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Absolute truth in the age of shopping

Today, people who claim their faith is exclusively true are frequently reviled as intolerant, bigoted and possibly dangerous. In the face of this widespread criticism, Dan Strange argues for a creative and subversive approach in presenting the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in our culture

In today's cultural climate, how can we not only defend our faith, but actually persuade atheists, agnostics and pluralists of the truth of Christian exclusivity and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ? Here are three creative approaches which can help us avoid religious pluarlism and defend the Christian faith in our difficult cultural context.

Deploy a biblically rich theology of religions

A biblical theology of religions is not only interested in questions of salvation, but also questions of truth and communication. These questions become ever more acute in our globalised, multicultural world. More than ever we need to integrate sound exegesis, systematics, biblical theology and missiology.

If other religions are not paths to salvation, then what are they? Do they contain any truth? Do other religions contain revelation? Are other religions demonically inspired? Are they human constructions? Are they all three? How far can we go in tolerating others without compromising our own beliefs about Christ?

How do we affirm the good in other religions? Can people from other religious traditions do 'good'? Should we take off our shoes in a Sikh temple as a mark of respect? Can there be any such thing as interfaith dialogue? How do we discern what is cultural and what is gospel?

Evangelicals need to continue to think hard about such issues, but our thinking must be based upon biblical foundations concerning the nature of God and his revelation and the nature of humankind and our reaction to revelation. Any evangelical theology of religions must recognise at one and the same time both continuity and discontinuity between the quest for God in other faiths and the fullness and finality of the knowledge of God 'in the face of Jesus Christ.'

Non-Christian religion, alike in its most debased and most elevated manifestations, always bears the dual impress of God's gracious revelation of himself to all mankind in creation and mankind's universal exchange of the truth of God for a lie. So long as these twin biblical perspectives are maintained, there may be scope for legitimate differences in the way Christian theology balances and correlates them in its evaluation of other religions.

The two perspectives are tellingly presented in the apostle Paul's address at Athens. Despite the universality of God's providential care and presence, says Paul, the Athenians' religiosity suppressed the knowledge of the true God. Their abundant images and idols attested their ignorance of him, and their altar 'to an unknown god' also attested their awareness of that ignorance.

Paul's message came to hearers whose refusal to know the living God had left its mark upon their religion. Because idols are distortions and perversions of truth, and therefore are 'related' to truth, like the great early 20th century missiologist Hendrik Kraemer one might cautiously say that Christianity is the 'subversive fulfillment' of the human religious quest. Such a nuanced perspective will have important implications as we seek to communicate the gospel to men and women of all faiths and worldviews.

Resist the arrogance and intolerance of pluralism

Here we need to go on the offensive. Consider, even at a popular level, how our society reacts to terms like 'exclusivism' (cold, harsh, unfeeling, divisive), as opposed to terms like 'inclusivism' and 'pluralism' (warm, open, tolerant, peaceful).

As the grammar of theology of religions has evolved, some have begun to notice an inbuilt bias in the way exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism have been portrayed. There is a bias against exclusivism, which is often portrayed in emotive and sensational terms, and this is matched by a bias towards pluralism, which is portrayed as enlightened, tolerant and neutral. How could anyone be a horrible exclusivist? Shouldn't we all be tolerant pluralists?

However, what must be pointed out is that the pluralism argued for and so prized by many today is as intolerant and exclusive as so-called exclusivism, in fact far more so. Consider carefully this infamous example, which is often given as an illustration of tolerant pluralism...

The story of the blind man and the elephant

Once upon a time there were six blind men. They lived in a town in India. They thought they were very clever. One day, an elephant came into the town. The blind men did not know what an elephant looked like but they could smell it and they could hear it. 'What is this animal like?' they said.

Each man touched a different part of the elephant. The first man touched the elephant's body. It felt hard, big and wide. 'An elephant is like a wall,' he said.

The second man touched one of the elephant's tusks. It felt smooth, hard and sharp. 'An elephant is like a spear,' he said.

The third man touched the elephant's trunk. It felt long and thin and wiggly. 'An elephant is like a snake,' he said.

The fourth man touched one of the legs. It felt thick, rough, hard and round. 'An elephant is like a tree,' he said.

The fifth man touched one of the elephant's ears. It felt thin and it moved. 'An elephant is like a fan,' he said.

The sixth man touched the elephant's tail. It felt long and thin and strong. 'An elephant is like a rope,' he said.

