Monday, 12 January 2015

Christians are arrogant for claiming to know spiritual truth?

“Epiphany” is about light shining in the darkness and revealing what is hidden. Specifically, it is about Jesus being revealed to the world as the divine Son of God. This season of Epiphany we are going to shine the light of epiphany on our questions and doubts. Many of you have submitted questions and doubts that are either your own or that you have received from family, friends, or neighbours.    
The question this week is this: 
“If God instituted all the different languages and cultures of the world at Babel to challenge us, why would the Church teach Christianity is the exclusive route to God?”
How I understand the question is this. We live in a world full of so much diversity- many cultures and many religions- isn’t it arrogant for Christians to claim the only way to God? It’s offensive to say you know spiritual truth (and imply others don’t.) 
God is a God of amazing creativity and diversity. It seems at least conceivable that God could have created a smaller universe and still accomplished what he wanted.  Do we need so many stars, and so many planets? Do we need 32,000 species of fish? Or, 10,000 species of birds? God is extravagant and creative. So, we find that human beings have all kinds of colours of skin, eyes, and hair, but we also have a variety of cultures.
The traditional interpretation of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 is that languages were confused because human beings became arrogant and thought they could get to heaven through their own efforts. So a traditional Christian interpretation would say that at least some human diversity is due to being a part of a broken world, but as we look into the rest of creation God seems to delight in creative diversity, so we really shouldn’t attribute much diversity to sin.
But, in the midst of this incredible diversity of species and cultures Christians claim to know the exclusive route to God.  Paul in Romans 5:19 says, 
“For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” 
It is Jesus who fixed what was broken about the world. It is his medicine that was injected into the sick world that is bringing about a cure. In John 14:6 Jesus says, 
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” 
The Prophet Isaiah is speaking for God and in Isaiah 45:5 he says, 
“I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.” 
In Acts 4:12 Paul says about Jesus, 
“there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” 
To the modern North American this all seems pretty intolerant and offensive. Christianity should change its tune if it doesn’t want to be considered bigoted and close-minded.
There is a detail that is worth teasing out in the Christian claim. Christians are saying that Jesus said of himself that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [him]”. We aren’t making the claim about Christianity. We are saying Jesus made this claim about himself. We aren’t saying only Christians are saved. We aren’t claiming to know who populates heaven or hell. We are just saying that Jesus said he is the one who saves. If someone is saved it is because of Jesus. If an atheist, or a Hindu is saved it is not because of their atheism or Hinduism- it is because of Jesus.  That might still seem offensive to some, but that is where traditional Christianity takes its stand.
We shouldn’t see this as unusual for religion though. I spent 4 years of university getting a Bachelor’s degree in the study of world religions at a secular university. Growing up, at different times I considered myself a Wiccan, and a Buddhist. I have spent a lot of time and energy looking at this thing we call religion. … All religions make claims about spiritual truth. For example, Buddhism teaches that you will not reach Nirvana without practicing Buddha’s 8-fold path, and the Buddhist worldview even includes a hell. So it’s not as if this problem (religious exclusive truth claims) goes away by getting rid of Christianity. All religions make claims about spiritual truth, not just Christianity. 
Some religions try to have a broader inclusion. So for example, some broad-minded Buddhists will try to see Jesus as a Boddhisatva. So the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh reinterpreted the Eucharist saying, “[Jesus] knew that if his disciples would eat one piece of bread in mindfulness, they would have real life” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step).  It seems open-minded, but really they are changing Jesus and making him into a Buddhist. He stops being the Jesus of the Bible and starts being a Buddhist. In a similar way Islam seems to embrace Jesus, but he is not the Son of God and he did not die on a cross and have a bodily resurrection. They reinterpret Jesus and make him into a Muslim prophet- he is not the Jesus of the Bible. Other religions might seem to embrace Jesus, but they won’t accept him on his own terms. All religions claim spiritual truth.        
There is a kind of parable that is sometimes told about the various religions of the world. They symbolically imagine spiritual truth as an elephant. Then they imagine these blind men approach the elephant and each attempt to understand and describe the elephant. One blind man approached the elephant’s leg and he says, “An elephant is like a tree”. Another blind man approaches the elephant’s trunk and says, “An elephant is like a snake”. Another blind man approaches the elephant’s side and says, “An elephant is like a wall”. Another blind man approaches the elephant’s tail and says, “An elephant is like a rope”. This parable is often told to talk about how each of the religions mistakenly knows a part of the spiritual truth, but they don’t know the whole truth. Each of them only has a part of the truth and it is a mistake to think any one of them really understands an elephant by only knowing the elephant’s leg.

