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New Horizons

Intolerance? Or Honest Conviction?

Andrew H. Selle

"As long as our faith is rooted in Scripture, all faiths are not the same. All religions do not lead to God."

Those words by the Rev. Craig Bensen ("In Religion," Dec. 3) struck a nerve in many readers and generated a lot of hot ink in response. Epithets such as "religious intolerance," "extremist," "sectarian," "divisive," and "implicit violence" flew liberally toward this representative of the "religious right." One critic, a former state senator, even charged that such fundamentalism is "hazardous to the health of communities, nations and our world." Too bad we didn't see Bensen's photo, so we could observe the hollow, glazed eyes of this dangerous religious fanatic.

Come on, folks. Lighten up! The man has a point to make, and we ought to consider it rationally. Ultimately, all this flap centers upon one watershed issue—divine revelation. Has God revealed himself clearly in the Bible and in the person of Jesus Christ, such that it is actually possible to know the Truth? Or, is God fundamentally unknowable, floating out there in the hazy and ethereal realm of "religious beliefs"?

The first premise is simply historic Christian teaching, proclaimed by evangelical Christians with an astonishingly wide range of denominational tags. The second premise is a modern version of relativism, the belief that there are no absolutes. Understand that these are two mutually exclusive worldviews, two radically different religions.

If you are absolutely committed to relativism (don't miss the irony there), then all religions are created equal, and it would be arrogant and rude to suggest that one religion is any better than another. But if you are convinced about the historic Christian faith, you drop all your vain imaginations and shut up and listen to the God who speaks! "Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?" (Rom. 9:20).

Does this mean that evangelicals are hopelessly intolerant, as the critics charge? One of Bensen's harshest critics beats the pluralism drum: "Pluralists believe that people of diverse faiths and varied beliefs might learn to live together in mutual respect." Amen! Christians believe the same. No evangelical that I know wants to start a medieval-like "holy war" to make converts by force. In fact, evangelicals are on the front lines of the current legal battles in our country to guard our cherished religious freedoms. Unless your religion is destructive to someone else's life or property, you are free to practice it, no matter what you believe. In that sense, evangelicals are tolerant "pluralists."

We are not afraid of the open exchange of ideas. Truth can stand on its own. God can take care of himself. Those who see honest conviction and call it intolerance muddy the waters. Conviction and tolerance are apples and oranges, which must not be confused. If you accept this distinction, then you can realize that a person can be convinced that he is right, and yet still be tolerant and respectful of others.

To anyone who does not accept the God of the Bible, I say: I must do more than merely tolerate you; I must treat you with love and respect because God made you in his own image with an eternal soul of unspeakable value. I am not superior to you, for we share the same humanity, in all its glory and all its brokenness. I hope you can tolerate and respect me even if you think I'm a right-wing fanatic. I tolerate and respect you even if you're out to lunch about your religious opinions. Maybe we can have a debate—oops, I mean a dialogue. Maybe we can learn from each other. Maybe we can shoot some hoops together. Maybe we can be friends.

But we cannot worship together. You worship a different god—a god of human creation rather than the true Creator who has spoken in history: "Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the only Son, who is at the Father's side, has made him known" (John 1:17-18). Before him someday, "every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Phil. 2:10). One's relationship to Jesus is no inconsequential matter, but an issue of life or death, with the eternal destiny of souls in the balance. With such high stakes, surely we ought to communicate together with kindness and honesty, tolerance and conviction.

Mr. Selle is a teacher at Covenant OPC in Barre, Vt., and serves with a Christian counseling ministry. This piece is reprinted with permission from the "In Religion" column of the Burlington (Vt). Free Press, March 4, 1995. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 1998.

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