In this episode, Kurt talks about the nature of truth, the futility of relativism, and the human condition.
Good morning. Perhaps you don’t know that many of the churches in the Chicago area are a week behind us, and I think I realize why Nate shifted. He wanted to avoid this topic as much as possible. It happens to be a very difficult question! So, is Christianity too narrow? I do want to thank Nate for affording me the opportunity to speak with you on this topic. It is a tricky one, and one to which there could be multiple answers depending on what someone means, and we’re going to delve into that this morning.
If you’re just joining us this week, over the past three weeks, we’ve been looking at some of the deep questions of life such as “Does life have a meaning or purpose? Does God exist? Why does God allow evil and suffering?” So today, we are to address whether Christianity is too narrow. In reflecting upon this question, it struck me as having a couple different meanings. First, what does the questioner mean by “narrow,” and second, what does the questioner mean by “too?” For example, is Christianity too narrow-minded? Or maybe Christianity is too narrow in the sense that it is supposedly only for those holy people, but not me. Answers to what “narrow” and “too” mean will perhaps entail a different conclusion, a different answer to the question. For my message this morning, I suspected the person who might be asking this question is someone who is sympathetic to a position called religious pluralism. Religious pluralism is the belief that many religions, or even all religions, lead to God—or maybe more properly stated, that all religions lead to salvation. In the context of that situation (namely religious pluralism), asking whether Christianity is too narrow means to ask whether the claims of Christianity can accommodate the notion that other religions lead to salvation. I want to consider three points this morning (very typical of a sermon) to help us understand the question, three points just to help us understand the question: the nature of truth, the futility of relativism, and the human condition.
Last week, the media—which in this case includes the gamut of political biases—was in a frenzy over the proper way to interpret a confrontation between a 16-year-old boy wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, and a Native American armed-forces veteran. Initial reports came out quickly and strongly condemning the boy for, to use a term from George Orwell, facecrime. But upon the release of video which provided a greater and fuller context to the incident, it became apparent that the boy was not as guilty as perhaps it seemed. And this was the case again for both liberals and conservatives. Everyone failed on this. Regardless of one’s political interpretation of the incident, this exercise made something clear: most people still care about the truth, and that’s good news.
Most people still care about the truth, at least when it pertains to damaging their own reputation. Retractions of articles were submitted, tweets were entirely deleted, and people wanted to forget that they had ever made false accusations against this 16-year-old boy. This morning, I want to move through a number of statements with you, or propositions, that are true. Number one: something is true if it corresponds to reality. So here are some things that we can make that are either true or false. Number one: Nate Hickox is the senior pastor of Faith Covenant Church! That statement is either true or false. “Two plus two equals four,” or “It is wrong to torture babies for fun.” That’s either true or false. Here’s another one. “The White Sox won the Stanley Cup last year.” That’s either true or false! “I attended Aguda Pacific University,” or “Grass is paper.” The first set of three were true statements, and the second set were false statements. These are descriptive statements that are either true or false. Now religious pluralism is founded upon what’s called a nihilistic view of religion—that is, it posits that we can’t have any knowledge of the truth-value of religious beliefs. We can’t know the truth. So we can’t know if Taoism, Hinduism, or Christianity is true, yet we see some social good with religion, so let’s just do whatever makes you happy! “Who are we to judge other religions?” the religious pluralists may say.
One of the biggest problems for the religious pluralists is that Christianity is not merely a way of life like Buddhism. Christianity contains statements of historical value: that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and that as a matter of history, he physically rose from the dead—not just a spiritual or figurative resurrection! We Christians believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus. Interestingly enough, the Apostle Paul writes of the falsifiability of Christian belief. He writes, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless, and so is your faith. More than that, we are now found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Jesus from the dead.” Thus, if religious pluralism were true—that is, if we could not know if Christianity were true—then Christianity should be abandoned according to Paul’s teaching. Thus, religious pluralism with regard to the nature of truth proves to be self-defeating. It doesn’t make sense and wouldn’t work. Again, if religious pluralism were true, and we couldn’t really know the truth-value, what Paul says is we should abandon the faith.
Now the Berean Jews searched the scriptures themselves to see if what Paul was telling them was true. They cared about the truth because they knew what it meant for their lives. Truth is not only about facts of the world, like whether grass is purple, but is about how we should live. I think I John says it best in chapter one, verses five through seven. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you: that God is light, and in him, there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him, yet walk in darkness, we lie, and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from all sin.” “If we say we have fellowship with him, yet walk in darkness, we lie, and do not practice the truth.” The Greek word for “practice” here is “poieō,” which means literally “make” or “do.” The smoother translation might be “to practice the truth,” or another translation says “according to the truth,” but the literal translation would be to do the truth. You do the truth!
The Apostle Paul writes that there are some people in our world who exchange the truth about God for lies, and worship and serve the creature, rather than the creator. And also, he writes of those that fall prey to wicked deception, and are perishing because they refuse to love the truth. Christians are not immune to this either! Peter writes that false prophets also arose among the people. “There will be false teachers among you who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the master who bought them, and bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them, the way of truth will be blasphemed.” The truth is intricately related to behavior, and rightly ordered belief affects rightly ordered practice. Given the nature of the truth, we have an obligation to pursue it, to pursue the truth, to discover it and act accordingly.
