The Chinese political leader Mao Zedong was born in Shaoshan, China. I prefer veggie pizza. What’s the connection? The next time someone tells you they dislike Christianity because it says other faiths are wrong, ask them whether we’re talking about birthplace or pizza taste. It’ll reframe the conversation to help you overcome a misguided objection.
This isn’t a theoretical exercise. I’m enjoying a conversation with a new friend who last week over lunch asked me: “If Christianity is right then other faiths are wrong. It’s my only hurdle to believing. How can you say others are wrong?” Albert Einstein said you could not solve a problem in the mindset that created it. My friend’s mindset indicates a mix-up between birthplace and pizza taste. The only way to reframe his assumption was to draw a picture on a piece of paper at the table.
I drew a horizontal line and called it, “The Plane of Human Opinion.” Above the line I drew four stick figures: Buddhist, Atheist, Muslim, and Christian. Then I suggested there are three conclusions you can draw. First, if religion is merely opinion, one faith cannot say to the other, “You’re wrong.” Yes, he said. Second, they can’t all be right. Every faith system—in it’s essence—excludes the other. I said for example if the Hindu is right, then every other faith is wrong. Hmmm… OK. So far so good, he said.
My third conclusion made him choke—only one faith system can be right. Since all faiths essentially contradict the others, they’re all mutually exclusive (so why is Christianity the only faith attacked as exclusive?). For the true Muslim, there is only Allah—no Yahweh, Krishna, or atheism. If Islam is primarily true, all the others are essentially false. Gag. Why did this observation make him choke? Does it gag you too? The reason is we’ve swallowed—hook, line, and sinker—an idea that religion is a matter of taste, not truth.
Friends don’t let friends choke, so I performed a mental Heimlich maneuver. I jokingly said he was born in Nashville, Tennessee (he had earlier mentioned that his birthplace was a small town in Kentucky). No, he replied; I was wrong. “I’m sorry,” I apologized, “you were born in Austin, Texas.” Again, he told me I was wrong. He got the point and hopefully coughed up what was stuck in his craw. Now here’s the funny part… he was being intolerant yet neither one of us thought that was bad.
That’s because birthplace is a matter of truth. Mao was born in Shaoshan. If you cited any other city in the world you’d be wrong. Period. The same goes for birthdays. Try getting the date wrong on your wife’s birthday and then calling her intolerant when she says you screwed up. Houston, we have a problem. So why don’t the same rules apply to religion? When did it become a matter of taste?
In the 1800s a wide array of people including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and William James changed the way Americans imagine religion. They began by making “an absolute distinction between facts and values,” writes Harvard professor Louis Menand. Facts were the province of science and the “real” world while religion only dealt with values, like pizza preferences. “If faith satisfied an emotional need, there was nothing more to be said about it, except that no one had the right to impose his or her religion on anyone else.”1 It became wrong to judge any religion as being wrong.
This is why my friend faces one hurdle. He’ll never clear it until he decides whether faith is about birthplace or pizza taste. If we’re dealing with truth, only one religion gets it essentially right. The operative phrase here is essentially right.
If Christianity is essentially right, then every other religion is essentially wrong yet not completely false. Say what? Most religions promote civility, so these faiths are not wrong on this point. The chief role of religion however was to provide a sense of life’s overarching meaning. The best religion—the one that is essentially right—is that which best explains human experience. This makes all the wrong ones deficient more than demonic. They’re inadequate more than they are immoral. Yet these gaps can actually point a person toward the one faith that gets it essentially right, C. S. Lewis said.
I couldn’t believe that nine-hundred and ninety-nine religions were completely false and the remaining one true. In reality, Christianity is primarily the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, but also the fulfillment of what was vaguely hinted at in all the religions at their best. What was vaguely seen in them all comes into focus in Christianity.2
You might not agree with Lewis’s conclusion but you have to admit that most people are fuzzy about faith because they treat it like a preference in pizza. Faith comes into sharper focus when you treat it like truth. When you find the one true faith, it won’t be judgmental to say the others are wrong—any more than it is judgmental for loving parents to be intolerant of kids putting their hands on a hot stove. Parents, you see, treat their kids as real people with roots going back to real birthplaces. Not pizza preferences.
1 Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York, NY: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001), p. 212.
2 C. S. Lewis, God In The Dock, ed. Walter Hooper. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 54.