Doesn’t exclusivism inevitably place the focus for salvation more on assent to doctrine than on either one’s attitude to God or one’s behavior?
Thus far I’ve approached the subject from the standpoint of passages in the Bible that seem to me to be relevant. Let me in this post try a different approach. I suspect that Quixie, who has now joined the conversation, may find this approach easier to dive into than the “in-house” one we’ve been having so far, which was primarily about Christianity and its Scriptures, although I do return to the latter once again at the end of this post.
Ken’s recent post emphasizes free will, and I think that is an important aspect of this topic. It is possible, based on such considerations alone, to regard those who are eagerly seeking God, but whose views are shaped by other cultural and religious heritages than one’s own, may thus have the will to know God and experience salvation that is so fundamental. Once again, we can distinguish between those who embrace God based on as much or as little information as they may have, and those who reject God (with comparable degrees of knowledge or lack thereof).
I wonder how one makes sense of the existence of Islam from an exclusivist perspective, unless one is persuaded that right doctrine is ultimately what matters. For if anything else is important, it is hard to reject outright this religion which promotes the worship of the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and calls people to live ethically as accountable at the resurrection, and claims to have been mediated in the first instance by the angel Gabriel. If one believes that how one relates to God is important, and how one lives, and that one honors not only God the Father but Jesus as the one whom he sent, then Islam’s emphasis on submission to God seems to be a potentially positive contribution to human history. It is only if one regards it as a Satanic lie intended to distort the truth that one can view it in a completely different way. And in doing so, one is saying that what matters most is assenting to the correct propositions and dogmas. Otherwise, why would a deceitful spirit inspire Muhammad to proclaim one God, abandoning idols, living righteously, caring for the poor, and all the other things Islam teaches in common with Christianity? It just doesn’t make any sense.
Of course, there are things that Christians have historically believed about Jesus that we can make a very strong case are correct – such as Jesus having been crucified – and it is absolutely appropriate to explain why they are important. But there are people and groups we disagree with in terms of their entire worldview, and others that we recognize as united with us in some key fundamentals, with whom we discuss our different views on the details in a rather different way (hopefully). Is it inappropriate for a Christian to adopt a positive view of those who express their life’s desire to be to honor God (and Jesus) and do what they require? On a visit to India, a Muslim autorickshaw driver we met, on learning that we were from the United States, took pains to emphasize to us how much he loves Jesus. If that is not enough, when combined with all the other things that Muslims and Christians have in common, then what is?
Before concluding, let me be clear about what I am and am not saying, lest our growing conversation find itself recovering the same ground we’ve already been over. I am not making a universalist claim that Islam and Christianity are equal paths to God, that all Muslims have a genuine relationship to God, or anything of that sort. One major criticism of pluralism is that it claims a God’s eye view of religions, so as to know that they are all equal. I cannot claim that – I have no way of claiming anything more than the limited horizon that all human beings have. My own experience of God has been shaped in a Christian framework, just as my thinking has been shaped by theological and religious studies in the context of British universities that stand in a particular cultural and religious heritage. I cannot judge Islam objectively, and more than I can judge Christianity objectively.
What I can do is seek to be fair, to be appropriately self-critical when it comes to my own views and assumptions, and appropriately open-minded and willing to be appreciative of others. In doing so, I’ve come to find that there is much I appreciate in Islam. I began studying Islam in order to teach a class that touches on the subject, and I began with many common stereotypes in my own mind. Having taken a closer look, there is much that I can appreciate, not in spite of the fact that I am a Christian, but because I am a Christian. Anyone who cannot value a tradition that shares with Christianity not only an emphasis on one God, Jesus, prophecy, accountability before God, resurrection, God’s concern for the poor and for social justice, mercy, and forgiveness both divine and human, must have an artificially either/or view of the universe. Obviously this does not mean I agree with everything I find in Islam, and I suspect that from their own standpoint many Muslims would object to certain views that I hold and opinions that I have expressed. Another (seemingly fair) criticism of pluralism is that it regards as unimportant precisely the distinctive features of various religious traditions. But this doesn’t help in practice, any more than it helps mutual understanding between different cultures to make a sweeping assertion that all such cultural differences are unimportant.
