Is Christianity Exclusive?
This objection is powerfully illustrated by the story of the blind men and the elephant. The story goes that several blind men approach an elephant from different directions, and each perceives what the elephant is like from the part they’ve come into contact with. One feels the trunk and says “the elephant is long and flexible”, another feels the elephant’s side and says “the elephant is wide and flat”, another feels the elephant’s leg and says “the elephant is a round stump”.
All of them have part of the truth, but none of them have the whole truth. By analogy, the illustration suggests that all of the different views about God have part of the truth, but none of them have the whole truth. We are like blind men, coming into contact with different pieces of the puzzle, which only seem to be in contradiction because none of us actually sees the whole picture.
When Leslie Newbigin was serving as a Christian missionary in India, he came across this narrative a lot. However, after a while, he realised that while it seems humble at first, it’s actually a claim of precisely the kind arrogance that it appears to be warning against. Newbigin writes:
“There is an appearance of humility in the protestation that the truth is much greater than any one of us can grasp, but if this is used to invalidate all claims to discern the truth it is in fact an arrogant claim to a kind of knowledge which is superior to the knowledge which is available to fallible human beings. We have to ask “How do you know that the truth about God is greater than what is revealed to us in Jesus?”… What higher truth do you have which enables you to reconcile the diametrically opposite statements of the Bible and the Qur’an about Jesus? Or are you in effect advising that it is better not to believe in anything?” When the answer is, “We want the unity of humankind so that we may be saved from disaster,” the answer must be, “We also want that unity, and therefore seek the truth by which alone humankind can become one”.” (Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 170)
In other words, the only way the analogy of the blind men and the elephant works, is if the one telling the story has the ultimate vantage point which the story itself argues that no one has. When someone says, ‘who are you to say that your view is superior to others’, they’re actually putting forward a view of pluralism that they’re arguing is superior to others.
Such claims of inclusivity are really covert claims of exclusivity. To say that no one should make exclusive claims about God, is to exclude everyone and all religions that make exclusive claims about God. Of those who say there is one way to God and those who say there are many ways to God, both are advocating for a view of ultimate reality, both think that their view is correct, and both would like others to adopt their view.
Unfortunately this doesn’t solve the problem of exclusivity. When people think that they have the truth and they’re living the right way, it becomes very easy to look down on those who don’t have the truth and who aren’t living the right way, and thus take the first step towards conflict and oppression. Moreover, this problem isn’t unique to religious views, it’s a feature of all worldviews including secular ones.
One of the components of a worldview is that it defines what is wrong with the world and how it can be set right. As soon as that’s defined, there are those who are part of the problem (them), and those who are part of the solution (us). The line between “us” and “them” is the beginning of exclusion, marginalisation and oppression; and it invariably leads to conflict.
Solving this problem is at the heart of the push for pluralism. As Newbigin argues (above), “We have to ask “How do you know that the truth about God is greater than what is revealed to us in Jesus?”... [typically] the answer is, “We want the unity of humankind so that we may be saved from disaster”.” (Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 170)
However, drawing a line between those who make exclusive truth claims about God and those who don’t, is itself an attempt to exclude the millions of people who believe that there is only one path to God. It’s not solving the problem of division, it’s merely creating another division between people.
In order to solve the conflict that comes from division, the important thing to ask is not which truth claims are more exclusive than others, but which truth claims move people to love and serve those who disagree with them. In the end, this is the only way to live in harmony in a pluralistic society.
Unfortunately, worldviews typically instil a justification by works. Those who do X are part the problem, and those who do Y are part of the solution, and this is precisely what leads to conflict between people of different views. Worse of all, this can be done with anything: being open minded, hard working, scientific, compassionate, religious, irreligious, whatever. Those who are, are part of the solution (us); while those who aren’t, are part of the problem (them).
However, Christianity alone teaches its adherents that our justification is by sheer grace (Ephesians 2:8-9), and this uniquely levels the playing field and destroys dividing walls of hostility (Ephesians 2:14). As the Christian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously put it: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”. (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 168). Christian theologian Miroslav Volf puts the point like this:
“Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.” (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 124)
The Christian gospel that we’re all more wicked than we dared believe and more loved than we dared hope, is the only truth claim moves people to break down barriers all between “us” and “them”, because it is the claim that we are just as sinful as them, and that they are just as loved and made in the image of God as us. Embracing the gospel is the only way to be truly inclusive of the Other, because it is the good news that God himself became one of us, and gave his life to embrace those who were hostile to him.