Pssst! Have you heard about the “scandal”? All curious ears, listen in.
Yes, it is the greatest “scandal” of all. Theologians have called it the “scandal of particularity”. In a particular time. In a particular place. In a particular person. God spoke. God acted. Who is the scandal about? Simply put. Jesus Christ. There is just no other way around Jesus. This is indeed a scandal to a post-modern culture that resists particular truth claims. It sounds so exclusive. So intolerant. And that doesn’t sound so good. Right?
Here we begin the third post in a series on religious pluralism. In the first post, we looked at how a theology of common grace helps us to understand how to reasonably account for the existence of much goodness and truth we find in other faith traditions, while assuming the uniqueness of the Gospel’s message. In the second post, we demonstrated that in spite of what is shared between the Great World Religions, there are still tremendous differences and conflicting truth claims that demand our attention. In this post, we examine the unique claim about the Christian faith.
As I have argued earlier, there are often “questions behind the question” raised by those curious about the Christian faith. When someone asks, “don’t all religions teach the same thing?”, there are typically other questions lurking in the background. For example, “Christianity sounds so exclusive. Is it not possible for the Christian faith to be inclusive instead?” Well, let’s explore that.
Ravi Zacharias in this brief video comments on what makes the Christian truth-claim so unique:
Spiritual Experience and God
When I did youth ministry several years ago, I remember having a conversation with a parent, trying to communicate with her what we were doing. I told her that “we were interested in the spiritual life and growth of teenagers”. She made a sigh of relief and said, “Whew. I am so glad you talk about spirituality. I believe we need to be open to different paths and ways of understanding God.” Not quite understanding what she was saying, I responded with, “Well, just to clarify, we are coming from a Christian perspective.” Her enthusiasm suddenly waned. We continued to have a nice, polite conversation, but I knew that I had somehow disappointed her. What went wrong in that conversation? Was I being arrogant? Was I coming off as being too narrow minded? Too exclusive? What makes this “scandal of particularity” so “scandalous”?
It really comes down to what we mean by spirituality and experiencing God. If you value spirituality, you will value an experience with God. Christians value spiritual experience with God. So do many other faith traditions. So what is the big deal?
Consider the idea of marriage for a moment. The idea of marriage is that you are committed to a particular person. Even for those who are not married but who cohabitate with a partner , there is something about being faithful to your significant other. I am married, but I am not simply married for the sake of having the experience of marriage. I am married to a particular person, Lisa Marae Morledge (the world-class opera singer, I might add). But if I decided to be married to someone else tomorrow, and to be married to a different person the day after that, it would not be good. Even if you simply have a commitment to a boy-friend or a girl-friend, and you go off to experience human companionship with someone else, we call that cheating.
But what if we applied a “non-exclusivist” understanding so common today about spirituality towards marriage, or even cohabitation? I would not be committed to a particular person. The names of my marriage partner would be different depending on the partner. I would be seeking the experience of marriage, but the unity I would have with another person would be subject to change. I would possibly gain a valuable experience of marriage from being with one person one day, and then gain another potentially valuable experience of marriage being with someone else the next day. Or would I? Is this even “marriage”? How do I even know what “marriage” even is if all I am doing is moving from partner to partner to partner? Maybe I think I am “married” but perhaps I am only fooling myself with my own imagination. What then is the real, true criteria for being “married?”
The problem in seeking an experience with God simply for the sake of having an “experience” introduces the same sort of problems. It does not matter who this “God” is we are experiencing. The names will change. As John Hick, the most well-known late 20th century philosopher who argues for religious pluralism as a philosophy says, “God has many names.” For Hick, and many others like him, the most important thing about spirituality is the experience itself, not the object of that experience. The “names” for what is called “God” are merely labels.
So my first question for the advocate of religious pluralism as a philosophy is this: Why is this not cheating? Or to put it another way, why is such “cheating” on God OK and yet cheating on your spouse not OK? The analogy of marriage as taught in the Bible is very revealing. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27). Marriage tells us something about the nature of God as revealed in the Bible. Why is faithfulness to God and faithfulness in marriage related? Because according to what God has said in Scripture, we are wired that way.
My second question for the religious pluralist: How do we even know if our experience with God is truly genuine? If the name of this “God” does not matter, how do we know if our experience with what we call “God” is even real? Could it be simply a product of my own imagination? How would I know if I was just fooling myself or not? What is the criteria for knowing what a true experience of God is if the object of that experience could be subject to change? Perhaps we can limit true experience of God to that which belongs to any one of the Great World Religions. How do you determine what form of spirituality qualifies for membership in among the “Great World Religions?” Is this not arbitrary? Where do you draw the line between legitimate spiritual experience vs. narcissistic fantasy?
