Last week we began our new sermon series, The Reason for Faith (you can download the podcast via our website, church app, or through the Apple podcast app). My goal was to introduce why I believe it’s important that we wrestle with tough and challenging questions about Christianity, as most of us have friends, family, and co-workers that have questions about Jesus, the Bible, and the Christian worldview.
We also looked at how Jesus encouraged us to love God with all of our being, including our mind. So thinking is an act of worship and Christians are supposed to engage in the life of the mind. While the message of the kingdom is simple, it’s not simplistic. This is why the Apostle Peter also encourages us to always be ready to explain the hope that lies with us (1 Peter 3:15-16).
Last week I also laid out the purpose for this sermon series:
“My prayer and goal through this sermon series is that you will have a much better understanding of what Christians believe, how to best explain challenging issues, and a stronger sense that Christianity isn’t crazy or naïve or a waste of time; rather, the Christian worldview makes the most sense in light of all of the evidence.”
Now I hope that you will join me in thinking deeply as we explore today’s subject.
The arrogance of religion.
In the 90’s and early 2000’s, I think it’s safe to say that one of the most influential people in the world was Oprah Winfrey. Oprah was nicknamed the “Queen of All Media” and her television show was the number one television talk show during its run and was, at one time, viewed by nearly 20 million people a day. Oprah’s influence was (and is) tremendous and she has done some amazing things in the world, especially in relation to ethnic equality and empowering women.
In a conversation she had with a Christian on her television show, she stated the following:
“… one of the mistakes we make is believing there is only one way to live, and that we don’t accept there are diverse ways of being in the world, that there are millions of ways to be a human being… there are many paths to what you call God. Her path might be something else and when she gets there, she might call it the light… if it brings her to the same point that it brings you, it doesn’t matter if she calls it God or not… there couldn’t possibly be just one way.”
Now again, I’m not picking on Oprah, so all of you Oprah fans need to calm down! I have long had a great deal of respect for much of what she has done and the things she has advocated. Plus, her opinion concerning whether or not there is only one true religion is shared by virtually millions of people all over the world, so she is simply a representative to a line of thinking that we need to take seriously. Listen to how two young New Yorkers make this same claim:
“How could there be just one true faith? It’s arrogant to say your religion is superior and try to convert everyone else to it. Surely all the religions are equally good and valid for meeting the needs of their particular followers.”
“Religious exclusivity is not just narrow— it’s dangerous. Religion has led to untold strife, division, and conflict. It may be the greatest enemy of peace in the world. If Christians continue to insist that they have ‘the truth’— and if other religions do this as well— the world will never know peace.”
So Oprah and many other people reject Christianity because they claim that there can’t be only one true religion… and that it’s arrogant to suggest that one’s religion is the only true belief system. This morning we’re going to attempt to address this question:
How can there be only one true religion?
Now this question (how can there be only one true religion?) is based on a set of philosophical assumptions that I think it would be helpful to examine. They are as follows:
- All religions are equally valid and basically teach the same thing.
- Each religion sees part of the truth, but none can see the whole
- It is arrogant to insist that your religion is the only right one and to try and convert others.
At first, these three objections may seem reasonable. I mean, it seems perfectly logical to understand how people assume that most religions are the same and how people can think each religion has its own positive elements that it brings to the table, especially if they haven’t studied all of the world religions. And who can argue that it doesn’t sound arrogant to suggest that one’s own religion is the only way? It can certainly feel and sound arrogant!
Those who believe that all religions are equally valid and that each religion has part of the truth often illustrate their point with the story of blind men and an elephant (as found in Lesslie Newbigin’s classic The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society and restated in Tim Keller’s The Reason for God). Imagine several blind men walking along a path and they all come upon a friendly elephant that allows them each to touch it. The first blind man, touching the elephant’s trunk, states, “this creature is long and is flexible… just like a snake.” “That’s not right – it’s thick and wide like a tree trunk,” said the second blind man who was touching the elephant’s leg. Finally, the third blind man said, “No, this animal is large and flat” as he touched the side of the elephant.
Since each of the blind men could only feel part of the elephant, none of them could understand the whole animal. In this same way, some argue that the world religions are just like this because each religion is simply part of the truth. No religion can see the “whole elephant” or claim to have a full picture of the truth, as it’s far too arrogant to suggest that one belief system is better than another. Does this make sense?
