Keeping Jesus, Letting Go of Christian Exceptionalism

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:

YouTube Preview Image

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.


tinychuck (1)About Chuck Queen
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to the blog Faith Forward.


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