The topics discussed in the Explore God series so far have shown us that the question of whether life has a purpose depends on the answer to the question of whether or not there is a God, and if there is a God, then we must wrestle with the reason pain and suffering exists. Last week’s message and blog post noted that the Christian faith explains that suffering exists for a time now because sin has come into the world, corrupting people (causing us to make harmful choices) and the world (so that disease and disaster exist). Christ’s death and resurrection show that pain and suffering are real, but they have an expiration date. We are not alone in our suffering and can rejoice knowing that Christ is victorious over them!
However, is the Christian answer the only answer to the problem of suffering? Does believing it is the answer too narrow? The fourth question in the Explore God series is, “Is Christianity Too Narrow?” (I was able to share many of my thoughts on this topic in the message this week, so in some ways this blog post is the “Director’s Cut” or “Deleted Scenes” you find on a DVD that didn’t make it in the message).
Defining the Actual Problem and Finding the Right Solution
A decade ago I taught a Sunday School class for adults at Naperville Presbyterian Church called “What’s the Difference?” that sought to compare what Christians believe with what other religions believe. When you examine different religions, you discover they teach very different things. They might hold some things in common, but there are differences — not just on minor issues, but really at the heart of what they teach. I tried to show how different religions have fundamentally different ways of explaining the universe, understanding what the problem in the world is, describing the cure for the problem, and what “healing” would look like. This perspective towards religions was sparked, in part, by this quote from a philosopher named Keith E. Yandell: “A religion proposes a diagnosis (an account of what it takes the basic problem facing the human beings to be) and a cure (a way of permanently and desirably solving that problem): one basic problem shared by every religious person and one fundamental solution that, however adapted to different cultures and cases, is essentially the same across the board. Religions differ insofar as their diagnoses and cures differ. A particular religion is true if its diagnosis is correct and its cure is efficacious” (Philosophy of Religion: A Contemporary Introduction, 17).
I like that statement because it reminds us that we are not dealing with abstract ideas but rather looking at reality; just as a doctor looks at our physical body, so religion thinks about our spiritual condition (which actually has ramifications for our physical body). We don’t say a doctor’s diagnosis or prescription is too narrow; we might seek a second opinion if we are not confident that he or she correctly understands the situation or is applying appropriate judgment, but eventually we will act upon their advice or we will come up with our own theory. Our recovery from illness is not based on how much we believe we are correct in our diagnosis, but on the connection between the diagnosis and reality. If we believe there is more to this world than just what we see, then shouldn’t we similarly search for answers that explain and help our spiritual condition?
Flexibility and Freedom in Christianity
Another reason I think people believe Christianity is too narrow is that they see it as limiting or restricting a person’s freedom. For example, Dan Kimball notes that “People see the church as a place that would wreck personal freedom, and as a foreign and unnecessary thing” (They Like Jesus But Not the Church, 75). While we often think that freedom is the ability to do whatever we want, none of us can do whatever we want — I can’t fly or play in the NFL! As Tim Keller says, “Freedom, then, is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us” (The Reason for God, 49). We all choose to limit our freedom as we make choices to do some things which prevents us from doing other things. That is the nature of choices. It seems that the enemy to freedom is not rules or boundaries, but things that force us to “become” something that we were not made to be.
Some still might say that Christianity is too narrow because it forces everyone to be exactly the same. While some missionaries have sought to make people in a new culture look like the culture from which they have come, contemporary missionaries are recognizing that the gospel transcends all cultures. You actually see this idea that Christian communities will look a little different based on their location in the New Testament itself. There are some differences in the churches to which letters were written, and Acts 15 and the book of Revelation show us that God’s vision is for unity, but not necessarily uniformity. As Keller points out, Christians are united in a “core of teachings….to which all forms of Christianity are committed. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of freedom in how these absolutes are expressed and take form within a particular culture. For example, the Bible directs Christians to unite in acts of musical praise, but it doesn’t prescribe the matter, rhythm, level of emotional expressiveness, or instrumentation — all this is left to be culturally expressed in a variety of ways” (Keller, The Reason for God, 45). Therefore, Christianity does not eliminate freedom, but rather allows for it in its proper place.
Discussing the Problems and Solutions with Real People
I suspect part of the reason we struggle with whether viewing Christianity (or any belief system) as being too narrow is because it disagrees with the views of others, and we have a hard time separating people from ideas. However, ideas and people are not the same. I have learned through the years that just because someone calls himself/herself Hindu, Muslim, or Christian does not mean they will exactly espouse the views as you will find in their religion’s teachings or writings. Never assume that you know what a person believes unless you have directly discovered it through conversation with them, as they are a person and not a belief system. In addition, we can disagree with ideas while still giving people respect and honor; in fact, the Christian worldview requires us to do so, as every person (even the one who treats you the worse) is made in the image of God. We compare and debate ideas, but we love the people who hold them. We are called to treat people as people, but to also seek to engage them in pursuit of the truth. The truth is always specific, affirming some things, and by default, rejecting others. Some might call that narrow, but I have a tough time saying it is too narrow as that is how truth works in all spheres.
Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.