Modern Challenges to the Ancient Faith: How Can You Say There is Only One True Faith?
Modern Challenges to the Ancient Faith:
“How Can You say that There’s Only One True Faith?”
When questions of truth carry life-and-death consequences, we see persuasion as an act of love. But what species of truth is religious truth? Are the various world religions making competing claims on reality, or are they simply different voicings of one truth? And, if they are making competing claims, does disagreement entail hostility, or can people of conflicting beliefs live peacefully together?
To our modern ears, the idea of one religion claiming to be the truth is anathema. It is one thing to say that Christianity is true for you, but to claim that Jesus rightly demands the allegiance of every human being—regardless of one’s cultural background or current beliefs—seems offensive and absurd. As one bumper sticker puts it, “My God is too big for any one religion.”
The Elephant in the Room
The view that all religions are equal paths to truth is often illustrated by a parable from an ancient Hindu text. The story tells of a group of blind men describing an elephant. One man touches its trunk and compares it to a snake. Another feels its ear and compares it to a fan. The third man places his hand on the elephant’s leg and says it is like a tree trunk. A fourth pushes on the elephant’s side and insists it is like a wall. The fifth man holds the tail and finds it rope-like. The last man feels a tusk and declares that the elephant is like a spear.
This story paints a vivid picture of our individual limitations. It is a corrective to our natural arrogance and seems to be a humble approach, offering a framework for respecting all religions equally. But on closer inspection, the elephant paradigm creates more problems than it solves. Here are seven.
The Problem of Respect
The story of the elephant seems respectful: religions are not right or wrong; each holds an aspect of the truth. But the tale works only because the narrator is not blind. He or she sees the whole picture. To say that Christianity and Islam or Islam and Hinduism are just two sides of the same truth coin reduces pluralism to a patronizing posture by which we don’t respect others enough to take their beliefs seriously.
Conversely, to say “I think you are wrong about this” need not be disrespectful or unkind. For Christians, who are commanded to love even their enemies—let alone people with whom they merely disagree—it must not be. “It’s often said that you should respect other people’s beliefs. But that’s wrong: what’s vital is that you respect other people.” Attempting to persuade others to change their beliefs is a sign of respect. You are treating them as thinking agents with the ability to decide what they believe, not just products of their cultural environment.
But disagreement is not evidence of disrespect. But our society seems to be losing the art of debate within friendships, and we instead surround ourselves with people who think like us.
In a New York Times op-ed entitled “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus,” Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Nicholas Kristof confessed, “We [liberals] champion tolerance, except for conservatives and evangelical Christians. We want to be inclusive of people who don’t look like us—so long as they think like us.”
Are there real consequences to disagreements about religious truth, or does religious truth simply boil down to cultural preference? If I say, “Christianity is true, and Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism are not,” is that like saying, “Stop smoking; it could kill you,” or is it more like saying, “My grandmother’s cooking is better than yours”?
The Problem of Truth
In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year was post-truth: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The post-truth mentality has been central to our view of religion for decades. In 2017, the #MeToo movement hit. Thousands of women stepped out of silence to reveal the abuse and harassment they had endured at the wandering hands of powerful men. Oprah Winfrey made an impassioned speech at the Golden Globe Awards commending the women who had spoken out: “What I know for sure,” she declared, “is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”
The truth of a sexual assault is undoubtedly personal: it is in an important sense “your truth.” But if that truth is not also objective, it is a lie.
There is truth to be discovered here—truth that is personal and objective. Of course, in some ways, our religious convictions are different from our beliefs about our personal histories.
And yet sometimes we find that our beliefs about our own narratives are wrong. Imagine a woman discovering that her husband has been cheating on her for years. She is suddenly forced to change her beliefs about her own life as she reinterprets data in the light of this new information. In this sense, our beliefs about our own lives and our religious beliefs are cut from the same cloth. Both are personal. Both are grounded in the best evidence we have. Both make claims on truth. But both are also subject to error.
Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously quipped to Stephen Colbert, “The good thing about science” is that “it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”5 But this is not limited to science: it’s the good thing about truth. Period.
What happens when religious belief clashes with scientific evidence?
While most of us would defend the right of a religious person to hold unscientific beliefs (for example, the belief that the sun rotates around the earth), we would not think this discredited the reality of objective truth in science, and on important points, we would want to persuade that person to change his or her mind.
The Problem of History
The incompatibility of different religions comes into sharp focus when we examine history. Historical truth is challenging: we all bring our individual and cultural biases to questions of history, and sources have often been distorted or selectively destroyed. But we cannot abandon the search for objective truth in history. There is just too much at stake.
We feel this most keenly when people deny vital historical facts. For instance, while the evidence that Hitler’s regime systematically exterminated six million Jews is overwhelming, many attempts have been made to deny this truth. These attempts must be rejected. Likewise, the history of slavery in America, which we will return to in chapter 10, or the assassination of Martin Luther King. These things happened. They are jagged, historical facts and must be acknowledged, irrespective of perspective. But what about questions of ancient history
What light does this shed on religious truth?
The central truth claim on which Christianity stands or falls is that Jesus was physically raised from the dead. There is historical evidence for this claim, outrageous as it may seem. Alternative theories (as we will see in chap. 6) are surprisingly unpersuasive, and the extraordinary phenomenon of the early church erupting from a small group of dispirited and cowardly followers of a crucified rabbi cries out for an ignition spark.