The men argued.

'It's like a wall!'

'No, it isn't!'

'It's like a spear!'

'No it isn't!'

'It's like a snake!'

They did not agree. The king had been watching and listening to the men. 'You are not very clever. You only touched part of the elephant. You did not feel the whole animal. An elephant is not like a wall, or a spear or a snake, or a tree or a fan or a rope.'

The men left the town still arguing.

Can you see how this story is actually exclusive? The missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, writing in his book,
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, can help us here.

'In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, so often quoted in the interest of religious agnosticism, the real point of the story is constantly overlooked... The story is constantly told in order to neutralise the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn more humility and recognise that none of them can have more than one aspect of the truth. But of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth which all the world's religions are only groping after. It embodies the claim to know the full reality which relativises all the claims of the religions.'

We need to argue that what looks like an inclusive view is, in reality, a very exclusive view; what looks like a humble view is a very arrogant view; and what looks like a tolerant view is in fact intolerant. Many pluralists (thinking or not) are often blind to this criticism and we need to expose the soft underbelly of their thinking here.

For example...

'You say, “No one has the right to have the whole truth”, but your view assumes you have the whole truth, an absolute vantage point to look down on and interpret all religions. Tell me, where did you get this insight from exactly? Where does your superior knowledge come from?'

'You say, “No one should try and convert others to their religion”, but you want me to convert to your story with its own particular understanding of God and reality. On what basis?'

'You say that Christian belief is too culturally conditioned to be truth, and that if you were born in Morocco you wouldn't even be a Christian but a Muslim... but the same is true for you. If you were born in Morocco, you wouldn't be a religious pluralist. It's just not fair to say: “All claims about religions are historically conditioned except the one I am making now.”'

When we make these points, we discover the blind 'leaps of faith' that pluralists and others have to make to substantiate their positions: houses built on sinking sand rather than on the solid rock of God's revelation.

Demonstrate the power of the gospel to change lives and communities

Given that we are all exclusivists, we need to ask, which exclusive set of beliefs actually delivers the goods: lasting peace, tolerance, loving relationships and peaceful behaviour? Here Tim Keller is at his subversive best. Concentrating on 1 John 4:1-12, Keller argues that it is precisely the unique aspects of the Christian gospel which will provide the lasting reconciliation which people long for and chase after in their unbelief – and all these focus on Jesus Christ.

First he points to the origin of Jesus' salvation. Unlike the human founders of many of the world religions, Jesus Christ has come 'from God,' (verse 2). Jesus is God incarnate.

Secondly, he looks at the purpose of Jesus' salvation. Unlike many other religions, which seek liberation or escape from creation and the physical world, Jesus has 'come in the flesh' (verse 2). In both the incarnation and the resurrection we see that salvation is not about escaping creation but redeeming and transforming creation.

Thirdly, he explores the method of grace. Unlike other religions, in which you have to perform in certain ways to be saved, the gospel says the opposite: 'This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins' (verse 10).

Keller argues that it is these doctrinal distinctives which are the foundation for truly loving behaviour. Without these unique foundations, a concept such as 'love' loses its meaning and quickly becomes self-righteousness and intolerance. How so?

Keller argues that in the method of grace, Christians know they are not saved because of their performance, so they are to be humble, and not self-righteous. In the purpose of Jesus' salvation, Christians know they are to serve others in their communities, because the resurrection shows us that this world, God's creation, matters. Finally, in the purpose of Jesus' salvation, Christians know that a self-sacrificing God must lead to self-sacrificing rather than self-righteous followers. It turns out that 'exclusive' Christianity produces the most inclusive, loving and peaceful followers.

Looking forward to A Passion for Life in March 2010, it is crucial that we continue to proclaim faithfully the unique and exclusive claims of Jesus Christ. Prayerfully, and with gentleness and respect, we should subvert, persuade and proclaim our unique good news, knowing that in our exclusive message we are giving a reason for hope in a hopeless world.


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Hendrik Kraemer, 'Continuity or Discontinuity' in W Paton,
The Authority of Faith (London, OUP, 1939), p. 5

Lesslie Newbigin,
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 9-10

Tim Keller: see his audio talk, 'Exclusivity: How can there be just one true religion?' available at bethinking.org

An expanded version of this article can be found in the Affinity publication 'TableTalk' (affinity.org.uk)
dan strange  
Dan Strange is Friends of Oak Hill Lecturer in Culture, Religion and Public Theology  
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