Many sincere people earnestly asking questions about God often have difficulty even considering Christianity because of its exclusivity — it claims to be the only way to God, the only right religion. Aren’t all religions essentially different paths to the same God? Often the following parable is offered as an illustration:
An enlightened king in ancient times invited four blind men into his court, set before them an elephant and asked them to say what it was. The first man grabbed the elephant’s tail and said “It is long and flexible – an elephant is like a rope.” The second man took hold of the elephant’s leg and said “No, it is thick and round – an elephant is like a tree.” The third man felt the elephant’s side and said, “No, it is nothing like that at all. It is large and flat – an elephant is like a wall.” The fourth man grabbed the elephant’s tusk and said “No it is hard and sharp – an elephant is like a spear.” And the king described to all the hearers in his court how we all are like these men in our understanding of God. Indeed, all the religions of the world are but the gropings of blind men after a truth much too great for any human mind to grasp.
A wonderful, even elegant, story that captures the essence of religious pluralism — the view that all religions are equally true (or equally wrong depending on who you ask!). But the parable is not without its problems. For we must remember that the one telling the story wants us to reject the claim that a specific religion can know the whole truth about God. But, in order to tell the parable, the storyteller has to claim that he know all there is to know about God. Somehow, religious pluralism knows that God is, in fact, an elephant and not a rope or a wall or a tree or a spear. Religious pluralism has placed itself in the seat of the enlightened king while the world’s religions are blind men!
In fact, the story seems to take us a step further. Because the reason for even telling the story is to convince its hearers that religious pluralism is right, that it is true. And, that until all people agree that this version of God is true, we will remain blind! Until everyone becomes a religious pluralist — unless everyone converts, if I may use the term — the world is lost. Religious pluralism is claiming for itself the very thing that once made it impossible for them to believe Christianity: it claims to be the only way to God. You see, religious pluralism does not offer us a new inclusivity in place of our old Christian exclusivity. All it can do is offer us a new kind of exclusivity. Why? Because all statements that claim to be true must by nature exclude views that are not true.
So the choice we have is not between inclusive and exclusive. It is between different exclusives. So which one? There are two reasons why I think the Christian exclusivity probably leads us closer to truth than anything else: one logical and one pragmatic. The first I find in places like 1 John 1:1-3:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
What the Apostle John says again and again here is that he himself has seen with his eyes, touched with this hand and heard with his own ears the faith that he now proclaims to the community. And in fact, he is also implying at this stage in Christian history that there are others in the listeners’ community that can verify these claims as well — eyewitnesses remain! The Christian faith is unique among all faiths in that it based upon an event in human history that is available to all to explore. It is not based on the private mystical experience of a founder, nor on a set of philosophical abstractions, nor even on the moral code of a community. The entire edifice of the Christian faith, all the centuries of its cultural production, is delicately balanced on a single historical event that is publicly verifiable (and refutable!) — the claim that God has raised Jesus from the dead in the course of human history.
The second reason is more pragmatic. Christianity is the only faith that has at its heart not just the command to love your enemies, but it says that God has died for you when you were his enemy. Someone who truly believes that has amazing resources to turn to those who believe differently and treat them with genuine love, respect and humility and not with disdain, hatred or violence. If you believe God died for you to win your heart when you were his enemy, you can do nothing but love your enemies in like manner. Your very identity is rewritten as an enemy won over by love.
Since we are left to choose between exclusives, a truth claim that is 1) publicly available for all to verify and 2) inherently built to love, serve and even die for those who disagree seems to resonate with me with the ring of truth.