Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Monotheism is Not Enough
This past Monday, I had the honor of joining a multi-faith panel at the University of Maryland. My role was to describe for students in attendance what it means to be a follower of Jesus in a multi-faith world. I was joined by a dear Muslim friend of mine, and a Jewish interfaith scholar and student of religion.
In our current global environment of civil unrest, ethnic strife and religious misunderstanding, there is no better time for conversations like this that allow us to understand and be understood. Sometimes I'm asked "why would you join Jews and Muslims in a meeting like this where they will talk about their faith?" The answer is quite simple. Followers of Jesus aren't just called to make disciples. We are also commanded to work toward environments that promote peace and mutual understanding. (Romans 12:18). Over the past several years, I've met many friends who subscribe to Jewish and Muslim faiths who also want to work toward that environment. If I am to obey Jesus, I have no choice but to say "yes."
Furthermore, our faiths have much in common when it comes to the practical concerns of life. During our meeting we spoke frequently about what it means to stand for each other's religious freedom, love each other, and share in unconditional friendship. And our common concern in these areas is fueled by our common belief in a personal God who created people in His image and likeness, and who desires to bring infinite justice to the world He created.
At the same time, we have to be fully candid with each other about our differences. It was this issue that on Monday night made me the odd man on stage, and I'm completely OK with that. As an Evangelical, I believe Jesus when He said He was the only path to God. A new believing student approached me after our meeting Monday night and said it this way when describing his own conversion: "I discovered in reading the Bible that Jesus had an awfully elevated view of Himself, and the question I had to answer was, is He right?" He is right. For Christians who seriously follow Jesus, He doesn't leave us the option of viewing Him as one of a number of other options.
This doesn't mean that God's common grace doesn't provide the means for non-Christians to be wonderful people who accomplish great things, nor does it deny that many who claim to be "Christian" have done unspeakable things to their fellow man. So we can and should work together on a lot of issues where we have commonality, but our differences are vast and irreconcilable. I've said many times that I don't believe in "tolerance," because my friends in other faiths deserve more than that. They deserve my unconditional friendship. Well, genuine, true friends are honest with each other when they differ--especially when their differences have such eternal consequences. But occasionally I get a question along the lines of "Why would you even mention your differences in a meeting like this that is supposed to focus on friendship? Why not just talk about where we agree? Don't we all ultimately worship the same God? Why not just see our monotheism as sufficient to hold us together?"
My answer to that question is also very simple. Monotheism is not enough.
To be sure, James' exhortation above praises belief in only one God. Its certainly the only true starting point for understanding truth and living in freedom. "You believe that God is one; you do well," James tells us. No doubt this Jewish apostle from the tribe of Judah has in mind the Ten Commandments, along with the context in which they were given. God through Moses had just delivered His people out of slavery in Egypt, brought them out into the desert, parted the Red Sea to let them cross, and then drowned their captors. And here they were in the Sinai wilderness, free for the first time in 400 years.
Problem is, freedom is pretty useless if you don't know how to live as a free person. And no one among this group had ever seen freedom, or had known anyone who had lived in freedom. They now have to be taught by a gracious God to live in the freedom they have just been granted, and to enable that freedom, God gives Moses the 10 Commandments. And the first sets for us the starting point for living free:
"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." -Exodus 20:1-2
The Israelites had been surrounded for four centuries by people who worshipped multiple gods. The more gods you have, the more you have to serve, the more offerings you have to give, the harder you have to work--and at the end of the day, you are merely working to please the air. Polytheism is the clearest example of what it looks like to live in spiritual slavery. Freedom on the other hand, begins with realizing that there is one, and only one God. Therefore, the highest duty of human beings is to know that God, and worship Him.
But to know Him in the sense that James describes is not necessarily to truly worship Him. James continues with this warning: "The devils also believe, and tremble." Satan himself is a monotheist. He too believes in the existence of only one God, and he knows from his own experience as a defeated vasal the magnitude and glory of his own Creator. But that knowledge by itself doesn't bring Satan to worship. It doesn't redeem him. It gives him no hope. Because again, monotheism is not enough.
This text is of course couched within a large section where the Apostle deals with the relationship between saving faith and works of righteousness. Faith without works, James tells us, is dead. It is fictitious. It isn't the sort of faith that saves. 1500 years after James, John Calvin would comment on these words with the following phrase; "Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone!" But what kind of faith is it that James contends produces the good works of which he speaks? The answer is in verse 23; "and the Scripture was fulfilled that says "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to Him as righteousness.'"
In other words, Abraham didn't just believe in one God. He believed Him earnestly and perceived him rightly, and this faith is what produced the works which James says vindicated his relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
The event I participated in on Monday night was a great example of this. We all believed in one God, but we perceive Him in very different ways. He is either a Trinity or He is not. Jesus is either God or He is not. You don't have to believe in the Trinity, or the deity of Jesus to love people and do some great things in the service of humanity. My Jewish and Muslim friends prove that. But being in a right relationship with God that secures your eternity is a quite different matter. And where our perceptions of God are concerned, eternal souls hang in the balance.
This is why we develop the maturity to maintain friendships while speaking openly and honestly about our differences. We want peace. We want friendship. And we want to work together in areas where we agree and can have a meaningful impact. But if we truly love each other, we will also talk about our differences, even if we have to navigate being uncomfortable to do so.
Because monotheism is not enough.