Both the religious pluralist and the orthodox Christian believe in spirituality, or experiencing God. But the religious pluralist puts the emphasis on the experience itself. The orthodox Christian puts the emphasis on whom we have the experience. Just as humans have an amazing capacity for self-deception with respect to marriage, it follows that humans have the same type of capacity for self-deception with respect to experiencing God.
The idea of rejecting the exclusive nature of Christian faith for something supposedly inclusive sounds really attractive…. until you start to consider these type of problems.
Considering the Objection to “Exclusivism”
Now, some may object that the analogy of marriage above is invalid since all of the Great Religious Traditions share in some way the same identity for “God”. But as we have argued earlier, despite whatever the Great Religious Traditions share in common, the differences are much greater. Believe me. If a Christian could embrace a “non-exclusivist” understanding that treats the differences between faiths as merely superficial, then aside from some incoherent tribalism or some other moral failure, the honest Christian would go that route. But Jesus Christ does not give us that option.
When Jesus came to visit Matthew, the tax collector, he said, “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9). Jesus did not say, “Come and follow, and if it does not work out with me, no big deal. What is the most important thing is that you have had the experience of ‘following’.” No. No. The claim that Jesus makes is a claim on every human being on this planet. Come, and follow, Jesus. Come and follow a particular person, a particular way, a particular truth and a particular life.
When the Jesus of the Bible makes the claim that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6), anyone who responds to the call to “follow Jesus” must, out of integrity and moral responsibility, be obedient to that call. If there are critics that still find this objectionable, then their problem really is not with Christians or with some institution, the “Church”. Their problem is with Jesus of Nazareth Himself. Ultimately, every person must take up whatever resistance to the Gospel claim they have with the One who made the claim.
Furthermore, Jesus does not give us the freedom to redefine His claim. Rejecting the truth claim that Jesus requires any true follower to follow Him and Him alone at least has the honest integrity to call Jesus a liar, lunatic, or legend. It is much more honest to reject Jesus along with His exclusivity than it is to redefine what Jesus said and did and make the message into something completely alien.
The Gospel of Grace
So why is Jesus so exclusive? Because Jesus is about grace.
In a previous post, we considered the difference between common grace and saving grace, focusing on the meaning of common grace. Here we will look at the nature of saving grace. As opposed to common grace, which is applicable to all humans in varying degrees in this life, saving grace is directed towards eternal matters. Saving grace is about salvation, but what does it mean to be saved?
One of the basic principles in studying comparative religions is that different worldviews approach the question of salvation differently. Two main questions are addressed by each worldview: (1) what am I saved from? and (2) what am I saved for?
So what am I saved from, with respect to the Christian truth claim? In the story of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27), Jesus shows that the standard for obtaining eternal life is exceedingly high. The rich young ruler had an impressive spiritual and moral resume: he did not murder, no adultery, no stealing, no bearing false witness, etc. By any typical human standard, this man was a really “good” person. He is as “good” as any “good Christian”, “good Muslim”, “good Buddhist”, etc. that I can recall. But Jesus exposed his weakness in his love for riches. The disciples were so astonished by Jesus’ uncompromising standard that they argued that salvation was impossible. However, Jesus responded that what is impossible for humanity is possible for God.
Jesus is highlighting the human spiritual problem: sin. Biblically speaking, no matter where we are on the “morality ladder”, every human misses the mark God intends for us. Exemplars like Mother Teresa and Mahatma Ghandi may zoom past other mere humans up that ladder, but even the best fail to grasp the higher rungs. (Note: the following video explains the “morality ladder”).
The point of salvation from a Christian perspective is that we need salvation from ourselves. We need to be saved from our tendency to fall short of who God created us to be. Humans have this profound ability for self-sabotage on the journey towards God.
What is the remedy for this problem? What am I saved for? In the story of the rich young ruler, Jesus demonstrates that only God is good. In brief, only God Himself can meet the moral demands required to eradicate sin. The audacious claim of the Christian faith is that Jesus Himself is God. In Jesus, He accomplishes what we could never accomplish ourselves. Through His death on the cross, He took care of the problem of sin. In His resurrection, Jesus conquered sin and death, saving us for a relationship with God that will last for all eternity. The fact that we as humans can not accomplish what God Himself does in Jesus Christ, is the demonstration of saving grace. Grace is that unmerited favor God has towards us.
