The previous article concluded some exploration into the classical arguments supporting theism. I ended by writing that it was now time to move from the question, “Is there a God?” to the question, “Which God?” Stated more pointedly and relevantly for our present purpose, we would ask, “Which concept (or interpretation) of God?”
In today’s world, we have largely shifted from the various forms of ancient polytheisms and a separate God for every culture into a subtler format of “one God, but many understandings.” The three main branches of monotheism— Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—disperse into hundreds, if not thousands, of forms of worship of historically the same God.
In the next few articles I will argue for an opposite viewpoint: monotheism implies a single basis of worship and religious life.
However, we have strong cultural biases against absolutism in religion. We live in a free, democratic society and enjoy freedom of religion. Moreover, religion is deemed to be largely a subjective experience, to be pursued in any format and with any denomination of one’s choosing; with “none of the above” also being quite acceptable, with certain exceptions. Formats that a pluralistic society doesn’t approve are those who proclaim a monopoly on religious veracity, in spite of which, a variety of fundamentalist groups do not blanch at the thought that they, and they alone, have a pipeline to God.
While the widespread pluralism of our culture might be socially respectable, and those of us who live in democratic societies ought to be grateful for their freedom of religion, we need to distinguish the societal and emotional aspects of religious pluralism from the philosophical and theological arguments that bear on this question. Eventually we want to establish a convincing rationale for holding the culturally unpopular view that there is but one specific “truth” regarding God, that it is knowable, and that as a community, we must stand apart from those of other belief systems, even if their religious vocabulary and perhaps even some of their practices and principles seem in accord with us.
Although within our community we generally recognize the obvious implications of true monotheism, this position does not leave us without some difficulties, hence the inclusion of this topic under the rubric “The Hard Questions.”
Defining the problem
With respect to the main goal of this entire series, to deal with difficult issues of our faith, let me repeat here some of the specific questions listed in the introductory article:
- Is it right to claim a single avenue of approach to God?
- What about others who call themselves Christians? Is it right to exclude them? How could we be the only ones with “truth”?
- How much do we really need to know? Isn’t religion supposed to be simple?
- What does knowledge have to do with faith, anyway?
- How do I account for the religious experiences (visions, miracles, answered prayers) of people with widely discrepant religious beliefs?
- Don’t all religions ultimately believe in the same God?
- If people have love and faith, does it matter what they believe? Isn’t living a good life good enough?
We sometimes do wonder just where we should “draw our lines.” How do we know for sure where true Christianity begins and ends? Are all of those we call “first principles” absolutely necessary? And just how do we decide what belongs in the category of first principles? Is it possible to hold some false doctrine and still have saving faith? What about all those “fine Christian people” of other persuasions? What shall we say of people who dedicate their lives, say, as medical missionaries in Africa, enduring hardship for decades while helping others in the name of Christ, or those who have been martyred for the sake of bringing the Bible to people of all tongues? What shall we say of the numerous apologists whom I have cited extensively in this series? How is it that I can agree with them fully as they argue persuasively for the existence of God and then say, “That’s great, but I sure don’t believe in the same God that you just attempted to prove”? How can one justify such an apparent double standard? Such questions and issues comprise the sorts of issues we will explore in this and the next few articles.
I use the title “The Exclusivity Issue” for our current topic to label collectively all the various problems represented by the many above questions; issues we encounter when we attempt to establish the limits or boundaries of our religious community.
We will begin a defense of our “exclusivist” posture by stating the problem more precisely. The exclusivity issue troubles us in two ways:
- Most of us appreciate that our perspective of religion, what we conveniently call the “truth,” is indeed substantially different from the denominations of Christendom, but how do we know that these differences justify non-identification with any other form of Christianity?
