|Biblical scholar sees a "wide, wide
circle of divine love"
a book note by
I hadn't heard of W. Eugene March or The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine
Love: A Biblical Case for Religious Diversity until I read The Layman
editorial against the book and its author.
The Layman, the ultra-conservative, if not fundamentalist,
Presbyterian Lay Committee's newspaper, was in especially high dudgeon.
Thus, I figured The Wide, Wide Circle had to be a good read.
I was wrong. It's a great read.
The Layman lambasted March's "pluralism," which most Presbyterians
share. The Layman argued that "pluralism….is
a destructive ideology that restrains Christians from believing that Jesus
is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, truly man and truly God, that there is
'no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved,' as
Peter proclaimed in Acts 5."
lament sent me to my favorite bookstore for a copy of March's musings. I got
the last one in stock.
We Presbyterians -- the Frozen Chosen -- don't do "amens" except at the
end of hymns. The Wide, Wide Circle is eminently "amenible."
The Lay Committee is an exclusivist minority, though a noisy one, in the
Presbyterian flock. March's book expresses the inclusive majority view.
"Persons with an inclusive perspective consider their own religion to
offer the best but not the only possible understanding of the Divine," wrote
March, a professor emeritus at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological
Seminary. "For Christians this means that God is most fully revealed in
Jesus Christ. God's work is brought to its completion in Jesus Christ. The
best, the most satisfying, the most secure, the most fulfilling relationship
with God is to be found in faithfully following Jesus Christ. But such a
commitment to Jesus does not require a denunciation of all other religious
March warned against "militant religious extremism." He added that,
"Those who teach or practice their religious devotion in ways that encourage
disdain for others by distorting and misrepresenting their own traditions
and those of others need to be challenged. Hate no longer can have a
legitimate place at the table of any of our religious gatherings."
It is easy to see how March's book riled the Laymen and others of the
exclusivist persuasion. Indeed, I suspect that what makes the Laymen maddest
at March is knowing -- but never admitting, of course --that a lot more
Presbyterians agree with him than with them.
March suggested that among exclusivists "somewhere along the way the song
'Jesus loves me' became 'Jesus loves me.'" (Similarly, though
less reverently, a folk rock group called the Chicken Chokers croons a tune
titled, "Jesus Loves Me But He Can't Stand You.")
Early in his book, March pops the big question. "Do you have to be a
Christian to get to heaven?...Or to put it more simply, must only one
religion be true?"
March explained that "this side of heaven, there is no way to answer the
last question conclusively, one way or the other." Probably nothing in
March's book raised Laymen hackles higher than the author's next sentence:
"People may believe what they want, but there is simply no way to prove
their beliefs to be correct." (Italics mine.)
Religion isn't based on empirical science or history. Religion is rooted
in faith. Hence, most Presbyterians heed the Biblical admonition to "Judge
not lest ye be judged." Like March, most Presbyterians are proud of their
faith but freely admit there is truth and validity in other religions.
March also urged that "the resources of the major religious traditions of
the world...be marshaled to develop a basis for mutual respect and just
cooperation among believers and nonbelievers alike." He concluded, "This
book is a small contribution toward this goal."
I prayerfully disagree. It is a large contribution. Otherwise, the Laymen
and their "Jesus loves me" soul mates wouldn't take so much umbrage
at The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love and the "Jesus loves
me" theology of its author.
-- Berry Craig is a professor of history at
the Western Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah. He and
his wife, Melinda, are members of the Witherspoon Society.