Index by Subject

No Other Name: Christian Exclusivism in an Pluralistic World

In 2008, Reuters disseminated photographs of a previously undiscovered tribe of Amazon Indians that had been pushed deeper into the jungle by encroaching civilizations.

Here was a tiny throng of human beings of which the world was mostly unaware and which was itself unaware of the world at large.

While their case is an extreme one, there was a time in the not-so-distant past that many people lived their entire lives with little personal awareness of the other side of the globe – and sometimes of the other side of the country. Airplanes, television and the internet have conspired to change that – mostly for the good – and that sort of provincialism has faded into the ether for all but the heartiest of tribes.

The Reality of Modern Religious Pluralism

In religious terms, this has meant that Americans, who for more than two centuries were mostly influenced by the Judeo-Christian ethic, are now daily exposed to faiths from afar, including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, New Ageism, and a myriad of beliefs and philosophies. Celebrities like Madonna and Richard Gere have brought them to higher prominence, confronting the Christian with the knowledge of a world that has renounced or hardly discovered Jesus Christ. Whatever sense of Christian hegemony held sway in the nation evaporated when President Barack Hussein Obama announced in Turkey,

One of the great strengths of the United States … is … we have a very large Christian population – we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values. (Huffington Post)

Even if President Obama was a little ahead of the curve, the fact remains that religious and Christian loyalty is on the decline. A 2010 Pew Forum survey found “that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1 percent) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children.” In 2009, a London Telegraph headline read, “Mohammed is most popular name for baby boys in London,” explaining that, “The Islamic name overtook traditional choices like Jack, Thomas and Daniel to become the number one name … It is the first time that the Muslim name has been shown to [sic] the top choice for parents in any part of the UK” (London Telegraph).

Emigration is, no doubt, a major force in this radical shift, but proselytizing and conversion must also play a role. Western cultures have lost a shared ethic. Columnist George Will wrote in 2004:

In 1940 a British officer on Dunkirk beach sent London a three-word message: “But if not.” It was instantly recognized as from the Book of Daniel. When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are commanded to worship a golden image or perish, they defiantly reply: “Our God who we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods” … Britain then still had the cohesion of a common culture of shared reading. That cohesion enabled Britain to stay the hand of Hitler, a fact pertinent to today’s new age of barbarism. (Will 2004)

Religious pluralism is a fact of life in western nations and can be expected to wax with increased diversity, whether in the form of Humanism, Eastern beliefs, or plain old atheism/agnosticism. Christians, like the older generation of Israelites that returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian sacking, might lament that things have changed and wonder why the church cannot be like it was, but such pessimism is surely only self-defeating (see Ezra 3:12). In The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, D.A. Carson wrote,

Since we live in the present, however, the present is what we must try to understand, no matter how much we try to shed light from the past on the subject. And the one common theme of the great majority of commentators who seek to define Western culture at the end of the twentieth century is pluralism. (Carson 1996, Preface)

Pluralism, in an empirical sense, refers to the sheer diversity of value systems, heritages and religions of a population. Where America’s Founding Fathers sought to create a unified value system for the fledgling nation by promoting certain Judeo-Christian ideals and diminishing conflicting minority values, the mood of the nation has shifted to a celebration of diversity and an acceptance of multiculturalism (see Ozmon and Craver, 188). A country that cannot agree on a national language surely will not be able to certify a universally agreeable religion either.

Now, some “Christian” voices are being heard to wonder if pluralism is such a bad thing after all. Perhaps it is true, they suggest, that all religions are really created equal – ours is just a little more (or less) equal than others! And what of that Amazon tribe that has no contact with the outside world – can its members really be expected to know Jehovah is the one true God and that there is no salvation outside of a Jewish carpenter who lived 2,000 years ago (see Romans 10:14-17)? Noted writer John H. Hick even wrote a book entitled, The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions.

