The insanity of pluralism

There is an old tale about four blind men and an elephant (this is not a politically correct tale, just an old one). As the story goes, each man is stationed around an elephant, their experience of him limited by what is within their grasp. The man standing by the leg decides this must be a tree. The man holding the tail declares it to be a rope. The trunk is determined to be a snake. The massive side of the elephant must be a wall.

Each of them interprets their “elephant” according to their own experience and the moral of the story is that none of us has the full range of truth. We each have our corner of it and our unique perspectives color our understanding of the whole. In other words, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians each have just a corner of the truth, though we are gathered around the same God.

And that, brothers and sisters, is just plain bad theology. For starters, it is an insult to every religion. To say all of them are equally right is to ignore the obvious and opposing differences. No serious Hindu can lay claim to one god, exclusive of all others. No faithful Muslim will embrace the Trinity (and in fact, considers that doctrine heretical). Jews are still waiting for their Messiah, while Christians cannot imagine a God without Jesus. To say these varied theologies are simply parts of the same “elephant” is to willfully deny their distinctives.

James Heidinger walks out the logic behind the theological liberalism of the 20th century here, a logic that highjacked most mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church among them. The dismantling of orthodox theology began with the character of God (“Perhaps this is not an elephant after all”), its trickle-down effect impacting everything from our view of humanity to our understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ. Heidinger writes:

“Liberalism believed that just as Christ differs from other men only comparatively and not absolutely or substantively, neither does Christianity differ from other religions. It is just one, perhaps one of the most important, among the world’s various religions, all of which stem from the same basic source. Thus, the church’s missionary effort should not aim to convert but rather to promote a cross-fertilization of ideas for mutual dialogue and enrichment. The Christian faith is neither unique nor intended to be universal. Thus, the church’s worldwide missionary mandate was denied.”

This is the elephant redefined as chameleon. It will be what we need it to be, abolishing the need for absolute truth. It sounds gracious and accepting, doesn’t it? Except that it further diminishes the integrity of not one religion but all of them.

Liberalism also minimizes (or squelches) any evangelistic urgency. This shows up in our current UMC conversations as American UM Christians debate the importance of an African connection. Some would say that unless he is Christ for the whole world, he is Christ for none of it. Others would say that African theology is as “local” as African culture.

To say that somehow, we’ve all grabbed our own corner of the elephant is to say that the elephant itself is a donkey on one end and a peacock on the other. To call either an elephant is to misdefine the thing. In the story of the elephant and the blind men, no one is right. This elephant isn’t a snake or a tree or a rope or a wall. It is an elephant. The blind men can all be equally wrong, but they can’t be equally right.

Truth is not relative. 

There is a later version of this old story that includes another character. A king in possession of his sight eventually shows up to tell the blind men they have got it wrong. Their experience has deceived them. This is, in fact, an elephant.

And so it is with Christianity. Someone from beyond has come to reveal to the world the heart of God. He has seen what we cannot see and has come to tell us what truth is. Or more precisely, who truth is. Truth is a person, and his name is Jesus. To believe in him alone for salvation is to be a Christian. Nothing else counts.

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Who wouldn’t want to be a universalist? (and why I’m not)

Who wouldn’t want to believe everybody wins — that in the end, God doesn’t have the heart to leave anyone behind?

That my non-believing uncle who drank himself to death and my friend who worships the sun god and even my neighbor who believes in nothing but who’s really nice and serves at the soup kitchen every Thursday … who wouldn’t want to believe that all of them will end up in Heaven one day?

It would make life simpler, wouldn’t it?

Universalism cloaks itself in love and acceptance, accusing those who don’t agree with it of being narrow, rigid, angry, unloving. “Love wins,” it urges. “Can’t we all just get along?”

We ought to be all for it. It would be a whole lot easier on all of us if we could skip that part about truth being absolute, basing our choices instead on moment and mood. It would free up a lot of time in my week. Church is fun, but not that fun. Coffee and a good newsfeed in yoga pants is also fun; so is sleeping late.

I was ordained alongside someone who called himself a universalist and was stunned that no one in the hierarchy of my United Methodist tribe had a problem with that. He also considered himself a Christian (a Christian pastor, at that) but didn’t believe Jesus cared what choice we make about truth. That’s the thing about universalism. It is predestination’s odd other half. Jesus will send you to heaven whether you want to go or not. Choice is out the window just as surely as if your salvation was determined before your birth. As a theology it isn’t Christian.

Which means it isn’t Wesleyan. Methodists are not universalists.

Which is not to say that a person doesn’t have a right to believe an “all dogs go to heaven” theology. They just don’t have a right to believe that and call themselves Christian. To do so is to offend the tenets of both worldviews. In fact, one who claims all religions lead to the same God offends all of us. No self-respecting Muslim wants to be lumped together in the same theological basket with a Hindu or Christian. The belief systems are entirely different. We prove ourselves both ignorant and disrespectful when we minimize the differences.

Far from being a better brand of good news, universalism leaves us without any gospel at all. It is the opposite of truth, making truth itself a relative state, which makes it an extremely dangerous ideology.

Universalism is a theological anarchy that leaves us without purpose. Without choice. Without life.

Here’s the choice on the table: Either Jesus was right and he is our Messiah or he was wrong and (as Paul said) we are the silliest looking people in the world.

That’s the choice.

C. S. Lewis said, “Either this [Jesus] 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 patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

On the issue of salvation and ultimate truth, 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). Jesus defined his terms clearly: the way of the cross is the way of salvation.

So what do we do with that? Because after all, I’m still left with a sorry uncle, a flighty friend, a charitable-but-athiestic neighbor. What happens to them? We don’t much like thinking of the Father’s house without everyone we love in it. How do we make peace with the alternative?

First, it is important to remember something I’ve said in another recent post: Those of us who are committed to absolute truth (and that Jesus is truth) also believe deep in our spirits that the people we like and the people we have feelings for and the people for which we have great compassion and the people we want to see living holy lives and the people we want to see in Heaven are NOT the authors of our faith.

The author of our faith is Jesus Christ.

We have a Person-centered faith, not a people-centered faith.

Second, the fact that we love people who believe differently than us should be our trigger to pray for them more fervently. In his answer to the question, “How can I be happy in Heaven if someone I loved deeply on Earth doesn’t make it to Heaven?” Peter Kreeft said this:

The simplest and most important answer to this question is this: If there is someone you love and identify with so deeply that you cannot imagine being happy in eternity without him or her, and that someone seems now to be in peril of being unsaved, then use the relationship that God’s providence has ordained for you. Tell God that he has to arrange for this person’s salvation as he has arranged for yours, because this person is a real part of you, and for you as a whole to be saved, this person has to come along, just as your own body and emotions have to come along. It need not be a wheedling or blackmail prayer; it can be a simple presentation of the facts, like [when Mary said to Jesus at a wedding], “They have no more wine.” Let God do his thing: it is always more loving, more gracious and more effective than our thing, more than we can ever imagine or desire. Trust him to use your earthly love as a channel, supernatural and/or natural, of grace and salvation for your friend. Your very question, your very problem, is the clue to its answer. God put that burden on your heart for a reason: for you to fulfill.

Grace, truth and love meet in this place. When we let God do his thing — not minimizing it but trusting it — he will always do a better job than us. When we trust that God loves people every bit as much as us (more, in fact), we will gladly beat a path to his door on behalf of those we love.

Don’t take away the truth. Instead, allow it to do its work.

That is how love wins.

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