Christianity Today Exclusivism in a Pluralistic World

The two passages cited at the head of the chapter - one from Moses of the Bible, and the other from Krishna of the Bhagavadgita - underscore the fundamental difference that separates an exclusivist creed from an evolved pluralistic tradition. To understand the true dimensions of the crisis that the Church is faced with, and its irrational reaction to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, one must be prepared to examine the foundation of Christian faith - both its seeming fragility in the face of reason, and its increasing irrelevance in a pluralistic world. The same is true of Islam, but that is not our concern at this time.

In order to understand the inordinate fear of enquiry that is an inseparable part of the Church psyche, and the extraordinarily violent history that has been its harvest, it is necessary to recognize the fundamental fact that Christianity - like Islam, but unlike Hinduism or the religions of ancient Greece - is founded on a doctrine of exclusivism: it rests on the claim that 'truth' can exist only as it was revealed by God through His Only Begotten Son - Jesus Christ. Anything that is seen to be in conflict with this revealed 'truth' is automatically reviled as falsehood - and a pernicious doctrine to be suppressed. The same is true of Islam in which 'truth' has been revealed by God to his chosen apostle Muhammad the Prophet. It is held to be beyond reason or questioning.

In each of these exclusivist creeds, man can know God only through the chosen human medium. Enforcing the revealed truth on the flock as the only legitimate belief is the task for the clergy. This also demands unquestioning acceptance of Jesus as the Only Son of God, or, in the case of Islam, of Muhammad as the last and the greatest of Prophets. This is what makes both Christianity and Islam exclusivist - for they reject all other paths; they have tried also to suppress all dissent - by violent means when necessary.

This concept of exclusivism is most easily understood when contrasted with the pluralism of Hinduism and ancient Greek thought, neither of which acknowledges any human intermediary as having an exclusive claim over God's truth. Hinduism - like the religions of pagan Greece - grants primacy to personal experience and not any fixed doctrine as revealed to a chosen medium. No scripture or 'book' in Hinduism is the ultimate authority in the sense of the Bible in Christianity or the Qu'ran in Islam. Nor can any human claim to be in exclusive possession of truth as the chosen human intermediary. Without such claim, however, neither Christianity nor Islam can exist.

To the Hindu, on the other hand, any such revelation can be at best one of many paths; and this is the essence of pluralism. In Hinduism, every man, woman and child is free to explore their own path, and stands on the same footing as the most exalted personage. The same was true in ancient Greece; here, too, there was no place for a chosen human medium claiming exclusive access to God's truth. God has no favorites: remember Krishna's words: "All creatures great and small - I am equal to all; I hate none, nor have I any favorites."

For this reason, Hindu thinkers regard Christianity and Islam, each with its own founder claiming to be the chosen medium of God, as paurusheya or 'man originated'; Hinduism is a-paurusheya or 'not man originated'. This distinction will become clearer as we expand on it a little later on. It is a crucial concept that helps one understand the trauma of Christianity in the face of the revelations of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (paurusheya is derived from purusha - Sanskrit for man.)

The eminent Hindu thinker Ram Swarup has provided a succinct description of the doctrine of exclusivism - sometimes called 'Semitic exclusiveness' - that is an integral part of spiritualism through a chosen human medium. This is the doctrine upon which both Christianity and Islam are founded:29

29 Ram Swarup in his Introduction to Mohammad and the Rise of Islam by D.S. Margoliouth. 1985 (Reprint). New Delhi: Voice of India. p. xvi. The mird paragraph is from his Hinduism vis-a-vis Christianity and Islam. 1992, third revised edition. New Delhi: Voice of India, p. 13.

Ram Swamp has also pointed out that monotheism has been a convenient vehicle for the imposition theocracy by claiming to be the 'only prophet of the only God'. It is therefore no accident that the two

The spiritual equipage of Islam and Christianity is similar; their spiritual contents, both in quality and quantum, are about the same. The central piece of the two creeds is 'one true God' of masculine gender who makes himself known to his believers through an equally single, favored individual... [This 'favored individual' is the purusha of paurusheya religions.]

The whole prophetic spirituality whether found in the Bible or the Qu'ran, is mediumistic in essence. Here everything takes place through a proxy, through an intermediary. Here man knows God through a proxy; and probably God too knows man through the same proxy. [This 'medium' or proxy is again the purusha.]