The story is often told to point out the foolishness of the blind men- and so the foolishness of the world religions. They are arrogant to claim they have knowledge that is superior to the other religions. … BUT there is another person in the parable. The person who is watching the blind men is the only one who sees the whole elephant. The observer is the only one with superior knowledge- the observer is the only one that is not blind. The one who thinks the other religions are arrogant and foolish for claiming knowledge superior to the other religions is themselves claiming to have superior knowledge over all the other religions. The observer is in the position of being right and all the other religions are wrong. They fall prey to the same arrogant stance they accuse the other religions of having. (a point made by Leslie Newbegin)
You can’t get away from making claims to truth. We all do it. And when we claim something is true, we are automatically saying something else is false. We all have a way we view the world that includes a specific kind of belief system. 
I heard a pastor named Timothy Keller once describe a conversation he had on a university campus with a student. (It went something like this.) As they were talking the topic eventually moved to religion. Eventually the student realized what was happening and said, “Hey! You’re trying to evangelize me. You’re trying to convert me to Christianity. You are trying to convince me that your way of looking at the world is better than mine. You are trying to say your belief system is right and mine is wrong. That is offensive!” … Timothy Keller responded, “So you think my way of thinking is wrong and that I should convert to your belief system? That’s offensive”.  …. The student was making claims about the right way to think and act. You can’t get away from making claims about what is true. And when you say something is true you automatically exclude other claims to truth.
Someone recently said to me "We need to get rid of the word 'absolute'". It is a self-contradictory statement. They wanted to banish (absolutely) the word "absolute". It is the same as saying "There is no truth". Well, is that statement 'true'? The statement negates itself and we have no reason to believe it since it actually speaks against its own claim. It is self-contradictory. 
Some people say all religions are paths that lead up the mountain to God. They are different paths, but they have the same destination. What is it that we arrive at when we get to the top? Is it the Triune God of Christianity? Is it the one (non-Trinitarian) God of the Koran? Are there thousands of Gods as Hindus believe? Or is the mountaintop empty because Buddhism doesn’t believe in God?
I’m not saying that we don’t have similarities. We do. There is tremendous similarities among religions in some areas. Especially when it comes to morality. Usually the various religions of the world will agree on most moral cases. There is a lot of overlap when it comes to morality. (Dan Kimball explains this well in "they like Jesus but not the church"). 
Jesus used people of other religions as moral examples. Jesus used positive examples of Samaritans who were considered heretics in his own time (John 4; Luke 10; Luke 17). Jesus had mercy and healed non-Jews (Gentiles), who were usually Pagan. He didn’t come to them with condemnation.  We read about Paul in Athens and he quotes some of their pagan authors and praises them for how religious they are (Acts 17).  I think we too should follow the examples of Jesus and Paul and recognize what is true and beautiful in other religions. We should be willing to applaud the deep insights of other religions. We should be willing to recognize where we overlap in our moral convictions and work together on those fronts.    
If you think the whole goal of religion is morality, then you might be led to say things like “all religions are pretty much the same”. But that is really a surface issue. Most deeply religious people will see morality as a side effect of what they believe, but not the end point, or even the central point. Saying all religions are basically the same is like saying all white people look the same. It shows you haven’t spent much time with white people. Saying all religions are basically the same shows you haven’t spent much time with the various religions of the world. We should recognize our similarities, but we should also recognize our differences. We should also recognize that at times we will think each other are wrong.  To use an extreme example, I don’t think any of us want to support the beliefs of someone who would crash a plane into a building killing thousands of people; or beliefs that would require child sacrifice (As the Canaanites and other did). I hope we would all consider those beliefs as mistaken regardless of the sincerity of the practitioners.  The desire to be kind and gracious to those who believe differently than us is a good instinct. That doesn’t mean we have to give up what we believe to be true.
I think we have a tricky calling as modern religious people. 100 years ago we didn’t bump into such a variety of religious people. God gave us a brain and God expects us to use it. In the mix of beliefs we find ourselves in we have to work hard to figure out which claims about God, human nature, and spiritual reality are true and which are false? What is life all about? What is the most important thing we should spend our time doing? Is there life after death? What is right and wrong, and why?  We have to base our life on some answer to those questions. We cannot function without some kind of belief structure.
Sometimes I hear parents say things like “I’m not teaching my child a religion because I want them to investigate and choose freely when they are older. I don’t want to interfere in that.” But you actually can’t help teaching them something about religion, even if you choose to teach them nothing. They have to learn math at school, and they have to learn to read at school. The implicit message is that those things are important and religion is not important. You can’t live without making truth claims.  And when you claim some sort of truth you exclude alternatives. There is no way around it. Even if you claim “they are all true” you exclude the claim that theirs is “the one way”- you are saying they are wrong.    
The original question was about the diversity of cultures and the exclusivity of the Christian claim that Jesus is the only way to God. I didn’t leave a lot of room to say why we should believe Jesus’ claim, but Jesus’ claim is either true or false. We have to come to some conclusion about that. Either way we are committing ourselves to some truth.  And we are therefore rejecting the alternative.  I think the motivation behind the question is good. It is a desire for peace and understanding between the various cultures of the world. The concern is that we have to find a way to have peace among ourselves. I think Christianity values both peace and a desire to build relationships with those that are different from us. Jesus taught us to love even our enemies. Jesus died praying for the forgiveness of those that were killing him. But why should we believe Jesus has any spiritual authority? The early church taught that his life and teachings were confirmed by God through his resurrection. The resurrection was God’s stamp of approval on the life and teachings of Jesus. I believe his teachings are a powerful force for good in our world. But, if we are going to activate his teachings we first have to make a decision about what is true. Do we believe him? If you answer "yes", or "no" you are claiming some truth that excludes the alternative. 

For further reading into this topic see:

Tim Keller, "Reason for God"

Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli, "Handbook of Christian Apologetics"
Dan Kimball, "They like Jesus but not the church"
Brian McLaren, "Finding Faith" 

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