- There are some who don’t see these differences as definitive. They have either left our community, sometimes attend other churches, or just wonder why it is that such a small group should be the only recipients of God’s grace. They might not have ever changed their beliefs, and they might be clearly aware that those whom they accept as religious equals believe quite differently, but they have sundered faith from knowledge and thus see no problem in their position. We might call this group the “anti-exclusivists,” those who believe that the traditional Christadelphian definition of the body of Christ is seriously overconstricted.
Both of the above represent “inside-looking-out” viewpoints, wherein we wonder if we ought to accept certain others, either individuals or communities, as belonging to our community. Additionally, we must also recognize the “outside-looking-in” viewpoint, perhaps held by someone who feels that we wrongly assess him or her (or the group to which he or she belongs) as being outside of our boundaries.
Some people might consider the word “exclusivity” and its cognates either pejorative or somehow revelatory of a deep-seated sense of “better-than-thou-ness.” Indeed, “exclusive” is a poor word to describe the reality of what’s going on, but it does make a convenient label for the topic. I think we can identify enough with the word to allow its convenience as a label to supersede its negative connotations.
The Standard Approach
We all know the standard approach to the exclusivity issue, which involves proof-texts about the unity of God, Kingdom on Earth, the real meanings of heaven, hell, and the devil, and other fundamentals. We cite appropriate passages to establish the biblical teachings on these topics, and then culminate our exposition with Galatians 1:7-9, where Paul categorically states that there is but one Gospel and anything else is anathema.1 Furthermore, we also know that John bade us reject anyone who comes not in the name of the true Gospel (II John 9-10), so the case is closed: we must exclude other interpretations of Christianity such as occur in the large world of orthodoxy (Catholic and Protestant churches) or heterodoxy [unique religious formats such as the Latter Day Saints (Mormons), or Jehovah’s Witnesses].2 We have much less of a problem identifying our separateness from religions outside of the world of Christianity, such as Hindus.
We already have many resources that cover exposition of first principle topics and “difficult passages,” and most of us can, or should, be able to expound the Biblical position re mortality of the soul, the unity of God, necessity of immersion, and so on. This is not our point here. Nor is it to argue the importance of these fundamental doctrines; again, other writers have done this many times. Instead, I want to propose and explicate some other avenues that will help remove us from the conundrums inherent in the approach sketched out above. Along the way I hope that we will find much more than an answer to the question of how we define the bounds of our religious community. I hope that we will come to look at the exclusivity issue quite differently from what we are accustomed to, and in so doing, find a more satisfactory way to understand just what we mean by the phrase “saving faith.”
A First Step
A first step is to establish the objective nature of religious inquiry. We do not want to jump into a discussion of the exclusivity issue without addressing the issues of subjectivity versus objectivity. If religion turns out to be a subjective experience, then the entire question of exclusivity takes on a very different character. For a great number of people, religion is exactly this: God is unknowable, and however a person chooses to express his or her religious feelings, that’s fine—“whatever works for you,” as the saying goes. In this state of affairs, we can see that the concept of a religious community that bases its separation from other communities on the basis of objective truth has a serious problem from the outset.
Thus, a first point of resolution is the question of the objectivity versus subjectivity of religious inquiry. Closely related to subjectivity are two related terms, relativism and pluralism. Together the three form a sequence, with one idea leading to the next.
Defining subjective vs. objective
Subjectivism refers to values that lie within the domain of the perceiver (subject), not the perceived (object). Simply put, it’s the difference between opinion and fact. Let’s take an example from everyday life:
“I like Rodin’s sculpture, ‘The Thinker,’ because it represents the intensity of human introspection.”
If “I” like a work of art, that’s a subjective value—I like it. What it represents is also subjective, because to other observers it will have other meanings. Another person might not even like it.
However, the work of art itself (the object, as in object of the sentence) is made of bronze, and that’s a fact that lies within the object, and is not changeable by the person (the subject). That “The Thinker” is bronze is an objective fact; anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong; I can’t correctly say, “The Thinker is cast from cream cheese.”
