt in bed, she got upset and expostulated, “Why do they keep her going like this?!”

I tried to calm her down, saying that her friend’s pain was being fairly well controlled and that food and drink were only being offered, not forced, and that it was my aunt’s own body and normal desires that were keeping her going, even though we all knew that the battle was being lost.

Her friend left the room. Afterward, she told me that she had returned, but on seeing my aunt sleeping quietly with me holding her hand as I read silently at her bedside, she didn’t want to disturb us, “because it was so beautiful.”

I learned of my aunt’s death when her son phoned to say that she had died peacefully.

This is the last post in this series. Thanks again to all who shared their stories. Don’t forget to check out the EFC’s free Palliative Care Toolkit and this recent story on palliative care from Faith Today.

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We’re inviting Canadians to share their palliative care stories in connection with the launch of the Palliative Care Toolkit, a free, practical resource on serious illness (great for small group discussion) published by The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Contact us to submit your palliative care story. We would be honoured to hear it and share it.

By Bev Foster

A lot of life happens in rooms, and so does a lot of death. One room I will always remember is Room 217, where my mom, five siblings and I sang around my dad’s bedside as he was dying in a hospital northeast of Toronto. Whether it was the lingering words, simple melodies or our faltering voices, what was undeniable was the calming and soothing assurance our music had on my dad in this sacred space.

I was close to my dad, and one thing that drew us together was our love for music. When I was growing up, my Sunday afternoon pastime was playing hymns with him. He would be at the organ and I would be at the piano. When Dad had his first and second quadruple bypasses, it was no wonder music played a role in his recovery. The tunes that lived in Dad’s spirit energized him and gave him new tomorrows. The diagnosis of a stage 4 terminal illness several years later was as unexpected as a snowfall in July.

I watched Dad’s bottom line change dramatically. His attentiveness to profit and loss, pro quotas, distribution strategies and board meetings was lamentably replaced by blood tests, cat scans, antibiotic pics and a maze of healthcare infrastructure. That summer, everything that could go wrong did.

There was a morning in August I remember like it was yesterday. He sat in the rocking chair already battle-worn. I sat on his organ bench experiencing the waves of grief that strike as surreptitiously as a tsunami. Intuitively, we knew our exchange would be around those hymns we had played for years. Our tears sang the words that day, yet as the music played, sounds of hope filled the air.

The notion of death and dying is something I haven’t been afraid to talk about. I believe death is a transition, not a destination. I had always thought that sudden death was preferable. But now I was seeing firsthand that terminal illness had tremendous opportunity for connecting, caring and completion.

The last hours with Dad are still etched in my heart. Although he was subcutaneously morphined, Dad tried to sing along. I’d never heard a sound like it: neither guttural or diaphragmatic. It came from a different place; think it was a place deep in his soul. I saw with my own eyes and experienced with my own heart how music was a companion to Dad in his final transition. It was a gift, wrapped with the ribbon of release.

Music had been my way of connecting with Dad in life, and it became my way of supporting him at poignant moments during his illness and final hours. Today, when I hear the hymns that were like cherished friends to Dad, I am connected to his memory, those final moments and the anticipation of things to come.

Have you witnessed the difference palliative care made for a loved one? If you have an experience that you’d be willing to share with other readers on our websites, please to tell us about it. To say thank you, we’ll give you a free one-year subscription to Faith Today, Canada’s Christian magazine. We also encourage you to check out the EFC’s free Palliative Care Toolkit and this recent story on palliative care from Faith Today.

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