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The Problem with Christians
The problem with Christians is that they insist they have the only way to salvation. Sometimes they talk about being "born again." Sometimes they tell you to "believe in Jesus." But it all boils down to the same thing in the end: Christians think they worship the only true God.
But how can Jesus be the only way? Is Christianity anything more than narrow-minded bigotry?
One writer who objects to the uniqueness of Christianity is Alan Watts. Once a minister in the Anglican church, Watts gradually grew disaffected with the Christian church and was attracted to Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. He has now written some twenty books trying to combine the religions of the world into one universal faith.
Over time Watts has found Christianity strangely resistant to being incorporated into a global religion. In the end he has had to leave it behind altogether. As he writes in the preface to Beyond Theology:
There is not a scrap of evidence that the Christian hierarchy was ever aware of itself as one among several lines of transmission for a universal tradition. Christians ... did not take at all kindly to ideas that even begin to question the unique and supreme position of the historical Jesus. ... Christianity is a contentious faith which requires an all-or-nothing commitment to Jesus as the one and only incarnation of the Son of God. ... My previous discussions did not take proper account of that whole aspect of Christianity which is uncompromising, ornery, militant, rigorous, imperious and invincibly self-righteous. They did not give sufficient weight to the church's disagreeable insistence on the reality of a totally malignant spirit of cosmic evil, on everlasting damnation and on the absolute distinction between Creator and creature. These thorny and objectionable facets of Christianity cannot be shrugged off as temporary distortions or errors. (New York: World Publishing, 1967, p. xii)
Watts is right about one thing at least. Christianity is the one piece of luggage that refuses to be stuffed into his theological trunk. It requires an all-or-nothing commitment to Jesus Christ.
Authentic, biblical Christianity has always been an exclusive religion. This became apparent during the Roman Empire. When the Emperor Alexander Severus heard about Christianity, he placed an image of Christ beside the other gods in his private chapel, just to be safe. The Romans were happy to welcome Jesus into their pantheon.
What the Romans could not understand was why Christians refused to reciprocate. If the emperor was willing to worship Christ, why weren't Christians willing to worship the emperor? Yet the early Christians insisted that in order to worship Christ at all, they had to worship Christ alone. They were even willing to stand up for this conviction by playing "Christians and lions" at the Colosseum.
Jesus Christ refuses to have any colleagues. This is why Christianity has always seemed like such a scandalous religion. It is scandalous in the sense of the Greek word skandal, meaning "that which gives offense or arouses opposition." The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is "a stumbling block" to those outside the Christian faith (1 Cor. 1:23). For the past 2,000 years, Christianity's claims about the unique truth of Jesus Christ have aroused no end of opposition from Jews, pagans, Muslims, Communists, humanists, and atheists.
Insisting that Jesus is the only way is an especially unpopular stance in a culture based on freedom of choice. After all, our culture invented shopping malls and mail-order catalogs, where anything and everything is for sale. Religion is now called a "preference," which makes it sound like a soft drink or a shade of paint. If you can go to the college of your choice, root for the football team of your choice, watch the cable channel of your choice, and eat the yogurt of your choice, why can't you pray to the god of your choice?
These are fair questions. If Christians are going to insist that their religion is true — and that all other religions are false — then they have some explaining to do. The rest of this booklet was written to help explain how Jesus can be the only way.CHAPTER 2
Three Kinds of Pluralism
One reason people are skeptical about the claims of Christ is that postmodern culture values religious pluralism. Donald A. Carson has tried to explain what this pluralism means for Christianity in a book called The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996).
Carson begins by describing three different kinds of pluralism. The first he calls empirical pluralism, by which he means the fact that we live in a diverse society. America is a country of many languages, ethnicities, religions, and worldviews. As many as a dozen different languages are spoken in the hallways of many urban schools. Thus it is now more accurate to speak of American cultures than American culture.
We are living in increasingly post-Christian times. Christianity has lost its position as the dominant religious viewpoint in America. Partly this is because more Americans than ever before claim to be atheists or agnostics. At the same time, there is a New Age resurgence of paganism and the religions of the East. Islam is now among the fastest-growing religions in America. Still another reason for the decline of Christianity is the proliferation of cults such as Mormonism or the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Christianity is also losing its cultural force because so many people are making up their religion as they go along. In Habits of the Heart Robert Bellah reports on an interview with a young nurse who described her religion as "Sheilaism": "I believe in God. I'm not a religious fanatic. I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice" (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1985, pp. 232-233). In America there seem to be almost as many religions as there are citizens.