Here’s the thing… this argument actually backfires on anyone who uses it to suggest Christianity is arrogant because the story is told from the perspective of someone who is not blind and who sees the whole elephant. In other words, how can someone know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless they claim to be able to see the whole elephant?
This objection to Christianity feels humble but we should return this question about the alleged arrogance of Christianity with a follow up question: What gives you the ability to know that no religion has the whole truth unless you have some sort of superior comprehensive knowledge of truth that you just claimed no one else has?
The fact of the matter is that when it comes to the world’s religions, there are significant differences and anyone who suggests that there aren’t simply haven’t studied enough. People often make this claim and insist that beliefs don’t matter, that doctrines or theology is insignificant, yet the insistence that beliefs, doctrine, and theology doesn’t matter is a belief, doctrine, and theological perspective itself. To say that beliefs don’t matter is a belief!
My point is this: everyone has beliefs that they strongly hold to and it isn’t necessarily arrogant to have strong views on topics. In fact, atheism, the belief that there is no God, is often just as religious as Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam. Everyone has truth claims and those ideas should be, I think, engaged and discussed because truth matters. It is not arrogant or ignorant to suggest that there are truths that are exclusive and uniquely accurate. As Tim Keller writes,
“It is no more narrow to claim that one religion is right than to claim that one way to think about all religions (namely that all are equal) is right. We are all exclusive in our beliefs about religion, but in different ways.” – Tim Keller, The Reason for God, 11
So if you are sitting at a table with a bunch of your friends in high school or college or conversing with co-workers and they tell you that it’s arrogant for Christians to belief that Jesus is the only way, you can remind them that it is no more arrogant to suggest that Jesus is the only way than to suggest that Jesus isn’t the only way. Both views are making truth claims. The relevant question that all of us have to wrestle with is on what basis are we making our claims? What reasons do we have to either reject Jesus and Christianity or accept Jesus and the Christian faith?
Christians base their claims on several things: the teachings of Scripture, which we believe are historically reliable given the evidence. We also base our beliefs on the mountain of evidence that supports God’s existence and Jesus’ resurrection, and our experience, to name just a few.
And this gets to the heart of Christianity, the issue of Jesus. If we’re going to explore truth claims and really engage in whether or not Christianity is true, we have to consider whether or not Jesus existed, whether or not the miracles found in the Gospels happened, and whether or not Jesus’ teachings can be trusted. The challenge that we must all face is Jesus. Who is he, what did he do, and was he telling the truth? Make no mistake, we must wrestle with this question because Jesus himself stated
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 NLT)
For anyone who suggests Jesus was just a good moral teacher, Jesus’ own words are a challenge because he taught that he was much more than a good person. The idea of Jesus’ “preeminence” (first place” is the subject of much of the rest of the New Testament.
The challenge of Jesus.
There’s a popular trilemma that has been posed about Jesus: Was Jesus Lord, liar, or a lunatic? C. S. Lewis, an English professor, intellectual, and author of the popular Chronicles of Narnia series, made this question popular when he wrote the following:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to… Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.” – C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 55-56.
“Call Jesus lots of things, but don’t patronize him by saying he’s just a good moral teacher.” These are strong words. Lewis had made a huge impact on my life. He was an absolutely brilliant scholar, teaching at both Oxford and Cambridge. What’s fascinating about his life is that long before he became such a prolific author and theologian, he was an atheist. It was only through conversations with J. R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings books, that he came to faith… and what’s also interesting is that his conversion experience was a struggle. When asked about how he became a Christian, he said, “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting my eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.”
But as Lewis wrestled with Jesus and the truth claims of Christianity, he could not deny that Jesus was more than just a good moral teacher. When Lewis evaluated the claims of Christianity, he found Jesus’ life more and more compelling.
So this is where conversation’s that include this question need to end up. When people suggest there can’t be only one true religion, they should think about why they believe they have the ability to make that decision, which is itself a truth claim. In the future we’re going to dig into the evidence in support of miracles and Jesus’ resurrection, but for today I hope you can see that this question isn’t really all that difficult or challenging, for it cuts both ways. I think if someone rejects Christianity with this objection, they aren’t being honest about the philosophical assumptions they are making.
Let’s continue to encourage people to seek truth…