My former pastor, from my days as a fundamentalist, and I sometimes discuss religion. This is our most recent exchange. It is largely a reiteration of similar exchanges. The first part is from him, and my response follows.
Some time back, I said I was sort of setting you up. Let me give you the first thoughts about this — if you have time to meander through it. These expressions are not the most shocking, if that’s even a fair word to use, but will follow — eventually!
Is Christianity Too Exclusive?
“I think everyone has to find his own spiritual path to God,” my fellow shopper said.
I don’t remember how we got on the subject of finding God. He may have asked me what I did for a living and I told him I was a pastor. At any rate, we were in a deep spiritual conversation in the fairly long checkout line at Best Buy.
“Wouldn’t that be cool if it were true?” I responded.
“What do you mean?” he queried.
“It would be great if everyone could find his or her own spiritual path to God,” I answered. “But that’s not what Jesus said would happen. He claimed there was only one path and that no one can get to God except through him” (John 14:6).
Whenever I get in a spiritual conversation with others, a part of me cringes as I talk about the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ. I love Jesus and I have come to believe his claims, but that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with the idea that Christianity doesn’t allow for the position that each person can find his or her own path to God. It seems to me that if a person is open to spiritual reality in general, that that should be enough. After all, isn’t Jesus big enough and gracious enough for all religious impulses and thoughts to ultimately find their way back to him? Surely open-mindedness, humility, and liberality fit into the Christian ethic, why not into Christian theology? Why can’t faith be this open?
EVERYTHING ELSE IS RELATIVE
Unless you have been living in a bunker for the past thirty years, like Brendan Fraser in Blast from the Past, you know that we are living in a world of relativism. Relativism is the belief that all points of view are equally valid. What you think is right and wrong is right and wrong for you, and what I think is right and wrong is right and wrong for me. Though our lists may be different, our lists are equally legitimate.
There is something very seductive about this view. If a thing is right just because I think it is, then being right is an easy proposition. Being able to select one’s own right and wrong fuels a sense of personal empowerment. It means I can do whatever it is I want to do. And if that isn’t freedom, it certainly feels like freedom. You can see how embracing this perspective would help us to stop judging one another and to begin respecting each other’s personal convictions. Why wouldn’t we? Relativism fosters the sense that everyone is right, which delivers personal empowerment, the debunking of judgment, and a respect for others and their opinions. These are all good things, right?
Of course, this view also means there are no absolutes, no truth that is true for everyone—just relative ideas that are true to each one. What’s good for me is not necessarily good for you, and vice versa. Thus, everyone must find his or her own way. This view engenders a sense of unity in matters of faith, because what you believe about God and what I believe about God are equally good and equally true, simply because we believe what we believe. We can stop focusing on what one believes and applaud all belief in general, because all paths lead to God. Who wouldn’t love that?
But as appealing as relativism is, and while the intellectually elite and culturally en vogue espouse that it is the only tenable position, it doesn’t appear to be an option for the Christ-follower. Why? Because the claims of Christ are absolute and universal. Jesus claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that “no one comes to the Father” except through him (John 14:6).
THE PROBLEM WITH TRUTH
The problem with the concept of truth is that it is exclusive by nature. Any time a person makes a truth-claim, he or she is saying all other contradictory claims are false. Hence, truth is non-negotiable; it is stark and raw. For example, the notion that the earth is orbiting the sun is either true or it is not. There is no room for negotiating, though it seems as if the sun is orbiting around the earth from my perspective. Truth has no interest in what I think or feel about the matter; subjective views are irrelevant.
If truth exists, then there are people who are right and people who are wrong. But we don’t like that. It’s too judgmental. Consequently, two-thirds of Americans now deny there’s any such thing as truth. We prefer opinion to truth. It’s more civilized.
Yet, As a Christ-follower I’m faced with the challenge that Christianity is not just presented as another subjective, religious philosophy. Christians see the claims of Jesus Christ as objectively true—true in the sense that gravity is true. And if the gospel of Jesus Christ is truth, then it is absolute and true for all people. The problem is, there are so many knotty and untenable implications with that position.
At first blush Christ’s claims seem to smack of arrogance, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. And, in a cultural milieu that holds pluralism and tolerance sacrosanct, claiming that Jesus of Nazareth is the only path to God is a proverbial slap-on-the-face to all other belief systems. Pluralist Rosemary Radford Ruether labeled this as “absurd religious chauvinism,” while another religious leader called it a “spiritual dictatorship” that encourages smug superiority and unnecessary judgment. All of us have witnessed the hatred and violence that comes from religious one-upping. As a culture we are more open to comments like that of Indian philosopher Swami Vivekenanda who said, “We [Hindus] accept all religions to be true.” He claimed the real sin was to call someone else a sinner.
Atheist Charles Templeton claimed it was an “insufferable presupposition” to claim that “salvation is found in no one else” but Jesus (Acts 4:12). Templeton writes, “Christians are a small minority in the world. Approximately four out of every five people on the face of the earth believe in gods other than the Christian God. The more than five billion people who live on earth revere and worship [other] gods. Are we to believe that only Christians are right?
I honestly don’t know what to do with these arguments against Christian absolutism. And, truth be told, on some level I want to agree with them. How can it be possible that so many have it so wrong? And what of those sincere souls who never have the opportunity to hear about Jesus Christ? Will they really go to hell?