Thus, qualities inherent in an object (the perceived) are facts of reality, hence the term “objective;” whereas values held by the subject (the perceiver) are matters of taste or opinion, hence the term “subjective.” The whole story is actually more complicated, but that’s all we need now to illustrate the point.
Subjective, relative, plural in the same box
We can demonstrate that a sculpture known as “The Thinker” exists and is made of bronze, and has other objective characteristics, such as size and weight. However, can we say that God has objective characteristics, and that a religion has an objective basis of existence? That would be the burden of an objective view of God.
Most people in our culture view religion as subjective, however, so we need to address that issue before we can just jump into a defense of the reality of a small, exclusive group having access to the objective data about God (that is, an accurate theological worldview). Witness the following quote that came across my screen as I was preparing this article:
Let us face a pluralistic world in which there are no universal churches, no single remedy for all diseases, no one way to teach or write or sing, no magic diet, no world poets, and no chosen races, but only the wretched and wonderfully diversified human race. -Jacques Barzun, professor and writer (1907- )
We certainly admire the principles of tolerance, respect for individuals and the appreciation that many cultures exist in our world, and we would agree that our species comprises a “wretched and wonderfully diverse human race.” At the conclusion of our deliberations on this topic we will see how the Biblical faith successfully addresses this morass. We use this quote only to highlight the sentiment that religious pluralism is a hallmark of today’s free and democratic society. The kingdom of God without doubt does imply a “universal church,” if you will.
While I don’t find it at all strange that monotheism, which is also considered as a hallmark of advanced civilization, implies a single religious perspective, there are at least four possible concepts of God that could support the pluralistic worldview.
- God does not exist, so it certainly doesn’t matter what you believe about God. If you want to believe in God, you can make up any God(s) you want to and worship it/him/her/them any way you desire.
- God exists, but is remote from human interactions, and is not a personal God. This concept of God is along the Deist conception. God only exists as a first cause who might be inherent in nature, but certainly we have no revelation about what this god might be like. All religions that recognize some sort of higher power are on equal footing.
- God does exist as a personal God who does interact with human affairs, but God is only interested in sincerity of belief, and has no particular creedal preference. This god sees value in all religions, because they all recognize a Deity and they all reveal some part of the truth, but no one has a monopoly. Religions form as part of culture, and therefore each has its own relevancy to its adherents.
- God exists as a personal entity who has made a specific revelation (such as the Bible), but such revelation is open to various interpretations. No one can claim to have the sole key to understanding, and anyone’s truth claim is as valid as anyone else’s.
All of the above positions compete with a single position that serves as the basis for the objective view of religion. Adherents to the objective view maintain that the knowledge of God does not differ significantly from knowledge of history or science or any other field of inquiry. For one to hold an objectivist view of religion, one must have an objective source of information about God. The exclusivist position presupposes a valid objectivist stance. In the case of Christianity, the information concerns an historical event, the resurrection of Christ, and the records that attest to that event, the Bible.
Implications of a subjective view of religion
Returning to the sequence of thought that flows from the subjective concept of religion, we have the two terms relativism and pluralism, the latter of which we encountered in the quote cited above. Pluralism means that we recognize a number of equally valid approaches to religion. Relativism is the link between subjectivism and pluralism. If we start with a premise that religion has a subjective basis, then it follows that each person’s religious experience has a merit and value that remains inviolate and above any philosophical, theological, or scientific reproach. A subjective religious worldview undergirds the concept of relativism. Relativism has little place without a prior acceptance of the subjective value of religion.
What exactly does relativism connote? As the word implies, the key principle is relation. Relational values depend not on one absolute, but on the valuation that people apply to objects (especially non-material objects) within their life experience. Because all people have somewhat different life experiences, we can expect no one system to fulfill everyone’s religious needs. So the complete model, on this account would follow like this: God cannot be known, therefore any person’s subjective impression is as good as anyone else’s. Because people throughout time and place experience the world in culturally different ways, people will, throughout the history of civilizations, construct culturally relative concepts of God. This relativism, by necessity then, will spawn a pluralism of belief structures. So these three—subjectivism, relativism, and pluralism—form a tight sequence in a worldview that would exclude the concept of exclusivism!