Another writer, Howard R. Burkle, asks, “Can Christianity accept itself as simply one of the world’s many religions?” Burkle answers,

In the scheme I have been suggesting religions are complementary. In some respects they are alike; in some respects, very different; and in certain very general respects, identical. Basically, however, each religion is a special entity which contributes something unique to the total religious experience of human- kind. (Burkle 1979)

The questions demand an answer. Is there a universal, objective truth, rooted in the existence of an authority higher than any man, government or system? Or should we respond as dismissively as Pontius Pilate, sniffing, “What is truth” (John 18:38)?

The Supportability of Christian Exclusivism

While many nominal Christians might be ready to jettison any claim to an exclusive source of abiding truth and salvation, the Bible is hardly the document to support such a surrender.

In the New Testament of Jesus Christ, a universal claim for both Jehovah and his redeemer son is emphatically made. Even if one should made the case that Jehovah, Allah, the Great Spirit and every other divine iteration are all really the same, the problem remains, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ” (Matthew 27:22, ESV)?

The Johannine gospel portrays Jesus as more than just another rabbi or even a prophet:

He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:2-4, 14, ESV)

Jesus asserts his exclusive authority before his enemies when he argues, “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:22-23). After identifying himself with the “I AM” of the burning bush event (John 8), Jesus makes a provocative case for his exclusive messianic claim. Replying to a question from the apostle Thomas, Jesus stated with singularity and exclusivity, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, ESV).

The article adjectives lack plurality, as does the New Testament’s treament of different courses to divine approval and eternal glory (see Ephesians 4:1-6). When pressed to accept the limited religious pluralism in Jerusalem, Peter answered, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12, ESV).

Religious pluralism in the first century New Testament might have consisted of three competing groups – practicing Jews, idolatrous Gentiles, and Christians from both races. Unbelieving Jews fought to suppress Christianity, first as a threat to their limited freedom under Caesar’s thumb and then to their hegemony in Jerusalem and among the Diaspora. Christians of that age were deeply evangelistic, seeking to convert their Hebrew brethren or former fellow travelers in idolatry to Christ’s truth (see Romans 10:1-4, First Thessalonians 1:6-10).

The remaining idolaters among the Gentiles would have been the sole group expected to embrace religious pluralism, always having a little room for one more god. (Today’s Hindus sometimes approach the gospel in much the same way, seemingly accepting Christ, not as the son of the one true God, but as just another deity on the dashboard.)

Even the Roman Caesar, who liked to be called, “Lord God, Caesar,” was content to let the people of the empire worship whatever they liked as long as he was included in the pantheon. Their pluralism is on full display as Luke records the work of the apostle Paul in the Greek city of Athens. “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16, ESV). He tried to reason with Jews in the synagogue and even conversed with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, who thought he was but a babbling preacher of foreign divinities. They took him to the Areopagus, a monument to religious pluralism and excess.

There he acknowledged their religiosity, but criticized their ignorance in a most politically incorrect manner. Rather than identify Jehovah with Zeus, Paul invited his audience to renounce idolatry and become believers in Jesus the Christ.

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:29-31, ESV)

In denouncing their idolatry, he also averred that faith in Christ was not to be confined to a tiny sliver of land along the western Mediterranean coast, but was extended beyond its Hebrew origins to the entire world. “God … has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord” (Acts 17:24-27, ESV). His proclamation, of course, was consistent with the spirit of the Great Commission, to go into all the world and make disciples, even if it took Peter and the twelve a little while to venture as far as the house of Cornelius (see Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 10).

What emerges from the New Testament is a single gospel for all of mankind, a gift from a God who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (see Ephesians 2:14-22, First Peter 2:5-9, Second Peter 3:9). “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (First Timothy 2:4-6, ESV).

It was a Jew of great standing, John the baptizer, who assured his people that Abrahamic heritage was an insufficient claim on salvation, for “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9, ESV). God made no effort to craft gospel flavors – chocolate for the Jew, vanilla for the Samaritan and swirl for the Greek –  “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (First Corinthians 1:22-24, ESV).

