The degree to which Christianity will contribute to a more equitable and just world will depend largely, I believe, upon the degree to which Christians can let go of their exclusive claims on God and deepen their actual commitment to the way of Jesus.
This letting go will not come easy for many steeped in traditional forms of Christianity. Christian exceptionalism is deeply entrenched within the general Christian culture—and often feeds upon American exceptionalism, which our political leaders use to justify all sorts of intrusive and unjust polices and actions, such as drone strikes in other countries.
The wave of controversy sparked by a Coca-Cola ad which ran during the Super Bowl is a good example of how embedded in our culture American exceptionalism is. The ad featured diverse voices singing America, the Beautiful in languages other than English. Apparently, some (or perhaps many) Americans believe that true Americans must speak English regardless of what other languages they may know.
Many Christians believe just as strongly that God’s true people must speak the language of Christian faith.
An English teacher once told me that in the original version of the Wizard of Oz, the Emerald City was not any greener than any other city. The wizard had put green spectacles on everyone so that to them everything appeared green.
Many of us were taught to see the world through Christian-colored glasses. Those who taught us were not bad people who were intentionally deceitful. They were simply passing on to us what had been passed on to them.
Surely the time has come in the evolution of our spiritual development to take off our singularly-colored glasses so that we can see the rich colors, textures, and beauty of a diverse world filled with diverse traditions.
Harvard religion professor Diana Eck was once asked by an elderly friend in India: “Do you really believe that God came only once, so very long ago and only to one people?”
Professor Eck said, “This very idea that God could be so stingy as to show up only once, to one people, in one part of the world, exploded my understanding of incarnation.”
Truth is not singular; it is multifaceted, multilayered, and multidimensional.
Truth is truth wherever it is found.
This means that Christians like myself who take the Bible seriously need to evolve in our interpretation of biblical texts once considered pillars of Christian exceptionalism.
Take John 14:6 for example, where Jesus says:
I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.
How can this text be interpreted by those who relinquish Christian exceptionalism? There are several possibilities:
1. It can be applied to the risen, cosmic Christ who works anonymously through many different mediums and mediators. The Gospels, remember, were written from a post-Easter point of view. What others call by a different name may actually be the cosmic Christ.
2. The statement “except through me” can be understood to be a reference to the values and virtues Jesus incarnated. In other words, anyone who embraces the values and virtues that Jesus embodied can know God regardless of what their particular beliefs may be.
Acts 10:34 supports this interpretation:
In every nation anyone who fears (reverences) God and does what is right is acceptable to God.
3. Perhaps the best way to understand this verse is in terms of Christian particularism. The phrase “no one” can mean “none of you.”
In other words, “This is not true for everyone, and doesn’t have to be—but it is true for Christians.” John 14:6 says nothing about how those outside of Christianity can know God. This is, however, how Christians know God, namely, by following the way of Jesus into God’s truth and life.
All three of the above readings of John 14:6 are at the heart of the reasoning we find in John Shore’s popular animation below:
On one hand, letting go of Christian exceptionalism means that the God of Jesus is the God of the whole earth. This world and everything in it constitute God’s household. We all belong to one another as sisters and brothers in God’s family. So we must find ways to work together for the common good, and learn how to dialogue about our differences without claiming to have all the truth or seeking to impose our beliefs on others.
On the other hand, deepening our Christian commitment to the actual way of Jesus means taking his life and teachings seriously as “the way” to live, not just a doctrine to be confessed or believed.
Anne Howard of The Beatitude Society shared recently how John 14:6 bothered her as a child. When she was 10 years old, a group of foreign visitors came to her little Minnesota town for a weekend visit on their tour of America. Her family hosted Yuri, a friendly Russian man with a thick accent who went with her family to their Lutheran church on Sunday.
She was sorry when the visit ended, but something Yuri said during the visit really troubled her. She asked her mother about it.
“Yuri said he doesn’t believe in Jesus, or even believe in God,” she said. “I’m afraid he’s not going to go to heaven. What’s going to happen to Yuri when he dies?”
Anne’s mother wisely responded, “Christianity is not a club, Anne. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we live.”
Yes! A transformative faith is a faith that transforms how we live.
We Christians are not exceptional because we are chosen by God over others, or because we possess the truth while others do not. However, if we truly follow the way of Jesus we should be exceptional
– in the ways we love and forgive others,
– in the way we pursue truth wherever the truth leads us,
– in the ways we care for the suffering, indentify with the marginalized, and engage in social justice,
– in the ways we practice hospitality, generosity, and invest in the common good.
