November 21, 2006

Letter to a skeptic

During his sermon this Sunday evening, our senior pastor mentioned that our church receives piles of emails denouncing Christianity's claim to exclusivity. As it happened, two weeks earlier I had received a copy of one such email, forwarded by another pastor in the hopes that I would be able to formulate an appropriate answer.

The message was articulate, though I can imagine that many such emails are not. But it reflects the sort of mushy-headed, relativist thinking that tends to hound truth claims these days. I won't copy the original email to this post, since I don't have the author's permission. Basically he had visited our church's Web site and was provoked to criticize the supposed intolerance that comes from a particular religion claiming an exclusive path to God. He called such thinking "ethnocentrism" and "supreme spiritual narcissism and arrogance," that such a mindset leads to such actions as the abuses in the residential school system, and is the same kind of thinking that drives radical Islam.

Here is my response (edited to remove personal details).

Dear D-----:

Thank you for your message. You raised some important issues, and I was asked if I would take the time to reply.

I assume from the general thrust of your message that you, like me, believe in God, or at least some idea of God. He is the Creator, and everything he has created is his possession. It should be self-evident that this entitles him to certain "property rights" over it - and us.

God made us human beings different from the rest of creation. We're something special: we were made "in his own image" (Genesis 1:27). What exactly that means is the subject of a lot of historical debate, but these two things we can say for sure: he made us moral (capable of understanding right and wrong, of obedence or disobedience), and he made us relational (capable of having relationships, with him and with each other). Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, and in so doing severed their relationship with him - not only for themselves, but also their descendants.

Two thousand years ago, God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to live as a man among men. His purpose was to reveal his Father's will, saying, essentially, "God still loves you. Even though the friendship between man and God was broken, he wants to be reconciled. Your sins separate you from God, but forgiveness is available because I promise to pay the satisfaction my Father requires from you. For your part, you need to have faith that I will keep my promises."

God wants a relationship with people. But as Creator, he has the right to require them to approach him on his terms. You asked why, if Hinduism or Islam or Buddhism are wrong, did God create Hindus, Muslims, or Buddhists? He created the people; he did not create the religions. Those are man's invention. In the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul says that inventing false gods is a fundamental symptom of man's rejection of the true God. You say that it is "narcissism and arrogance" to suppose that God would punish someone for believing another religion. I ask: what could be more narcissistic and arrogant than demanding that the Almighty submit to our terms?

Yes, the residential schools were a travesty, and the church will someday answer for its part in the unjust forced assimilation of native children, not only in Canada, but in the U.S., Australia, and around the world. The churches exceeded their mandate when they followed the outmoded thinking that spreading Christianity meant spreading Western culture as part of the package - as though Christianity was invented by Europeans!

Conventional practice in missionary work today is to educate indigenous leaders who can establish churches within their own cultural context. I find it ironic that you would accuse my church, which sponsors dozens of missionaries doing just that around the world, of being "ethnocentric." (This is to say nothing of the church's own congregational makeup, with over 30 spoken languages represented and every shade of melanin you could ask for!) The Christian faith itself is probably the least ethnocentric of any world religion. While other religions are inextricably tied to a particular tribe, language, or location, Christianity is a truly trans-cultural faith. It was designed that way from the beginning. Jesus' parting words to his disciples were: "go and make disciples of all nations"; and, "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Matthew 28:19; Acts 1:8). Within the lifetimes of Jesus' original disciples, Christianity had spread from Israel at least as far west as Rome, and as far east as India.

You wrote that if we considered the "deeper interpretation" of the Bible, we would find that God is "unconditional love," that Jesus preached "universal acceptance," and that we should preach "compassion and tolerance for diversity." It's true that the Bible says that God is love (for example, in 1 John 4:8), but of course that is not the only thing the Bible says about God: for example, he is also a "consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29), a figure of speech that speaks of his jealousy. It is a warning to approach him with suitable reverence. Similarly, it is true that Jesus preached a message of acceptance, but he also had little acceptance for his religious enemies, whom he called hypocrites and children of hell (see Matthew 23). The Lord had compassion for outcasts because they were aware of their sins and understood their need for redemption; he had no tolerance for self-righteous religious authorities. In fact, it was Jesus himself who said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6) - the very part of our message that you object to so strongly!

And what is so "deep" about compassion and tolerance? These are fundamental human virtues, aren't they? We tell very young children to share, and not to make fun of people just because they're different. The Bible does teach us to have compassion and live peacefully, but it says so in plain language that doesn't need any "deeper interpretation." Indeed, when these deeper teachings are given a bit of scrutiny, they turn out to be pretty shallow.

Let me comment on the way you equate our beliefs with "radical Islamic thought." Quite frankly, it is a sad commentary on society's intellectual life when someone tries to argue that evangelical Christians and the Taliban are morally equivalent. The Christian says to the non-Christian, "What you believe is wrong. Let me point you to the truth." The radical Islamist says to the non-Muslim, "What you believe is wrong. Submit to Allah or I will cut off your head." The latter seeks to destroy his enemies; the former, to turn them into friends. Who in their right mind would even place them in the same category?

In closing, let me encourage you to consider Christ's claims as the Bible presents them. Read through one of the four Gospels carefully and with an open mind: I would recommend either Mark or John as a starting point. And be careful not to allow your own personal ideas of God to trump what he has revealed about himself in the Bible: he is a jealous God, and not all idols are created from stone or wood or paint. Finally, if you are interested in reading about Christianity as it relates to other major world religions, I can also recommend the short book Jesus Among Other Gods by Ravi Zacharias (W Publishing Group, 2000, ISBN #0-8499-1437-X).

I hope to hear from you again.

So far, no response after a week. I continue to hold out hope that the dialogue will go farther.