What's Wrong With Apologetics: Pluralistic Courtesy (Part 9)

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Religious scholars of various allegiances have challenged this idea that all religions are saying the same thing.

Who would have thought that a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu and a Christian would have bonded over their mutual frustration with a liberal Protestant lecture? On second thought, it should have been obvious. In a lecture, a well-meaning, progressive Oxford theology professor explained that he had discovered something that could bring peace to the whole world: we’re all after the same thing. All religions are essentially about the golden rule, a mystical experience of the ineffable (i.e. impossible to put into words reality), and sociological need for relationships. Maybe he said something else, but after twenty minutes, my mind wandered to where I could get a good curry. So did some fellow grad students, who—if one is allowed to make pre-judgments based on clear religious garb—committed Abrahamic religionists who were also juggling three emotions: outrage, laughter, and perplexity. We went to an Indian joint and, albeit cordially, shared our genuine approaches to the world. What was our frustration at this lecture? We each realized that this older, white-haired, European professor was trying to rewrite our religious narratives. He wanted them all to converge on one terminus: a generic, therapeutic, deistic ethic.

Fortunately, religious scholars of various allegiances have challenged this idea that all religions are saying the same thing. Stephen Prothero is the best at explaining this, especially in his book God is Not One. Similar ideas can be found in religion scholars like Ninian Smart and Jonathan Z. Smith who oppose essentialism; the idea that there is a single essence to religion.

The implications of all this are that, first, we need not be in the business of defending religion in general, and second, that it isn’t divisive to emphasize the unique ideas of Christianity. Indeed, any apologetic that focuses on making Christianity conform to a comfortable, generic religiosity is both a waste of time and a misunderstanding of the real offense of Christianity: the scandal of particularity.

The scandal of particularity is the idea that God chose to reconcile the world to himself, not through universal reason, but through a particular dude two thousand years ago. He happened to be a he. He happened to be a Jew. He happened to have a family that didn’t always get what he was up to. And that guy, that guy who smelled like a pre-Axe-body-spray human, is called God by approximately one third of the people on this globe.

Far from being something that hinders my faith, this particularity is perhaps my favorite aspect of Christian theology. Who but the creator of the universe could conceive of something so surprising? If I were God, I would probably try to come up with a spectacular way to communicate with embodied, finite, sentient creatures. I’d come to them as a shiny blue alien, 150 feet tall. I’d be handsome yet intimidating. I’d smell better than Axe body spray. I’d have a Bible one page long. The top of the page would have a picture of a sunset. The bottom would be a picture of a baby monkey, cuddling a kitten. The middle would offer four and only four verses:

  1. Given all this beauty, how can you be so sad and cruel to your fellow creatures?
  2. When you are cruel, it makes me angry.
  3. Please don’t be douchebags or I’ll exterminate you from the universe.
  4. If the monkey and kitten didn’t do the trick, go check out the rivers and wilderness of Idaho, they are magnificent. I made all of that.

Fortunately for all of us, I’m not the Almighty. Babies and kittens and Idaho streams are great and all. And of course it’s important not to be a jerk. But the deep kick of the Gospel is richer than all that. God in the flesh! God as us: suffering, getting his feet washed by a wayward woman’s hair and tears. This story is beyond our wildest hopes, and stranger than our strangest dreams.

The story is strange, yes, and also incredible. It is incredible, as in it is hard to believe. It really is hard to actually put cosmic hope in some dude who was—as C.S. Lewis noted—either a nut, a con-artist, or the source of all existence. Why should we need to meet the universal, infinite God in such a local, humble, and peculiar way?

I’m not here to answer why God did it this way. I have my suspicions (which I’ll keep to myself). But I suggest you—the reader, right now—ask whether you are willing to go down this scandalously particular path. In doing so, you may or may not understand what it means for this particular dude to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the whole world. You might worry that to follow this Christ will be offensive to those who aren’t Christians. But what has that got to do with the truth of the matter?

Apologetics is upsetting to some because it seeks to defend the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth was God in the flesh, and not as just one of many bodhisattvas or divine avatars. But that is no reason to give up on the project. Rather, it is a lead that any detective would covet. Chase down the evidence for this suspected God-man. I’m not sure what other suspects we got these days. Worry about the theological question of what to do about other religions and other religious believers later. For now, ask whether or not the whole universe hinges on one crux: a hill outside of Jerusalem, two millennia ago. If it turns out to be legit, what else might this truth unlock? And if there is some potential unlocking going on, why stay shackled to despair? I believe that all manner of things shall be well. I’ve heard a rumor that this is the real deal. I think it is the real deal. At least take a peek into the door that—whatever we find inside—apologetics will swing open.