One of the most frequently-heard objections to the Christian faith is this: ‘You Christians are perfectly entitled to belief whatever you want. But it’s arrogant and narrow-minded of you to suppose that you have an exclusive claim on the truth. Stop trying to tell us that you are right and that everyone else is wrong. In a pluralist society it’s too exclusive a way of talking, and in a democratic society it’s too divisive.’
Tim Keller recently addressed this issue in a talk given at the University of Berkeley:-
He began by acknowledging that there is frequently a problem with religious dogmatism. It begins with a sense of superiority in the heart (‘we have the truth; we are living the good life, and you are not’), continues with separation from those from whom we differ, then caricaturing them and their beliefs and lifestyles, leading finally to passive and active oppression.
Given this very real danger, what, asks Keller, are some of the ways in which we might deal with Christianity’s exclusive truth claim?
1. Wish it away. A generation ago, it would have been possible to suppose that robust religious faith was on the way out. As civilised society pursues the scientific methods and develops non-ideological education, then religious belief will first become less definite and dogmatic, and then disappear altogether. But it simply hasn’t happened. Religious liberalism has virtually died, but robust religion is not going away.
2. Outlaw it. Concerted attempts were made in communist Russia and China to outlaw religious observance. But that hasn’t worked either. When foreign missionaries were banished from China in 1945, the effect was not to kill the church, but rather, in forcing it to develop indiginously, to strengthen it.
3. Explain it away. Sceptics such as Richard Dawkins attempt to explain away the religious impulse as a misfiring of the evolutionary process. But this argument is self-defeating. If belief in God and in moral absolutes developed to help as survive, but tells us nothing about what is really true, how can belief in evolution escape the same criticism?
4. Argue it away. It is frequently objected that Christians are wrong to assert excusive truth-claims on behalf of their faith. ‘All religions lead to God,’ it is said, and ‘no one religion has a monopoly on the truth.’ But the person who claims that there is equal truth in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism (and, perhaps, secular humanism) is not only demonstrating a rather complete ignorance of each of these faith-positions, but also himself making an intolerably dogmatic claim: ‘Each of you has a part of the truth; but I have the whole truth.’
5. Privatize it away. When people say, ‘Don’t bring religion into the public arena,’ they are asserting that we can agree on practical moral and social problems without recourse to ideology. But it is not possible to agree on how strict divorce laws, for example, should be, until we agree on whether individual rights should be subservient to community rights (the traditional view in Christianity and many other historic religions)or vice verse (as assumed in post-enlightenment worldviews). And when people sayd, ‘Don’t try to convert others to your point of view,’ they are thereby trying to convert us to their point of view!
What, then, might be a way of dealing with Christianity’s exclusive truth claims? How these be sustained without disdaining and oppressing others? If we adopt a ‘moral performance narrative‘, (‘I am better than you’) then we will not be able to avoid the harmful effects of dogmatic belief. But if we adopt a ‘grace narrative‘ (‘Jesus died for me’), then we acknowledge that we ourselves are part of the problem, and can be at the heart of the solution. This leads to humility and (as history, both ancient and modern, shows) altruism.