Osama & Me

by Ron Julian


Francis Schaeffer called the Christian gospel “true truth,” by which he meant that it is not just true for some individuals; it is true in fact—true whether anyone believes it or not. This was a valuable and needed corrective in the 1960s and 1970s when Schaeffer started writing. I thought the idea was important then, and I still do. Recently, however, I have been struck by how Schaeffer’s emphasis on absolute truth, which was unpopular in the twentieth century, is becoming genuinely hated in the twenty-first. I do not consider myself either an alarmist or a prophet, but I am afraid that we who actually believe in the truth of Christianity are becoming the enemy.

My thinking about this has been affected, as a lot of people’s thinking has been affected, by the events of September 11th. On that day religion thrust itself into America’s consciousness in a powerful way. We saw a group of religious believers who were willing to kill others—and to die themselves—because of the fervency of their belief. Their motives were undoubtedly as complex as any other human being’s, but in the popular imagination the twin towers were brought down by men who actually and literally believed that in doing so they would go to heaven and sleep with beautiful young virgins. That “actually and literally” bothers a lot of people. It is one thing to believe in some vague “God” out there; it is quite another to believe so strongly in the truth of a life after death that you are willing to die because of it.

After the events in New York, editorialists started writing more about the nature of religious belief in today’s world. A common theme emerged: the terrorists have shown us the danger of all who believe that their religion is “true” and that other religions are not. An editorial (The New York Times, November 27, 2001) by Thomas Friedman voiced this theme most strongly. Friedman said that World War II was a battle against “secular totalitarianism,” but that the current war is against “religious totalitarianism.” Friedman quoted with approval a rabbi who said:

All faiths that come out of the biblical tradition—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—have the tendency to believe that they have the exclusive truth…. The opposite of religious totalitarianism is an ideology of pluralism—an ideology that embraces religious diversity and the idea that my faith can be nurtured without claiming exclusive truth.

According to this rabbi, for me to nurture “my faith” is perfectly fine; that is, I can have my own religious beliefs and not bother anybody. It would be wrong, however, for me to claim that my beliefs are “exclusive truth”—what Schaeffer would have called “true truth.” The idea seems to be that it is all right to believe in God, and it is all right to have rituals that you believe bring you closer to God. Muslims can pray in their own way; Jews can pray in their own way; Christians can pray in their own way. What is not acceptable, according to this view, is actually to believe that God has revealed Himself, that God has said, “This is true and this is false.” It is OK for Christians to worship Jesus, but it is wrong of them to take seriously His claim to be Lord of all.

The war against “religious totalitarianism,” therefore, is being presented by the critics as a war against exclusivist religions of all stripes. What is at stake? Friedman is quite clear:

The future of the world may well be decided by how we fight this war. Can Islam, Christianity and Judaism know that God speaks Arabic on Fridays, Hebrew on Saturdays and Latin on Sundays, and that he welcomes different human beings approaching him through their own history, out of their language and cultural heritage?

Equally clear is who the good guys and bad guys are:

…some [Jews and Christians] have gone back to their sacred texts to reinterpret their traditions to embrace modernity and pluralism, and to create space for secularism and alternative faiths. Others—Christian and Jewish fundamentalists—have rejected this notion, and that is what the battle is about within their faiths.

Friedman’s thesis seems to be that—unlike Muslims—Christians and Jews are fortunate to have so many theological liberals, people who do not insist on the absolute truth of their religious doctrines. Unfortunately, some reactionary elements (like me) actually believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming to judge the living and the dead, and that our eternal destiny depends on how we respond to Him. To Friedman, the future of the world depends on the triumph of the liberals over the conservatives in all the world’s major religions; only then will we be free of the threat that such “fanatics” represent. Friedman is not alone in saying such things. Recently I have found similar sentiments expressed in the strangest places—in movie reviews and even in the bland, vaguely inspirational pages of Parade magazine.

