Thursday, March 19, 2009

What's So Different?

Denny Burk has linked to this report from Brian McLaren's visit to Louisville. According to the report:
But McLaren said old forms of presenting religion -- by proclaiming one's own as true and everyone else's as false -- no longer resonate today.
"You bring more credibility to Christian faith by appreciating your Buddhist neighbor than by critiquing him," McLaren proclaimed. "It's a very, very different world, and a lot of people don't understand it."
The article ends:
"It is not a faith that takes sides," [Diana Butler Bass] said. "It is just loving God and loving neighbor. … It forms new communities. It sets new tables. It calls people who had nothing to do with each other to sit at table together and break bread."
Dr. Burk is write to conclude:
Both McLaren and Butler Bass are clearly chaffing against any notion of exclusivism—the belief that salvation only comes to those who have conscious faith in Jesus Christ. Moreover, they are both clearly contending against any form of evangelism that relies on an exclusivist evangel. Instead, they reduce Christianity and its mission to social justice causes.

Make no mistake. This is old liberalism reincarnated, and it’s just as dangerous and as irrelevant as ever.

Here's my question: at what point in human history did proclaiming "one's own as true and everyone else's as false" ever resonate with people? Certainly not even in Jesus' day. He promised that because people hated him they would hate his loyal disciples. Proclaiming to be the Son of God and the only way of salvation was a message rejected by His own people. In the earliest centuries of the Christian church, believers were known as atheist precisely because they despised the gods and said that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were the only God. They believed that salvation was found in Christ along. The reality is that in 2,000 years of church history such a 'strong' stance has rarely ever truly resonated with the masses. It was precisely the exclusive beliefs of Christianity that made it so centered on loving others. Tim Keller writes:
The Greco-Roman world's religious views were open and seemingly tolerant--everyone had his or her own God. The practices of the culture were quite brutal, however. The Greco-Roman world was highly stratified economically, with a huge distance between the rich and poor. By contrast, Christians insisted that there was only one true God, the dying Savior Jesus Christ. Their lives and practices were, however, remarkably welcoming to to those that the culture marginalized. The early Christians mixed people from different races and classes in ways that seemed scandalous to those around them. The Greco-Roman world tended to despise the poor, but Christians gave generously not only to their own poor but to those of other faiths. In broader society, women had very low status, being subjected to high levels of female infanticide, forced marriages, and lack of economic equality. Christianity afforded women much greater security and equality than had previously existed in the ancient classical world. During the terrible urban plagues of the first two centuries, Christians cared for all the sick and dying in the city, often at the cost of their lives.

Why would such an exclusive belief system lead to behavior that was so open to others? It was because Christians had within their belief system the strongest possible resource for practicing sacrificial service, generosity, and peace-making. (The Reason for God, p. 20)
History has shown that the relationship between inclusive love and exclusive belief has by and large been connected. Critics would have us believe that they are inverse: when one is up the other is down. And so we are told if we want to be more loving we must be less exclusive in our beliefs that Christ is the only way. This may be true if one defines love according to the flimsy notions of modern 'tolerance'. However, history has shown that when the church has thrived in its understanding of grace (including its exclusivity in Christ) the church has further thrived in love. When the church has lessened the exclusivity of Christ in one generation it has invariably lost its love and service in the next.

This should serve as a warning for us. Many who are rejecting the exclusive claims of Christ in this generation still seek to persevere in love--yet it is doubtful that this trait can be truly passed on to the next generation. Why? Let us suggest that the root cause is selfishness and self-idolatry. When we allow ourselves to define the beliefs of Christianity and we rule that we might include alternate faiths, suddenly we seek to become masters of the faith rather than being mastered by it. No doubt this attitude is capped and covered in the guise of humility but it is not true humility before God. However, when we allow God in Christ and the Bible to define the Christian faith in exclusive terms, we realize we have no right to such forgiveness and redemption. We realize that in all things we are just loyal bond servants bought by the blood of Christ. This increases our desire for self denial. Where Christ is exclusive, Christians will exclusively take up their cross and follow him. This breeds sacrificial love and generosity that spreads like an infectious virus.

What we need in our day and age is clear and Biblical thinking on these issues. The thoughts recorded by Louisville Courier-Journal make at least one false dichotomy: equating acceptance of persons with acceptance of alternate beliefs. This failure to distinguish is all to common mistake in certain circles that champion the removal of the exclusive claims of Christianity. Of course, it cannot be found in the Biblical text.

In the Biblical text, it is quite clear that Christianity creates a new community. It brings people from every background. They are welcomed into the community and given the rights of table fellowship. When there isn't such extension the very notion of justification by faith is at stake (cf. Gal. 2). Nevertheless, the Christian community is not tolerant of evil in the modern sense (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-11; Eph. 5:7; 1 John). The Christian community freely welcome all you come to faith in Christ. The apostles and evangelists invited all to repent--but they did not reduce for one second the exclusive claims of Christ.

As a Christian, I can and must love my Buddhist neighbor. I can and must show compassion and grace towards him. But I cannot for one second love him more than I love Christ. My critique of his religion does not have to be mean and nasty and spewing hatred but it does have to be clear: one cannot serve both Buddha and Christ. This humble apologetic must be wedded to a humble, meek godly character (1 Peter 3:15-17). Salvation is found in Christ alone.

For those who want to read up more on the concept of the exclusivity of Christ I would recommend starting with Harold Netland's essay "One Lord and Savior For All: Jesus Christ and Religious Diversity." and Adam Sparks' "Salvation History, Chronology and Crises: A Problem with Inclusivist Theology of Religions" Part 1 and Part 2. Somewhat related you can find my essay: Christological Monotheism: A Foundation for Religious Debate.

For more on the blog: See my Justification by Faith: an Inclusive Doctrine and Justification by Faith: Not Ecumenical.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said.

Dave James

"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...