In the Roman centurion Cornelius, Peter found “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (Acts 10:2, ESV). What he did not find, however, was a saved person – at least not upon arrival. Instead, Peter announced, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35, ESV). Had Peter left the house and returned to Joppa, pluralism would have triumphed, but instead the apostle taught Cornelius and his friends, even baptizing the believers upon the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s consent (see Acts 10:44-48). To commentators like Clark Pinnock, Cornelius is “the pagan saint par excellence of the New Testament” but to Peter, he was an object of God’s grace through submissive faith in Christ Jesus (quoted in Carson, chapter 6, D. Problem Passages).

Indeed, every invitation to turn to Jesus or from worthless idols is an indictment of the assertion that Christians should accept religious plurality without a proselytizing urge.

The Consequences of Unabated Pluralism

The acceptance of religious pluralism has created what Carson calls a “morass” of confusing, conflicting values systems that threatens not only to unravel a nation, but, more importantly, to hinder the march of the cross.

The essential concepts of right and wrong and of sin are being daily minimized and redefined. Sometimes it is a question of the terminology – fornication sounds so sinful compared to premarital sex; drunkenness in indefensible, but alcoholism is a disease.

Columnist Mona Charen wrote,

A rabbi at a large Reform congregation in Manhattan was asked whether theological concepts like sin are used to instruct the young. “Sin isn’t one of our issues,” he replied. “My guess is that in 12 years of religious school, our kids will never hear the word.” (Charen 2000)

For generations, the New Testament was the standard of conduct and morality, but how can this continue to be the case when so many revere the Quran or Confucius instead? One reviewer, Kenneth Arnold, argues for a softer approach to sin:

Christ’s mission in us who are Christians might be heard now as a challenge to give up our claim to the exclusivity of Christ. Perhaps the Christ as a unique God-like figure needs to disappear and Jesus take his place with humankind (where, after all, he started out before the church took over) as a seeker of truth among other seekers.

In the end, that is what we are called to be, I think: seekers of the truth, not holders and disseminators of it. We get it wrong every time we hold up a piece and declare that we have what everyone else needs. (Arnold 2000, 292-293)

Arnold is surely correct if he finds fault in individuals or the Catholic or Anglican communions acting as if each is a final arbiter of truth or standard for conformity. It does not follow, however, that Christians must cease disseminating plainly biblical truths, even to societies and audiences that have not historically embraced them. There is no shame on Paul for inciting the riot in Athens; the shame would have come had Paul remained silent in the dubious presence of Diana and her misinformed adherents (see Acts 19).

The effect of burgeoning religious pluralism is that the only absolute remaining is that there are no absolutes. Standards of behavior and morality cease to be supreme, falling prey to situational ethics and individual whim. Shame itself withers and disappears as moral relativism accompanies the ascendance of religious pluralism. Peter Lillback wrote,

Postmodern skepticism has impacted personal and cultural values and ethics. If each individual can imagine a reality different from another, and no other’s reality is more important than this, a relativity of meaning and ethic results. Postmodern skepticism means there is no possibility of establishing a legitimate hierarchy of value. Consequently, every culture, religion, and community can proclaim that its “truths” are just as legitimate as any other’s. The logical consequence of this rejection of truth is “tolerance” of everyone’s personally imagined truths. (Lillback)

How Can Christians Confront a Pluralistic World?

Many churches have apparently chosen to accommodate the incursions of pluralism, sometimes “plundering the Egyptians” of apparently useful innovations and at other times simply compromising the details of their own doctrine in order to refine a potentially acceptable “core gospel” focused upon the notion of God rather than the person of Christ. One Presbyterian congregation in Austin, Texas, even boasts an atheist member, who joined and was accepted for “political reasons” and whose membership was compared to the place of Thomas among the apostles (Rigby 2006).

