Sermon: The Scandal of Particularity

Preaching Text: “[Let] your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

God, it’s been said, has a sense of humor. As a case in point, I recently was handed a clipping from the Cape Cod Times, a “My View” column written by a local reader named Barbara Leedon from South Yarmouth. As it turns out, her thoughts provide the perfect foil for the first of my 7-part sermon series on Christianity and culture.

Ms. Leedon, you see, is unhappy with biblical Christianity and makes no bones about it! Her wide-ranging critique, however, ultimately proves as bold as it is mostly uninformed. Yet her views mirror those of many in contemporary Western society, not just outside the church but within.

“Many of us,” she begins, “do not trust a mythical, unproven, unknowable, unconfirmed being [called] God.” Right off the bat, one wonders how she can be so sure of about all this.

She goes on to argue that because Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, Deists, agnostics, and “Hindus” all disagree on creeds and doctrines, this somehow negates any and all religious truth-claims.

In Tim Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, the book on which this sermon series is based, Keller tells of once serving on an interfaith panel with a Jewish rabbi and an Islamic imam. After laying out their respective beliefs, each firmly but respectfully agreed that there were “irreconcilable differences” between and among the three different faiths.

The vast majority of cultures and religions throughout our world have no trouble saying their religion or culture is superior. They do not, in other words, share our mostly Western view that all religions or worldviews are the same, or should be. Nor, more importantly, that these differences negate specific religious convictions.

Nonetheless, any exclusive faith-claim is seen by some as unsophisticated, intolerant, and arrogant. How could one religion’s truth-claims be superior to another’s? Then again, Keller points out, most of us would likely agree that the Branch Davidians or religions requiring child sacrifice are pretty much inferior!

Pushing on, Ms. Leedon tackles the problem of violence committed in the name of religion. “This unknowable non-being’s believers,” she confidently asserts, “have committed unspeakable atrocities because of the beliefs that have no basis or rationality.”

In this she seems curiously unaware of the atrocities committed by the self-professed pro-rationalistic, anti-God regimes of Soviet Russia, Communist China, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, and Nazi Germany, who together accounted for well over 100 million deaths in the 20th century alone!

Keller quotes Alister McGrath who, with no small amount of irony, observes that in the last bloody century “the greatest intolerance and injustice were practiced by those who believed that religion caused intolerance and violence.”

Undaunted, Ms. Leedon proceeds to upbraid one particular religious writer for saying that “freedom is a God-given gift,” which for Ms. Leedon is “the essence of nonsense.”

“Pagans and atheists in America,” she explains, “do not share this belief. It is not a fact, it’s a belief.” Here Ms. Leedon commits one of the most common errors of logic found throughout the West today.

As Keller says, skeptics tend to argue that all religious truth-claims are, by definition, untrue, false, and indeed nonfactual. But to say categorically that freedom doesn’t come from God is itself a theological statement (i.e., not a ‘fact’). Ms. Leedon here offers an unprovable faith assumption – and deems it superior at that!

Keller suggests the obvious inference: “All religions should dump their traditional views and adopt those of the skeptic!” Of course, in reality, the skeptics’ views are just as “narrow” as any other. “It is no more narrow,” in other words, “to claim that one religion is right than to claim that one way to think about all religions is right.”

Ms. Leedon takes the bait: “There are some ‘faiths where people are free to believe whatever they want to believe and subscribe to no doctrines or creeds.”

But I thought there was no such thing as faith, just facts? Here, again, Ms. Leedon betrays herself precisely in admitting that she holds to a belief – that there is no God – which is just as unprovable as believing there is one.

Broadly, religion is, as Keller defines it, “a set of beliefs that explain what life is about, who we are, and the most important things human beings should spend their time doing.” Everybody, therefore, has a set of beliefs that guides and gives meaning to existence. And that, dare I say it, applies to Ms. Leedon as well!

Changing gears, Ms. Leedon attempts to lead the witness: “What kind of all-loving God would ask [people] to repent?” Here she unwittingly makes yet another theological truth-claim, that God, if there is one, would not require repentance. One wonders how she knows this.

Keller cites the well-known story of the elephant and the blind men to help us appreciate the confusion in Ms. Leedon’s (and much contemporary) thought.

