Birthplace or Pizza Taste?

Michael Metzger

Misguided objection
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.

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17 thoughts on “Birthplace or Pizza Taste?”

  1. Great article Mike. I pray all is well with you and your family. Could I share this article with the rest of the staff at Search.
    MAy the Lord continue to bless your ministry in the days ahead.
    Larry

  2. Mike,
    I really like your analysis today on truth vs taste. Somewhere deeper in the discussion must be the one who makes the foundation of lies look so appealing and thought numbing. It seems to me that this line of reasoning would work to break the log jam of comments when talking about many things which have the truth vs taste argument. I can see it especially in the abortion issue which couldn’t be lodged more in the truth except that people argue killing babies is not killing, just a choice they are making which sets up the taste argument. Your discussion with your friend certainly came with a set up for you to help him see the truth because he seemed to want it from you. Thanks for your inspiration today, I will try it out and see how it works for me.

  3. Thanks for drawing this “picture” for us! Great, practical application and easy to “duplicate” with those we love who have get confused over truth and tastes! You challenge our thinking – keep up the great work of faith!

  4. Mike,
    Menand’s book makes for some fascinating reading. I read it as part of my American Studies MA program at a secular university. When you realize that the founding professors of our most prestigious universities were all deeply influenced by Holme’s pragmatism and William’s relativism, and that they then went on to influence the brightest students of their generation–some of the deepest thinkers and policy makers in US History–it becomes all the more clear that we must continue to engage and reshape the conversation or these ideas become even more entrenched “givens” for each succeeding generation. Thanks for giving us these tools. May we use them winsomely and effectively.
    Nancy

  5. Brandon Michael

    I see the point being made but my “question” still lingers. If there is One God that made everything and everyone, which i dont think any religion (deity based)disputes, He is simply called by different names, right? It is the prophets or messagers that are different? Couldn’t it be possible that since there are different cultures and people and languages throughout the world, wouldn’t it make sense for an Almighty and Powerful God to be smart enough to send different messengers to reach them all? It seems to me that it is simply the Human (with his freewill) that has corrupted the original intent of religion.

  6. I’d say our clocks are off at TCI rather than Larry being up at 5:00am! As for Peggy, your question is a good one… but pull the lens back and notice that every single faith system cannot be essentially wrong. Consider the atheist and the Muslim. One says in all the universe there is no god, the other says there is. They can’t both be essentially wrong. If there is a god, one faith–since they all differ in their essential features–gets it essentially right.

  7. Interesting as far as it goes, Metz – but there’s one place I submit you get it ‘wrong’:

    Although I know you’re trying to keep this simple – and therefore accessible – you go astray when you equate values with preference, and thereby reduce everything to either fact (true or false) or preference (choice).

    C.S. Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man” does a great job of showing this important alternative ground, namely values. He shows that values are NOT mere preferences – or ‘feelings’.

    Moreover, William James does quite a wonderful job of demonstrating the “rationality” of faith – overcoming the truth/faith divide in a way that leaves Pascal and his “wager” far behind. (William James “The Will to Believe”)

    Therefore, I would not lump James together with Holmes in any discussion about religion and/or a so-called divide between “facts” and “values”. I believe Holmes remained an atheist; James apparently embraced a reasoned life of faith following a ‘conversion’ experience, although the known details of that faith are sketchy. . . . James’ would appear to set considerable store by religious “values” and, although he might see them as unique to the person, he would not reduce them to mere personal preferences or taste.

    The line of reaoning you follow seems more that of Francis Schaeffer, who advocated a return to simple true/false reasoning. (Schaeffer, “The God Who is There”). I don’t think that that is a workable thesis.

  8. Whoa. This is really loaded. “When you find the one true faith, it won’t be judgmental to say the others are wrong.”

    There are almost too many issues buried in that one comment alone.

    First, it certainly feels judgmental when somebody tells me me my faith is wrong.

    Second, how do we know our “one true faith”
    is right? Can you verify a faith-based conviction like you can a birthplace?

    Or, as you imply, is the one true faith a set of successive approximations–sort of like the number pi in geometry? We know it’s close to 3.14159 but it’s not exactly that…

    And if it’s something that we can’t know–but just get closer to–than any claims to truth are just approximations.

    In which case, all statements of faith ought to be made with some degree of modesty–certainly not with an assurance that someone else’s faith is wrong.

    If someone speaks in tongues, is that the one true faith? Is the Catholic faith nearer the truth than the Orthodox?

