In recent discussions in which I've either been engaged in, or have simply read, the notions of relativism, universalism, pluralism and inclusivism have come up. Now, while I can understand how secular post-moderns may succumb to the self-defeating "all paths lead to God" concept, I remain perplexed as to why self-professed followers of Christ continue to fall into this trap. Keep in mind that my concern, in this post, has to do mainly with Westerners who buy into pluralistic worldview notions. I can recall discussions I had, at work, with a colleague from India who claimed that physical reality is - in reality - an illusion. He kept telling me that if I thought about it long enough I would gain enlightenment and see the world as he did. Of course, telling someone to think about it long enough is kind of like what the guy on the corner told me when I asked for directions - "Go to the last stop sign, then turn right." Yeah? Well how do I know when I've reached the last stop sign? As such, who's to say that I haven't thought about reality long enough or that my sincere co-worker hasn't? Even more disconcerting, with this particular situation, was that my colleague is an engineer! Heh. I'm still trying to figure out how an engineer can approach any engineering problem while simultaneously holding the worldview that physical reality is an illusion.
However, I've already gone off on a tangent.
It seems to me that the very foundation of Christianity is based on exclusive, propositional truth and - take note - this propositional quality is not simply an artifact of Western thinking. Indeed, the very first line of Genesis makes it quite clear that God, at a point in time - indeed - the beginning of time, created the cosmos. God, outside of time and not a part of or confined within the natural realm we see, created both. Moses, in enlightening the newly freed Israelites, clarifies this so eloquently in the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2, clearly indicating that it was not some mystical force or animistic pseudo-deity who was responsible for our natural realm. There's no room given for the nonsensical "turtles all the way down" hypothesis, or various creation myths featuring assorted deities engaged in procreation, murder, and cannibalism. Remember that this exclusive Genesis account* is coming from a near-Eastern text written well over 3,000 years ago. That Big Bang cosmology now confirms the very start of our reality, as expressed in the Bible, is mere icing on the cake.
Fast forward to 2,000 years ago and here we have record of Jesus walking the Earth. Not content with merely issuing moral quips, he spoke and acted as if he was more than just another human, so much more that the only option he left us was to acknowledge that he claimed to be God (e.g., reference his forgiving people of their sins, claiming that he was one with God). Indeed, he wasn't crucified for uttering too many moral precepts. And, adding insult to injury, He spoke this incredibly limiting statement,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:6-7 ESV)
There's no room there for something like "I am one of many ways..." or "Some people get to the Father by..."
So, what are the relativists, universalists, pluralists, and inclusivists to do? They could claim, as some post-moderns have, that the institutional church down through the ages has overemphasized doctrine, to the point of distorting original intent. But, they'd be wrong. They could claim that we, as humans, are too limited in our understanding to claim to have sufficient knowledge of God's truths. Of course, if anyone claimed that, then we'd have to ask how they came up with that knowledge (given that we're so limited). They could claim that rational Western thought has stymied our understanding of the emotional and the experiential, so we have inadvertently limited ourselves in how we can experience God. Hmmm. Let's take a look at that one.
This experiential notion has been on my mind for some time now. On the one hand, I agree that our Western mode of thinking has limited our appreciation for the richness of experience, particularly (but not limited to) the supernatural. On the other hand, I also tend to see how our Western culture has gravitated towards an overemphasis of relational and experiential aspects, especially with regards to Christianity, many times at the expense of clear thinking. In my opinion, we need to understand that our human psyches are not simply rational or emotional but both rational and emotional. While it is a statement of the obvious, it seems to get lost on a great many people. At issue is the need to tow the middle ground. It may be a more interesting ride in the ditch, but the highway was designed for a reason. In my bias, I think that our culture, especially the evangelical culture, is not in danger of becoming too rational or too empirically minded. Quite the contrary, I think we've been gravitating towards an experiential mindset - one of relational as the driver. If that is the case, then there is cause for alarm.
So perhaps, as I see it, there are three very real dangers we must face if we continue to have a reliance or overemphasis on the experiential. And each successive ordinal reflects a more dangerous condition for evangelicalism in America:
2) Christ followers may have the tendency to see God within the moral therapeutic deism mode (as described in the book Soul Searching),
3) Christ followers may tend to let experience drive their worldview so much so that they end up moving from Christianity into the inclusivist and / or universalist camps (as potentially indicated by Rob Bell's ideas and directly indicated by Michael Sudduth's move to Vaishnavism).
These are certainly issues that I need to ponder further.
* Some will attempt to lump the Genesis creation accounts in with various other ancient creation myths (e.g., the Enuma Elish), however even a cursory comparison of what is found in Genesis with what is found in supposed similar accounts reveals striking, and critical, differences.