Overcoming Religious Triumphalism

BIBLE, 10924261_sReligious triumphalism is the conviction that one’s religious beliefs are superior to other people’s. Ironically, triumphalism violates the virtue of humility that is extolled by virtually every religion. It is the theological equivalent of sports’ fans chanting “We’re number one.” In sports the practice is innocuous, even somewhat charming. That is certainly not the case in religion.

Unfortunately, religious triumphalism is most common among the staunchest religious believers. The most obvious and extreme example today of this perspective is found among Islamic terrorists, who not only believe that Islam is the one true religion but also that members of other religions should either convert or be killed!

Americans have for the most part responded to Islamic triumphalism with intellectual restraint, resisting the temptation to blame Muslims in general for the barbaric behavior of the Jihadists. Even Donald Trump’s argument that Muslims not be allowed to emigrate to America until they can be effectively screened is not unreasonable. That view is a far cry from believing they should convert to Christianity or be slaughtered.

But if Islamophobia is far from epidemic, as I believe, there are nevertheless many examples of anti-Muslim sentiment—vocal suspicion of Muslim-Americans, shunning, name-calling, and rude confrontations in which Christians demand that Muslims defend their religion.

As I write, Christmas is at hand, an appropriate time to consider how Christians might best overcome their own religious triumphalism and practice the humility essential for achieving the peace and unity that Jesus urged. Here are a few suggestions for doing so:

First, remembering Christianity’s own sins against people of other religions, including the Inquisition (a political event, to be sure, but one with theological underpinnings and clerical support) and the punishment and in some cases execution of heretics. Also, perhaps even more notably, the doctrines that consigned to hell all those who held dissenting theological views. Though commonly, and correctly, attributed to Catholicism, this sin has been prevalent among Protestant denominations as well. “Outside the Church there is no salvation” has found many theological expressions.

Second, acknowledging that the issue of salvation isn’t quite as clear as Christian triumphalists have chosen to believe:

For example, we have: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” (Acts 16: 31); “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” (Mk 16:16) and “[H]e who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (Jn 6:54) But there are important questions to be asked: Is believing a matter of thinking, saying, or demonstrating? Is demonstration possible without saying, or even thinking? If so, would that be sufficient? Is there more than one way to be baptized? Is it possible to eat Christ’s flesh and drink His blood and yet not have eternal life? Are “eating” and “drinking” to be understood literally (as partaking of the Eucharist) or metaphorically?

For another example, we have: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8) And “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Yet we also have:  “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? . . . Faith, if it has no works, is dead . . . But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” (James 2: 14-20) Thus, we have Paul and John saying, as Luther claimed “Only by faith,” and James saying “Faith plus works.” There are various ways of reconciling the apparent disagreement, but each has its difficulties. (Perhaps the best is C. S. Lewis’s. Siding with James, he compares faith and works with a pair of scissors, both of which must work together to cut.)

The salvation question posed by the conflicting assertions about faith and works is further complicated by Jesus’ declaration, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7: 21) A moment’s reflection reveals that non-believers would not say, “Lord, Lord”? Only believers would. So the question is this: If professing without acting does not guarantee salvation, is it possible that acting without professing does? 

Similarly, biblical passages on how we should treat sinners raises questions about the requirements for salvation. Paul says: “As for a man who is factious [disagreeable, divisive], after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11). Yet Jesus advises Peter differently: “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’” (Matt 18: 21-22) If we recall that Jesus taught us to pray to be forgiven as we forgive others, with the implication that God’s mercy will be as expansive as we make ours, then does it not seem that God might be more expansive in granting salvation than our theological formulas suggest?

Third, we can overcome our own triumphalism about our theological views by pondering one assertion by Paul that every Christian denomination accepts: that grace is a gift freely given by God. From this it clearly follows that those who receive it and are enlightened by it should feel only humble gratitude, not self-importance, and should regard those who do not have it only with compassion, never with contempt.

Finally, we can remember that God created men and women in His own image and likeness and Jesus prayed that all men and women would be one just as He and the Father are one. (Genesis 1: 27, John 17: 3) Mankind’s role in making that prayer a reality is to love one another as Jesus loved us (John 13:34).

How exactly can we manage to love one another, even those whose religious beliefs are most unlike our own? The answer may lie in a sensibility removed from traditional Christian theology yet remarkably compatible with its core precepts—the Quaker sensibility as revealed in these quotations:

They (Quakers) rejoice to find . . . God in people of every caste and creed; they wholeheartedly agree with a great Christian thinker of the second century, Origen, that “no noble deed among men has ever been done without the Divine word visiting the soul.” The same Indwelling Spirit who has opened their eyes to behold the beauty of Christ, enables them also to behold spiritual beauty wherever it is found, whether in the great scriptures of the religions of the East, in the wisdom of their saints, or in the honest minds and humble, loving hearts of those who claim no religious allegiance at all. (Marjorie Sykes)

I owe all to God in Jesus Christ and say so to all sorts of people, but if someone says he finds the same in Ram or Buddha, what right have I to say he does not? … ‘Where love is, God is’; where the fruits of the spirit are displayed, there the spirit must be—the Eternal Christ, the loving caringness of God expressed in time and in human form, but not to be equated only with the Carpenter of Nazareth. (Mary Barr, Quaker from about 1934, co-worker with Gandhi from 1932)

Copyright © 2015 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved