Christianity 101: Exclusivity

I have had several conversations and encounters in recent months that have made me worried about the extent to which the world—including Christians—does not understand what Christianity really means. In June I attended a panel discussion on the film A Mighty Heart, which featured representatives from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim backgrounds. The major theme throughout the discussion was the increasingly popular sentiment of collective goodwill/hope: that all major religions—regardless of who is being worshipped—are chiefly about love and peace. We must stop viewing each other as different or wrong... just diverse paths to a similar end.

More recently (this weekend), I attended a screening of a new documentary produced by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me). The film, entitled What Would Jesus Buy?, uses the forms and traditions of Christianity to mount an argument against out-of-control consumerism, though it never really offers Christianity or Christ as an alternative or solution. The film (which I will write about in more depth soon) follows “Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping”—a performance art/activist group that looks like a gospel choir but makes no claims of believing in the gospel. Following the screening of the film, I interviewed Spurlock and asked him about how Christianity fits into the message of the film. He said that the film's theme reflects the true meaning of Christmas—the arrival of a man who would revolutionize the world and shake things up through his radical message of peace, love, and equality.

But Christians, as I pointed out to Spurlock, would argue that Christmas represents more than peace and goodwill and love. It represents the Answer to our dissatisfaction in the arrival of a person who becomes a savior. True satisfaction, the Christian argues, comes not simply from the message of Jesus Christ (which if it is only peace/love/equality is not unique to him), but through his person. The sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus—and through that alone—provides our redemption and ultimate happiness. Spurlock (who was incredibly nice and easy to talk to) responded by saying that yes, happiness can be found in Jesus Christ, but also in Allah or Buddha or whoever it might be. All of us are essentially about the same business: which is to try to make a change in the world.

It seems that the Christianity being invoked in What Would Jesus Buy?—and which is cooperating ecumenically for social justice and political causes (a good thing)—is increasingly being stripped of its claims of exclusivity. It is pretty clear in the scriptures that Jesus Christ was not of the mind that his way was just “one of many.” Rather, he said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). C.S. Lewis articulates the vital importance of Christ’s claims of exclusivity also in his famous “Lord, liar, or lunatic” reasoning in Mere Christianity:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.

In other words, Jesus Christ cannot merely be a teacher, or prophet, or rhetorical genius (all of which he is). His message of love/peace/equality is great, yes, but part of his message is also that “my way is the only way.” Thus, to accept him as a peace advocate or political revolutionary but reject his claims of divinity is to undermine his whole legacy and legitimacy.

Christians today are struggling with the exclusive nature of our faith. It’s the hardest thing for people to get past, for sure. We don’t want to come across as condemnatory of every other religion. We hate having to tell others that our faith necessarily excludes other faiths as valid alternatives. We want to work together with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc without judgment or tension. And we can.

It is possible to live and work amongst other faiths, because we do have some common ground and shared concerns for peace and justice and a better world. But ultimately we cannot equate ourselves, because the final solution, in Christianity’s view, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. Not just the general, social reform causes he championed, but Jesus Christ the man: God incarnate. He offers himself to all—no matter where you were born or what you have done—and in that way he is the most inclusive.