This is both an important question, and the working title of a book that a bunch of us are hoping to get Bill Long, a recovered evangelical Christian, to write. Bill understands the fundamentalist mindset much better than I do, so I’m looking forward to reading his thoughts on this subject. Here are a few of my own, stimulated by watching a few minutes of a recent Larry King show.
King was interviewing Rick Warren, a minister and author of “The Purpose Driven Life.” This is a best-seller that Warren’s web site says will help “readers understand God’s incredible plan for their lives. Warren enables them to see the big picture of what life is all about and begin to live the life God created them to live.” Well, that’s fine. I’ve got no problem with a Christian advising other Christians about how to best live a godly life.
What bothered me was Warren’s answer to a question about whether Jews or other non-Christians could meet God after death. “No, Larry, I’m afraid not,” I recall Warren saying. “In the Bible Jesus clearly says, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
King followed up with, “What about if a Jew has lived a good life, and a Christian has lived a bad life?” He got the same answer from Warren: if you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re not going to heaven.
Well, that’s not fine. I was disappointed that King merely frowned and went on to have Warren answer phone calls from viewers. I don’t think this is the way an intelligent, rational, open-minded person should talk to a fundamentalist. I realize that King didn’t want to antagonize Warren and his many Christian fans, but the truth should trump ratings.
This is how I see the situation: if a pre-schooler says to me, “There are fairies living in our garden; they make the flowers bloom,” I’d smile and say “How wonderful!” The child is young, a belief in fairies at that age is almost certainly harmless, and he or she will grow out of the fantasy before long.
However, if an adult said the same thing to me and didn’t seem to be joking, I’d start worrying about the person’s mental health. I’d first want to make sure that they weren’t putting me on, and then would let them know that their ideas are nonsensical. “There’s no evidence that fairies are real, you know. And scientists don’t need fairies to explain how flowers blossom.”
Fundamentalists like Warren need to be treated in the same fashion if they put forth unprovable religious propositions as, well, the gospel truth. I wouldn’t mind if Warren had said, “I believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, but I’m not absolutely sure of this.” Or, “I hope that….” That would be like him saying, “It sure would be nice if fairies existed.” Yes, it would. They’d make gardens so much more interesting.
The problem is, there’s absolutely no proof of fairies, just as there is absolutely no proof that Jesus Saves. Fundamentalists should be reminded of this at every opportunity for their own good and, more importantly, for the good of those who are marginalized by their closed-minded, irrational, faith-based view of the world.
A private belief shouldn’t be open to public challenge, just as I don’t mind if you step on your own toes. However, if you purposely step on my toes, that’s a different matter. Now I have the right to tell you, “Get off my foot.”
Fundamentalists, especially those of the Christian and Muslim faiths, have a bad habit of wanting to force other people to live in accord with their beliefs. Another bad habit is making dogmatic statements unsupported by objective facts, and then feeling offended when someone challenges their dogma. Bad habits like these should be discouraged, not encouraged.
A classics scholar, A.H. Armstrong, has some apt advice about how to talk to fundamentalists:
When claims to possess an exclusive revelation of God or to speak his word are made by human beings (and it is always human beings who make them), they must be examined particularly fiercely and hypercritically for the honor of God, to avoid the blasphemy and sacrilege of deifying a human opinion.
Or, to put it less ferociously, the Hellenic (and, as it seems to me, still proper) answer to “Thus saith the Lord” is “Does he?,” asked in a distinctly skeptical tone, followed by a courteous but drastic “testing to destruction” of the claims and credentials of the person or persons making this enormous statement.
So the next time someone says to me, “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life,” I’ll reply: “Oh, really? How do you know? What makes you think that statement is true? I’m all ears, all highly skeptical ears.”