As the parable goes, there’s an elephant surrounded by a bunch of blind men. Each can touch only a part of the elephant and describe what they feel. The man holding the tail describes the elephant one way while another, holding the trunk, describes the elephant altogether differently. Each is correct as far as it goes, but each lacks the ability to see the elephant in its entirety.

Usually this story is told to illustrate how all religions are the same, while only appearing to be different. Yet Keller asks, “[How] could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?”

“What vantage ground do you claim,” he continues, “in order to relativize all the absolute claims these different [traditions] make?…[How] could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourselves have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?”

“Ironically,” Keller concludes, “the insistence that doctrines do not matter is really a doctrine itself.” It’s a doctrine because it consists of specific beliefs about God and life which, again, are “touted as superior and more enlightened.”

Thus the skeptics who reject all religious doctrines are actually guilty of “the very thing they forbid in others.”

“All truth-claims about religions,” the skeptic seems to be saying, “are historically conditioned except the one I’m making now.” In this Ms. Leedon, and much contemporary thought, gets caught claiming to know the truth while simultaneously arguing that the truth cannot be known!

All religious truth-claims are unprovable rationally and scientifically. As are matters of faith. Indeed, “our most fundamental convictions,” Keller states, “are nearly impossible to justify to those who don’t share them.”

“Self-realization” and “autonomy,” to cite just two examples, are also quite impossible to prove and are, in fact, “just as problematic as appeals to the Bible.”

So if all religious truth-claims are unprovable (i.e., not ‘facts’), what are we to do with biblical Christianity? Why trust in its truth-claims?

Keller argues that robust, orthodox, biblical Christianity actually discourages the kind of arrogance and oppression critics such as Ms. Leedon presume it to possess. Christianity actually stresses humility, and works against divisiveness. It asserts that all human beings are made in the image of God, and thus are capable of both goodness and wisdom.

At the same time, biblical faith also asserts that humans are sinners and, as such, Christians are “actually worse in practice than their orthodox belief should make them.”

At its core, biblical faith says that Christians do not live so as to merit salvation. Instead we depend solely on Jesus to forgive and save us.

“God’s grace does not come to people who morally outperform others,” Keller writes, “but to those who admit their failure to perform and who acknowledge their need for a Savior.”

As such, Christianity admits that nonbelievers very well may be nicer, kinder, wiser, and better. And, unlike most religions and philosophies of life, Christians do not assume that spiritual status depends on religious attainment. Christians are not accepted by God “because of their moral performance, wisdom, or virtue, but because of Christ’s work on their behalf.”

That said, Keller compares Christianity favorably to other cultures. Greco-Roman religious views, for example, were indeed open and seemingly tolerant. Everyone had his or her own god. Yet their practices were quite brutal.

In these societies a vast disparity existed between the rich and the poor. In contrast, early Christians were remarkably welcoming to those the culture marginalized. The early church had a robust mix of races and classes, which was nothing short of scandalous to those around them.

The Greco-Romans despised the poor. Christians gave generously not only to their own poor but to those of other faiths.

Women in the Greco-Roman world were accorded low status. Female infanticide was common, as were forced marriages, along with a lack of economic opportunity. Christianity, in contrast, offered women far greater security and equality than previously existed in the ancient classical world.

Moreover, when the terrible urban plagues of the 1st and 2nd centuries struck, Christians cared for the sick and dying in the city, often at the cost of their lives.

“Why would an exclusive belief system,” asks Keller, “lead to behavior that was so open to others?” Because the Christian belief system provided “resources for sacrificial service, generosity, and peace-making.”

After all, at the heart of Christian faith is “a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness.” Christians, therefore, are not to act in violence and oppression toward their opponents.

In the final analysis, each of us holds to religious truth-claims about the meaning and purpose of life, whether we call them religious or not. And each and every one of us is conditioned by the society and culture in which we live. No one can claim objective truth as seen from the heights of Mount Olympus – or heaven.

The question, then, is not whether there should be beliefs, truths, creeds, and doctrines. The real question is whether they are good ones or bad ones – or something in-between.

Which of these unprovable truth-claims, in other words, best describes the meaning and purpose of the human condition and furthers the well-being of all of life? Amen.