Jon Kennedy
Jon Kennedy

Jon Kennedy's 'Postcards from
the Nanty Glo in My Mind'

Bad theology

Bill Tammeus, a columnist for the Kansas City Star whom I've frequently read and occasionally quoted approvingly several times on Xnmp, came up with a mind-bending piece on Monday called "Faith-based know-it-alls are dangerous." We hear variations on this line often, especially in this era of heightened Christian baiting and hating fueled by the red-state phenomenon. But Tammeus isn't as shallow a thinker as most of the wrtiers whose editorials, columns, and letters to the editor I check out day after day. The "bend" I referred to in the first sentence is the climax of his essay:

We can proclaim that we believe in the saving power of Christ, and we do. But if we acknowledge that our eternal view is limited and that God is free, we cannot say...that God is not going to be gracious and kind and save people who have never heard of Jesus.

This makes me think that Tammeus isn't just another lefty kook. But promising as this is, it doesn't prove or adequately support his thesis, which is this:

Religious exclusivity—the idea that everyone else is wrong or evil or both—is responsible for much pain, angst and violence.

When individuals or groups believe there's only one version of truth and that they own it exclusively, they twist healthy religious commitment into arrogance and into what some theologians, speaking of a Christian brand of this disease, call triumphalism.

Where do we find such exclusivist thinking in religious circles? In many places—and well beyond the obvious example of the 9/11 terrorists, who hid behind their distorted version of Islam to justify their killing. The 9/11 hijackers and the people who filled them with malignant ideas are exclusivism's poster boys, but they are not alone—though their eagerness to move from bad theology to murderous action sets them apart. Many, if not most, religious exclusivists would condemn such violence, even if their thinking sometimes helps to foster it.

From this, Tammeus jumps to an evangelical pastor in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley whose star has risen in the conservative Protestant sky for the past several decades as an example of "triumphalism" closer to home than al Qaeda:

in a sermon series called "Deliverance: From Error to Truth," MacArthur has fallen so deeply into the trap of exclusivism that he's now attributing to demonic forces all religions but his own.

"Satan," MacArthur said, "doesn't care what people believe. He doesn't care how sincerely they believe it as long as what they believe is wrong. ... He sponsors all kinds of religions. He sponsors every religion on the face of the earth that isn't true. He's behind them all. He's got enough diversity for everybody. He's provided an absolutely irresistible smorgasbord....

"There are those saying there are people in countries in obscure places and tribes in hidden back waters of the world who have never had a Bible and never hear the truth of Jesus Christ who are going to be saved because God is going to be gracious and kind to them and they're going to be saved even though they've never heard the truth. Well, that is a lie."

To which I retort, both Tammeus and MacArthur are wrong. Tammeus doesn't show any proof that "exclusivist theology" produces dangerous people. It may, but I haven't seen the proof yet. I doubt that the followers of Bin Laden and the suicide bombers in Israel are theological thinkers in any sense of the word; they're just haters out for self-actualization. And though I'm sure MacArthur is well read in theology and articulate in his pulpit, there's no evidence that he has moved anyone to anything bordering on violence.

But in assessing Tammeus' article, the one thing I see as potentially dangerous is its potential to turn more borderline leftists from lethargy to taking up arms against their Christian, not Islamic, neighbors (the latter, of course, would be anti-multiculture and therefore unthinkable to an awakening liberal). The trouble with Tammeus' theory of "exclusivist theology" is that it's an oxymoron. By definition, religion is certitudinal. It's all about the things that are life's greatest certitudes, or certainties. Without certitude that your religion (whatever it is) is true, you may as well be an agnostic. Stop to think about that case you are an agnostic.

Another, and some would say more important, problem with Tammeus' theory is that it makes Jesus Christ a liar. "I am the way, the truth, the life; no man comes to the Father but by me," or words to that effect (John 14:6). And to say that another god, or another "way," can get us to God's presence is, from a Christian perspective, a blasphemy. If there were any other way, how could a loving Father not only allow, but send, His Son to the cross to be the way to our redemption? What would be more monstrous than to send someone to die in order that we may live, if that death wasn't necessary as part of God's eternal plan?

I was for many years a Presbyterian minister (since Tammeus summons that background) and I would say that his idea of God's "freedom" isn't part of any orthodox Christian theology. God has limited himself by His own decrees. He is in a sense "free" to do anything, but He has promised that He won't do anything that's inconsistent with His chosen eternal being as a loving father, and He won't go back on His promises. Our understanding is fallible, but He is infallible.

On the other hand, there's no telling how anyone who—to our perception—has never heard of Jesus, may have heard without it getting our attention. And we can certitudinally know that arrogance is a sin, pride is a sin, thinking ourselves better than anyone else because we have "right religion" is a damnable sin of pride. Thinking "that everyone else is wrong or evil or both" and we are not is definitely a sin. To take arms or even show animosity against anyone in the name of a loving God or our superior religion, is anti-human, anti-God, anti-religion. To fail to be good neighbors toward our non-Christian acquaintances—Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Zoarastrian, pagan—is to fail the Son who is love incarnate. I agree with Tammeus that we cannot say the things he quotes from MacArthur; we should not. But it's because that wouldn't be charitable—not loving, not because we can't know and have intimate relationship with the Truth, the Way, and the Life.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

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