The world has a big problem with Christian exclusivism—the belief that there is one God uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ, who is the one way, truth, and life for all people at all times. Theologians and apologists have defended exclusivism’s truth since time out of mind, but never so much as in these pluralistic and relativistic times. Recently I’ve come to wonder, though, whether we’re addressing the wrong question; for I am hearing less and less that exclusivism is false, and much more often that it is immoral. The difference is crucial.
I would never dispute the importance of the truth side of the question. I am convinced that Christ is indeed the one way to God. I am equally sure that the truth of this exclusive claim can be defended, and that when someone questions its truth, that’s exactly what we ought to focus on.
It’s just that this is not always the question; in fact in my (limited) experience, it’s no longer frontmost on many people’s minds. It used to be they said, “You believe that Jesus is the one way, but that’s not true.” Now more often they say, “You believe that Jesus is the one way, and there’s something wrong about you—evil, even—for thinking that.”
Or to put it another way: nowadays when people ask themselves, “Should I believe in Christianity?” it’s no longer primarily, “should I believe it on account of evidence or reasons that may support it?” (an epistemic should). Instead it is an ethical “should,” as in, “wouldn’t it be morally irresponsible for me to accept this belief?”
Kirby Godsey, a theologian philosopher [correction—see comment #6] out of the formerly Baptist-associated Mercer University, recently published a strong attack on exclusivism. Albert Mohler calls it an “unmitigated theological disaster.” The book asks in its title, Is God a Christian? — to which Godsey emphatically answers no, God is not a Christian. I saw in Mohler’s review of the book yet another illustration of what I have described here; for as Mohler related the book’s argument, there was precious little appeal to evidence, and considerably more to morality and emotion. (We see something similar in at least one prominent atheist). Mohler writes,
For the most part, Godsey studiously avoids engaging the biblical text. That is at least consistent with his marginalization of biblical authority. “The notions of inerrancy and infallibility are treacherous human fallacies,” he argues….
Instead, he argues that Christians should “weigh scripture against the word that we have heard and seen from God in Jesus.” At this point, Godsey is left in an untenable position. What does he know of Christ apart from the Scriptures? This is a familiar predicament for liberals who deny biblical authority but claim a knowledge of Jesus. Whatever knowledge of Jesus we have apart from the Bible is just a figment of our imagination. If the Bible is not the authoritative source of divine knowledge, we are left with nothing more than our own imagination and arbitrary judgment. We can make Christianity anything we might want it to be.
And what does Godsey want Christianity to be? Something that’s less ethically odious than believing it’s actually true. In the book’s first chapter (click the link in the right-hand column) Godsey encourages us to consider other faiths “more openly and less judgmentally.” These are morally freighted words. He goes on,
The world has grown too small and the stakes for mankind have grown too high for any of us to engage our faith as if our understanding of God represents the only way God’s presence may be known in the world…. For those who say “yes” [that God really is a Christian], it is unthinkable and perhaps even frightening or disorienting to entertain the notion that God does not solely belong to the Christian tradition. God is a Christian because we have come to know God as a Christian.
Shortly after this he takes a momentary glance at what he regards as evidence against Christian exclusivism—the billions who disbelieve in Christ—but he lands there only briefly, moving on rapidly to this:
The conflicts among us and within us are not abstractions. These conflicts are “in your face” clashes, visceral and compelling.
He tells of a meeting where the morality of homosexuality was under debate:
The rhetoric was loud, ugly, and condescending. I walked from that “Christian” gathering wanting to bathe away the residue of the poisoned air that hung in the room like urban smog.
“Earnest believers’” response to 9/11, he says,
may be simply to turn a blind eye, that is, to pretend other religions do not exist. Or we may become louder and firmer, even abrasive and hostile, in our own religious affirmations. We have all witnessed the ugliness of religion run amok. Still, most of us have learned to be reasonably tolerant of people of other faiths, yet we usually have little interest in understanding their beliefs or exploring how another life of faith may differ or strengthen our own.
It’s almost purely moralistic, with just a touch of psychologizing thrown in for good measure. (And he was complaining of “condescending”!)
Now, I confess to having read only the first chapter, but in it the author previews the three major sections of the book that follow. There’s no sign there that anything will change as he proceeds. Rather he tells us he will try (in the first section) to
address candidly some of the encumbrances that are making it difficult to reach across our religious boundaries. Our fears and our authoritarian religious systems are shrinking us.
If that’s what he does in that section, it’s a continuation of the moralizing and psychologizing he began with. Looking ahead to the second section he tells us,
I am aiming to open to open the windows of our own faith to the faith of others. Listening and learning of the faith of others may hurt our eyes, but it will not harm our spirits.
More of the same parental moralism. And finally in the third section,
I offer a beginning, only a beginning, for building bridges that can connect peoples of faith. Our differences matter. But the people who embrace those differences matter even more.
All of us agree that people matter, and that our differences do, too. What’s glaringly missing here, however, is, “The truth matters.” Godsey doesn’t tell us we should reject exclusivism because it is false. Instead he says we should reject it because it’s bad, and those who believe it are bad. Exclusivism, he tells us, is arrogant, born out of psychological weakness, “abrasive and hostile,” authoritarian and so on.
Now, obviously he also believes exclusivism is false. Maybe he considers that whole debate over and done with, and no need to recapitulate it. Yet he still has an argument to press, which is that exclusivism is morally reprehensible.
So how do we answer a Godsey? What we typically do is bring forth arguments to defend the truth of Christian exclusivism. We forget that the question we’re dealing with is of a different order than that, something “visceral and compelling;” an issue not about evidence or reason, but about letting our guts guide our beliefs.
Which in fact, to a greater or lesser extent, they do for all of us. The problem is that for many in our reason-challenged culture, our guts are about all that guide our beliefs. Therefore we who would speak to this as theologians or apologists must see these issues for what they are. They’re not just about the head; they’re also about the gut. No longer is it sufficient just to defend the truth that Jesus is the only way to God. We must also demonstrate that believing that doesn’t make one a bad person.
Now, how do we address the moral question of Christian exclusivism? I have thoughts on that which I’m saving for another blog post to follow in a few days. I’m hoping in the meantime you’ll beat me to all the best ideas in the discussion right here.