The Audacity of Exclusivity

How could any religion claim to be the one true religion to the exclusion of all others?

In June of this year, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders took his turn in questioning Russell Vought, a presidential nominee to deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. In the process, Sanders alluded to Vought’s involvement in a controversy surrounding his alma mater, Wheaton College. The college had suspended a tenured professor for publicly asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Vought responded by way of a blog post in which he stated, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

Vought cited multiple passages from the New Testament in his post, many of which quoted Jesus, teaching what could only be described as the exclusivity of himself – that the salvation of humanity comes through him alone. Quoting Jesus demonstrated that Wheaton College was not acting out of a novel, slanted preference but on a definitive Christian teaching. Long story short, it was Vought’s adherence to this teaching, this claim to exclusivity, which Sen. Sanders firmly stated disqualified Vought from nomination.

This post is not intended to discuss the political issues surrounding Sen. Sanders’ comments. I only mention this event because it is a high-profile example of a question many people have, Christian and non-Christian alike, concerning religious belief in general and Christian belief specifically: How can anyone claim there is only one true religion?

Well, here’s the thing…

It’s not as illogical as you’d think.

When dealing with the varying truthfulness of world religions, few people want to make the hard call. To act as though your religion is the one true religion runs the risk of offending someone; to assert it outright guarantees offense. Particularly in the West, where we cherish equality and diversity, many people aspire to treat all religions as equals. Just think of the “Coexist” bumper stickers that became so popular a few years ago. With all the religions of the world, it is illogical to think that there can be a single true religion, therefore we must treat all religions the same. Right?

Let’s look at a couple of the alternatives.

What if all religions are equally true? What if the differences between the religions of the world are superficial and inconsequential? What if they all lead back to God, whatever god that may be?

What if all religions are equally false? What if in the best-case scenario, all religions are at their root a shallow attempt to cope with a highly misunderstood universe? Or what if in the worst case scenario, they are each a sinister plot to control people’s lives?

There is a problem with these two alternatives and all variations in between. To take such a position, people prop themselves up as holding a superior knowledge, having a viewpoint above all religions. They claim to know what is really behind all these belief systems. Suddenly, they become right and everyone else is wrong. Sound familiar? They claim a viewpoint that is, dare I say, exclusive.

Popular though it may be this attitude toward religion forces people claim for themselves the exclusivity that they demand all religions to avoid. It is what we refer to as a good-old-fashioned self-defeating argument.

What makes more sense, however, is allowing religions to fend for themselves, to scrutinize and to be scrutinized. If a religion like Christianity wants to claim exclusivity, then Christians should be allowed to give reasons for their audacity.

It’s not as unique as you’d think.

We Christians are not the only ones who claim exclusivity. Ravi Zacharias, in his book Jesus Among Other Gods, compares Christianity with the multitude of near and far eastern religions. At the outset, he strongly asserts:

All religions do not say that all religions are the same. At the heart of every religion is an uncompromising commitment to a particular way of defining who God is or is not and accordingly, of defining life’s purpose.
Anyone who claims that all religions are the same betrays not only an ignorance of all religions but also a caricatured view of even the best-known ones. Every religion at its core is exclusive.[1]

Tim Keller recounts an opportunity he had to sit on a panel with a rabbi and an imam, fielding questions from students at a community college. The rabbi, the imam, and Keller obviously did not agree on much. However, there was one thing they all agreed on: if one of them was right, then the others were definitively wrong. What is more, they had no problem with that reality. The students, on the other hand, were downright troubled.[2] What was the difference between the students and the religious leaders? The students were concerned more about impartiality than about truth; the leaders were concerned about truth, exclusive though it may be.

It’s not as trendy as you’d think.

Historically, religious exclusivism has been identified by the tendency of religious groups to view those of other persuasions as inferior, adversarial, and at times even less than human. This characterization is still popular. Critics often accuse Christians of seeking to defend our tribe, advance our politics, and preserve our way of life. Admittedly, there have been chapters of Christian history during which we have fit that profile. There have been shameful instances when Christians have seen their religion as a way to maintain popularity and uniformity.

