Exclusivism that welcomes all

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. –Matthew 11:29-30

I have given a lot of thought recently to what makes Christianity unique among the religions to which it is often compared.  I think the answer hangs on the exclusive claims that Jesus Christ made about who he was and why he was on earth.  No other religious leader (of any major faith) claimed to be God.  No other religious leader promised to destroy death; followers of no other religion claim its leader’s resurrection.  So I contend that Christianity is either “better” or much worse than all other faiths.  I use the word “better” simply because Christianity makes a claim of unique truth that (if valid) supersedes all other truth claims.  That is, either Jesus was in fact God and was in fact resurrected from the dead, or he was not God and/or was not raised from the dead.  If the latter is true (in either variation), Christianity is a farce based on lies.  I accept that.  But if the former is true, it has far reaching implications. I believe the most important question a man must answer in his life is whether or not Jesus’ exclusive claims have been borne out by history (recommended reading on the historical validity of the Biblical accounts: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – Richard Bauckham).

I recognize the intellectual problem presented by exclusive truth claims (such as this), particularly for thoughtful modern people.  The notion of unique, exclusive or True Truth is often perceived to be dangerous and/or obtuse and naïve.  I’d like to try to respond to those criticisms in the hopes that we can consider the nature of the Christian Truth claims and what they might mean for our lives.

Admittedly, history has demonstrated that exclusive truth claims can be dangerous.  The Crusades—designed to propagate Christianity’s unique truth claims—are not a bright spot in the history of that faith; just as the September 2001 terror attacks did not do much to mollify the world regarding the nature of Islam’s unique truth claims.  Sadly, many other horrifying examples can be cited, but misuse of truth does not negate a truth in itself—and I think it unfair to reject the thing itself before we even consider its claims. An exclusive truth claim can undoubtedly be dangerous, but it depends on the nature of the Truth it claims.

As for the obtuse and naïve nature of unique truth claims, I quite disagree with modern prevailing wisdom.  The general form of the argument against exclusive truth claims is often illustrated with a story about blind men trying to understand the full nature of an elephant they come to meet.  One feels its trunk and believes the elephant is soft and agile, perhaps snakelike.  Another man feels a leg and thinks the elephant much like a tree.  Still third man, feels a tusk and has quite a different interpretation of what the elephant is.  Each man understands a part of the elephant, but none of them has the full picture.  Such is life, the illustration suggests.  All any of us can hope to bring to the table is the unique piece of understanding we can derive from our experience, but none of us can understand the full elephant, as it were.  That is to say, yours or my unique truth claim will reflect yours or my limited understanding, but it cannot be the complete picture.  The problem with this argument (which admittedly comes in various forms) lies in the question of who is telling it.  After all, who could tell it? It can only be told by someone who sees the complete elephant.  Otherwise, how can the teller know that any individual has an incomplete picture?  In other words, the argument that no truth claim can be the full truth is itself a truth claim of being the full truth!

It’s difficult (impossible…?) to negate the possibility of a True Truth using the rules of logic; for we are all ‘within’ and can only argue from the place of our experience.  Conversely, Christians believe the Bible is derived from without, that it is the inspired Word of God—i.e., from One who sees the entire elephant.  I would argue this gives them at least a logical footing from which to argue the validity of their truth claim.  We can argue over whether it’s plausible footing.

I understand the temptation to reject and to try to explain away and see through claims of exclusive truth.  I’ve found many who try to do so have good intentions, often adopting a pluralistic worldview because it seems to be the best way to live at peace with one another in a world with so many views.  They perceive seeing through all unique truth claims as the most loving, humble and accepting worldview available, but as C.S. Lewis notes in The Abolition of Man:

…you cannot go on “explaining away” forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on “seeing through” things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. What if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to “see through” first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see (Chapter 3).

What if there is something to see?

If we can agree (or just suspend disagreement temporarily) on the possibility of a True Truth (Lewis’ “first principle”), then I suggest we must evaluate each unique truth claim based on its specific proclamation of truth.

Christianity’s claim of truth is that we are all more sinful than we ever dare imagine (and therefore live in a broken world), but we are more loved than we ever dare hope.  It claims that the God of Creation made us to have a relationship with Him and came to earth Himself in the person of Jesus Christ to reclaim us after we had turned away from Him.  It claims that the final victory came through Jesus’ willing death to restore us to a proper relationship with God; such that Jesus’ death covered our transgressions and His righteousness is credited to us.  We live now in the period between that victory and its full realization—when the world will be restored to its intended state, all sad things coming untrue.

Yes, it’s a claim of exclusive Truth, but this Truth welcomes all who confess its veracity. It excludes only those who exclude themselves.  And even in that case, it makes it clear that Christians should love and serve those who reject its claims (and one another) in humility. We can believe in exclusive truth and simulataneously love those who don’t. Indeed, we must! For if God would humble Himself to become a man and would give so lavishly—even profligately—to us in spite of ourselves, how can we not also serve and love one another in that way? And if our sin required God himself to come and die in our place, how can we be anything but humble?

Christianity’s exclusive truth claim is the most inclusive worldview available—and it compels the greatest love, humility and acceptance. In fact, at its very core, it’s an invitation to all (“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden…”). It’s also a call to love others humbly and lavishly, because God loves us in that way.  The central illustration of this love is Christ’s death on the cross.  His death offers freedom from the tyranny of sin but also compels us to give ourselves away in like fashion (see Upside-down, inside-out).

What is there to fear in sacrificial love of this nature or the offer for all to share in its benefit?

Jesus was either raised from the dead or He was not.  He said you could share in His victory.  I think logic itself compels us to think carefully about rejecting the possibility of a valid True Truth. If it’s even remotely possible one exists, this is surely an invitation to which we must all respond.

When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the LORD will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. Isaiah 41:17

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Postscript: I found an article today (10 Aug ’09) that’s germain to this discussion called C.S. Lewis on Postmodernism (Dr. Art Lindlsley).  It’s worth a read if this topic is of interest.

  1. Scott Carpenter

    I live in Charleston, South Carolina, the “Bible Belt”. I was raised as a Methodist in Baltimore, MD but have experienced different denominations in Charleston. I don’t have any specific ties to any at the moment because these various churches did the best they could do to confuse the heck out of me. For instance, this past Easter service made me think of Christianity as a “farce” because of how the Lutheran minister described how after Jesus was buried, Mary went to the Tomb to see Jesus. There was a man standing in front of her but she did not recognize him as Jesus. She demanded that the man tell her where Jesus went and he simply looked into her eyes and said, “Mary”. Immediately she understood that was Jesus and she went to go tell the other deciples of his return.
    This made me question many things based on his sermon. To me, it seemed like a made up story from one persons perspective that had no proof other than Mary’s experience. My wife told me that there was more to that story and further details after the resurrection. However, it still left me with many questions and an empty feeling inside.
    After reading your words, I now have that good feeling I once had regarding the Christian faith. It was written well and in my opinion the best explanation on why Christianity is good and is better to belive in, than not.
    Thanks for helping me start my day with a good note.

  2. “misuse of truth does not negate a truth in itself” –

    I thank my lucky stars for this every day. Thanks for posting this. Good stuff.

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