This is why the grace of God as shown to us in Jesus Christ is so uncompromising. God’s grace is exclusive because if it were possible to fix the problem of sin simply based on human effort alone, then the death and resurrection of Christ would be pointless. If you or I could do something that supposedly only God can do, then it completely makes Jesus’ purpose unnecessary.
The positive side of the exclusive nature of the Christian Gospel should be apparent. Jesus is exclusive in order to be the most inclusive of all. That the grace of God is necessary is universal in scope. The person and work of Jesus Christ is directly available to every single man, woman and child. This is radical inclusion! Because all of humanity is in the same predicament and needs the same solution, there can be no room for “superiority” or “inferiority” within the human community. The ground is level for everyone at the foot of the Cross of Christ.
Response to Grace
What the grace of God does require is an individual response to the divine initiative. This is why the Christian is engaged in the missionary enterprise. The Christian community is charged by Christ Himself to declare the Good News of the “exclusive” saving grace of Jesus to the whole world. The proclamation of this Good News is not intended for only a small subset of humanity. Rather, the whole world is included. That means me and you. The saving, inclusive grace of God is meant for everyone. What is my response? What is your response?
This is really the central “question behind the question” that emerges when we consider the challenge of religious pluralism: What do we do with Jesus?
We may deny the message of the Gospel of grace. We may choose to live with the contradictions and leave the Gospel of grace off to the side, crossing our fingers that we do not get burned by those contradictions. We may choose to ignore the message. We may choose to rewrite the message of faith to something that suits our own liking, hoping that we convince ourselves sufficiently of the rightness of our actions and thinking. Or we may embrace the Gospel as truly Good News, completely turn from our current path that is taking us away from the Truth, and follow Jesus Christ.
The Application of Saving Grace
There is one more “question behind the question” of religious pluralism. If indeed salvation is found in Jesus Christ and no one else, how is this saving grace of God applied to humanity? Is it for only the Christian community? Or does it possibly extend beyond those who profess Christian belief? We will address this last question in the next and last blog post in this series.
Probably one of the most perplexing things is that there are many followers of New Age thought who are fully aware of the differences among the Great Religions of the world but who still have no problem living with the contradictions. Ravi Zacharias, in answering the following question during a Q&A period, addresses this conundrum. The question comes about 1:10 into the video:
Ravi Zacharias has a very helpful video series accessible to the lay person on how to understand the challenges presented by religious pluralism from the perspective of post-modern culture. It is based on his book,
Jesus Among Other Gods.
For the Apologetic-Geek Wanting to Dig Deeper: The recently deceased John Hick has probably been the most influential advocate of religious pluralism as a life philosophy, not simply just as a cultural phenomenon. Even though John Hick grew up in an evangelical church, Hick began to question the doctrine of the deity of Jesus Christ, eventually leading him to abandon orthodox faith. Among his many books, God Has Many Names stands out as a seminal work advocating the abandonment of central biblical doctrines in favor of religious pluralistic philosophy. Hick makes one of most formidable cases against the traditional, biblical defense of Christian particularism that I have outlined.
In response, I find that that the best, classic evangelical critique of pluralism is Leslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. Originally from Scotland, Newbigin served for twenty-seven years as a missionary in India, serving for a time as a bishop for the Church of South India, an interesting position for a Presbyterian. Newbigin is probably one of finest statesmen for the contemporary missional church movement. While Newbigin is academic in his scholarship, he is accessible to the thoughtful layperson. If you could only get one book that deals with the overall problem of religious pluralism, this would be it. Highly recommended.
In the interest of full disclosure, regarding other theologies of grace: It would be remiss to not to mention that there are theologies of grace that show up in traditions outside of historical, orthodox Christian faith. For example, the concept of grace can be found in variations of Pure Land Buddhism and, fairly recently, in some of the work by Mormon theologian, Robert Millet. On the positive side, it is very encouraging to think that there are folks outside of historical, orthodox Christian faith who are really thinking hard about the wonder of grace. However, I am very cautious as I am not convinced yet that these alternative approaches are really consistent with a biblical understanding of God’s grace. The key terms are the same but they appear to be formulated in such a way that unfortunately add things to grace or introduce changes that are quite alien to what Jesus was really about. What is clear is that these alternative approaches to grace are highly sophisticated and are rarely, rarely embraced by your average person “on the street”. The message of grace is the unique message of Jesus. If someone can demonstrate that I have misunderstood this and prove me wrong, I would like to hear it.