I wish I could tell you I have all of this settled in my mind. I don’t. The wrestling match continues to this day. The only solace I have found is that I believe that God will work all the details out in the end because he is good and he is fair. Though it may sound like an intellectual copout from dealing with the problem, something in me finds rest in the promise of God’s goodness and fairness—like a young child who trusts that all will be well just because they are with their father or mother, not because they understand what’s really going on.
So, after careful analysis, I take the position that Jesus Christ is the truest reflection of the one true God. In the same breath (and at great risk), I believe the gods of other religions are not gods at all—they are worthless idols. Ooooo…those are fighting words for many. And that’s the problem with Christian truth—it is too exclusive to let you fit everywhere. And adhering to it can get you into some deep trouble. That’s why Jesus warns us: “The world would love you if you belonged to it; but you don’t—for I chose you to come out of the world, and so it hates you. Do you remember what I told you? ‘A slave isn’t greater than his master!’ So since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you” (John 15:19-20 NLT ).
Though I would love to be liked by everyone, I choose to believe Jesus…even if that gets me in trouble and I’m accused of being closed-minded. I figure it just goes with the territory.
“Of course, this view also means there are no absolutes, no truth that is true for everyone – just relative ideas that are true to each one.”
It may be that some hold this view and can defend it. I, for one, as an agnostic who leans toward atheism, think that there is one real absolute truth, but that humans are incapable of knowing it. If you can find a copy of Wendell Berry’s book of essays, Home Economics, and read the first essay, a little three pager titled “Letter to Wes Jackson,” that kind of sums it up for me. (Berry is a believer, but not, from what I can tell from his other writing, a believer in an institutionalized hierarchy, and not a church goer. In one poem he says he hears the church bells in town but understands “contrariwise”: instead of being called into town and church, he goes to the woods and fields to commune with God.) Is there a god? The answer is probably yes or no, and its nature is probably one way or another, but I don’t think it’s something we can know, and have decided that, in the absence of such knowledge, it’s best to shrug and get on with my day.
Relativism seems to me to hold sway, though, in the realm of religion, which not only doesn’t subject itself to proofs, but seems to take pride in the requirement to believe something without proof or even in contradiction to known and experienced facts. If no one can prove the existence of a god (or a whole pantheon), then believe whatever you want. Hence the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and the wonderful statement that “We are all atheists: I just believe in one god fewer than you do.”
While I think it unlikely, and undesirable in the extreme, that the claims of fundamentalist Christianity are ultimately true, they would explain to some extent the sorry state of the world. If the world is, indeed, overseen by a petulant god with a limitless penchant for grudge-bearing when things don’t go his way (Garden of Eden), who prefers his minions to be servile and cowed by his power (Job), whose idea of making things right is human torture and sacrifice (Jesus) . . . well, that would explain a lot. Such a god would have a lot to answer for. It is much to be desired that no such being exists or, if it does, that it has forgotten that we do.
But what inspires me about Christianity (you weren’t expecting this bit, I’d guess) is not the authority of the message or messenger, not the power or the consequent fear of being a sinner in the hands of an angry god . . . but the individuals who profess Christianity and don’t so much insist on dogma as they insist on showing up for others. I like the idea (which must be plucked from its grisly context) that hope survives and persists, even when your god, the one that you thought would bring salvation and revolution, the ordering principle of the world as you understand it, is tortured and killed in front of you. I find it ironic, and sad as missed opportunities are, that some Christians have let their religion devolve to the point where it is no longer a matter of saying to others, “Life is hard, but we are here for you, because we need to be here for each other,” and has gone to “We have the hidden answer to the question of how this crazy, lonely dangerous world works, and you will go to Hell forever if you don’t acknowledge that this is, in fact, the answer. Capiche?” So much time wasted in doctrinal disputes that don’t have anything to do with feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, clothing the naked, holding the fearful, loving the unlovable, and so on. But also understandable: it is easier, ultimately, to dispute doctrines than to do those other things; to take comfort in knowing that you and those who believe as you do are going to make your ways through this vale of tears and be told by the Ultimate Authority that “You Did Good.” It is not surprising to me that Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship has fallen out of favor. The gospel of affluence and success, that says we are oppressed, unrecognized princes and princesses, the rightful rulers of this realm (see Chronicles of Narnia, where children go to a fantasy world and do, in fact, become kings and queens there, revealing to that world, at least, their true nature), is much more appealing and comforting than Bonhoeffer’s “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” a calling that was fulfilled in Bonhoeffer’s case when he returned to Nazi Germany (“I can’t help the Church rebuild after this nightmare if I don’t go through the nightmare with them”), tried to assassinate Hitler and was himself killed in a concentration camp. There are Christians whose lives are a matter of showing up for others. I’m grateful for them, and am lucky to count a handful of them as friends. I don’t mind those who make their faith a matter of doctrinal dispute: they are my brothers and sisters, too, though the disputes I engage in these days are more political than doctrinal. I only get my fur ruffled when they want, like the Taliban, their close relations (all fundamentalists are more essentially alike than they are different in their particulars), to make others live the way they think their belligerent invisible friend wants them to live. Believe whatever you want, and live however you want, but – here is where the relativism, or maybe the humility, kicks in – leave the rest of us to figure out the world as best we can: if we want your help, we’ll ask for it.
[One further note: What my pastor wrote or sent me (he doesn't say he wrote it; I don't know) might have been written by me when I was a fundamentalist in college, except for the parts where the author acknowledges the appeal of a more "relativistic" perspective and an awareness of other modes of thought. I was not so generous when I was a newly-minted believer.]