In the last post we considered how pluralistic concepts are undone by the fact religions are not the same but very different in that they make exclusivist claims. Or put another way, they assert their religion or thinking is true and that everything outside of it is false or invalid. These sorts of claims are made by Islam, Judaism, Christianity and others, where each group believes that they have a revealed truth about God that others do not have. And of course, we might also add to this list Atheism because even though a belief system, they have their own particular creed that ‘God does not exist’.
Of course, Christian exclusivism asserts that God does exist and that the only way the Divine may be fully understood and accessed is through Jesus Christ. As a result, the believer’s knowledge and experience of God is mediated exclusively through Christ in ways that affirm this belief – a belief which necessitates that other religions be considered as false attempts to reach/worship God.
Now, although this position is the mainstay of exclusivist belief, the idea of other groups being false attempts to access God was not initially formulated by the Church with world religions in mind. One reason we know this is that most of these ‘other’ religions were unknown to the church at the time when Christian doctrine was first developed – the boundary of Christianity going no further than the limits of the Roman Empire. Limits that knew nothing of places such as India, Australia, and Brazil, let alone the religious practices of the people within these countries.
From church history it seems that these instructions towards people with ‘false’ ideas, relates more to the growth of religious ‘sects’ within the Church itself. Groups that threatened the orthodox position through their contrary ideas regarding the person and divinity of Jesus Christ. Eventually, as these heresies became more widespread, the early Church Fathers chose to identify and isolate these ‘sects’ within the Church.
Of course, this is not to suggest that the exclusivist position accommodates other faiths, for clearly it does not. However, it does help us to understand how the church has come to hold both exclusivist and inclusivist ways of thinking. The exclusivist approach centres on how people are given freewill and have the choice to respond to or reject the message of Christ. Where people have no knowledge of Jesus to inform this choice, the belief is that individuals are judged by God on the basis of how they responded to the general revelation of the Divine as it was mediated to them through:
- Nature – the evidence of creation itself
- Human conscience – a belief in the existence of a Divine Being
Naturally, the problem that many people have with exclusivism is they consider it arrogant because of the claims made by its followers in regard to it being the one and only truth, and that all other religions are wrong. This position is equally problematic because we live in an age where to make such a claim is to be considered divisive. Central to people’s discomfort with exclusivist claims are two main issues:
- Why might God choose only one way to reveal himself?
- Isn’t God unfair to only accept one route for people to be forgiven and restored?
These we shall consider in our next post.