Your Religion Is Special, Just Like All the Others

Your Religion Is Special, Just Like All the Others May 19, 2016

religion symbolsI remember believing that my religion was unlike all other religions in the world. I was taught growing up that Christianity was special. It had something that no other religion had, and that uniqueness spoke to its authenticity. Why uniqueness automatically indicates legitimacy I’m not exactly sure, but somehow it felt like it should.

The usual reasoning centered around a belief that the deal you get with Christianity is a better deal than you get from any other religion. It’s a deal that’s so good, so intrinsically appealing, that it could hardly even be called the same thing as all the other offers. In a sense, it’s not even a religion at all, it’s a relationship.

[Read “It’s a Religion Too, Not Just a Relationship“]

Tim Keller wants you to view the Christian religion as unique as well, and in Chapter 11 of his The Reason for God, he launches into his version of this sales pitch right at the very beginning:

Only Jesus claimed to actually be the way of salvation himself. This difference is so great that, even though Christianity can certainly be called a religion in the broader sense, for the purposes of discussion we will use the term “religion” in this chapter to refer to “salvation through moral effort” and “gospel” to refer to “salvation through grace.” (p.181)

I would have to check with other students of comparative religion, but I’m pretty sure the claim that Jesus is the only one who does this depends a great deal on personal interpretation.

For one thing, even Christians disagree with each other on how to view what Jesus claimed to be. That depends entirely on which interpretive tradition you draw from. Many strains of Christianity stress that Jesus taught a way of living into which he was inviting others to participate, while others do as Keller does here by placing the person of Jesus himself in the center of things. Those are two competing traditions within the Christian faith.

But I’m pretty sure divisions such as this exist in other world religions as well. As little in-depth exposure as I’ve gotten to the Islamic faith, I know enough to know that besides the two largest competing factions of Sunnis and Shiites, there are other traditions like Sufism which stress an inner knowledge of Allah through direct personal experience. They are the mystics of Islam, and when I was still an evangelical Christian myself I recall being surprised at how similar their perspectives sounded to my own mystical approach to my faith.

It’s almost as if we were experiencing our religions in exactly the same way, possibly even encountering the same numinous reality. But that can’t be, right? I mean, it just can’t!

A False Dichotomy at the Center

To argue his case for Christian exceptionality, Keller turns to the familiar Protestant refrain of Law versus Grace. Taking their cue from the Apostle Paul, Protestants since Martin Luther have stressed that salvation from sin within the Christian worldview differs from all other faiths (particularly from its predecessor, Judaism) in that a way of salvation is presented which relies, not on human effort and moral goodness, but on an internal reliance on the grace of God mediated to humanity through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus in his crucifixion.

It’s very important to them that you understand you cannot earn your salvation. Earning implies effort, and that’s what all the other religions are offering you, but not this religion relationship. This one is special. It’s a free gift!  Except like all other free gifts, it is neither free, nor is it really a gift. But let’s not get sidetracked right now.

One glaring problem with this beloved dichotomy is that you cannot read the New Testament and completely ignore the strong moralistic undertones running throughout the entire canon. In fact, they’re not just undertones, they’re often overtones. At times, Jesus, Paul, and Peter flatly tell you that people who do X, Y, or Z will not inherit the kingdom of Heaven. James explicitly argued that faith alone cannot save you, and that works were required for any of it to be of any good. Protestants have their own rationalizations for these apparent contradictions (and I bet I could do as well as anybody at providing them), but it all requires suppressing a great deal of cognitive dissonance.

The other problem with pitting Law vs. Grace the way Protestants do is that it’s based on a misrepresentation of what Judaism from the Second Temple period was really like. So much fresh historical study has been done over the last 70 years since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library that our understanding of the religious world of the New Testament era has been radically altered. A deeper look into rabbinical tradition from that era has provided us with a more three-dimensional picture of the people about whom the New Testament was written.

What we have discovered is that the people and views of that day were scarcely like what we see in Paul’s letters and even in the gospels themselves. In both of those places, we see the First-Century Jews as two-dimensional caricatures filled with condescending self-righteousness, bent on superficial observances of manmade rules and regulations. Nothing that we’ve found in our historical study of that era corroborates this image of Second Temple Judaism, which obligates us to ask: Why did the gospels present them that way?

It seems obvious to me that Paul needed a foil for his own peculiar theology (and make no mistake, it was peculiar), so he framed his opponents in terms so exaggerated that his own sales pitch improved exponentially by comparison. “My gospel isn’t like what you get from those other guys. Those guys suck. What I have to offer you is truly good news!” That is, in fact, what the word “gospel” means.

But how good is this news, really?

Grace Not So Amazing

For one thing, the success of the Christian message relies upon taking whatever your current view of yourself happens to be and then lowering it. That’s an essential component to this transaction. You must begin by assuring people that they are much worse than they think, no matter how poorly they think of themselves already.

Keller likens us to Mr. Hyde, the monster lurking beneath the surface of the outwardly healthy Dr. Jekyll. Raised by devout Calvinists, I suppose it’s no surprise that Robert Louis Stevenson, the grandson of a Scottish Presbyterian minister, would possess such a dark view of human nature. As a sickly youth, he spent many a night listening to his parents reading Pilgrim’s Progress to him, instilling deeply within him that at bottom human beings are terrible, wicked creatures.

As a side note, whenever Keller cites the perspectives of people like Stevenson, it always feels like we are supposed to be impressed that so many people see things the same way he does. He rarely ever points out that almost all of the notable authors, theologians, historians, psychologists, scientists, and other historical figures he references come from within the same epistemological bubble in which he lives and ministers. Maybe he has no responsibility to do that. But if you’re writing a book to convince people of ideas for which they need solid reasons to accept, somehow it just doesn’t seem to help your case when you keep citing people from your own tribe without ever noting that fact for the benefit of the reader.

