Today I went home to Holland to celebrate a belated Father’s Day with my Dad and family. My brother and I drove down early and went to the church that we were raised in Central Wesleyan Church. The sermon was delivered by Brad Gray and focused on John 14:2 where Jesus says “In my Father’s house are many mansions…” That was the King James translation. The NIV version says “My Father’s house has many rooms…”.
This difference in translations came from the connotation of “mansion” at the time of the translation; then a mansion merely referred to a dwelling. That discussion pushed us into what was really meant by that statement: the Hebrew “bet av” literally means the house of my father. In those days everyone lived as one large family for up to three generations and it was the father’s responsibility to take care of the family and pay any ransoms necessary to get people back. This leads into Jesus saying: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me” in John 14:6. Essentially Jesus was the eldest son in the family and was sent to pay the ransom to bring everyone back to their Father.
Brad then started talking about absolute truth and the importance of realizing that all religions are not the same. He mentioned that in our morally relativistic society many people think that the Gods of all religions are “pretty much the same” and that they say “pretty much the same thing”. Ostensibly Christianity is the absolute truth and all other religions are not.
Here’s where I start to question what he said. First let’s dissect absolute truth: individuals who claim that absolute truth doesn’t exist get trapped in a catch-22. If the statement “absolute truth doesn’t exist” is correct then what they’re essentially claiming is that absolutely there is no absolute truth. This clearly invalidates the logic and so we must conclude that absolute truth does indeed exist. I’ve heard some say that absolute truth is in fact a logical necessity.
Second: if absolute truth exists, then how are we to know once we’ve happened upon it? In the sermon the leap was made to conclude Jesus was the only way to heaven and it was accepted as absolute truth. When that was said there were many in the congregation that said things like “Amen”, “Hallelujah”, and “That’s right!”.
It seems to me that most people believe in the same religion as their parents. Or in a larger abstraction their country. In Thailand 93.5% of the population is Buddhist. But if you live in Morocco then there’s a 99% chance that you’re a Muslim. In the United States there’s a bit more diversity: 51.3% are Protestant, 23.9% are Roman Catholic, and the rest are a combination of Mormon, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, other Christian, unspecified, unaffiliated, or none. *
So it would appear that the geography of your birth is a fairly accurate predictor of your religion. How then can one claim that Christianity is absolutely true and the others are not? When I hear people making remarks like in this service or listening to individuals clap really loud to champion something they believe in but likely haven’t done much study into other religions I tend to view this as more herd behavior than a true intellectual understanding. Granted pastors probably (hopefully) have a lot more knowledge behind what they’re saying, but that knowledge usually stays on their side of their pulpit.
I stopped going to Central’s youth group because they seemed to be much more about the fun in creating a community of young people that happened to be Christians versus actually taking an intellectually rigorous look at Christianity and where it came from and what it means. Pearcey actually talks about this revival taking the place of deep study in here book (listed below). It seems like many of the adults in the churches that I’ve gone to seem to have skipped over this understanding and leapt straight to believing they’re right and everyone else is wrong. A fairly convenient place to land. Granted I’m a fairly odd individual and am usually an outlier in any large group. That’s especially so when looking at my peer group when I was younger. But for me, I was never happy with just being told to believe something without understanding the underlying principles. Sadly this meant I really stopped by nonexistent biblical education. I’m still very interested in epistemology, but if people aren’t willing to engage in a rigorous discussion about the epistemological origins of a religion that makes it difficult to even begin a conversation.
How then do we go from understanding absolute truth exists to claiming that one religion is absolutely true and the others are not? In science and mathematics there is an established procedure for doing just that. Mathematics has proofs which establish theorems; science has experiments which utilize the scientific method to develop scientific principles. The equation 1 + 1 = 2 is absolutely true. Likewise the scientific principle of gravity is absolute truth. Now the real beauty comes next: IF new evidence presents itself to the contrary, a re-evaluation occurs to decide how to integrate this new evidence. Often times with religion dogma outweighs this Bayseian updating. Outside of these two areas though, how do we go about finding absolute truth?
A common answer to that question seems to be that here’s where one’s belief or faith comes in. But by itself faith cannot be the basis for this argument: if you have a Buddhist, a Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian they all believe that their religion is absolutely true then three of the four must be wrong (unless of course, one of those religions doesn’t believe in absolute truth…I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never studied anything other than Christianity). Furthermore if Christians do believe that Jesus is the only way to redemption then that also means that they believe that anyone who hasn’t accepted Jesus Christ as their savior is damned to Hell for eternity. If a Christian really truly believes that then why wouldn’t those people spend every waking moment trying to convert people? Christians, in general, seem pretty content to stick together, not associate with anyone that’s different than their group, and go about their lives. This just doesn’t sit right with me.
I enjoy reading and do a fair bit of it; in my experience though it seems like most intellectually rigorous material written about religion is ironically authored by non Christians such as Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion . The one really interesting exception is a deeply intellectual book written by a Christian author Nancy Pearcey hat I have read called Total Truth. It almost seems like a comparative religion course as instead of simply accepting something as true, she actually attempts to prove those truths by evaluating all the available evidence.
The one other really interesting thing that he talked about was that the Greek and Roman gods were basically the same except that they had different names. When we look at ancient mythology it seems strikingly apparent to us that they attributed things that were lacking a scientific understanding to the gods of their times. Crossing the ocean? Pray to the Poseidon for calm seas. Going to war? Pray to Athena for victory. Won the war and want to relax and celebrate? Then Dionysus is the god for you. But today the God of Christianity is held to be the one true god and all others are false. This again doesn’t quite fit correctly. Why were all of those other gods thrown out of the picture but “our” god is the correct one?
To sum it up, I do believe in absolute truth. But I also believe that it is very very difficult to discover what that absolute truth is. I don’t have an answer, but I sure do have questions. I wish more people had questions instead of blindly accepting what others claim to be true.
* Facts and Figure about the religious makeup of the countries mentioned comes from the CIA Factbook