Is it arrogant to believe Christians are right about God and everyone else is wrong?
Nathan Rinne adroitly addressed that question from a student on his blog recently, and it got me thinking. As common as the question is these days, it’s always seemed odd to me. How could it be arrogant simply to believe that you know the truth? I believe that I’m sitting at my desk as I write this, and if anyone were to tell me otherwise, I’d believe them quite wrong. Surely such a claim of truth doesn’t make me or anyone else arrogant. If I likewise believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate who literally rose from the dead 2000 years ago, then it’s hard to fathom why it should be considered arrogant merely to claim that I am correct and that contrary claims are false. There’s nothing arrogant about evidence.
And yet, so many people do think it’s arrogant. In circumstances like that, when the senseless seems so sensible to so many, I find it useful to pause and consider why. In this case, the question itself betrays something about our view of religion in general–and Christianity in particular. If we can better understand the faulty reasoning, then we can give better answers. So what are some of the ways one could mentally categorize religion in order for that kind of accusation of arrogance to make sense?
If I were to assert that chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream and that everyone who disagrees with me is incorrect, then I’d certainly be arrogant. After all, taste is highly subjective–rooted as it is in feelings and personal perception. Why should one person’s subjectivity be superior to another’s? And that is, indeed, how many people in the West view religion: If you prefer crosses, steeples, and the Apostle’s Creed over crescents, minarets, and the Shahada, is that not largely a matter of personal taste? If that’s your view of religion, then it really does make sense to condemn a person who looks down religions other than his own.
But that’s not what Christianity–or any religion–is (which is why you never see religion springing up around things like chocolate ice cream.) Religion is about worship in the sense that there is something we recognize as objectively having more worth than anything else–a god that transcends matters of personal taste. The Christian faith doesn’t lift high the Cross because we like it’s clean lines & simple design, but because God truly died upon one to pay for the sins of the world. We know this not because we prefer the idea, but because it’s a matter of historical record that the same Jesus who died also rose from the dead.
Why, then, is this mistake so common? Well, many secular Westerners mistake religion as a preference precisely because mere preference is their own rationale for rejecting Christianity. That’s a sad reality about our civilization, to be sure. Nevertheless, it’s ultimately a matter of projecting their own disdain onto others. They fail to understand religion in general and so ignorantly assume it’s a matter of preference for its adherents as well.
If I were to assert that America is the only real nation in the world and that anyone who belongs to a different nation is wrong or deficient, then I’d certainly be arrogant. One can argue about the pro’s and con’s of different cultures, of course, but to make a blanket statement that every nation other than one’s own is an utter failure is a bigotry that we’re particularly sensitive to post-WW2. We tend to forget this in the postmodern secular West, but religion is an almost ubiquitous part of cultural heritage. If that’s fundamentally how you see religion, then once again, it does make sense to think that condemning another religion as false is a kind of cultural self-aggrandizement.
But this isn’t a particularly accurate view of religion either. While cultural heritage usually embraces religious particulars to varying extents, a great many religions are much broader than that–they allege realities that transcend culture. Even tribal religions like Hinduism or Judaism–which are so tied to their respective heritages that outsiders can’t wholly convert to them–still espouse ideas and practices that outsiders can and have adopted.
How much more is this the case with a religion like Christianity which is explicitly universal with its claims of a singular God who died for the sins of the entire world and its directive to make disciples of all nations? Even the Jewish culture to whom the law and prophets were given is explicitly transcended as Christ died for Jew and Gentile alike. Christianity makes some absolutely audacious claims and commands which really do exclude many elements of different cultural heritages that run contrary to its teachings. Because of that audacity, it’s only natural that people would be offended when their own sacred cows are being gored.
But audacity is not the same thing as arrogance. Different cultures have made different assertions about the Sun, but the same Sun shines on them all. Accordingly, any assertion about it makes a claim to objective truth. And so, inasmuch as any religious claim is matters of objective truth, those claims are not arrogant–any more than it inherently arrogant to dispute any culturally entrenched falsehood on factual grounds. It can be done arrogantly, but those who see it as arrogant per se are simply wrong.
If I were to assert that my diet and exercise plan is the only one that leads to health and that everyone who doesn’t follow it is unhealthy, then I’d certainly be arrogant. After all, health is a complex and multifaceted concept. While it’s not subjective to the degree that preference is–you can at least identify discrete goals and measure the effects of different plans–the wide variety of different health goals along with natural biological variance among different groups of humans precludes a single “right” answer on diet & exercise. There is, as they say, more than one way to skin a cat, so insisting that your way is the only effective way would indeed be arrogant.
But whenever the subject of utility is broached, one must ask what it’s useful for. Here, answers vary widely by religion. People all over the world want things like feelings of inner peace, healthy crops, moral rectitude, or other forms of worldly prosperity or piety coram mundo, and they look to their gods to provide them. And this includes Christians. We regularly petition God for many such things. Inasmuch as we proclaim Christianity as the best or only path to such things, I’m afraid we are indeed being arrogant.
But it is not on any matter of worldly prosperity that Christianity claims exclusivity. On the contrary, Christian teachings are quite clear that God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. They’re also clear that God’s Law is written on the heart of those who never heard the Law and the prophets. It is precisely on the matter of coming to the Father–of eternal salvation and righteousness coram deo–that Jesus Christ claims to be the only way.
But this returns us to a matter of basic objective fact. If you want to know the details of life after death, then who better to tell you than somebody who physically, historically died and who physically, historically returned to life three days later? That’s orders of magnitude better than intuition born from meditation, voices heard in caves, seances, legends, near-death experiences, and the like. As Paul indicates in Romans, everyone knows about God to some degree. But Christians alone know God because we alone know Jesus Christ–who made this absolutely ridiculous claim to be God but nevertheless demonstrated the clear truth of that claim.
So what, then, can we learn from this? Understanding these reasons for perceiving arrogance gives us a rhetorical edge when we proclaim Christianity. We can’t blithely assume that just because we know our religion is first and foremost a matter of objective truth, that other people will automatically approach it in the same way. We need to be aware that not everyone categorizes religion as Christians do. We also need to be aware that not all Christians categorize it as they should. Accordingly, When we preach and teach, we need to make it clear what category we’re talking about–and which ones we aren’t.
In so doing, we can avoid some pretty common mistakes. Sadly, we are plagued by false teachers of prosperity Gospels, but we can make sure that we explicitly put the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation front & center when we proclaim Christ. When we preach the Law, we can make sure we avoid conflating God’s Law with American cultural norms. (For example, we can avoid preaching the “law” to Muslims by condemning them for being insufficiently feminist or democratic–I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen Conservative Christians engaged in that kind of idiocy.) And most importantly, we can make sure that we always point to the brute facts of history that anchor Christianity in the realm of objective truth: We preach the crucified and risen Christ.
A historical Resurrection changes everything about religion. As we continue to claim that our religion is true and all others are false, let’s make sure our audience knows that that is what we’re talking about.