The futility of relativism: it seems like a nice idea that all religions are supposed to be equally true. Who are we to make an evaluation of another person’s private beliefs? For one of the most important matters in life itself, religious pluralism is relativistic in its application. Oprah encourages us, “Speak your truth!” Since we cannot know what is really true, all we can do is show our own perspective, our own truth, our own version of truth. As an aside, I think many of us can recognize the mendacity of this statement. Christian perspectives in our society—again, Christian perspectives in our society, at least in the cultural powerhouses—are dismissed, denigrated, and even targeted. I can think of Jack Phillips, who has indicated time and time again that he has been targeted, the baker in Colorado. So again, everybody out there can share their (sic) truth except for the Christians, and this is a problem today that will continue to be a problem.
In its application, religious pluralism finds its futility. To claim that many religions lead to God is to make a self-contradictory statement. A self-contradictory statement is a statement that, if true, would be false. Let me give you a couple of examples. “There are no sentences in English.” Here’s another one. “This sentence only has five words.” Likewise, “All religions lead to God” is self-contradictory. First, it contradicts its nihilistic foundation. It makes a truth claim about religion! Second, the differences between religions are so fundamental to their core that they cannot all be true. For example, Islam proposes that God cannot take upon (sic) human flesh, that Jesus was merely a prophet, and that he never even died on the cross, whereas Christians propose that God does assume a human body, that Jesus is the savior, and that he not only died on the cross, but was resurrected. This brings me to a second statement: something may be true even if nobody believes it. Both a Muslim and a Christian could be wrong, but they cannot both be right. In logic, this is called the law of contraries. It could be that nobody on planet Earth has the correct view of the divine realm. We all could be wrong! Every human on planet Earth could be wrong. But just because nobody believes in a certain truth does not mean that the truth’s proposition is not true. It still is true, even if nobody believes it. If nobody believes that Rick Rolf is a psychiatrist, does that make it false? If Christianity were true, and nobody believed it to be true, would that make it false? Not at all.
Now, let us consider the human condition. To religious pluralists, the word is that Christianity is too narrow. Pluralists inadequately understand the human condition. Christianity is not merely another way of life among alternatives. Jesus Christ is the way of life. In fact, before the followers of Jesus were called Christians (first at Antioch), they were referred to as followers of “the way.” The reason why Jesus is “the way,” and not “a way,” is because he is the Messiah, who has come to save his people because they cannot save themselves. We humans were dead in our trespasses, and both Jews and Gentiles alike are under the power of sin. We have all fallen short of honoring God with our lives, and we continue to do so. “All of us have become like one who is unclean” is what it says there, “and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” We all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. It’s not exactly a good picture of humanity, is it? If religious pluralism were true, how would we know it’s not the blind leading the blind, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 15?
The scripture tells us that there are two types of people. There are those who, by persistence in doing good, seek glory, honor, and immortality, and to this person, God will give eternal life. But to those who are self-seeking, and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. The Berean Jews were of noble character. They had great eagerness to learn the good news, and to take great care in ensuring that it was true. But there were also Jews from Thessalonica who were so bothered by Paul’s preaching that they traveled 45 miles (which was a long distance back then) just to cause strife, to stir up and agitate the crowds, so much so that Paul’s and Silas’ lives were at risk. If you read carefully the story (sic), they had to leave at night. Statement number three: something may be true even if someone does not want it to be. And that’s really what this is about. It’s about the will. There are some people who know what would be required of them if they had to confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord.
Thomas Nagel, a professor of philosophy and law at New York University, wrote in his 1997 book The Last Word, “In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence, nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition, and the acceptance of evident, empirical falsehoods. I’m talking about something much deeper, namely the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being subject to this fear myself. I want atheism to be true, and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.” He wants atheism to be true. You see, some people don’t want God to exist. Some people don’t want Christianity to be true, and some people don’t want Christianity to be too narrow. The nature of truth, the futility of relativism, and the human condition help us to understand this question: is Christianity too narrow? The answer to the question is yes. Yes, for the religious pluralists, Christianity is too narrow. But we don’t have good reason for thinking that religious pluralism is true. And in fact, Christianity is so narrow that it happens to be the only available option for us which fully corresponds to truth, and fully provides a remedy for the human condition, and this is great news! If a doctor gives you a terminal diagnosis, you may not want that news, but it is still true. Yet if your doctor gives you a prescription for your diagnosis, why would we object to her and say, “Oh, that’s too narrow for me?” The fact is, the narrowness of the prescription is not the problem, it’s the human condition that is the problem. The 4th-century church father Athanasius of Alexandria wrote, “When a man had once been made, and a necessity demanded a cure, not for things that were not, but for things that had come to be, it was naturally consequent that the physician and savior should appear in order to come to be, in order also to cure the things that were.”
“Jesus Christ, son of God, Messiah:” statement number four. Jesus offers salvation for all who repent and believe. It’s perhaps the most famous verse in the entire Bible, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world: that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” John continues on, “For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already, because they (sic) have not believed in the name of God’s one and only son.” Today, Christ rightly demands your allegiance to his lordship. Will you be like the Jews in Thessalonica and cause rebellion? Or will you be like the Berean Jews, who were of noble character? Will you receive the gospel with great eagerness, and examine the scriptures to see its truthfulness? And will you act upon that belief? Jesus invites you into the life of his kingdom! “Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate, and broad is the road, that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate, and narrow is the road, that leads toward life, and only a few will find it.” If you want to know what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, I want to invite you to come and speak with Pastor Nate or myself (sic) after the service, or to stick around for one of our community groups. The Explore God series is a wonderful opportunity to consider the deep questions of life, and to test the veracity of the good news, and I want to invite you to come back next week, as we consider a very important question: is Jesus really God? Thank you.