However, followers of Christ have maintained the exclusivity of Christ even when by all accounts they could not afford to do so.

The first three centuries of Christian history saw intense, virtually uninterrupted persecution. Yet, Rome did not kill Christians because they worshipped Jesus. Christians were tortured, burned alive, and fed to animals because they worshipped Jesus exclusively, refusing to participate in the emperor worship and idolatrous rituals of the empire. First and second-century pagans did not martyr the early missionaries because the attempted to add Jesus to their pantheons. They did so because the missionaries called them to renounce their gods and turn to Christ.

Moreover, it continues today. Christians around the world are not meeting underground because they worship Jesus. They are meeting underground because they refuse to relinquish Christ’s authority in his church to a government or a ruling class of religious leaders.

At the end of the day, Christians do not claim the exclusivity of Christ because it is popular to do so. We do not claim exclusivity because we seek the preservation of our social club. We claim the exclusivity of Christ because we believe he actually is the way, the truth, and the life. We stand with the disciples as the multitude walks away and Jesus asks them, “Will ye also go away?” We say with Peter, “To whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”

It’s not as arrogant as you’d think.

Arrogance is perhaps the most common allegation when referring to religious exclusivity. I understand this line of thinking. It does seem arrogant to declare that your group has found the light and the rest of the world gropes in darkness. It seems reasonable, humble even, to disavow any claim that you are right and just admit that no one really knows. I get it. I just don’t agree.

Which is more arrogant: believing what Christians have believed for two millennia in conjunction with what Jews believed thousands of years before that, or doubting the validity of Biblical religion based on a two-century-old philosophical materialism that has yet to become all that popular (despite recent growth)?

Which is more arrogant: arguing for the exclusive truth of one’s own religion or claiming that about 80% (generously rounding down) of the world’s population is wrong for doing so, and in turn claiming your own sort of exclusivity (see above)?

In addition, there really is no room for arrogance in Christianity. Are Christians often arrogant? Yep. However, the New Testament teaches in numerous places the repulsiveness of human pride. It is so abhorrent to God that he resists all who reek of it (James 4:6).

A central theme of the Bible is the inability of humanity to save ourselves. The central message is our need for God to save us. Arrogance is a gospel nonstarter.

It is for this reason that we must ask the rhetorical, yet necessary question: when Christians claim to be the one true religion, whose exclusivity are we claiming?

We claim exclusivity, not of our truth, but of God’s truth. The truth that was revealed in Jesus Christ. The truth that was revealed as Jesus Christ. We are not exclusively right. He is. All who stand outside of Christ do indeed stand condemned. We know that to be true because we were once there, also, condemned just like everybody else. Nevertheless, God in his grace provided the way of salvation. When we look at those outside of the Christian faith, we do not look down. We look out and say with the old English preacher, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

As one pastor put it, “Christianity is simply one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” However, imagine that second beggar telling the first, “Well, that’s arrogant! I’ll find bread on my own terms, thank you very much.” The exclusivity of the Christian faith does not claim that we are right and everyone else is wrong. Christian exclusivity, when it is truly Christian, proclaims that Jesus Christ is right and everyone is wrong.

When considering religions and philosophies of life, we would do well to stop resenting claims to exclusivity as though we have no fundamental beliefs of our own. We should instead examine religious truth claims to see what merit they have and then return the favor by not minding when someone else examines ours. This is especially true of Christians who are commanded to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear”.

Unfortunately, exclusivity is still a major obstacle to many. In fact, it is so repugnant to so many that it has become a major issue public debate. As with Russel Vought, an increasing number of Christians in the public square being told more blatantly than ever to leave their beliefs at home. More on that next time.

 

[1] Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message, p. 7.

[2] Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, p. 4.