Can Evangelicals Learn From Gerald McDermott?

In Gerald R. McDermott’s book, Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions?: Jesus, Revelation & Religious Traditions, he states:

“Arguably, the church’s greatest challenge in the next century will be the problem of the scandal of particularity…in reference to the idea that God revealed himself only to Jews and Christians” (McD 10 bold mine).

At the end of the day; however, the real scandal was that the book was propaganda. Propeganda for a view similar Universalist, Arian, or Unitarian conclusions. But does so while trying to be “Evangelical.”

 

Stop trying to sell “Truth” and sell “truth”

Two disciples asking if they can learn from McDermott
image public domain, courtesy of the LACMA, image is link to source

The thesis of McDermott’s book is that evangelicals must recognize that God has given all of humanity a general revelation due to his desire to reveal himself; moreover, that means Evangelicals must learn to search for and respect the revelation of “God” in other religions.

McDermott insists in this paradigm, no “new” revelations (to Christians) will be found. Only a deeper understanding for the facets of the “Christian” truth already revealed within other religions will.

Negatively put, his intention is to undermine the exclusivist position within Christianity. Oddly though, he envisions this change as positive for promoting people accepting Christianity.

Win converts by getting rid of that whole actually believe it bother…

He feels such a change, could allow the Church a greater dialogue in its world mission (McDermott 116-19) and early on McDermott states calls to action, “It is time to go farther!”

The book is mostly a rallying cry to try and pull evangelicals towards accepting his schema, yet he is not above kill sacred cows that would be offensive to his core demographic by promoting views like allowing for a plurality of salvations, (the belief there are many paths to heaven) (McD pg 43-4).

His normal lines of reasoning aren’t even theological

McDermott tries to use a negative mode to overcome objections, like when he criticizes evangelicals for what he perceives as hubristic demonizing of the modes of thinking, revelations of God, and philosophical insights found in other religions. He hopes to sway them to investigate other religions and foster dialogue by playing to cultural tropes of tolerance.

What can Evangelicals learn from What Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions?

I have trouble sympathizing with McDermott’s theological interest.

World religions take on Plato
Plato as musician, Public domain, image courtisy of LACMA, image is link to source

There are core-Christian theologies that he never addresses. An example is that McDermott also tries to avoid addressing salvation mechanics outside of promoting universalism; many contemporary Christians even outside evangelical circles see salvation as the all of all doctrine.

This is perhaps even fatal to a book that wants to promote mission. If it’s not mission to widen the net of salvation… than what end is it for?

My biggest complaint: Namby-Pamby

Even with willingness to surrender these points, he ultimately does not engage anyone looking for a distinctively Christian discussion. Or even just an argument!

McDermott failed to engage me because his message was unduly wimpy.

As stated earlier, he wants to promote mission. But in a universalist discussion with no discussion of salvation one wonders why even discuss the matter at all. In the same lose thinking, he never justified that the study of other religions was of specific benefit.

He never came out swinging to defend even his own position in the end, and rested on others. One wonders if that is par for the course in a theology that says all “truth” is Gods, “Truth” doesn’t exist to exclusion of non-truth, and a wishy-washy “I feel right but you may be right to?

Propaganda not Critical engagement.

Most annoyingly, his case was built primarily on incongruent argumentum ad verecundiam1. But I think that it goes beyond a case of him wanting to hide behind others, but far more a case he wants others to raise him up

When he does get theological it shows he’s not concerned with being right or wrong or accurate

Below is an example of his methods that run throughout the work:

McDermott quotes Rudolf Otto at the opening of chapter four as a good description of his positions “…a person who is religious is not necessarily closer to God than a person who is non-religious… there is a radical discontinuity between the religions and Christ” (McD pg91-2).

This calls into question any sense that any religious expression would be a good exemplar of spiritual insight or a place to go to look.

In this same immediate context, McDermott tries switching authorities to Newbingin with a qoute, “There is real experience of God outside of Christianity.” (McD pg92). What is odd however, is that his use of this second quote is to promote the view that other religions can teach us something.

The two sentiments do not disagree. Yet, Newbingin’s statement has little to no effect on Otto’s sentiment to qualify, correct, sharpen, etc.

What purpose then does McDermott have for the combo quote?

Throughout much of the book, McDermott just spring boards from quote to quote of recognizable authorities in his school of thinking. Yet, he is not doing such to put them in contrast and reach any new synthesis or correction.

The most positive way to interpret this, is that he is playing into his own ideology that ultimately all truth is subjective. The more negative, and sadly probable, is that he is quoting authorities all agreeing around a core ideal not to engage in a discussion of an ideal but to lend it credibility.

AKA propagandize.

The charge seems to hold up on multiple fronts. Otto’s statement destroys any claim to special insight offered by other religions. McDermott never steps into the opening. Why not look for natural/ spiritual revelations in atheism? It strikes me as intellectually boring to blast huge holes in theological walls to then only send an RC car through.

Even when he’s good in the book… It’s not him speaking. He’s quoting.