The radical privatization of religion means that America is more religiously diverse than ever. Thousands of different cults, sects, and fringe religions have their own computer websites. When religious diversity is added to ethnic and linguistic diversity, the result is empirical pluralism, one of the inescapable facts of our social existence.
A second kind of pluralism Carson terms cherished pluralism. Cherished pluralism goes beyond the empirical fact of pluralism to its value. To cherish pluralism is to appreciate it, welcome it, celebrate it, and approve of it. It says that pluralism exists, and it's a good thing too.
Pluralism is high on the postmodern agenda. University admissions departments try to make sure that each incoming class has diverse talents, interests, and backgrounds. Cities promote diversity by hosting parades, concerts, and exhibits, and by engaging in hiring practices that celebrate the divergent ethnic and cultural heritage of their citizens. Politicians appeal to multicultural diversity in their speeches and legislation. As a result of these efforts, pluralism is now among the most treasured of all values.
It is only a short step from cherishing cultural diversity to cherishing religious diversity. Perhaps the only reason religions differ is because cultures differ. In a speech at the 1993 Parliament of World Religions, Swami Chindanansa of the Divine Life Society argued that all religions are to be valued equally because they are all equally valuable. "There are many effective, equally valid religions," he said. "They are to be equally reverenced, equally recognized, and equally loved and cherished — not merely tolerated."
The view that all religions are equally valuable is becoming increasingly popular. Indeed, as the Christian missionary statesman Leslie Newbigin observes:
It has become a commonplace to say that we live in a pluralist society — not merely a society which is in fact plural in the variety of cultures, religions and lifestyles which it embraces, but pluralist in the sense that this plurality is celebrated as a thing to be approved and cherished. (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989, p. 1)
One of the best examples of cherished religious pluralism comes from the mind of that great American theologian, Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn once was asked if she believed in God. With a flirtatious grin she said, "I just believe in everything — a little bit." This "Monroe doctrine" might be the defining doctrine of postmodern times.
Many Americans are eclectic in their moral and religious beliefs. They have a total disdain for logical consistency. They believe in being nice to animals, a woman's right to choose, their own basic goodness, the necessity of sexual gratification, being loyal to friends, and rooting for their favorite NBA team. They believe in everything a little bit, and especially in looking out for Number One. They even believe in the existence of God (or at least they say they do). But this hodge-podge of conviction is not organized into a coherent worldview. Nor can it be.
A third kind of pluralism is philosophical pluralism. To review: empirical pluralism is a fact, and cherished pluralism values that fact. Philosophical pluralism goes one step further and demands it.
1. The creed of pluralism. Philosophical pluralism takes the fact of pluralism and turns it into a mind-set. It is the ideology that refuses to allow any single religion or worldview to claim an exclusive hold on the truth. It denies that there are any absolutes. It insists that all religions and worldviews must be seen as equally valid. According to Carson, philosophical pluralism holds that "any notion that a particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another is necessarily wrong. The only absolute creed is the creed of pluralism. No religion has the right to pronounce itself right or true, and the others false" (p. 19). To put it another way, your worldview is just your opinion.
One theologian who has become famous — or perhaps infamous — for defending philosophical pluralism is John Hick. Hick believes that true religion is like a grand mosaic. No single religion is capable of teaching us everything we need to know about God, but each religion gives us part of the picture. In his own words, "Each of the great world faiths constitutes a perception of and a response to the ultimate divine reality which they all in their different ways affirm" (Christian Century, vol. 98, p. 46).
In 1993 a shrine to philosophical pluralism was built on the campus of Vanderbilt University. The All Faith Chapel was dedicated by Hindus, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, the Baha'i, and the Orthodox Christian Fellowship.
No religious symbolism is incorporated into the chapel's design. However, storage cabinets are provided to accommodate the accoutrements of various worship traditions. Thus each religious group can transform the chapel into its own worship space. Jewish students go to the cupboard and get out a menorah and a Torah scroll. Muslim students pull out a prayer mat and some copies of the Koran. Christians get out a cross and some Bibles. One might say that Vanderbilt students come out of the closet every time they worship!