For Keller’s brand of Christianity to be relevant, “sin” has to be so broadly defined as to potentially include every single thing a human being does. It’s not enough merely to draw up a long list of vices for which people deserve condemnation. In the mind of an evangelical Christian, even virtues can become vices if they are driven by the wrong internal motivation:

Both religion (in which you build your identity on your moral achievements) and irreligion (in which you build your identity on some other secular pursuit or relationship) are, ultimately, spiritually identical courses to take. Both are “sin.” (p.183)

In other words, in Keller’s scheme, even doing good is bad, and you need to be saved from it. No wonder humanism and evangelical Christianity have such a hard time getting along.

[Read “Why Evangelicalism and Humanism Cannot Be Friends“]

But how are we to judge for ourselves what motivation drives the things that we do? Is that even a reliably discernible thing? Can you even imagine a more subjective metric by which human nature can be judged? I cannot. Which makes this the perfect direction for the Christian faith to go. We are already apes with anxiety, a species obsessed with navel-gazing and second guessing ourselves. Once you ask us to plumb the depths of our own internal motivations, we may very well fall into a bottomless pit of self-doubt and self-loathing.

A religion like Christianity relies on a sense of guilt, and as it turns out, guilt is a renewable energy source.

Keller insists that none of this is really bad news, since he says he has a way out of this pit of despair. Unlike all those other religions which demand obedience from you before you can be right with God, the Christian faith offers an alternative route to reconciliation with the divine in which obedience is the product, not the pre-requisite:

Religion operates on the principle “I obey—therefore I am accepted by God.” But the operating principle of the gospel is “I am accepted by God through what Christ has done—therefore I obey.” (p.186)

Overlooking the bit about initially deserving rejection, the notion that we can be accepted on the basis of an already finished work sounds appealing at first. But then I wonder:  If I am already accepted, then why am I being told that there is something I am supposed to believe in order to receive the benefits of that acceptance? If this really is a free gift, then why am I being told there is still something I have to do?

See, Protestants feel superior to Catholics (and the Orthodox, and Jews, and all other religions) because, from their view, they alone possess a religion relationship that isn’t earned, but is freely given by God through Jesus. But if that were really true, then why are they then telling us that all those other poor saps aren’t going to be enjoying the benefits of this wonderful thing? If they cannot enjoy the benefits of this salvation because they don’t correctly believe, then isn’t that making faith a “work” of its own kind?

For people like Keller, the one thing you have to do is believe the right things. And if you don’t, well… sucks to be you. For people like me who don’t buy any of this stuff at this point in our lives, we are on the outside and too bad, so sad. We can either get with the program or else we are going to suffer the consequences.

An Offer You Cannot Refuse

At this point in my life I have become highly sensitized to offers of benevolence laced with threats of punishment if I do not accept. And can you blame me? I grew up in a religion that told me God was a wonderful person who wants what’s best for me—whether I even understand what that is or not. I was taught that only a fool would reject his offers of kindness because clearly I was deserving of something truly awful without his intervention. My choices were to surrender to his will, or suffer the consequences. This, I was told, was an acceptable and healthy relationship.

But I know better now. So when Keller pitches this story to me, insisting that his own religion is better than all the others, I’m not really buying it. I see the baseball bat behind the salesman who’s trying to get me to buy what he’s selling, and I know good and well that he’s not doing me any favors.

Keller ends his pitch with another allusion to Christian fiction, this time from one of my own all-time favorite stories, Les Miserables. He tells of how the bishop who sheltered Jean Valjean showed grace to him and changed him into a better man, while Inspector Javert only understood mercilessness and punishment. By the end of the story, these two main characters would come to personify Law and Grace, and Grace eventually wins the day. It’s a lovely story, and the broadway musical remains one of my favorite experiences ever.

But Keller’s use of this story reminds me of the good cop/bad cop routine so prevalent in literature, television, and film. One of the most effective ways to get people to go along with what you want is to present them with two options which hardly leave them with any real choice at all. On the one hand, they have an offer of grace, love, forgiveness, and mercy. On the other, an angry, vindictive, ruthless disciplinarian who will stop at nothing to extract the maximum penalty for whatever it is they tell you that you did. Only a fool would choose door number two when door number one is so appealing by comparison.

But wait a second, the thing you have to realize about the good cop/bad cop routine is that they are both still cops. They are actually on the same team, regardless of how it appears to the person on the other end of the dilemma. It’s an effective tool of manipulation, which explains why it’s been used for centuries to keep people in service of an ideological system which in reality does not deserve their loyalty.

The Pharisees in the New Testament weren’t so much real people as much as they were constructs designed to make you want something different. The same thing goes for the way Keller et al presents any and every other religion besides his own. “They’re all bad, can’t you see? So you should accept mine, because it’s the only one that really has your best interests at heart.” Nice try, man. But you’ve stacked the deck in favor of your own sales pitch, and I’m not falling for it. Even the suggestion that a bogeyman is out there looking to destroy the universe and everything within it is just a horror story they tell us so that we will accept their offers for salvation.

If what they’re selling really is free (or already paid for), then they shouldn’t be telling me that there’s something I have to do to get it. And if it’s really an offer of grace and love, then there shouldn’t be a baseball bat wiggling around behind their back. That’s not grace, that’s coercion.


As with the rest of this review, I am including links to the videos of Steve Shives, who covered all of these chapters in pairs in his “An Atheist Reads” series. Be sure to check them out. How could you resist that face? Here he covers Chapters 10 and 11:

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]


If you’d like to read the rest of my responses to Keller’s chapters up until this point, you can find them listed here:

(Other Posts in this Series)

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