"Forgive me for being blunt," I said in prefacing my question, "but isn't it grossly arrogant for Christians to claim Jesus is the one and only way to God? Why do Christians think they're justified in asserting that they're right and that everybody else in the world is wrong?"
While Zacharias' accent and conservative business attire-a starched white shirt and muted tie-gave him an air of formality, he was invariably enthusiastic, warm, and engaging in his answers.
"Lee, I hear that question so much, especially in the East," he said, his voice animated and his eyes looking sincere and concerned. "The first thing I do is try to deal with the misinformation that is inherent in it."
"Misinformation?" I asked. "Like what?"
"First," he said, "it's important to understand that Christianity is not the only religion that claims exclusivity. For instance, Muslims radically claim exclusivity-not just theologically, but also linguistically. Muslims believe that the sole, sufficient, and consummate miracle of Islam is the Koran. They say, however, it's only recognizable in Arabic, and that any translation desacralizes it. And it's not just a basic understanding of Arabic that's required, but a sophisticated knowledge of the language.
"As for Buddhism, it was born when Gautama Buddha rejected two fundamental assertions of Hinduism the ultimate authority of the Vedas, which are their scriptures, and the caste system. Hinduism itself is absolutely uncompromising on two or three issues: the law of karma, which is the law of moral cause and effect, so that every birth is a rebirth that makes recompense for the previous life; the authority of the Vedas; and reincarnation."
I interrupted. "But I've heard Hindus say quite nobly that Hinduism is a very tolerant faith," I said, thinking of statements like the one made by Swami Vivekenanda near the beginning of this chapter.
He smiled. "Whenever you hear that statement, don't take it at face value," he said. "What it really means is that Hinduism allows you to practice your religion so long as it buys into their notion of truth, which is syncretistic," he said. Syncretism is the attempt to blend together different or even opposing beliefs.
"As for Sikhism," he continued, "it came as a challenge to both Hinduism and Buddhism. Then there are the atheists-they reject the viewpoints of those who believe in God. And even Baha'ism, which claims to be a cosmic embrace of all religions, ends up excluding the exclusivists! Therefore, the statement that Christians are arrogant by claiming exclusivity ignores the reality that every other major religion does as well. So when people talk of arrogance, this cannot be a logical attack they are making."
I started to formulate my next question, but Zacharias anticipated where it was headed and jumped in to complete my sentence.
"You believe that all truth-" I began.
"Is, by definition, exclusive," he said. "Yes, yes, I do. If truth does not exclude, then no assertion of a truth claim is being made; it's just an opinion that is being stated. Any time you make a truth claim, you mean something contrary to it is false. Truth excludes its opposite."
"There are those who deny that," I observed.
"Yes, but think about this: to deny the exclusive nature of truth is to make a truth claim, and is that person then not arrogant too? That's the boomerang effect that the condemner often doesn't pause to consider. The clear implications of Jesus saying he's the way, the truth, and the life are that, first, truth is absolute, and second, truth is knowable. His claim of exclusivity means categorically that anything that contradicts what he says is by definition false."
"It's one thing for Christians to believe that," I said. "It's another thing to communicate it without sounding smug or superior. But Christians often come off that way."
Zacharias sighed. It was a charge he had heard all too often. "Yes, if truth is not undergirded by love, it makes the possessor of that truth obnoxious and the truth repulsive," he said. "Having been raised in India and having all Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Sikh friends growing up, I can appreciate some of their criticisms of Christians. Christianity's history has some explaining to do with its methodology. Violence, antagonism, and hostility are contrary to the love of Christ. One cannot communicate the love of Christ in non-loving terms.
"In India we have a proverb that says once you cut off a person's nose, there's no point in giving him a rose to smell," he continued. "And if a Christian's arrogance turns off somebody, that person won't be receptive to the Christian message. Mahatma Gandhi said, 'I like their Christ, I don't like their Christians.' Friedrich Nietzshe said, 'I will believe in the Redeemer when the Christian looks a little more redeemed.' Their points need to be taken.
"However," he added, "it is possible to lovingly claim exclusive truth, just as a scientist can very gently say, 'This is the second law of thermodynamics' without adding, 'Now, can we vote on how many of us can cooperate with it or not?"'
"So the criticism of Christians is often valid?"
"Yes, sometimes we have run afoul of cultural sensitivities. At the same time, however, Eastern religions have a lot of soul-searching to do in this regard today. Clannish and political conflicts aside, I know of no Christianized country where your life is in danger because you are from another faith. But today there are many countries in the world-such as Pakistan, Saudia Arabia, and Iran-where to become a follower of Christ is to put your life and your family at risk."
I had read enough newspaper accounts in recent years to know that was accurate, including in Zacharias' native land, where several Christians have been killed by militant Hindus in recent years. But sometimes it's not the manner in which the Christians try to spread their faith that's offensive. Sometimes people are simply reacting to the message itself.
"Even the one whose life was most perfectly lived ended up on a cross," Zacharias noted. "Resistance to truth can be so strong that it can still engender violence and hate even when the person has done absolutely nothing wrong.
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