The differences are important. But so are the similarities. How would an exclusivist make sense of the fact that other traditions exist that share so much in common with Christianity? How would an exclusivist relate to such traditions, and what if anything suggests those particular ways of relating to these other religious are required by the Biblical witness? Let us not return to the example of Paul calling people to reject the worship of idols and sexual immorality and experience salvation in Jesus. We know he did that. But what is the relevant evidence when considering how he related (or might have related) to an individual or a tradition that emphasized one God, righteous and merciful, who demands our submission and will hold us accountable for our actions?
We know the answer to this question. Once again, I find myself drawn back to Romans 2, where Paul claims that those who have received divine revelation through Scripture and are part of the people of God, but do not follow its teachings, are further from God than those who have only God’s general revelation and respond to it positively. Paul states this as clearly as one could hope.
To turn around and claim that people who bear the moniker “Christians” (and perhaps even assent to the historic creeds) and fill the world with hate have an advantage over those who bear other labels but stand for love for God and neighbor is to betray what Paul stood for, and more importantly, what Jesus himself taught.
I think now we’ve found the crux of the matter. Is it what one believes about God and Jesus that saves a person, or their attitude towards God and Jesus, and putting into practice of what they have understood about right and wrong, good and evil? On the one hand, other religious traditions have different views of Jesus. On the other hand, some Christians twist the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament to mean something other than they do. For instance, conservative Evangelicals teach kids that the story of the wise and foolish builders is about “building your life on the Lord Jesus Christ“, whereas in Matthew 7:21-27 the point is about hearing Jesus’ words and putting them into practice. He even says that there will be individuals who call him Lord who will be cast out as evildoers.
A devout Muslim will regard Jesus as the Messiah, born of a virgin, but from the perspective of some conservative Christians, that isn’t good enough, because he is not acknowledged as divine. But he isn’t viewed as divine in most of the New Testament, and so presumably it would be better to clean up our own house first and deny that the authors of the first three Gospels were saved, if we’re going to take that approach?
A devout Hindu will regard Jesus as God incarnate, but from the perspective of some Christians, that isn’t good enough, because he is not acknowledged as uniquely God incarnate. But even according to the Bible, the Word that was made flesh as Jesus was repeatedly “coming into the world”.
So here is the crux of the matter, for Christians thinking about this subject. Based on the Bible, Christian tradition, and experience – the three main sources of Christian doctrine – what should we think that God cares about most, when viewing both those within the Church and those outside it?
I wrote this before Michael replied, but I would have made these same points anyway, sooner or later. Let me simply add, in response to one detail in his post, that I am not persuaded by his argument that what was necessary was “perfect obedience/righteousness”, and since no one had that, the point becomes moot. Alas, such a view will not do justice to statements in the Bible to the effect that Job was righteous, and that others who clearly were not perfectly righteous (such as David) were viewed as forgiven. This approach begins by saying “the death of Jesus must have been necessary for salvation” and then proceeds to artificially create an insoluble problem where there wasn’t one so that Jesus can be the only answer to it. But I guess that’s what happens when one sneaks a letter like the Epistle to the Hebrews into the canon under false pretenses. That tangential and just barely canonical work becomes the dominating framework for interpreting everything else in the Bible. Yet those who give Hebrews’ view of Jesus’ death such priority rarely regard its Platonic presuppositions as authoritative, or its lack of interest in (or even room for) any sort of bodily resurrection.
R. T. Jones has now joined in the bloggersation too (on his blog and in a comment on Michael’s blog). It is great to see this grow and involve an increasing number of bloggers! I had to mention the post at Communal Feast, since it is not all that often that I read the words “I am agreeing with just about everything James is saying”!
I realize this post treads on controversial ground. I hope it stimulates interesting discussion as the bloggersation continues! Apparently others around the blogosphere have been discussing related topics, such as “Evangelical universalism“, and may decide to join in this conversation.