It is not uncommon to see churches borrowing Seder from the Jews, to hear “Christians” wonder if Allah and Jehovah are identical, to read of disciples dabbling in Buddhism, new age occultism and other abominations (see Isaiah 8:19-20). Syncretism and unauthorized ecumenism are the order of the day. It would seem that spiritual Israel would approach pluralism just as fleshly Israel did upon its conquest of the Promised Land. Despite God’s entreaties to eradicate idolatry, the people had not the heart and later became enamored with the tangibility and character of the false gods, eventually descending into an idolatry so deep that God divorced both Israel and Judah (see Deuteronomy 31:16-18, First Chronicles 5:25).

Accommodation in the realm of opinion is healthy, but compromise of convictions and doctrine itself is hardly salutary (see Galatians 2:11-21, James 3:17). Witness Paul’s characterization of his own ministry among the masses:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (First Corinthians 9:19-23, ESV)

Inherent in his plan was a determination not to let matters of culture or even heritage get in the way of evangelism and conversions, but nowhere does he argue the wisdom in compromising essential teachings about the nature of a monotheistic God, the lordship of Jesus Christ, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the necessity of the plan of salvation or the order of the church. In fact, no point of doctrine in God’s will crosses the border into inessentiality. Planting a hybridized offshoot of the pure gospel seed in skeptical soil cannot possibly produce the same simplicity of faith that founded the church in the time of the apostles (see First Peter 1:22-25, Galatians 1:6-9). What God requires is a disciple willing “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3, ESV).

Conclusion

Although many of today’s Christians believe their circumstances are unique, this era is remarkably similar to conditions in the first century. Preachers and disciples were compelled to take the gospel into a hostile world, even in the midst of an empire that celebrated religious pluralism, but was loathe to suffer conflict. That is one reason why Jesus was crucified – he was perceived to be a threat to the delicate peace in the empire by insisting on the exclusive rightness of Jehovah God and the New Testament (see John 11:50). While he fomented no direct rebellion against Caesar, the faith that surrounded him created a quiet revolt that grew like a mustard seed into the kingdom of today. Those who have a stake in the success of pluralism, whether they are political leaders with multicultural populaces to govern or liberal theologians with sincere doubts, will be intent upon enforcing pluralism. The only belief that cannot be tolerated is a belief that is intolerant of other beliefs – circular reasoning with a sharp, if hypocritical, edge.

Works Cited

Arnold, Kenneth. “Structures of sin.” Cross Currents 50, no. 3 (September 1, 2000): 291-293. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2010).

Burkle, Howard R. “Jesus Christ and religious pluralism.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 16, no. 3 (June 1, 1979): 457-471. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2010).

Carson, D.A. The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan Publications, 1996.

Charen, Mona. “Sin Anyone?” Jewish World Review. http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/charen032900.asp [Accessed April 21, 2010].

Delaney, Arthur. “Obama: U.S. ‘Not A Christian Nation Or A Jewish Nation Or A Muslim Nation.’” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/06/obama-us-not-a-christian_n_183772.html. [Accessed April 21, 2010].

Grudgings, Stuart. “Amazon tribe sighting raises contact dilemma.” Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN2938303320080530. [Accessed April 21, 2010].

Lefort, Rebecca and Ben Leapman. “Mohammed is most popular name for baby boys in London.” London Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/6194354/Mohammed-is-most-popular-name-for-baby-boys-in-London.html [Accessed April 21, 2010].

Lillback, Peter A. “Pluralism, postmodernity, and religious liberty: the abiding necessity of free speech and religious convictions in the public square.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 44, no. 1 (December 1, 2009): 26-56. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost [Accessed April 21, 2010].

Ozmon, Howard A. and Samuel M. Craver. Philosophical Foundations of Education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall, 2003.

Rigby, Jim. “The Teachings of Christ are Spiritual and Political:
Why We Let an Atheist Join Our Church.” Counterpunch. http://www.counterpunch.org/rigby03272006.html [Accessed April 22, 2010].

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” http://religions.pewforum.org/reports [Accessed April 21, 2010].

Will, George. “Closing the Book on Literature.” Jewish World Review. http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/will072204.asp [Accessed April 21, 2010].