American Evangelicalism: Present Conditions, Future Possibilities
What is an “exclusivist,” anyway? It sounds like very nasty thing to be. Sean Carroll is a physicist who teaches at Caltech. He speaks a lot (he was in our neighborhood just a few days ago, giving a public lecture at Fermi Lab) and writes a lot (he’s very good at both). He has a wonderfully titled blog, Preposterous Universe, which features this epigraph at the top of the page: “in truth, only atoms and the void,” a saying attributed to the Pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus. Clearly Sean Carroll is an exclusivist, too: a naturalistic exclusivist. But of course any account of How Things Are excludes rival accounts.
I’m going to reply to Karl Giberson’s essay in two ways, agreement and reservations. This month’s topic comprises an intimately challenging set of questions for me, as a Quaker Christian settled on the East Coast – a few miles from Yale, in fact, where I lived, researched, studied, and taught during recent years. I feel I need to be extra-careful in stating my views—well, actually, in forming them: that’s still going on.
In the spirit of these respectful conversations, I will resist the temptation to be put-off by Karl Giberson’s less than generous claim that exclusivists are “driven by some sort of jingoistic pathology—a defensive need to be a member of the one true tribe that holds ‘absolute truth,’ and maintains its hold on that truth by excluding others.” I choose to take Karl as being a provocateur rather than as unkind. I also take his statement as an honest indictment against some exclusivists for only half-believing what they say they believe. For if exclusivists truly believe that Jesus is the only way to God, they would exhaust themselves, their time, and their resources to reach those who have never heard the good news that in Jesus they can have forgiveness of sins and the hope of life everlasting. And, furthermore, they would preach the gospel in tears, pleading that their hearers might be saved.
sectarian flag-planting has become a form of “easy Christianity,” where the simple but significant challenges of Jesus to love our neighbors have been replaced with complicated but largely irrelevant discussions of who has the best handle on the “truth.”
In addressing the question of the exclusivity of Christianity, I have always been drawn to the writings of Lesslie Newbigin, one the most influential ecumenical and missionary theologians of the twentieth century. His many years of work as a missionary in India coupled with his extensive engagement with the global church enabled him to articulate a missionary theology that is deeply attentive to the interactions between the gospel, culture, mission, and religion. He suggests that Christian faith may be viewed as exclusive, inclusive, and pluralist. It is exclusive in the sense of affirming the unique nature of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, but not in the sense of denying the possibility of salvation to those outside of the Christian faith. It is inclusive in the sense of refusing to limit the saving grace of God to Christians, but not in the sense of viewing other religions as salvific. It is pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but not in the sense of denying the unique and decisive nature of what God has done in Jesus Christ.
I not only grew up knowing that evangelism was the primary task of Christians, I was a poster child for this idea. My most vivid memory of this emphasis in my own church context (other than going to the mall during conferences to share my faith with complete strangers) was signing up for the I Found It campaign in 1976. As a young teen, I remember the anxiety of talking to people on the phone about Jesus (again, people I didn’t know). I also remember praying with one woman as she responded to my invitation to receive Jesus.
Fast-forward a few decades. This week I finished teaching an elective course on Luke. In chapter 24, the risen Jesus speaks to his disciples. “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:46-48, NIV). The image of Jesus’ followers as witnesses is introduced here and picked up in thematic ways in Acts.
There is no doubt that Christian faith is exclusively in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, NRSV), and the apostles also declared, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jews might anticipate a messianic deliverer who will reunite the people of God with Yahweh, but they do not hold, as Christians do, that Jesus is that Messiah. Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet but both subordinate his message to that of Muhammad’s and do not understand his claim, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30), in a similar manner as Christians. In other words, Christians make unique and exclusive claims about Jesus as savior and revealer of the Father.
For some evangelicals, a great disappointment of heaven will be the shocking discovery that God has not read John Rawls. Although it does not require strict equality of outcome, Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness presupposes that just ground rules are rooted in the free, rational self-interest of mutually contracting parties.
So Rawlsian soteriology would work like this. Before the foundation of the world, when me, God, and everyone else were establishing the rules of the “salvific contract,” we would agree to a set of principles that would fairly distribute eternal rewards and punishments, since, being behind Rawls’s imagined “veil of ignorance,” none of us (God included) ought to know exactly how things would turn out (e.g., in which religious tradition I might find myself).
One of the highlights of my now eight-year career teaching in a seminary has been participating in several public dialogues with “liberal” (their choice of term) theologians from a nearby, mainline seminary. These events were billed as “evangelical-liberal dialogues,” with the intention of pursuing a path beyond an all-too-common gridlock. The topic was salvation and the question of the exclusivity of Jesus.
The most exclusive claims about Jesus as the only way and teachings about Hell come from Jesus’ own teachings as recorded by all four Gospels. So if we are to take Jesus and the four Gospels seriously, we must reckon with these as his claims, not those of a later generation of church leaders. Paul’s, Peter’s, James’, and John’s epistles and Revelation reinforce these claims. If we take Scripture seriously as received from the Apostles and the Church fathers, we cannot and should not ignore these hard teachings of our Lord, nor should we abdicate to the “critical scholarship” from Jefferson to Bultmann to Bishop Spong that would create an enlightened Jesus that conforms to the image and likeness of modern man.