In his book When Religion Becomes Evil, author Charles Kimball lists “absolute truth claims” as just the first of five warning signs of corrupt religion. In about 40 hours of radio interviews in which he discussed the book last year, Kimball says he remembers only one instance where the discussion got beyond absolute truth claims.
The question of whether anyone can say with certainty that his or her religion is true and others are false “obviously hits a nerve with people,” Kimball, an ordained Baptist minister, said at a recent seminar for ministerial leaders sponsored by the Baptist Center for Ethics with a grant from the Louisville Institute.
Since events of Sept. 11, 2001, Kimball, who teaches comparative religions and chairs the religion department at Wake Forest University, said he believes there is more openness to engage in difficult questions, such as how to Christians identify themselves amid religious diversity, how to engage in dialogue and how to work together across religious lines in ways that haven’t been done before.
“I see a real shift taking place,” Kimball said, “where a number of churches even to the right of center are opening up to these kinds of initiatives.”
On the flipside, however, “We’ve also seen a real digging in of the heels on the religious right,” illustrated by controversial anti-Islamic remarks by Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson and former Southern Baptist Convention president Jerry Vines.
Kimball’s interest in interfaith matters predates his academic career. Growing up with a Jewish grandfather “who was the most wonderful person I knew,” Kimball said it wasn’t until about the third grade that he realized “that not everyone had as optimistic a view of Judaism.”
His family’s mixed religious background also caused him to realize that had he been born into another part of the family, there’s a 90 percent chance he would be Jewish instead of Christian.
“Where is God in all of this?” he asked. “Did I just happen to be lucky enough to be born in the right religion, or is there something else going on here?”
Despite the warning in his book, Kimball said he personally believes there is such a thing as absolute truth. “I’m not rejecting the notion of absolute truth,” he said, “but I also believe very strongly it rests with God and not with us.”
Kimball also said he isn’t calling for “a kind of relativism” or watering down of religious teachings, but he does believe there is a place in religious discussion for “a measure of humility” and the recognition the “none of us has God in his pocket.”
Christians, for example, would do well to remember the Apostle Paul’s words that “we see through a glass darkly” and hold the gospel treasure “in earthen vessels.”
“We need a good deal more humility as we appropriate our truth claims,” he said, “especially when those become justification for violent acts directed against others.”
Kimball acknowledged there are passages in the New Testament “that appear on the surface to exclusivist,” such as John 14:6 (“I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me”) and Acts 4:12 (“Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved”).
The problem, he said, is that some Christians want to read such passages literally, while ignoring other verses that are more inclusive.
“The reality is we all read sacred texts selectively,” Kimball said.
In fact, he said he is amazed he hasn’t been “hammered” for a particular line in his book: “I say rather boldly that nobody takes the Bible literally. There is no way you can do it. People who say every word of the Bible is literally true are either disingenuous or ignorant or both.”
Jesus’ “I am the way” statement, for example, is just one in a series of “I am” statements in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus says he is the Bread of Life, Living Water, Light of the World, Vine and Good Shepherd.
Some people recognize all those statements as metaphors, but then want to use a different standard when it comes to John 14:6. “Why is it when we come to that one we claim that we know exactly what that means?” he said. “What does it mean ‘I am the way’?”
Many Christians say the passage means people who don’t believe in Jesus are lost. “That isn’t what it says,” Kimball said.
“The danger of focusing on a verse here and a verse there and building a whole theology is something we have to be very careful about,” he advised.
Kimball said it is possible to read the Bible conservatively, while putting a “softer edge” on exclusivity claims in ways that “still allow God to be God.”
He describes in his book an experience in 1971 when he was working as a summer youth minister at a Southern Baptist church in Tulsa, Okla. During a discussion at the pastor’s home, the aggressively evangelistic preacher surprised all present when he said that based on biblical passages pointing to God’s activity beyond the walls of the church that he was “95 percent sure” that explicit faith in Christ is not the only way to salvation.
The preacher indicated he would continue to preach and teach as he had for 40 years, however, because of his knowledge of what Christ had done for him and his 5 percent of uncertainty about the fate of those who never hear the gospel.
“Whether the Christian faith is the only way or a primary way to salvation, I am still responsible for proclaiming what God has done in Christ,” the preacher said.
Kimball urged Baptists to recognize that they “can’t coerce or strong arm” people into believing Christianity. He emphasized principles of religious freedom and individual responsibility when relating to people of other faiths.
Conversations with non-Christians ought to “pass the Golden Rule test,” he said. “Love God, and love your neighbor, and treat others as you wish to be treated.”
In his book, Kimball describes the three broad Christian responses to pluralism as exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. The exclusivist position rests on the conviction that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, and has been the most dominant among Christians through the centuries.
Inclusivism affirms both God’s saving presence in all religious traditions and the fullest revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He cites as an example of that view the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II.
Pluralism sees Christianity as just one of many paths to salvation and views all faiths as equally valid. Diana Eck of Harvard Divinity School, who directs the Pluralism Project, a decade-long study to help Americans deal with religious diversity, identifies herself as a “Christian pluralist.”
Kimball said he is “probably more of a Christian pluralist than anything else,” but added his conviction “is anything but wishy-washy.” As an expert on Islam who has traveled many times to the Middle East, Kimball said he has “spent my life working in war zones and refugee camps.”
Kimball said he is puzzled by people who feel the need to defend their own faith by attacking the beliefs of others. “I think a lot of the lashing out and drawing lines has more to do with insecurity than anything else,” he said. “They want to have their views validated.”
Kimball admitted he doubts he is going to change the minds of folks like Jerry Falwell, who has made controversial comments critical of Islam and its founder Muhammad.
“But I’m darn sure not going to sit back and say I guess I’ll just go and play golf,” he said. “What he [Falwell] is doing, I think, has to be challenged, especially when someone like that sets himself up to be a spokesman for Christianity.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.