Author: Phillip Jensen
The gospel of Jesus Christ makes truth claims. The gospel claims to be true and to speak the truth. That is, the gospel claims to be either true or false, able to be contradicted, objective and absolute. The gospel does not claim to be a matter of opinion or a set of attractive ideas. It claims to talk about what has happened, what is the case and what will happen in the future.
Therefore, Christians are concerned about truth, fidelity and sincerity. Christians are concerned about truth for God is to be worshipped in spirit and truth. Christians are to be concerned about truth for they claim to be living on the basis of truth. In Hebrews the word for truth and the word for faithfulness are not radically different as in English. That which is true is that which is trustworthy, reliable, faithful and dependable. Basing our lives on the truth means that we are concerned for fidelity. Faith is the response to truth revealed. As people committed to truth, relying upon the facts, we are concerned with sincerity. Hypocrisy is always a misrepresentation of the truth, a deceitfulness and double dealing. Christian faith must be sincere if it is a genuine response to the truth.
“Isn’t Sincerity Sufficient?”
There is a statement often made in our community which runs “it doesn’t matter what you believe provided you are sincere”. It is a ridiculous idea for sincerely believing that you will float down to the earth when you throw yourself off from Sydney Tower. However, it is an attempt to sidetrack the claims of the gospel out of the category of true/false and into the category of opinion. Rather than facing up to the claims and examining them for what they are, investigating the evidence to see if the claims can be substantiated, a non-Christian mind challenges the right to have such claims. The idea that by Christ alone people can be saved is deeply offensive to those who do not have Jesus. It is the exclusivism, the absoluteness, that makes Jesus the stumbling block of offence. If we can move the point of contention away from the objective facts and on to the subjective response then the non-Christian is able to continue in his rebellion against God. It allows the non-Christian to avoid saying that Christianity is false, for which he has very little basis, and so he can appear as a humble inquirer without any fixed and dogmatic views of his own. Yet at the same time it enables him to continue belief in other gods or in trying to be a good person provided he has an element of sincerity or integrity.
Consequently this question is asked in many different forms. “What about those who have never heard the gospel?” “What about all the other religions?” “Aren’t all good people who sincerely try good enough for God?” “Aren’t Christians hypocrites?”. At first glance these questions seem to be very different. They certainly do have different emphases. However, they are all ways of expressing the idea that Christianity is a matter of opinion rather than a matter of fact. They all move us out of the category of true/false and into the category of take it if you like it.
The challenge of sincerity is itself a real question for Christians and a hypocritical question for non-Christians. It is a real question for Christians because we believe in sincerity of faith. It is a nonsense for non-Christians to ask about it as there is no reason for sincerity in matters of opinion that are not based on some sense of truth. If there is no absolute truth why do I have to be sincere in what I believe? As Christians we feel the weight of the argument that we need to have a sincere faith to perceive that if the non-Christian objection is correct then we do not need a sincere faith.
“The Use and Abuse of Tolerance”
What the non-Christian questioner is playing upon is the double idea of tolerance and sincerity. Both sincerity and tolerance are Christian virtues but both are also widely misunderstood.
Tolerance is a marvelous invention. It is the acceptance of people with whom we disagree. The ability to live and relate to people whose views are different to our own enables a society of diversity to hold together. Tolerance is the oil of social functioning that continues to enable the working parts to co-exist without friction.
Tolerance has come to our society over a period of several centuries with great pain and difficulty and not a few martyrs. Many societies are quite intolerant. Islam doesn’t allow its people to change their mind and move out of obedience to the Koran. The laws of social and religious intolerance are enacted in most cultures and nations of our world. However, within the Christian west since the Reformation religious toleration and pluralism have become accepted norms. Often this has been won by the Atheist and/or Agnostic rather than by the religious leaders. Frequently, it is threatened by groups such as philosophical zealots who wish to uphold racism, sexism, scientology or the unification church of Mr Moon or the Jehovah’s Witnesses who find our society has very limited toleration.
The strengths of tolerance lie in the functions of social interaction. It enables people to get along with each other. It leaves open the inquiry of truth. It is something that Christians should continue to defend and support as we are secure in the knowledge of the truth and do not need to censure and repress alternative viewpoints.