A Problem of Pluralism
One objection to the pluralistic worldview is that it suffers from what is known as the “self-excepting fallacy.” A self-excepting statement is one that, in order to be true, must itself be excepted from what it states. Therefore the statement cannot be true, and thus is a fallacy.
For instance, when one says, “All religions are valid, except religions that exclude others,” it is manifest that this excludes exclusive religions, and is therefore not valid by its own definition. It must make itself an exception to its own rule to be valid.
If the preceding is a bit unclear, consider the following example: Libby passionately believes that all religious viewpoints have equal validity—except hers, of course. Somehow, she is excepted, because she feels that her perspective is correct, and others are wrong. Because she does not believe that any one religion has a monopoly on truth, she regards anyone who does claim knowledge of religious truth as narrow-minded, misguided, intolerant, and bigoted. However, if Libby truly values all viewpoints, then she must acknowledge the validity of even those she disagrees with. If not, then she does not believe all religions are equal, because a religion that claims any special standing is excluded on the basis of its exclusivity.
Therefore, Pluralists usually are not true to their creed. They need to put some restraints or restrictions on what goes down in the name of religion. In addition to excluding exclusive religious perspectives, a pluralist will likely also include an exclusive clause limiting religious activity to those practices that benefit, or at least do no harm, to others. The rational basis for making such an exclusion has severe problems, but that is an investigation for another article.
The Basis of the Objectivist Position
My goal here is to point the way to an objectivist view of religion. If based on fact, then religion has a different standing than if based on personal preference or cultural disposition. What facts are available? As I noted just a few paragraphs ago, a transcendent God does not readily yield to observable or measurable data. Moral and ethical systems are inherently subjective. However, Christianity is not a moral or ethical approach to life only; it is that, but Christianity exists because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of an individual falls in the category of historical fact: it either happened, or it did not happen; it is not a subjective matter. Thus Christianity is not at its root an ethical system, nor does it depend on certain sacred writings. Both of these come into play, but only because in the first instance we can turn to a verifiable event, a point in history, an objective datum.
In the first century, the doctrine of the resurrection was not an item of theology. It was a current event. The New Testament writers were convinced of the reality of the literal resurrection of Christ (e.g., Mk. 16:6, I Cor. 15:20, Heb. 13:20). The first preaching efforts centered on this fact, not on the superiority of Christian theology over Judaism or paganism (e.g., Acts: 2:29-36). They knew that the validity of their faith depended on the actuality of its occurrence (I Cor.15: 16-19). Two millennia later people often construe resurrection as a theological concept, like self-denial or penance. However, we must account for the original reports themselves; that they exist is a fact of history, and that the writers spoke of a dead man restored to life (eternal life, no less) is also beyond dispute. What made them write these accounts if the event did not actually happen?
As we shall see, much of the development of the argument for exclusivity stems from the resurrection of Jesus. We will explore other pathways, also, including a foray into mythology, an analysis of current evangelical Christianity, and a brief history of relativism that will set our current situation in context.
Next: The Development of Theology from Historical Event.
1 The false gospel to which Paul refers here is reversion to legalistic (rules-based) religion. Citing this passage with reference to orthodox beliefs would only be tangentially true. The warning about a false gospel applies more to us than to those outside.
2 Christadelphians are a heterodox organization, which means we do not follow the teachings of the orthodoxy, or mainline Christianity as traditionally understood. In this usage, orthodox does not carry any connotation of soundness or depth of devotion. Throughout the next few articles on the subject of exclusivity, I shall use the words “Christian” or “Christianity” to refer to both orthodox and heterodox organizations. Capitalized, “Orthodox Church” refers to the Greek or Russian Orthodox churches. In Judaism, Orthodox refers to those who maintain fastidious observance of the traditional laws.