Apology: Exclusivism

“And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” – Acts 4:12

This verse has been abused by many over the years, but I don’t think they do it deliberately – just naively.  Read here, out of context, it looks like it says very bluntly that the only way to be saved is through Jesus, and it may even look to be quite polemical – that is, it appears to be saying that all other religions are insufficient to save.  Actually, all of those things are correct, but the way that this verse is often used and paraphrased to slash at other religions is highly excessive.  When you read the verse in context, you can see that Peter is preaching to the Jews, specifically to the high priests, about the true nature of Jesus whom they have rejected and crucified.  They knew Jesus, saw his miracles, and knew that he claimed heavenly authority; they also knew that he was at least rumoured to have resurrected, and that Peter had just healed a cripple in Jesus’ name.  Peter here is giving evidence of Jesus’ power to save, in a place where everyone is searching for a Messiah to deliver them.

Christianity is an exclusive religion, meaning we believe that Jesus is the only one who can save us from sin and death and give us eternal life.  Some of us have the grace to be uncomfortable with the notion that followers of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Ba’hai, Confucianism, Dao, Mormonism, etc. etc. etc. do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ and therefore will not receive salvation and eternal life – and depending on your view of Hell, may be tortured for all eternity, simply because they grew up in a culture that doesn’t worship Jesus.  Christianity may be the largest religion on earth, but that doesn’t mean we represent even a majority; there are already almost as many Muslims on earth as Christians, and they reproduce faster; we actually only represent about 1/6 of the world’s population.  And for those Protestants who still think Catholics are heathens, then we’re really small: the large majority of Christians in the world are Catholics.  So no matter which way you slice it, Christian exclusivism means that a large majority of the world is eternally doomed.  Christians tend to respond in roughly three ways:

1. Become inclusivist: the “liberal” path, in which all roads lead to salvation.  This is best expressed in the Unitarian Church, whose members claim to follow all religions at once.  They claim that all religions are essentially the same, and therefore the only difference between them is terminology.  A famous illustration is to say that God is an elephant, and we’re all touching the elephant in different places, blindfolded.  So a Christian might say that God is soft and wrinkly, because we can’t see that we’re just touching the trunk; a Muslim might say that God is coarse and hairy, because they are touching the tail.  This approach has many different degrees, because many people really want to adopt it while retaining different levels of orthodoxy – but that’s the kicker: the reason that this is a liberal approach to the problem is that you have to throw out a lot of each religion in order to make it work.  You have to limit each religion to moral teachings (which I acknowledge are basically universal) and completely ignore the fact that all of the religions that you’re trying to push together each has their own claim of exclusivity (except for a few, like Ba’hai, which is also inclusivist).

2. The second option, usually embraced by the “Bible-believing”, literalist, fundamentalist conservatives is to play up the dangers of eternal damnation, often as a way to drum up interest in international missions trips and frequently to scare someone of another religion into converting.  Rather than trying to find a way around their own so-called literal interpretation of the Bible on this issue, they either let it fill them with despair for the lost as added incentive to evangelize, or else they harden themselves to it and use it as proof that other religions are inferior and those heathens had better convert!

The problems with this approach are fairly obvious.  First, it assumes that God does nothing for those who’ve never heard the Gospel (based on Romans 10:14, once again poorly interpreted; read it in context, and see that it’s about Jews and Gentiles rather than the problem of global salvation).  Secondly (and this is an assumption that frames all Christian attempts to deal with this issue, perhaps especially the “liberals” above) it assumes that salvation is the purpose of religion, and that other religions are simply insufficient to deliver it.  In other words, from the viewpoint of some, Christianity is just a better religion – it delivers, where other religions fail.  This viewpoint is closely tied to colonialism: other cultures were seen as backwards or uncivilized by colonial Europe, who felt that by conquering other peoples they were actually doing these peoples a favour by introducing right culture and religion to them.  The fact of the matter is, salvation is really only an issue that Christians care about; even modern Judaism has very little notion of salvation.  Heck, for Buddhists the equivalent of salvation is actually death.  The Christian insistence of focusing on the issue of salvation when dealing with other religions is a refusal to see these religions on their own terms.  It’s like saying “As I understand it, everything you know is wrong” and then refusing to listen when they reply “yes, but you don’t understand it at all.”  And of course, the third issue with this approach is that if it works at all, it works for the wrong reasons: should we need to throw the weight of five billion souls onto the shoulders of the next generation of missionaries?  Is conversion born out of fear of hell actually a real relationship with Jesus?  Does the argument “Your religion is wrong, and you’ll burn in Hell for it” really attract other people, or even represent Christ accurately?

3. Another option that most moderate Christians take is to admit that we don’t know a lot about who will be saved and who will not; Jesus himself said we’d be surprised about who we’ll see in heaven.  Not that I’m at all satisfied with not knowing much on this point, but I certainly don’t feel comfortable declaring what God will do for whom, as if in my own infinite wisdom I can see his ways and plans.  I also don’t feel that I need to adjust my theology to make allowance for a God who doesn’t seem to care to save people of other religions, because the Bible just isn’t that clear on this point.

