Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers!
I am primarily speaking to most of my readers who happen to come from the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia, South Africa, India, and Ireland. This post is for the people of the Anglo-American world and those living under the ideological liberal hegemony propagated by the United States, indicated by the military expansion of NATO, and the historical and political reality of centuries of British colonization, indicated by the countries whose official or de facto language is English and who generally are subject to the pressures of our pluralistic surroundings.
I am thankful today for the historical Jesus Christ. Christ is still a powerful presence and model for us who feel lost, for those of us who deeply feel the oppressive cross-pressures of an individualistic society that demands us to be self-defining and self-creating by abstaining from any universal claims upon us. In fact, in a powerful motivation to imitate models of self-definition and self-creation, we have some so-called reasons that feel quite convincing to resist universal moral claims.
As Colossians 3:11 (NRSV) says, “In that renewal, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” We should understand that this is a description of the deepest spiritual reality to which we aspire. It was an expression of the deepest aspirations of the Greco-Roman world.
Christ is a powerful universal presence for us. Thanks be to God!
When I read Acts chapters 3 & 4, the apostles Peter and John, who were saved by the presence and life of Christ, demonstrated that we cannot avoid universal moral claims upon us to a cultural situation of enforced pluralism. I am thankful for the kind of universal claim that Peter and John made, and what it means for us who now live in a context of relatively unquestioned pluralism. After having healed a lame man, Peter and John convincingly preached the resurrection of the dead based on Christ, whom they personally encountered, to astonished onlookers, many of whom believed. For this preaching, which was universal teaching that countered the pluralistic context of the events, they were detained and questioned by the Sadduccees (the elite religious, aristocratic, and business leaders of the Jewish people). Peter responded to the questioning by saying, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” (4:8-11) In other words, their claim because it was universal, directly challenged a context that would avoid such claims.
The Roman Empire was officially and institutionally pluralistic, especially in the cities. The cities were predominantly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. They were cosmopolitan and pluralistic. Everyone had their own god and were free to worship their own god, and that was ok. It was ok as long as everyone also said: kai-zer cor-i-ous (Caeser is Lord). What is disingenuous (or, as I like to say, inauthentic) about that, is to present that your god is not the supreme God. So your god is thus not really THE god. Thus, pluralism was demanded.
That says much to us who now live under similar pressures. Christians and others who believe there are moral claims that are universal face the social pressures of the Anglo-American context primarily, although not entirely, in two forms.
First, Christian claims of Jesus’s superiority are criticized as arrogant. The argument follows the line that every great spiritual teacher and religious founder is equal to all others, and that the prophet Muhammed, Gautama Sidhartha, Lao Tzu, and others should be treated with equal significance. It seems arrogant to say that Jesus is the supreme savior, that he is the only way to God. Does this mean it is arrogant to believe in the Jesus who said that ‘before Abraham, I existed’, or who said that “I am going to come back and end death, and evil, and suffering and injustice”, or that said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me”? These claims go deeper than any of the claims of the other religious founders. Jesus meets us at a deeper place – at our deepest needs – than all those other founders. Jesus saves us and cleanses us with his blood! The claim is that with his blood he will make us right with God. No other has made such claims. Either Jesus is the Son of God and he is who he says he is, or he is inferior. It isn’t arrogance to believe in his superiority, it is an unavoidable implication of who Jesus is. The claim that it is arrogant to believe in Jesus as a the savior – the liberator and redeemer – is a dispute about the nature of the universal claim, NOT a dispute that such claims are necessary.
The second common argument is that claims of Jesus’s superiority are exclusive. Such an argument asserts that being Christian can be subjectively helpful but are not universally better at understanding spiritual reality.
I have two responses to this. First, one is logically inconsistent with that argument. Second, you are applying a culturally specific value. On the first count, if all religions are equally valid either there is no God, or if there is a God, God is not caring or personal. Thus, one is pushing a particular view of God. One is proposing that Christians adopt a view of God at the expense of their own. As such, it is dishonest. On the second count, such criticism is culturally narrow: it enforces that moral feelings and sentiments are to be kept private. This is based on the Enlightenment view that facts and values were distinct: facts are public and objective; moral values are private and subjective. This is a very Anglo-American idea. It is the foundation of secularism, which is being increasingly adopted by Anglo-American people… in other words, white people. If you look across the globe, to non-white cultures, you will see the increasing public place of moral values – in Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu majority cultures, to non-white Christian countries like Korea, and in many African countries – people are availing themselves to the rich moral values that are religiously housed. Enforcing the fact-value distinction through cultural institutions in the Anglo-American world is the most egregious cultural hegemony and practice of ethnocentrism as has ever happened in the past. It is hypocritical and inconsistent.
If I understand the criticisms of the claim to Jesus’s superiority well, then can no one have a universal claim on spiritual reality? However, that is, in itself, an exclusive claim. Universal claims to spiritual reality are unavoidable because we are spiritual beings.
In our socio-cultural context, our context is richly informed, institutionally even, by the so-called repudiation of grand narratives. Grand narratives are the types of stories that tell us the meaning of everything. While I believe this to be correct in terms of an interpretation of observable phenomena, the repudiations of grand narratives also hold that there are no moral absolutes that we have to accept. Our culture hegemonically asserts that moral truths are person specific and culturally relative. Any claim to THE truth is a bid for dominating power. If universal claims to spiritual reality are unavoidable, and cannot be anything but claims to dominance, then we are left with a serious problem.
How are we going to live in peace?
This is particularly prescient to us now when the Anglo-American world is rife with conflict. The emergence of nationalist-oriented political movements in the UK, in the solidified presence of Trumpism, and in separatist movements in the Canadian province of Alberta eerily bodes increased violence. Murder rates are up across the Anglo-American world. This world is also increasingly saturated with calls for justice – from calls to Truth and Reconciliation to feminism to Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ rights to echoing difficulties with income inequality and climate crises.
This is one side of our cultural coin.
The other side of the coin, which is within the linguistic range of postmodern thought which distrusts grand narratives, is that there is something inherently spiritual in our authentic aspirations. I foreshadowed two of the supporting points already: 1) instead of imitating the aspiration of self-defining and self-creating prescriptions for fulfillment by abstaining from universal claims to spiritual reality, we instead grasp that our unique identities are rooted in a universal spiritual reality; and 2) we need to understand that moral truths are housed by what ought to be and thus have a different character than scientific claims to facts, which make public and intersubjective claims to what is. Most people no longer believe in facts that are value-free. And we only have to see the recent claims to “alternative facts” to be struck by how obvious is our distrust of facts. What we need to emphasize then is that our universal claims to spiritual reality are better housed within our aspirations and moral ideals than as housed by any so-called objective descriptions which we have come to doubt as neither objective nor descriptive.
A crucial turning point for our culture will be when we thoroughly understand that our moral aspirations are of a universal nature – as Paul did when wrote in the letter to the Colossians. I believe the Anglo-American world (including the Christians within that context) has been imitating the wrong thing. We have been imitating a desire to self-create and self-define with a deliberate disregard for more universal claims upon us. Of course, this common imitation has made us universally incapable of crossing divides (political partisanship, arguments surrounding abortion and gay marriage), failed to address global problems (human-impacted climate change, NATO-Russia proxy war in Ukraine), and has led us to scapegoat behaviors (Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol – Freedom Convoy in Canada).
And this is what there is to be thankful for: that Jesus is the cornerstone of the realization that Christ is all and in all. In Christ, there is no division and exclusivity, and no arrogance nor status.
We are to aspire to be better. What does this mean? Let’s see in Part 2…