Tomorrow night I’m guest speaking at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Bradley University. The leader of this group asked me to talk a little about ‘how not to be that guy’ as a Christian student on an increasingly tolerant/pluralistic/everyone’s-the-same-so-let’s-all-just-get-along campus. He asked me specifically to talk about what distinguishes Christianity as unique amongst all of the religions on campus.
Here are my thoughts:
Beginning with Jesus’ claim to be ‘the way, the truth, and the life’, how are we to understand truth in a pluralistic context? Is truth only found in Christianity? How do we know truth at all? Here are some Scriptures related to Jesus as ‘the truth’:
“He [the Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
“From his fullness we have received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
So, we can firmly say that Jesus is the source if not simply the truth. Everything true stems from or is representative of Jesus.
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
So, we can also say that through Jesus God is planning to and is actually reconciling all things – humans, creation, everything – to himself. Or, we could say that Jesus is the means by which God is making ‘all things new’.
If Jesus was the driving force of all creation, if he is the light of all mankind, if he is the way to God and Life, if he is truth, if God is reconciling the world through him, and if God is the God of all creation and if there is truth in all cultures and/or religions, then what should we do when we encounter truth, wherever it is found?
Take, for example, the Muslim belief that ‘there is no god but God’, perhaps the truest statement about God that I have ever encountered. Do we dismiss this statement because it is Islamic or some sort of deception? Is it not true? Do we say, ‘See, Muslims believe things the way that we do’? Do we agree with this statement as is, or does it need some modification to fit within our Christian framework?
Christians typically respond to truth in three different ways: We can hide from it, hunker down, insulate, and protect ourselves from outsiders. We can diminish our own faith or the uniqueness of our beliefs because truth happens to be found in Islam. Or, we can celebrate it and illuminate it as being evidence of God’s desire to ‘reconcile the world’ through Jesus, the truth.
We are called to witness to and participate in God’s work of reconciling all humankind to its creator. When we encounter truth, we should trust it (because truth is truth no matter where we encounter it). We have the unique position as followers of Jesus (the truth) to see truth in other cultures/religions as proof that God is indeed working in the world to call all people back to fellowship with him through Jesus, the truth. The fact that there is truth outside of Christianity proves what we just read in the Scriptures. Truth in Islam, Buddhism, Atheism, Deism, Agnosticism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, or any other -ism, is not proof that Christianity is not (solely) true. Rather, truth in these places is evidence that what Paul supposes in 2 Corinthians and Colossians is actually fully true – namely, that God has planted his truth (Jesus) everywhere in order to call all men back to himself.
Either God is intimately involved in all culture, all religion, or he is not. That’s the big question, really. As (resident heretic) Rob Bell stated (pre-heresy), “So the issue isn’t so much taking Jesus to people who don’t have him, but going to a place and pointing out to the people there the creative, life-giving God who is already present in their midst. It is searching for the things they have already affirmed as real and beautiful and true and then telling them who you believe is the source of all that” (Bell, Velvet Elvis).
This is precisely what we see Paul doing in Acts 17 at the Areopagus, and in the book of Titus. He sees something that is indeed true in a pagan culture, and he points out that ‘this is about that’ (to use a phrase Rob Bell is fond of using). He doesn’t condemn it, or crumble in his faith because of it. No, for Paul, the fact of the idol to the ‘unknown god’ is proof that Jesus (truth) is indeed in the midst of the Athenians…they just don’t know it yet.
So, how do we do this today? One of my favorite truths in the Qur’an is from the Opening, also known as the bismi-allah, or the prayer that all Muslims pray when they pray (sometimes up to 17 times per day). Here is what it says:
Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds
Merciful to all, Compassionate to each!
Lord of the Day of Judgment.
You we worship, and upon You we call for help
Guide us to the straight path,
The path of those upon whom Your grace abounds
Not those upon whom anger falls, nor those who are lost.” ~ Qur’an 1
This prayer is literally laced with truth (Jesus). It’s difficult to miss it, actually. Imagine – Muslims are praying up to 17 times per day that God will ‘guide them to the straight path’. Muslims are praying to find Jesus (the way) without knowing it. For me, this is a prime example of how truth (Jesus) has been planted in all cultures/religions by means of God to draw all men unto himself, not wanting anyone to perish.
As our culture increasingly becomes more like the culture of the early church, where the Christians are a minority amongst other religious and secular voices, I believe we have a duty to know and understand what Paul and Peter were calling the early church to be and to do. We are to live in a way that begs the question: “Why do you have so much hope?” When that question is asked, we have an open door to illuminate Jesus (truth) wherever and whenever we find it, as participants in God’s mission to draw all humankind unto himself.