Jesus either was raised from the dead in ca. AD 33 or was not. Our believing or not believing in the resurrection may change us, but it does not change the objective reality of what took place two thousand years ago. And this is a question on which the three great monotheistic religions disagree. Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Muslims believe that Jesus did not die, but that he was instead taken up into heaven. Jews (and atheists and agnostics, for that matter) believe that Jesus died and remained dead. These claims are mutually exclusive. At this foundational level, religious truth cannot be untangled from historical truth. Even when we narrow our scope to monotheistic faiths, to say that all religions are equally true is to lose our grip on history.
The Problem of Conversion
Praveen Sethupathy is a professor of genetics at Cornell University. When he was a freshman (also at Cornell), a classmate asked him what he believed, and he said he was a Hindu; but the question unsettled him. Praveen’s parents had immigrated from India. He had grown up with Hindu culture but had little knowledge of Hindu beliefs. So he started to explore. Praveen dug into ancient Hindu texts and appreciated their richness. But the process sensitized him to the fact that other world religions made different truth claims. With the mind-set of a budding scientist, he did not want to assume that the religion he had inherited was right, so he explored other beliefs and read other religious texts. In the Gospels, Praveen found something that surprised him: Jesus was the supposed hero of the story, but at the climax of the tale, he hung naked, disfigured, and pathetic on a cross—quite unlike the Hindu superhero, Krishna. But somehow the power inversion of this crucified man attracted Praveen. After months of reading, questioning, and sifting through evidence, he started following Jesus.
Dr. Michael Houts is a similar story. Dr. Houts is a member of the church. Dr. Houts holds B.S. degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Nuclear Engineering from the University of Florida, as well as a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked 11 years with Los Alamos National Laboratory. He presently serves as Nuclear Research Manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL where he provides guidance and technical advice on research and development related to the design, development, and utilization of space nuclear power and propulsion systems. A staunch evolutionist through his early twenties, Dr. Houts and his wife were baptized into the Christ in 1999.
Both Dr. Sethupathy and Dr. Houts, as well as a host of others, are used to evaluating evidence and forming hypotheses to fit the data. It remains the firm belief of each that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. Much as Sethupathy appreciates his Hindu heritage, he does not believe the fundamental claims of Hinduism to be true. Dr. Houts does not believe the fundamental claims of evolution are true. Ask either how he can say that there is only one true faith, and they will tell you that he has no choice: to claim that Hinduism or evolution and Christianity are ultimately compatible is to do violence to both.
The Problem of Ethics
What happens when religious beliefs clash with core secular ethics? Many who believe that all religions are equally true, or at least that no one should claim his or her own religion is the truth, also affirm universal ethical beliefs: for example, that racism is wrong, that people should have freedom of sexual expression, or that men and women should be valued equally. Few think these beliefs are contingent on cultural context. But if we say to our traditional Muslim friends, “We uphold your right to be a Muslim, so long as you embrace equal roles for men and women, the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, and the freedom of your teenagers to experiment sexually,” are we truly upholding their right to practice their faith?
Few of us will consign our deepest ethical beliefs to the “true-for-me-but-not-for-you” bucket. Again, there is too much at stake.
The Problem of Monotheism
People of different religious beliefs have been coexisting for millennia, sometimes in conflict and sometimes in peace. One way in which religious difference was negotiated was through polytheism. This allowed different tribes to worship their own local gods, and regional gods to be integrated with a larger set. Polytheism certainly did not prevent interreligious violence or desire for conquest, as evidenced by the Greek and Roman Empires. But there was the possibility of accommodation: everyone’s gods could be gods without necessarily hurting anyone’s dignity.
A fiercely monotheistic faith emerged. Judaism introduced a fundamental belief that Israel’s covenant God had created the heavens and the earth, a fearless assertion that this God is the only true God, and a foundational command to worship him alone. Christianity and, later, Islam built upon these foundations, asserting that there was one true, universal God, who had uniquely revealed himself, and that other so-called gods are idols.
The early Jews made this claim among the pagan, polytheistic religions of the ancient Near East. The early Christians made this claim among the pagan, polytheistic religions of the Roman Empire. Monotheism is at its heart exclusive and universal.
Claiming that monotheism fits with an all-religions-are-one approach is like claiming someone can be in two places at one time: it’s possible, but only if you kill the person first and dismember the body!
The Problem of Jesus
Christianity is like a puzzle piece drawn from the wrong set: however hard we try to bend the edges, it won’t fit. This problem stems both from Jesus’s direct statements—for example, his famous assertion “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)—and from the actions by which he claimed to be God in the flesh, a claim that both Jews and Muslims hold to be blasphemous.
this distinctiveness of Jesus comes early in his ministry. Jesus was teaching in a house so packed that no one else could squeeze in. Determined to get their paralyzed comrade in front of this healer, a group of friends dug a hole in the roof and lowered him down. Jesus looked at the man and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). The crowd must have been confused: Why was Jesus talking about forgiveness, when what the man clearly needed was healing? The religious leaders were outraged: “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7).
Jesus asked, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?” (Mark 2:9). He then proved his authority to forgive sins by telling the paralyzed man to get up. Notice that he did not deny the premise of the religious leaders’ complaint: only God has the right to forgive sins. But he demonstrated that their conclusion was wrong: Jesus had that right, because he was God in the flesh.
Later, Jesus looked into the eyes of a bereaved woman and said: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26). This is not the teaching of just a good man.
Time and again, the Gospels record Jesus doing outrageous things only God can do: commanding the wind, forgiving sins, feeding multitudes, raising the dead. His universal claim is finally rammed home in his parting words to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18–20).
Jesus claims rule over all of heaven and earth. He presents himself not as one possible path to God, but as God himself. We may choose to disbelieve him. But he cannot be one truth among many. He has not left us that option.
Next month: Doesn’t Religion Hinder Morality?