By Alex Smith
We live in an increasingly diverse world of religion. Two hundred years ago a Christian in Boston would be unlikely to encounter a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. Today, that is hardly the case. In my immediate family, I count more atheists than Christians. I probably have more friends who are not Christian than are, and I know just as many Muslims as Christians. This is not unique. There are certainly people who have remained isolated from religious pluralism. However, in an increasingly globalized world, we are quickly coming face to face with peoples of other religions. We are loving — and falling in love — with people of different faiths.
Religious pluralism forces us to engage with a simple question: How should we, as Christians, think about and respond to other religions? One common response is that all religions are right, but simply employ different languages and symbol systems to explain the divine, that is beyond human language. Proponents of this approach paint an image of God as a mountain peak and the different religions as various paths up the mountain. This is a compelling image because it derives from human wisdom and experience.
Yet we immediately run into the tension between the nature of our human wisdom and the wisdom of Scripture. I will say more about human wisdom, but I must say up front that the mountain path is not the image presented in Scripture. Scripture presents the enormity of God’s love in real, not symbolic, deeds: in the history of Israel, and in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This love requires us to witness to our faith, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. I will return to this point after exploring the nature of wisdom.
The mountain path image is rooted in our human wisdom, based on reasoning from our experiences. For example, people we love sometimes describe religious experiences of God. Many of these people are not Christian. Many times, these experiences even share similarities with those of Christians. Given the apparent lack of an objective standard with which to evaluate Christian experiences of the divine against other experiences, we cannot say that any religion is more accurately aimed at the truth. But is this wisdom reliable?
Deriving human wisdom with our reasoning is necessary because we claim that God is not deceptive and has given us the gift of reason. God is not a mere mortal who lies but rather fulfills what God speaks (Num. 23:19). It is precisely because we presume God is trustworthy that we can trust our reason, itself a gift. By means of our reason, we interrogate the natural world, plumb the depths of the mind, and discover the mathematical laws that undergird our universe. Our reason creates our human wisdom. If we offhandedly dismiss this human wisdom, then we reject one of God’s precious gifts.
At the same time, we are wrong if we place a primacy on the wisdom arising from human reason. Our reason is limited because we are creatures — creatures so limited that we can never hope to number the clouds, let alone grasp all that is divine (Job 38). Our finitude cannot grasp God’s infinity. Concurrently, our reason is contaminated by sin. This contamination is especially concentrated in our knowledge of the divine (see Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief [Oxford University Press, 2000], pp. 213ff). Because of creaturely finitude and human sin, our human wisdom has been turned to foolishness (1 Cor. 1:20).
Given this foolishness of human wisdom, we turn to the revelation of the Word of God in Scripture. This is not an abandonment of human reason or wisdom; we rely on reason to read and understand Scripture. By engaging with God’s Word, our eyes are enlightened (Ps. 19:8), and we receive a lamp for our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105). Immersing ourselves in Scripture transforms us, as we see the glory of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18). Our immersion in Scripture does not remove our sins or help us escape our finitude, but it aligns our fraught human wisdom a little more closely with God’s wisdom.
We can bring our mountain path image to Scripture: Is Jesus simply a symbol pointing to the reality of the divine? In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is. Peter responds that Jesus is the Son of God (Matt. 16:16). The Nicene Creed that we recite every Sunday helps us make sense of this claim. Jesus is “Light of Light, very God of very God.” Jesus is not a symbol pointing at the divine. Jesus is the divine. Theologian Kathryn Tanner makes this clear when she writes that Christ “is not the highest point on a continuous grade … between God and the world” (Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity [Fortress Press, 2001], p. 7). The wisdom of God, as revealed in Scripture and affirmed in the Nicene Creed, is that God truly and really took on our flesh and walked among us.
In this radical claim of Jesus’ true divinity, wisdom reveals God’s radical love for us.
Out of love for us and to save us from our sin, God chose to be born as a vulnerable human baby in a manger. God chose to live a fully human life. God chose to suffer death in order to nail our sins on the cross (Col. 2:14). God chose to rise again, not permitting even death to separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:38-39). This is real because God is truly with us in Jesus. If Jesus were not actually God, if Jesus were simply a path among paths, a symbol pointing to the divine as our human wisdom might suppose, then God would not really be with us. God’s love for us would be abstract and not real.
Instead, God is truly with us, even in the most difficult of places. Theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes that “Jesus’ free and steadfast identification with the crucified bodies” is clear (Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God [Orbis, 2015], p. 177). What makes Douglas’s words so powerful is not that this is just a human identifying with the oppressed (there have been plenty of role models who have identified with the crucified class). Rather, this is the God of the universe emptied out on the cross, in solidarity with the oppressed. It is powerful if valiant heroes take the side of the oppressed, divest themselves of power and privilege, and die in solidarity with the downtrodden. However, these are not events that resound through history and usher in a new world.
Understanding Jesus’ true divinity has implications for how we, as Christians, live in a religiously pluralistic society. At the most basic level, this realization of Jesus’ true divinity should engender a strong sense of humility. This realization is not a result of our human wisdom, our intellectual prowess, our dedication, and hard work. At the same time, this realization of Jesus’ true divinity should fill us with a joy that demands to be shared. In the incarnation, in the crucifixion, and in the resurrection, the love of God has overflowed and caught us up in it. We are held in God’s arms in an intimate love that passes all understanding.
When the topic of religion comes up among my friends and family (most of whom are decidedly not Christian), I try to speak from this love of Christ that surpasses all understanding. I know that I speak awkwardly and hesitantly. Some of this awkwardness and hesitancy comes from the fact that, historically, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ has been intertwined with colonialism and violence. Some of the awkwardness and hesitancy comes from the fact that when you dig down, there is a belief that Jesus Christ lived and died and rose for you even if you don’t believe in him or don’t want him. I leave the work of conversion to the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3) and simply witness to what is true.
We share the good news of Jesus with great humility, recognizing that we received this gift not based on our merit but on the grace of God. We live out our life in such a way to share the good news of Jesus Christ in word and in deed. We hope that in time all may come to know the saving embrace of Jesus Christ, our Lord (1 Tim. 2:4, 1 Cor. 15:28). Often, rather than the eloquence of Saint Paul, our listeners hear our awkward and hesitant rendition of the truth. If we actually believe that Jesus is truly God, we can do no less.
Alex Smith is in the second year of his MDiv at Yale Divinity School. He occasionally shares his thoughts on his blog. This essay was part of The Living Church’s Student Essays in Christian Wisdom competition.