We must always remember that the Bible was written primarily for a Jewish community in an ancient context in which “salvation” meant primarily physical salvation from one’s enemies.  The Jews believed that their God was the only God, and in that sense all other religions were empty idolatry – but now, aside from small tribal religions and Hinduism, nobody worships idols.  Idolatry was condemned because it was replacing God with a piece of stone, but what about those who’ve never heard of God at all?  In the Old Testament and Gospels, this isn’t an issue because they were dealing with Jews and their relatives; in the New Testament, the issue isn’t covered from the negative perspective of what happens to those who don’t know any better, only from the positive perspective of the “good news” – the Gospel.  The Bible never really talks about the eternal fate of ignorant Gentiles.

There are two approaches that I like to this issue, both somewhere in the middle: In CS Lewis’ The Last Battle, a character who worshipped the wrong god ends up in heaven, sees Aslan (Jesus, as he appears in Narnia) and is confused about his apparent salvation.  Aslan tells him that the good deeds and faithful service he offered to the false god in his ignorance was in fact directed toward Aslan, because nothing good can be done in the name of the evil one, and nothing evil can in truth be done in the name of Aslan.  Basically, even though he thought that the devil was God, his faithful devotion and service had nothing to do with the devil, who has no claim to goodness.  Similarly, there are plenty of people who do evil in the name of God (Crusades, anyone?), but these evils have nothing to do with God, who has nothing to do with evil.  An interesting approach, and one that I know my college Theology professor disagrees with (despite being the biggest Lewis fan alive).

The second approach is Bonhoeffer’s theological realism: God wanted to save the whole world, and Jesus did so on the cross.  The whole world is saved all along, but they don’t recognize this fact and thus do not live in it.  Some will discover it, while others will deny it for all eternity (surely a hellish option).  Lewis alludes to this a little bit in The Last Battle: the dwarves in heaven don’t realize that they are there, and continue to toil and work as they always have; their eyes are closed to it.  I think Bonhoeffer would apply this to all unbelieving humanity.

I’m not entirely satisfied with either of these options, but I think they give more glory to God than the indiscriminate damnation of all unbelieving humanity, or the watering down of Christianity into basic moral teachings that fails to take all religions, including Christianity, seriously and on their own terms.  I’m sorry if a Christian has ever watered down the Gospel for you and made it sound like you’re totally okay on your own or just as you are – because none of us are.  And I’m sorry if a Christian has ever told you to convert or face eternal hellfires; that’s just ignorant and insensitive.

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Apology: Sex Education

There’s been a lot of controversy about sex education in the past decade or so.  I remember it firsthand: when I was in elementary school and high school, my mom was helping to bring in groups like Chastity Challenge to talk to teens about saving sex for marriage.  We billeted them at our house a few years in a row; nice kids.  She did this because at the time the sex ed course had a small, offhand mention of sexual abstinence as the only 100% successful method of birth control and safety from STIs (STDs back then).  I remember being in high school sex ed, and I think I heard that mentioned twice, maybe three times, in a semester.  The rest of sex ed was instructions on how to use condoms, vague talk about discovering your sexual identity, brief talk about anatomy, lots of talk about childbirth options (like abortion, and an off-hand mention of adoption), and most of the time spent on looking at pictures of disease-riddled sexual organs.  Sex-ed assumed that everyone was having tons of sex, and found it better to scare us with the realities of disease and pregnancy while still providing us the means of having sex, albeit in a more safe manner.

That’s a stark contrast to the abstinence-only sex education that has caused so many waves since the Bush administration brought it into being in the US curriculum – and, more controversially, in African AIDS prevention programs.  The typical argument of those against this is “people are having sex anyways – fear can’t match hormones – so we should give them the means to do so safely.”  The mainly Christian argument for abstinence only curriculum is that abstinence is by far the most effective control on disease and unwanted pregnancy, and is also morally superior – that is, if you give your kids condoms it seems like you’re encouraging them to have premarital sex, which is morally reprehensible to Christians (see previous post regarding premarital sex).

The core of this issue is practically the same issue as safe-injection sites, which have been proven to save lives by giving junkies clean needles but leave us with the notion that we’ve somehow encouraged junkies to keep using drugs.  How do we save someone from their vices without driving them away?  Obviously we can’t just tell people not to have sex at all, because people tend to have sex anyways; I was an idiot teenager once too, and in spite of my mom’s involvement with Chastity Challenge…well, the message just didn’t penetrate (no pun intended).  Come down hard on people on the issue of sex, and they simply ignore or evade you; but can we really give them the means to perpetuate an unfortunate situation?

