Exclusive Claims in a Tolerant Age

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The philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855), spoke for the religious view held by many who retain belief in God: “The thing is to understand myself to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”1

Living in a pluralistic society has its benefits denied to our forbears who lived in more despotic times. Today, people may hold to different convictions, and are free to express those convictions, in democractic societies, at least. The number of options for individuals, or groups, is multiple at all levels. From the mundane (which soap to use, or soda to prefer), to one’s career (what course to take, or employment), and yes, including religious views. One important virtue in a pluralistic society is tolerance of those views that differ from one’s own. Indeed, it should be maintained to safeguard the freedom we all cherish.

The mentality, however, that is often engendered by this situation is wrong. It is this: that the legitimacy of the choice is in the freedom of the chooser. “My choice is just as right as yours!” so goes the usual riposte when one’s view is challenged. It is true that one’s right of choice should be equal to anybody’s in the same society. It is a differrent thing altogether to conclude that having freely chosen, the choice is, therefore, correct.

When this mind-set is applied to religious choices, it often ends up espousing the view that all religions are right and are equally on their way to the same God. Every religious view is held as being correct, or at least right, in some of its tenets. One may even opt to have a little of everything of these religious views – a position known as syncretism. One writer said as much,

The golden rule of postmodernism is ‘Grant to all other religions the same presumption of truth as you grant to your own religion.’ All religions are created equal.2

The one thing that is unacceptable in this pluralist mind-set is exclusive claim! If tolerance is pluralism’s virtue, then exclusivism is its most eschewed vice. There is nothing exclusive; everything is just an alternative. Carson observes,

For others, religious pluralism has become so strong a creedal point that any religion that claims monopoly or even superiority is outrageous… Nor are the issues restricted to the narrowly religious: religion embraces all of life, so that fundamental questions of worldview and values are at stake, not least one’s understanding of morals and ethics. When religious pluralism triumphs, inevitably the common sins of humanity become defended as alternative lifestyles.3

Of the present exclusive claims, none is found more scandalous by the tolerant than the evangelical Christian claim. Christianity in its original message proclaims an only Savior in the Person and Work of Jesus of Nazareth. It dares make the intolerable threat that outside of this Savior there is no salvation, but only damnation (Acts 4:10-12). It grates in the ears of every decent pluralist. A pluralist mind-set would welcome a Christianity that is not exclusivist. Thus David Wells,

Today, reality is so privatized and relativized that truth is often understood only in terms of what it means to each person. A pragmatic culture will see truth as whatever works for any given person. Such a culture will interpret the statement that Christianity is true to mean simply that Christianity is one way of life that has worked for someone, but that would not be to say that any other way of life might not work just as well for someone else.4

A ministry that will maintain the exclusive claims and calls of the Christian message will face daunting challenge. Any man who will persevere in such a ministry will need courage, yes; faithfulness and commitment, definitely. But prior to these, such a man must believe his message! It is this belief in his message that will secure his conscience from the charge that he is being arrogant and intolerant. He will not be swayed by the fact that those who stand against his message have the number, and the clout in society. This remains one of the preacher’s consistent enemies: the temptation to look at numbers and people and be pressed, “Surely, not all these people can be wrong!” We need to be Bunyan’s Mr. Valiant-for-Truth who fought against one of his enemies, named, Pragmatism.

The ministerial office must be defined by the truth of the message which is the world’s greatest need. He must resist the rushing trend of professionalizing the ministry. Wells issues this appeal which we must heed,

Ministerial function should be defined by ministerial being, that what a minister does should grow out of that minister’s calling,, out of the fabric of truth of which that minister is an exponent. Ministerial being should be defined… by worthy character, a passion for truth, and the kind of wise love that yokes together this character and this passion in the service of others. But professionalization has worked to undo this relationship, for the market in which ministers must function is shaping who they must be in a way that makes connections to this world of truth uneasy and often unnecessary. Office disappears in profession, believing in doing, thought in ‘personality’ … (T)he older idea of the pastor as the broker of truth give(s) way to the newer idea of the pastor as the friend of all.5

The preacher must maintain his belief in the urgency of the message, because he is convinced of its veracity. To be faithful to the Word is both the Minister’s, and the Church’s, distinct contribution to the world. The Evangelical doyen Carl Henry’s words are so urgent,

We little sense how much of what passes for practical Christianity is really an apostate compromise with the spirit of the age. Our generation is lost to the truth of God, to the reality of divine revelation, to the content of God’s will, to the power of His redemption, and to the authority of His Word. For this loss it is paying dearly in a swift relapse to paganism. The savages are stirring again… The forerunners of these half-men are being nourished wherever a pulpit no longer preaches the commandments of God and the sinfulness of man, the ideal humanity of Jesus Christ and the divine forgiveness of sins, and the fact of saving grace.6

  1. The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard: 44
  2. Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: 246
  3. Don Carson, The Gagging of God: 150
  4. David Wells, No Place for Truth: 280
  5. ibid, 237
  6. Carl Henry, Twilight of a Great Civilization: 15, 17

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