I wrote recently about an under-recognized shift in the way many people object to Christianity: that it is immorally arrogant in its exclusivism. Historic orthodox Christianity claims that there is one God uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ, who is the one way, truth, and life for all people everywhere in all times. This means that other paths to God are excluded. Once the principal objection to Christian exclusivism was that it was false. Now, at least in my experience, the main problem have with it is that it seems immoral.
To Understand, So As To Be Able To Translate
Missionaries to distant lands know that their first task is to understand their host country’s language and culture. Many are the stories of messages that have backfired for lack of doing that deep cultural study. Christians in Western culture can make the same mistake of delivering a message that makes sense coming out of our mouths, but get completely garbled going in our listeners’ ears. We need to understand so as to be able to translate.
And so at the high risk of over-simplifying, I offer some ways to understand our culture’s view of truth, so as to suggest some ways to translate our message.
We are in a condition of widespread extreme skepticism about any person’s ability to know true religious and ethical truth. This skepticism has reached as the confluence of multiple streams of thought and history. We could go back at least as far as Descartes and his studied refusal to take anything as true that could not be proved true rationalistically, or to Hume’s empiricist reaction, or Kant’s attempt at synthesizing the two views, which resulted in agnosticism about what anything is in itself.
We could trace this skepticism also to the shrinking world of the twentieth century, which led us to discover at close hand all the many religions of the world, many of whose followers are sincere, wise, and honorable in action. It seems odd, does it not, to say that they are all wrong?
And then there have been all the challenges laid against the truth of Christian belief, from the Darwinian/Lyellian assault on Genesis, to the German schools of skepticism toward Scripture, to today’s New Atheist rantings about the evils of religion. Christianity is hardly immune to that charge. World War I severely shook the warring “Christian” nations’ confidence that they were a superior civilization. Pastoral moral scandals continue to fertilize doubts of this sort.
How “Truths” Are Chosen
This has left the formerly Christian West doubting that there is any transcendent truth that we mere humans can know. Nevertheless there remains an existential need for a sense of meaning and purpose, and besides that there is cultural momentum sustaining the value of believing in something. So that’s typically what people do: they believe in something. But it is not something they can objectively confirm as true; rather it is something they choose to believe in spite of its being impossible to confirm as true. We could ask whether the word “believe” really applies here, since it’s hard really to believe something one has no reason to take as true. Still, people choose their own truths, they say, and they adhere to them as important sources of personal identity and meaning.
We need to recognize just what’s going on in this process. Stated simply (all of the above has been over-simplified, I confess), it goes like this: “I have a truth to which I adhere. It is my truth. I have chosen it because it seems to fit me, my identity, my experiences. It works for me.” And this is how many people believe everyone chooses their religion: we all find what fits us, our identity, and experiences. We all choose our own truth that works for us.
The Christian’s “Chosen Truth” Really Is Arrogant!
Then along comes the Christian with a message of one God and one way to God. Now, as missionaries do, we have to get a sense of how that message comes across to others. If what I have just described is accurate, then they believe that Christians choose our religious beliefs just the same way they think everyone does. They think we have found something that fits us, our identity, and experiences, and that works for us. “Fine,” they say, “it works for you; I’m glad for you. But how do you get off thinking what fits you fits me? What makes you think your truth ought to be my truth?”
Do you see what needs translating there? Let me paraphrase it once again, from a perspective common among non-Christians: “I’ve picked a truth that fits me. You’ve picked a truth that fits you. And now you think you have some high-and-mighty right to impose your truth on me. What an arrogant jerk you are!”
Now let me say in all sensitivity to my Christian brothers and sisters: If that’s what we are communicating, then we are in effect being arrogant jerks. Maybe we’re not intentionally being jerks; maybe our intentions are entirely humble and loving. Maybe the words coming out of our mouths are perfectly gracious and “seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6); except that if we do not (as the end of that verse says) know how to answer each person, then we may be having that arrogant effect whether we mean to or not. The fault in that case is not in our hearts; it is in our failure to translate.
To send a true and accurate message is our moral obligation. If we do not understand our audience, and how they approach truth, we’re liable to inadvertently communicate that Christianity is “our chosen truth”which is first of all false, and second of all a truly arrogant message to impart, even if unintentionally! This is step one of the morality of Christian exclusivism.
The Truth Holds Us
What then needs translating? Perhaps you saw it already: It is not our truth that we are communicating. If they think that it is (and they are likely to do so), then we have to take time to tell them otherwise. As I have said elsewhere, if we in any suggest that we hold some ultimate truth, we “lie and do not practice the truth.” We don’t hold the truth: the Truth holds us. We do not own the Truth. It is not ours. Instead we yield to it. We submit to it. We worship the One who is known personally as the Truth. We have no lock on Truth, and we certainly didn’t choose it for how it fits our identity and experiences. We didn’t invent our truths, we didn’t even stumble across them in our own superior wisdom; the Truth was graciously given to us. We didn’t find the truth; the Truth found us. We don’t hold the truth; the Truth holds us.
I’m not going to suggest that this is an easy translation to make, for the people with whom we interact, especially those born since about 1980 or so (give or take a decade) have had very little encounter with this attitude toward Truth. It will take some patience to get it across. But we must. For the perceived immorality of Christian exclusivism comes largely from thinking of Christians as taking our own private truth and trying to impose it on everyone else. We have to be on guard never to communicate that.
Part of our message of translation is this. We need to speak this gently yet with full firmness of the truth: “If you think my position toward truth is arrogant, consider yours and mine in comparison. You think you can shape truth to fit yourself. I don’t. I can only hope to let myself be shaped by the truth. And which of these is more humble: claiming to have your own piece of the truth? Or submitting to the Truth that is far bigger than yourself?” For the true arrogance is that of the person who thinks he can shape his own truth. Real Truth is not so amenable to every person’s personal preferences.
In Part Three (which I expect will be the final part in this series) I will cover one other crucial aspect of the morality of Christian exclusivism. This will be along the lines that many of you have brought up in your comments to Part One: It’s not just Christians: everybody is an exclusivist. They’re even exclusivist toward Christianity!
Part of a Series:
Part One posted on June 10.
Part Three Posted on June 20.
Part Four posted on June 27.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?