Vanderbilt built the All Faith Chapel as a matter of principle. The board members of the university refused to build a chapel for only one religion. That would be narrow and sectarian. Instead, they insisted on supporting all religions at once. At the chapel's dedication, university chaplain Beverly Asbury said, "This place is for all faiths. Its dedication consists of many acts and of one. There is diversity in our unity, and there is unity in our diversity as we dedicate this space and add to its light, each in the way of a distinctive tradition." That is the creed of pluralism at its most self-contradictory: diversity in unity and unity in diversity.
2. Is truth relative? Another name for philosophical pluralism is relativism. It insists that all religious viewpoints are equally valid and equally true. To suggest otherwise is to be arrogant and intolerant. No religion can claim to be superior to any other. You may practice your faith as long as you realize it is only one of many true faiths. If what you believe is true at all, it is only relatively true.
Philosophical pluralism prefers to view the different religions of the world as different roads up the same mountain. They all lead to the mountaintop. Eventually Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians will discover that they all worship the same God.
Or perhaps true religion is like the elephant in John Godfrey Saxe's poem "The Blind Men and the Elephant." The poem describes how six blind men of Indostan wanted to learn what an elephant was like. Each explored a different part of the animal, and each described it in a different way. When examined from the side the elephant seemed like a wall. From its tusk it seemed like a spear; from its trunk, like a snake; from its leg, a tree; from its ear, a fan; from its tail, a rope.
And so these men of Indostan Disputed loud and long, Each in his own opinion Exceeded stiff and strong Though each was partly in the right And all were in the wrong!
Saxe was using his poem to make a theological point. People who argue about religion are like blind men who "prate about an elephant not one of them has seen!"
One of the implications of pluralism as a philosophy is that it does not matter which religion you choose. Truth is relative. Since all worldviews are equally valid, you should choose whichever one is right for you. As President Eisenhower famously said, the American system of government makes no sense "unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith — and I don't care which one it is."
The philosophy of pluralism was portrayed in the film Man Friday (1975), based on Daniel DeFoe's explicitly Christian novel Robinson Crusoe (1719). In the film, the man Friday represents the ideal of religious pluralism. "Worship any way you like," he says, "as long as you mean it. God won't mind."
Really? How does the pluralist know what kind of worship God will accept? The suggestion that God doesn't care how he is worshiped is rather presumptuous. Indeed, this shows how smug pluralism can be. Although it claims to be humble about its ability to grasp religious truth, philosophical pluralism has an arrogance all its own. By declaring that doctrine is unimportant, it is condescending toward the truth-claims of every other religion.
At the same time that philosophical pluralism denies other religions the right to lay claim to the truth, it presents its own worldview as the absolute truth. Consider the story of the blind men and the elephant again. Dick Keyes of L'Abri Fellowship in Massachusetts offers a clever twist on this illustration. In one of his lectures he points out that whereas the men investigating the elephant are all blind, the pluralist has perfect vision. Like some sort of cosmic zookeeper he is able to see the whole elephant. He — and he alone — has the perception to know exactly what each religion contributes to the truth. In the end philosophical pluralism's dismissal of dogma turns out to be just another dogma.CHAPTER 3
When Pluralism Comes to Church
Christians have always been vulnerable to the latest ideas. Since the idea of pluralism has become so dominant in recent years, it comes as no surprise that it is beginning to influence the theology of the church.
Our pluralistic culture has rather naturally produced a pluralistic theology. Many people who call themselves Christians are now trying to find salvation outside the church as well as inside. They are looking for a way to embrace other religions without giving up their Christianity.
At least since Vatican II, religious pluralism has been the explicit goal of Roman Catholicism. The official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church still state there is no salvation except through Jesus Christ. However, the church also believes it is unnecessary for everyone to possess a conscious knowledge of Christ in order to experience redemption.
Pluralistic Christianity is also starting to attract a following among those who identify themselves as evangelicals. According to a study carried out by James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia, a majority of students at Christian colleges and seminaries doubt whether faith in Jesus Christ is really necessary for salvation. Because of their concern for "those who have never heard," they hope that God will save all good people when they die, whether they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ or not.
In the past, Christians expressed their concern for the heathen by throwing their efforts into missions and evangelism. Now some of them wonder if all that effort is really necessary. "How can God condemn those who have never heard the Gospel?" they wonder. "Maybe he saves them a different way. Maybe he gives them a chance after they die depending on how they lived their lives."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Is Jesus the Only Way?"
Copyright © 1999 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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