Conversion Experiences drive evangelism
The conversion of St. Paul. Public domain, courtesy LACAM, image is back link

The best part of his book is when McDermott displays thought provoking examples of a resonance between the ideas of Christian thinkers and thinkers of other religions.

In these moments, I could almost say that McDermott indeed makes a strong case against writing off every single aspect of other religions. Yet, one of his books very strengths again exposes the underbelly.

In showing multiple examples of resonance between Christian and non-Christian thinkers, McDermott constantly appeals to authority and quotes that all synchronize and mesh.

While I have no statistics, quotes and paraphrases made up the majority of the material. The problem is that mass quoting without providing in depth critical analysis leads to just quoting whatever sentence matches this or that idea best.

Picking and choosing only what agrees

There are certain philosophers that even if they say the same sentence mean it very differently. And if there are some ideologies that go together like oil and water, than McDermott makes a vinaigrette.

His choice of scholars, such as Thomas Aquinas (McD pg127-8) and open-theist Clark Pinnock, are only portrayed as positive theological influences that can be made to agree with McDermott’s positons. I am not sure the two would ever agree with each other.

In depth case study: Calivin as a Foil

I can be most accurate here when he speaks of what I know in-depth.

McDermott mentions John Calvin as being influenced “by [the] outside thought of Catholic humanists like Erasmus who was dependent upon Greek thought” (McD pg129-32). McDermott in these pages tries to displays Calvin, by this “scandalous” relation as being a sort of closet humanist (in OUR contemporary sense).

From here, he feels he can state Calvin was one who even positively viewed human religiosity.

Public Domain, Image courtesy of LACMA, image is link to source

McDermott’s attempt to scandalize Calvin’s connections to Erasmus is part and parcel of the politburo handbook. The only problem here is that Calvin never disowns his humanist education (his method of argument is “humanist” in medieval terms) nor the influence of the Church fathers nor demonizes Greek thought in regards to philosophy in all cases. Such is only a Caricature. An that of a bigot against reformed thought.

Yet, I do not think McDermott means any insult to Calvin at all. In fact, it appears he is trying to “rehabilitate” Calvin to his choir and further undergird and build authority with a larger audience.

But Calvin of all people, who even after admitting natural Man2 can have good morals… is just to familiar for sayings like the following:

[The Heart is so steeped in the poison of sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench– if some men occasionally make a show of good, their minds nevertheless remain enveloped in hypocrisy and deceitful craft, and their hearts bound by inner perversity]

The Calvin who said the above, cannot easily be reconciled to McDermott’s Calvin.


 

In the previous case, McDermott’s authorities’ quotes simply passed by each other each other. In others, they are separated by huge islands of doctrines that don’t match. And in the last case above we have a case of some soft intent-massaging.

Why I disliked the author’s approach so much

When paraphrasing, one must be careful to stay true to the characters of whom you portray, and I believe in at least Calvin’s case, I am qualified to say the evidence was bent to serve McDermott’s thesis.

McDermott on the whole appears to just be building up as much quotable authority for his case as he can and not being critical in how he does such.

One wonders what the point of the book even was…

Public domain, Courtesy LACMA. Image link to source.

If academically differentiating Christianity from other religions is not important for McDermott, then maybe saying he failed to do so is a waste of time.

What could he have intended then?

What I took away from his book that he sees a foundational spiritual ability/essence of humanity from which both Christian and Pagan spirituality outflow. I think that is why McDermott shows the angles that he does. He wants things to all be spiritual, and all spiritual things are good. And that’s why he promotes spiritual things like Buddhist meditation (McD pg155), depicting it as good for stress relief and spiritual meditating or connection with “God.”

Why a Christian can’t go along with any of it, what he doesn’t understand about us at all…

There are a great many authors, politicians, and church leaders that agree with this sentiment that “religion is good;” moreover, it is politically expedient for many faith leaders to promote “prayer days” or “religion” without any of the mess of positing a certain position. Make it all good, and you cut any loses.

Yet, for the particularly Christian this is not an acceptable tack. The very idea that by Buddhist forms of meditation you can get in touch with yourself, god, or something else by it, is opposed to Christian understandings of relating to God.

We could even simply ask, if all these other religious forms were all so beneficial why did Jesus never mention such?

Cain's sacrifice
Cain’s sacrifice wasn’t accepted and folks started dying!
Image Courtesy LACMA, source link in image

It is simplistic for McDermott to assume an evangelical audience is open to such things, and he rose to many open ended unanswered questions.

But we can go even further. If God can be reached by these things, and effectively so… we place God in the awkward position of having denied us things that could help (ditheism) or even impeach his morality for having disliked idols? And what are Christians to do with any and all hell constructs?

The particular Christian also see ritual as virtually useless except for the fact God empowers it. In all his attempted comparisons or promotions of eastern religiosity techniques, McDermott ignores Jesus’ criticism of such things. “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:8)

And the Trinitarian issues also mount, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” (Rom 8:26). Christian’s affirm that we need the Holy Spirit to even mutter nonsense towards God, and it is human pride to think we have any latent spiritual super-powers.

If we can reach God through meditation without even knowing his person, what is McDermott’s idea of

which spirit is which?