In fact, to these religions, the chosen individual is not merely an intermediary, he is also a saviour, a mediator. He intercedes on behalf of his flock with God. He can even delegate his authority to his disciples, who, in turn, appoint their own officials who too have the power to "bind and loose." As a result, these religions tend to deal not with God but God-substitutes.

The authority for this spiritualism by proxy is found in the Old Testament, in the part known as Deuteronomy (18.18): "I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, ...and will put my word in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him."

This virtually defines exclusivism, which implies that the intermediary is the exclusive spokesman for God - and there can be none other. It also means that man cannot know God save through the intermediary; there is no direct access. This exclusion of direct knowledge of God automatically shuts out alternative paths of exploration; it is the very antithesis of pluralism and freedom of choice that our modem civilization - like that of ancient Greece - values so highly. There can be no freedom of choice without tolerance of pluralism. Exclusivism has the opposite goal of pluralism: enforcement of uniformity of conduct and belief - and even thought - by whatever means as seen fit by the enforcers. In practice, however, uniformity has proven unattainable. In a now famous passage Thomas Jefferson wrote:30

Millions of innocent men, women and children since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned - yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools the other half hypocrites.

It is not being suggested here that the average Christian man or woman is basically intolerant, which is far from true; Christian societies have themselves been among the worst victims of tyranny in the name of religion. What we are interested in are the underlying doctrines at the epistemological level. It is in the nature of every exclusivist doctrine to divide humanity into two mutually exclusive camps of believers and non-believers - of us against them. This can be seen quite clearly in the contrast offered by the following two statements: the first Biblical, the second great theocracies in history - Christianity and Islam - have claimed to be monotheistic. The history of monotheistic religions has been dominated by theocratic struggles, which is the inevitable consequence of exclusivism. As a result, no 'religious' peace can ever be expected in a society wedded to an exclusivist ideology. This does not augur well for Islamic societies. This chapter owes a great deal to Ram Swamp's insights into religious thought and feeling.

30 From his notes on Virginia, cited by Merrill Peterson in Atlantic Monthly, December 1994.

from the Bhagavadgita.

He that is not with me is against me. (Matthew 12.30)

Those who worship other Gods with devotion, worship me.

(Bhagavadgita 9.23)

The difference between exclusivism and pluralism could hardly be more clearly expressed. And this exclusivist division invariably leads to further subdivision, which does not stop at any predetermined point; there are no indivisibles as far as theology is concerned. This is clear from history and also from the current state of Islamic societies.

Conflicts instigated by believers are an inevitable consequence of this division. This has been the history of both Christianity and Islam. The aggressor has always invoked his exclusivist doctrine as justification for his aggression. It is helpful to recognize that exclusivism lies at the root of intolerance. This is what Jefferson and other rationalists of the Enlightenment saw and objected to. As just noted, Hindu thinkers have also seen this human-centered exclusivism that is part of both Christianity and Islam.

This notion of knowledge of God through an exclusive human agent as medium or sole authority is effectively captured by the aforementioned Sanskrit word paurusheya - or 'man-originated'. Hinduism, on the other hand, is a-paurusheya - or 'not-man-originated'. In such a system every man, woman and child is free to seek knowledge of god through his or her own efforts; it is not a path controlled by a human Prophet or a Son of God claiming exclusive possession of access to the divinity.

This difference bears repeating - for it is a little understood, yet highly significant, difference between the revealed creeds of Christianity and Islam, and the accommodation of pluralism that is part of Hinduism as it was in pagan Greece. Recognizing their exclusivist basis helps one understand the history of conflict that is so much a part of both Christianity and Islam. They cannot afford to let their followers explore unauthorised paths. Hence the need for a truth-monitoring thought police calling itself the 'clergy'.

In the pluralistic Hindu and Greek traditions, on the other hand, all knowledge of God that an individual acquires, is acquired directly, and not through any human intermediary acting as God's spokesman and gatekeeper. In these, it is the right of every man, woman and child to seek such knowledge through personal effort. Hinduism includes empirical methods like Yoga aimed at assisting an individual to realize the goal of learning about God. Greek mystics like Pythagoras also practiced meditation with the same goal in mind. All such knowledge - acquired directly from God without a human intermediary is clearly a-paurusheya - or 'not-man-originated' - for God alone is the source of that knowledge. Any scripture or human teacher is there only to guide and assist, not to enforce any belief: this is another key difference between exclusivism and pluralism.

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