Strangely enough, in some ways I agree with critics like Friedman. Many religious conservatives of all kinds are morally repulsive people. To be a person who believes in the concept of “true truth” is no guarantee of virtue. The Pharisees were the religious conservatives of their day, but Jesus did not commend them for it. In reality there are two different approaches to “the truth.” One way, the right way, is to humble oneself before the truth. When I see that I have been wrong, I surrender to the truth and live in the light of it. The other approach to the truth, however, is as wrong as it is popular. Self-righteous people are attracted to the idea that they have “the truth,” because that gives them a tool by which they can elevate themselves over the rabble, the infidels, the sinners. Unfortunately, some who are most vocal in defending “the truth” have not themselves truly bowed the knee to it. The terrorists, for instance, strike many of us as being presumptuous, arrogant, and self-serving in their religious beliefs; I do not think we are wrong to think so. Many Christian conservatives, however, are also presumptuous, arrogant, and self-serving. Why should we be surprised? Religion has always been a tempting alternative for those who want to think highly of themselves, and Christianity is no exception.

The scary thing about the post-September 11th critique of religion is its insistence that believing that you are right is itself the problem, that all those who think their religious beliefs to be true are dangerous and morally suspect. Of course, this criticism is very selectively restricted to the area of religion. I have heard and read Thomas Friedman for years, and I have never heard him say in any editorial, “The people with whom I disagree are just as right as I am.” Not for a moment would he think himself arrogant or a danger to world peace because he argues for the truth of his political beliefs. No, the danger is when religious people start thinking that their beliefs are true and others are false.

Even here, the critics are partly right. Intellectual humility is an important virtue. We all ought to recognize about ourselves that we can be wrong—worse, we can be stubbornly wrong. Being willing to acknowledge the possibility of error and listening to another person’s perspective is the hallmark of a person who cares about the truth. Such humility does not have to indicate a relativistic attitude toward truth; such humility can arise from the belief that the truth is real and we need to be ruthless with ourselves in the pursuit of it. We Christians have a reputation for lacking humility in the way we believe, and that criticism is sometimes justified.

The modern critics, however, are calling for more than just intellectual humility. To them, conservative Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike are dangerous because they take the claims of their religion seriously. Such conservatives recognize that the claims of their religions are mutually incompatible; if Mohamed is right, then Jews and Christians are wrong; if Jesus is right, then Muslims and Jews are wrong. I am different than Osama Bin Laden in many ways, but we are alike in this: we both believe that our religious ideas are true and that those ideas have real implications for everyone in the world. To the modern critics, this brands both Bin Laden and me as dangerous, and the destiny of the world depends on suppressing the ideas of people like us.

I do not think I am overreacting to or misunderstanding the current suspicion of religious conservatives. The concept of “fanatic” and “fundamentalist” is being applied to all who see their religious beliefs as “true truth.” The actions of radical Muslim terrorists have become a catalyst for this critique, and I do not think it is going to go away. How should conservative Christians respond? Two things suggest themselves to me. First of all, we should seek to be humble people of intellectual integrity, so that the charge of fanaticism will not stick to us easily. I do not for a minute mean that we should downplay our commitment to the truth of the gospel. But we should try to be people who listen to reason, who admit when we do not know the answers, and who do not use our belief that we are right as a tool to elevate ourselves over others. Secondly, as much as we can, with our friends and neighbors, we should defend the idea that Christianity is truly true and fight against the idea that such beliefs are inherently arrogant or intolerant. Our culture is developing a truly weird notion of tolerance. Gone are the days of “I don’t agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Today we have instead, “I don’t agree with what you say, so you should be quiet because I am offended by your intolerance.” I do not know whether we are going to make many converts from that strange and incoherent perspective, but we need to try.

Making the case for the importance of “true truth” in religious questions will not be easy. The rise of religious terrorists presents too tempting an opportunity for some critics. Those critics have never liked the uncompromising truth claims of any religion, especially Christianity, and the opportunity to tar Christians and terrorists with the same brush seems to be too tempting to pass up. Our battles for the truth of the gospel, however, are not about how successful we are in winning arguments. Ultimately it is important for ourselves that we care about the truth and care about other people in defending the truth. I make no claims to be perfect in my understanding, and I will admit to many deficiencies, but I will not admit that my adherence to the plain, unvarnished truth of the Christian gospel is an act of religious intolerance. Humbly, thoughtfully, and with a willingness to listen, we need to be making that case to the world around us. They see our belief in the truth of the gospel as a danger to the world; we see their suspicion of it as a danger to their souls.

Copyright April 2002 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Ron Julian