If we take McDermott’s ideas and push them out to the absurd… is he saying a “spiritually fulfilling sacrifice to Molek somehow equals the spirituality of Christ?” We mustn’t allow the fact that he chooses culturally OK practices to make his points blind us to the fact his positions also admit a lot of nasty things.

The core fault lay in the fact that McDermott doesn’t allow the Christian idea of God’s person in the first place.

McDermott’s premise set me up to expect some pro-Christian insights gleamed from other religions. His musings entertain the notion that since God’s general revelation is directed at all people, the divine aspects would stand out as points of correlation between religions.

But the single most important divine aspect that makes Christians even Christians to begin with, is that Jesus is divine to us.

 

Liberal Christian Schleiermacher
Schleiermacher Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig(creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/). Leipzig University Library, 2015

 Liberal Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote in, the Christian Faith, the following apologetic gem:

[{their} founders are represented…as having been arbitrarily elevated from the mass of similar or not very similar men, receiving just as much for themselves as other people whatever they do receive…but Christ is distinguished from all others as Redeemer alone and for all, and is in no wise regarded as having been at any time in need of redemption Himself… always endowed with redeeming power]

Islam’s laws may by accident fulfill what is required by Daoism on accident, or a Confucian devotee may accidentally please Allah. In no case, could any of those other religion’s adherents hope to attain Christian salvation.

Jesus takes his divinity claim far enough to say, “No one comes to the Father except through me;” so Christianity alone truly denies any accidental salvation, and the message stands out because of it!

If only because God IS Christ. We have no “Christian” conception in which that is not the case.

“We cannot talk about God unless we speak of Christ!” – click here to tweet


The message McDermott rejects is on the surface is “peculiarity;” the message McDermott ultimately rejects is Jesus’ divinity.

The scandal McDermott senses is ultimately the fact that belief “only Christ saves” is a definitive aspect of Christianity’s view of God (Schleiermacher).

But why should Christians even be upset? Is not part of all this scandal of Christ’s Divinity the point?! Should we be embarrassed for Christ? [Romans 1:16]. In all McDermott’s arguments, I find nothing to shake me from this, the basic Christian conviction of over a billion people.

And I do not see how mission for a simply human Christ would be better or more successful than mission for a divine one; spare for the fact that McDermott finds such easier to believe in. Mission to be “nicer” is a waste of time at best, a form of European secular-colonization at worst. Do we only pray to Jesus while he listens? Or can I drop a line to someone else free of collect call fees?

Jesus is Lord
Public Domain, Image courtesy of LACMA. Image is link to source

MacDermott is left looking just like a frustrated Arian.

Jesus stated, “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:14) (John 6:7). I cannot follow McDermott down the road he wishes to lead me and I think he is trying to put candy under a trap more than convince one it’s safe.

For all of the good insights he may have, there are too many issues with his syllogisms and logic to really even dialogue. He wants to push propaganda more than discuss things.

His understanding of human spirituality meant that he sees religion and spirituality as a human endeavor. Sadly, this, for a Christian, rips out the one human endeavor that for us sums up divinity God incarnate in the person of Jesus.

McDermott strove so hard to overcome what he saw as evangelical prejudice, but he failed to realize that those “prejudices” are simply a community defining itself because it believes in its faith object.

Or maybe he did not. Maybe, at the end of the day he knew his thesis’ radical character. Maybe he knew it would be flatly rejected. And he attempted to weasel it in. As stated before, I have some sense of more than one side playing in the spirituality game and it is hard to say that one who sideways denies the incarnation, is playing for the right side.

Why so rough hommie?

I realize I am coming in like a bull in a China shop; I do so out of some sense of respect. If the over all theology of the book is ignored, McDermott’s ideas are actually quite clever. He’s a theology professor though, so it’s worth playing some hardball. (See His profile Here)

What’s more, the work is popular and a “must read” for seminary students (it was for me). Which Is why I’ve decided to so pick a side on this issue. So a rant on the internet is not going to hurt the author very much.

I know half the audience does not agree! Still, I think my points are valid, and that such a widely used book needs a real critic and not a sales pitch! Still, negative reviews are a nervous thing to write

Which is why I’m asking if there is anyone out there who’s read the book and doesn’t feel that way… I’d love to hear why or why not.

Over to you

As this is a particularly negative review, I feel it is very appropriate that I ask you to pick up the book and make your own opinion as to the matter.

You can pick it up on Amazon pretty cheap or grab it out of the Library:

Works Cited:

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed by J. T. Mcneill: tr. F.L. Battles (Vol. Xx in “The library of Christian Classics”); W.L. Jenkins

 

McDermott, Gerald. Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions?: Jesus, Revelation & Religious Traditions Downers Grove. Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000

Scleiermacher,Friedrich. The Christian Faith: tr. H.R. Mackintosh and J.S. Stewart (EdinBurgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928)

 

1 Argument from Authority: The view that since someone is an expert, they are correct. This argument is fallacious if the expert is not an expert in subject, or if there is no consensus among legitimate experts.

2 Term is Calvin’s usage

Post Author

Paul is the founder of Religible.com and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.


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