    If one says the Bible is inerrant, is that nearer the truth, even if it’s not ultimately helpful? (There are not extant copies of the “original” texts of the Bible; Jesus didn’t speak in Greek so how can we really know what he said; there are many variations in early texts; some stories contradict others, etc.)

    This argument of truth vs pizza may be clever; it’s just not very helpful.

  9. My life is definitely on the upswing if there is only one place where I get it wrong, as Marble suggests! Yes, her distinctions are quite good – I’m using “values” as the positivists used the term, not as Lewis did. So perhaps this helps. As for Bruce Jeffrey – a man I respect – my goal is not to be clever but to be clear. Perhaps this will help: if human death is essentially defined as the cessation of brain activity, then doctors can make a sound judgment as to when a person is dead. A patient might display what are called “accidental” features such as a dead limb or a number of other ailments, but they’re not essentially dead if the brain is functioning. Bruce, it sounds to me like you’re mixing up essential and accidental categories. All religions differ in the essentials from one another. This is not news for people who have studied the defining features versus secondary ones. Hence, if Buddhism is essentially right, every other faith is essentially wrong because in reality, the law of the excluded middle means only one can be ultimately right-even if we don’t know which one it is. It is like a birthplace. To ascertain where you were born, you’d rely on such things as historical documents and eyewitnesses. I believe this is how you’d go about it for determining the veracity of differing religions. Or at least start. You hit the nail on the head in your call for modesty-perhaps my comments were too strong. But your analogy of tongues is flawed. You’re mixing up the essential tenets that distinguish major religions-and make them mutually exclusive-from secondary expressions inside a particular faith.

  10. I like Bruce’s analogy using pi, but I have a couple of questions.

    Are Bruce’s comments right or wrong?

    I doubt he would have provided them if he thought they were “wrong”.

    😉

    I don’t mean to attack Bruce. I just want to illustrate that it appears people are often allowed and encouraged to “judge” a person’s “judgement” but not a person’s “faith”.

    Bruce asked “how do we know our “one true faith” is right?”

    I assume Bruce believes in his faith since he thinks it is right. Or does he believe in a faith that he thinks is wrong?

    Certainly Bruce has judged that his faith is correct. And if his faith contradicts another faith, then his faith and that other faith can’t both be true.

    And if both faiths are wrong why would he believe in any one or more of them in the first place?

    All people of all faiths judge, even if their judgement is “all faiths are right” or “all faiths are wrong” or “all faiths are right for that person” or whatever.

    Even the mere questioning of a judgment is itself loaded with judgement.

  11. Thanks, Mike. As I read your article I thought about how even many of those today that consider the Bible to be inerrant and the “final authority on all matters about which is speaks” are often unwilling to move beyond the variable opinion stage in the matter of creation. Most evangelicals confess that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, but then state that it is a matter of opinion whether He did so in six literal days or six million years. Well, both opinions can’t be right. If He did create in six days, then the other opinion is flat wrong and a lie.
    All to say, is that we all probably live more by opinion than we care to admit.

  12. Tim – I like some of what you say but I’d be careful about equating error with a lie. Error is often unintentional while the other is intentional. There are many fine Christians who embrace a theistic evolutionary model that a) might be right, and b) even if they are wrong, they’re not liars.

    Last, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander – you too could be wrong about what appears to be your advocacy for a literal six-day creation. I like how you close: we all probably live more by opinion than we care to admit.

  13. Tim Patterson

    I see what you are saying, Mike. However, we may be in error by believing a lie, perpetrated by someone else. It makes good sense to us, even in the light of what has been clearly said. Eve did this in the very beginning, did she not. Did she not error in that she believed a lie?
    Now if God said that He created all things in six days and rested on the seventh (upon which is the only basis for our week) and if we choose to believe what someone else says about the length of these days (including death before sin), no matter how sincere or “fine” they might be otherwise, are we any less guilty than Eve for believing a lie instead of the truth?
    Now, if the theistic evolutionist or progressive-creationist is right, then my goose is cooked!

  14. Mike, in your reply to me you said “every single faith system cannot be essentially wrong.” Why not? Certainly the atheist and the theist “can’t both be essentially wrong,” but, among theists, why does one HAVE to be essentially right? “If there is a god, one faith – since they all differ in their essential features – gets it essentially right” only follows if there is a faith for every POSSIBLE feature. If every possible base is covered by one religion or another, then, yes, one has to be right. But how do we know, with our limitations, that all the bases have been covered?

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