If more Christians could let go of their Christian exceptionalism while deepening their commitment to Jesus, we could lead the way forward in helping to heal and give hope to our world.
Here was my response to this:
Hello Chuck, that’s really a terrific and awesome post you just wrote :-)
I think there are three things which needs to be distinguished here:
1) Will God only grant everlasting bliss to those dying as Christians?
2) Does God only manifest Himself in the Christian and Jewish religions?
3) Are all religions legitimate ways to get closer to the Almighty?
I passionately reject 1) and do believe there will be many conversions beyond the grave. I find it profoundly blasphemous to assert that the Good Father will eternally torture anyone who perish without believing in Him.
I also find that 2) is utterly wrong.
Conservative Evangelicals like quoting the parable of the sheep of the goats for proving the alleged eternity of torments in hell.
“31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
But they are facing a HUGE PROBLEM.
Taking this parable at face value would lead one to believe that works play an important role in salvation, a doctrine Evangelicals passionately detest.
More importantly perhaps, this parable teaches that people having never heard of Christ were serving Him while doing good deeds and will usher into His holy presence.
However I don’t think that 3) is true. God cannot simultaneously endorse religions whose core messages are contradictory .
If Jesus was really (in some mysterious sense) God’s incarnation whose death and resurrection reconciled us with Him in some way (which is not necessarily the same thing as penal substitution), then it naturally follows that a Muslim does not get to paradise by following the Koran or a Buddhist through the careful use of meditation. I do believe that many will find God on the other side of the grave ( along many noble atheists ) but it will be through Christ rather than through what they subjectively considered true during their earthly life.
Conversely, if Christianity is wrong and Buddhism is true, Christians won’t be saved through Jesus but because they (more or less unconsciously) followed the Eastern path of enlightenment.
I applaud you for wanting to give a more human face to American Christianity, but I don’t believe that the problem lies in the uniqueness of Christ BUT in the widespread conviction that all of those passing away as non-Christians have earned an eternal stay in God’s torture chamber .
Once one has dropped away this abhorrent doctrine, one is free to express one’s humanity through art and creativity and by working along Atheists, Budhists, Agnostics, Muslims… of good will to change the world even while thinking that important points of their belief systems are wrong.
Taking an agnostic stance is, of course, another logical possibility, but thinking that all these religions are true at the same time is irrational.
I hope you won’t take this as a personal critique. I really admire your strong willingness to spread God’s radiant love everywhere and I do hope we’ll have opportunities to interact in the future.
Progressively yours, Marc :-)
To which Chuck answered:
Marc, you have shared a lot of food for thought here and raised some important issues. Maybe I can comment on what I think are the crucial ones. I would answer “no” to all three questions. What I like about Christian particularism as oppossed to Christian exceptionalism is that I can only say what is true for me as a Christian and my Christian community. I believe God speaks in all sorts of ways and means and there are many other ways of encountering God other than the Christian way. But certainly all religions have their toxic expressions. I like to say that while not all paths lead to God, God will travel down any path to get to us, to make known to us God’s love and grace and vision of human possibility.
I am still growing, evolving, changing with regard to my understanding of the uniqueness of Christ and the ontological relationship between the human Jesus and the living Christ. My thinking recently is that the “the living Christ” is more of an an archetypal symbol of what it means to be truly and fully human. I’m finding it more and more difficult to believe that the human Jesus in a resurrected state actually functions as God functions, though it does seem that the early Christians came to this view fairly early. Maybe I’m getting way too theological here. And I’m not sure what we believe about such things matters much.
What matters for me is “the way” of Jesus as presented in our sacred tradition — that “way” is truly transformative. I’m sure the core elements of the way of Jesus (compassion, love of neighbor, nonviolence, self-surrender, humility, commitment to a just world, etc.) are part of other paths as well, but I am not knowledgable enough about other religions to speak with any authority here. You might note in my comments to Wolf that I refer to myself as a hopeful universalist. I can’t say for sure everyone will eventually choose to face the many ways they have hurt and offended others and choose to love, but I hope that is the case. I don’t believe God ever gives up on a person, however long it takes, though I cannot imagine what that might look like in a different sphere of existence (afterlife).
What I am very confident about is that the way of Jesus as presented in our Christian tradition could change us and our world if we followed it.
I suspect that is what God cares about – that we become mature, loving, good, caring, etc. human beings. I look to Jesus as the definitive image of what that looks like. I’m sure there are other images and “icons” — but Jesus is mine.
I think it is vital to have such respectful and friendly discussions about these issues without resorting to rhetoric and loaded words.
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