However, toleration has particular limits. Not limits caused by the fear of being found erroneous but the limits of a philosophy of life. Tolerance is not a philosophy of life it is a method of operation. People wish to turn it into a philosophy of life not realizing that it ceases to be tolerance and becomes relativism. Tolerance is bearing with things, opinions, practices or people that you disagree with. You think they are wrong but you put up with them and take no action against them. Tolerance requires something to be wrong. You do tolerate what is right. Relativism believes every point of view is equally valid. In the area of tolerance we may say you are right or I am right but both of us cannot be right, however, we will continue to live with each other. But in relativism we say, you are right and I am right, even though our points of view completely contradict each other. Take for example the Flat Earth Society. The man of tolerance says that the Flat Earth Society is wrong but they have their freedom to preach their particular viewpoint and partake of the normal responsibility and privileges of being a member of our society. The relativist on the other hand says that the Flat Earth Society is right and the opponents of the Flat Earth Society are also right. To the relativist the world is flat for one and round for another. Each viewpoint is equally valid; they are all just perceptions of reality, none of them being deemed wrong.
Relativism moves us into a world that is weird and ridiculous. In relativism there is no truth, no factors and no objectivity. If you think the door is in the middle of the wall then it is in the middle of the wall for you; whereas if I think it is at the corner it is at the corner for me. The absurdity of people walking into walls trying to get out through imaginary doors basically shows the stupidity of relativism. Relativists differentiate between true/false issues and matters of opinion. Doors in walls are true/false religion though is seen as a ‘matter of opinion’. It is not a matter of true/false flat earth/round earth objectivity category but a matter of opinion, ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder’ category. It is deemed to be intolerant to say that Hindus are wrong. Yet such a judgement is a confusion of tolerance with relativism. It is only intolerant to say Hindus are wrong when you are then going to persecute them for being wrong. If you say they are wrong but yet entitled to live and practice Hinduism you are perfectly tolerant. Once you start saying the Hindu philosophy is right for Hindus and the Christian philosophy is right for Christians you will have moved to relativism.
Relativists like to argue about God for it is hard to come to objective facts about him. Thus Christians need to argue about Jesus in history. For Jesus either did live or he did not live. He was either Jewish or he was not Jewish. He either did die on the cross or he did not die on the cross, he either did rise from the dead or he did not rise from the dead. We are dealing here not with matters of opinion but with objectivities.
Some will argue that Jesus may be objective but our knowledge of him is subjective. Thus the relativism is not about Jesus but about our opinions of Jesus. This manoeuvre will not escape the general criticism of relativism. It is like saying that the door has a particular place in the wall which is objective and true but all our knowledge of the door is subjective and just a matter of opinion. Thus we still cannot know where the door is and my opinion of where it is is just as valid as your opinion as to where it is. Such a viewpoint holds question on the very possibility of human knowledge.
“How to Answer”
There are three things to understand about answering this question. The first is to understand the nature of the question. Frequently, we hear the question of other religions and seek to set out an answer about all the other religions and why they are wrong. This has taken us down a complete side track. For the questioner is not motivationally interested in the other religions but only interested in shifting off the possibility of an objective true/false answer to Christianity. It is better to ignore the question as posed and go to the meaning of the question, that is, the place of objective truth.
The second point about answering is to go to the historical Jesus. If Jesus did die and rise again then Islam is wrong. Therefore let us not spend time studying Islam but investigating whether it is true that Jesus died and rose again. This line of answer takes you back to the gospel itself. It also keeps you in the objectives that can be examined.
The third line in your answer is to question why, in a totally relativistic world, sincerity is of any value. More practically you can push the relativists to the absurdity of their position with the accepting of the earth being flat for some, round for others. If you pour a glass of milk over a relativist’s head you can almost argue with them that it was only a matter of their opinion that it has happened and it is only a matter of opinion that it was an unpleasant thing to do. You cannot be sure that it has happened and if it did it would seem very enjoyable for you. However, having taken them down the track of absurdity you still have to get back to the gospel. It is worth pointing out that people go to such absurdity because of their irrational rebellion against God and rejection of Jesus. However, you then need to make the truth claims about Jesus.
A paper originally developed by Phillip Jensen for the School of Christian Ministry (SOCM), part of Campus Bible Study (CBS) at UNSW where Phillip was chaplain 1975–2005.