An interesting point about this argument is that it isn’t inherently a religious issue: abstinence really is the best way to not get pregnant!  It becomes a religious issue because people on both sides love to make it one: Christians are against premarital and extramarital sex, while secular people have a wide variety of sexual ethics, many of which encourage it at best and at worst become utter hedonism.  Both sides love to bring the debate about sexual ethics up, and the topic of sex ed is a great excuse.

I’m sorry if you had a sex ed class that told you that sex is evil, and didn’t prepare you to actually have safe sex, leaving you to pick up the pieces.  I’m also sorry if you had a sex ed class that completely endorsed you having premarital sex, and leaving you to pick up the pieces.  And I’m especially sorry if you live in Africa and have some American white guys forcing a Western sexual ethic on you under the guise of foreign aid!  What I’d really like to see in sex ed curriculum is a balanced approach.  Most programs that I’ve seen or heard of are either all one way or all the other, with the worldview of the program and/or the instructor showing up more than any actual teaching.  I’d like to see a sex ed program that covers both sides of the argument accurately.  Because ultimately, people are held responsible for their own actions, even if they do not have the information to act responsibly; so let’s give them all the information we can.

Apology: On Church and State

An old friend sent me this picture which offers a pretty solid comparison between the Jesus of reality and the Jeezus of popular Christian culture, particularly in the US:

Sorry if it’s a bit small to make out.  One of the things that caught my eye right away was the section on “separation of Church and State”.  Here in the Jeezus column it’s listed as “I am the state!”, which is both true and untrue; let’s break it down.

The state, in this case, is a democracy – the rule of the people.  Most of the people in the US self-identify as Christian, meaning that they believe that Jesus is alive, and is Lord of the universe whether the rest of the world realizes it or not; that he acts on earth through his people; and that by self-identifying as a Christian, they have taken on the task of acting in accordance with his will, as an ambassador of him.  That is, a Christian cannot in good conscience act in such a way as to go against what they believe to be the will of God – which is pretty much the definition of sin.  And so, if a person in a democratic country is a Christian, their voice in the democratic process will in a sense (and always imperfectly, of course) be the voice of Jesus – or at least, that’s the idea.  So, in a place like the US where most people self-identify as Christians, it’s impossible to say that there is a clear separation of church and state the way modernists would like there to be.  To do so would relegate either the church or the state (or both) to a powerless, figurehead role.  Currently, this is realized through the (completely false) notion that religion is “private” and cannot influence the “public” – which is the realm of the state.

The separation of Church and State first came about because, back then, the Church was just as strong (or stronger) than most states – that is, it was its own state.  The Roman Catholic Church once owned and/or controlled vast tracts of land, enforced laws and taxes, and maneuvered politically to exercise the powers of the state.  Charlemagne was called “the Holy Roman Emperor”, and was crowned by the Pope – because the Church had the power to crown kings.  Kingdoms were practically provinces of the Church, and conflicts of interest were the norm.  Naturally, when starting new countries in North America, people thought it would be a good idea to sort this sort of thing out, and they did.

What separation of Church and State does not mean is that I cannot allow my religious beliefs to enter the so-called “public sphere” by allowing them to influence my political choices.  The very notion is absurd: if God really is real, and if Jesus is who he says he is, what would make me think I can get away with mere lip service, serving him in “private” while completely ignoring him in “public”?  Such a view is only possible if we believe that morals are the entirety of religion, and all that God requires of us.  This particular notion came most strongly from the great philosopher Emmanuel Kant, whose theories came out of the Enlightenment era and spawned the Modern period, with all of its emphases on individuality and private belief vs. public life.  We still often use Kantian ethics today, but essentially what he did was reduce ethics (and Christianity!) to a few moral maxims, a way to provide an ethical structure that we could live by that corresponded (often rather strangely) to Biblical morality (and often only because we forced the two to correspond).  Being a Christian becomes synonymous to, and reduced to, being “a good person” or “moral”.

With this notion of Christianity, I don’t have to stand up against injustice in my society, because my religious obligation is simply to live a moral life in public, and worship God in private – as if worship and life choices were somehow separate.  I must keep my religion private, because I don’t want to offend anyone else.  In this situation, I must have two notions of what is right: what I do in public must be right according to the secular code, and what I do in private must be right according to my moral code, and rarely do the two ever correspond.  But if my religious notion of what is right is relegated to my “private” sphere, then it exists only in my mind – and is very obviously subjugated to the “public” notion of what is right.  Thus, my commitment to God exists only in my mind, and never does anything.  What kind of worship is that?

Now, this does not defend those who would try to use government to force Christianity on other people.  That was one of the reasons for the separation of church and state in the first place, and while there are a few folk around who still try it, I’m thankful to say that Ann Coulter does not represent Christianity as a whole.  I apologize to those who’ve heard things like when Coulter said that the answer to the problems in Iraq was to send in the army to convert them all to Christianity – she’s just looking for attention, and we just keep feeding it to her.