August 9, 2008

Another watershed issue that marked the final milestone for my Christian faith can be encapsulated in a statement you’ll find amazingly simple: What’s true is larger than what’s Christian.

As I timidly told my Christian friends about my new admission, the invariable response I got was, “Well of course.” I don’t know anyone who disagrees with this. Christian doctrine wasn’t meant to describe everything that mankind could know. Saint Augustine once said, “All truth is God’s truth.” But that seems more like planting an American flag on the moon. The US Government doesn’t own the solar system because Neil Armstrong brought a banner.

The problem comes for the Christian faith when you start considering where the boundaries of truth might lie and why we draw those lines where we do. Let’s start with just one example of what else might be within those bounds.

“Muslims are a problem,” I told my pastor-friend over a back-yard beer one evening. “They worship the God of Abraham and claim to have genuine religious experience, just like Christians do.”

“Yes…” He is a good and sympathetic friend.

“But almost no one wants to say that Christianity is the same religion as Islam. This leaves three possibilities as I see it: Either one of them is true, both of them are true, or neither of them is true.”

“Jesus makes some pretty exclusive claims to truth,” my friend reminds me. “‘No one comes to the Father but through me.’ That probably rules out orthodox Christians believing that both are true.”

“Good point.”

“The same is probably true for Muslims, but I know less about their doctrine.”

We both sip our beers and I start back in, “So if only one of them is true, we have a big problem in determining who’s religious experience is valid and who’s isn’t. Here again, we have three possibilities. Claims to genuine religious experience like answered prayer or healing could be either 1.) real encounters with the God, 2.) self-deception, 3.) deception by a third party like the devil.”

“That’s probably what I would say of Islam,” said the pastor, “that Mohammed was deceived by a demonic spirit. So even if he did believe he was hearing from ‘the God of Abraham,’ the fruits of his teaching demonstrate that the source must have been an evil spirit or the Devil twisting the original word of God that Abraham received.”

“Right!” I start to get a bit more excited. “But therein lies the problem. You have just as much reason to say that about Islam as Muslims have to say about Christianity—and that goes for all three of those options. Everyone loves to trumpet the Crusades or bombing abortion clinics as perfect examples of evils that result from Christian teachings. So a Muslim could look at Christianity and cite those things as proof that the Christian teachings are influenced by whatever the Muslim equivalent of the Devil is.”

“Except that Muslim doctrine supports violently attacking people who hold a different ideology.” He’s a sharp guy.

“But regardless of which doctrines one chooses to highlight, each practitioner, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu or something else, has equal justification for applying the ‘demonic’ label to the other religion. The same is true for self-deception. I know you’ve said that you are a Christian because you have a real relationship with the person of Jesus.”


“But what would you say about a person who claims to have a real relationship with Allah?”

“If not that some demonic power was involved, I probably would say that they had convinced themself of it and now have something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Exactly!” I rounded the last bend, “And they could say the same of you. So in the end, you each have the same justification for claiming that your experience is a real experience of God, or lack thereof. And this brings us back to the first issue: if neither side has exclusive claim to their religion being true, and each claim both religions can’t be true, the only option we are left with is that neither are true.”

Neither of us liked this conclusion. We each sat back in our chairs and took long sips of our beer. I finished mine and set it down on the picnic table as I started in one last time. “But there is another option we didn’t consider: Maybe both of them are partially true. And the parts of truth which each highlight cover different a part of the greater tapestry of truth. It’s like the back yard here is truth, the neighbors property line marking the limits of what’s true.

“Let’s say Christianity occupies the space of the cement patio we’re on,” I continue, “and Islam marks the area where your daughter’s blow-up swimming pool is. They might overlap just a little bit, but each area covers different ground in the back yard. They both reach just beyond the back yard, or outside of what’s true, but for the most part they’re each in different parts of the back yard. Neither is the whole story, and neither are entirely in the yard. But with each taken alone, we don’t cover as much ground.

“Are you saying the exclusive claims are what’s beyond the back yard boundaries?” the pastor asked. “Do you mean that if religions weren’t exclusive, they would both really be true?”

“This will probably be a conversation for another night, but what I mean is that spending our time drawing boundaries around the patio or the pool is missing the point. We have a whole yard to enjoy. I’m going for a swim.”