Discernment / Ordinary Life / The Skill

Babylon Series: Part 9 Christ is Lord in Tolerant Babylon

In a fallen world, the truth of the gospel will in some way or another always be in tension with at least some of the ideas, values, and beliefs that happen to hold sway at the moment. The tension may shift from time to time or from generation to generation, but never ends, and will not until Christ returns to consummate his kingdom. Even if we lived in Jerusalem (speaking metaphorically), we wouldn’t be free from sin, and sadly, those who take the Scriptures most seriously as God’s word (as the Pharisees did) can run afoul of the truth. Since we find ourselves not in Jerusalem but living as exiles in pluralistic Babylon, among those who do not accept the Scriptures as God’s word, we need to find a way to winsomely address those points at which the gospel comes most sharply into tension with Babylonian beliefs and values.

An obvious—and seriously troubling—point of tension arises from the postmodern notion that tolerance is a value that trumps all other considerations. In a pluralistic world, it is asserted, a multiplicity of religions jostle for acceptance, so to guard against an outbreak of religious warfare, no religion must claim superiority over the others. Besides, no one has a monopoly on truth. It’s fine to believe in Jesus, the reasoning goes, but don’t claim my belief in Baal is wrong or that Jesus is the only way to God. In Babylon, in other words, Jesus is merely one god among many, and his religion no better than any other.

As Dick Keyes points out in Chameleon Christianity, at points like this Christians must beware of two equally unhelpful reactions. The first accommodates to the surrounding culture, so that Christ’s claim to be Lord of all is either quietly downplayed or perhaps even disbelieved. The second unhelpful reaction is to throw down the gauntlet, insisting that Christ’s claim must be the opening point in the conversation, even if this stance isolates the church and effectively ends the discussion. Both reactions are highly attractive (in their own perverse way), which is why the believer who leaps in either direction always finds plenty of company. In reality, however, as Keyes shows, both reactions are not only unhelpful but constitute a denial of the gospel.

The two reactions just described are perhaps best understood as a false dilemma: either an attractive gospel or an uncompromising one. But as Christ’s own example demonstrates, we need not choose between the two—and must not—because we are called to both. Faithfulness requires that we proclaim the gospel of Christ without compromise and that we show it to be both glorious and attractive because to do otherwise is to proclaim a lie. We must love our postmodern friends enough to refuse to downplay the good news that Jesus is Lord, as we creatively find ways to live out and talk about that truth in a way that can be understood in a pluralistic setting.

What might this look like?
Tim Keller can help us see what this sort of faithfulness might look like. Since September 11, roughly 30% of those attending services at Redeemer have been non-Christians. Non-Christians, he says, who are so “steeped in religious pluralism,” that they “have little patience for claims of Christianity’s superiority.” In “Preaching Amid Pluralism” (in Leadership), an article I commend to you, Keller explains how he seeks to go about “elevating Christ in a culture that sees all religions as equal.”

First, Keller says, he is careful never to malign other religions, nor does he “directly make the naked claim ‘Christianity is a superior religion.’” Both tend to terminate the conversation, transform the relationship into a debate, and allow the unbeliever to assume the implausibility of Christianity. What he stresses instead, he says, is the distinctiveness of the Christian faith.

“After the World Trade Center tragedy,” Keller writes, “between 600 and 800 new people began attending Redeemer. The sudden influx of people pressed the question, ‘What does your God have to offer me at a time like this?’ I preached, ‘Christianity is the only faith that tells you that God lost a child in an act of violent injustice. Christianity is the only religion that tells you, therefore, God suffered as you have suffered.’ That’s worded carefully as a way of saying, ‘Other religions tell you many good things, too. But Christianity is the only one that tells you this. If you deny this, then you lose a valuable spiritual resource.’ Pluralists get stumped by that because they realize that they want the distinctives of Christianity —a God who has known human pain, salvation by grace, and the hope of heaven—in their times of need.”

What I like about this is its creativity. It proclaims the gospel clearly and truthfully, yet in terms which speak directly to the needs, questions, and lives of the non-Christians who are being challenged to consider the claims of Christ. Such creativity is costly, but then our Lord warned us that following him would not be comfortable. Then, because the notion of tolerance is deeply ingrained in his listeners, Keller also talks about religious pluralism, uncovering its hidden yet very real flaws.

For example, pluralists contend that no one religion can know the fullness of spiritual truth, therefore all religions are valid. But while it is good to acknowledge our limitations, this statement is itself a strong assertion about the nature of spiritual truth. A common analogy is cited—the blind men trying to describe an elephant… This is supposed to represent how the various religions only understand part of God, while no one can truly see the whole picture. To claim full knowledge of God, pluralists contend, is arrogance. I occasionally tell this parable, and I can almost see the people nodding their heads in agreement. But then I remind them, The only way this parable makes any sense, however, is if you’ve seen a whole elephant. Therefore, the minute you say, “All religions only see part of the truth,” you are claiming the very knowledge you say no one else has.

Another important way to emphasize the distinctiveness of Christianity, Keller says, is to talk about moral behavior not merely in terms of law, but by rooting morality in grace. The goal of the gospel is not the reformation of outward behavior but the transformation of the person. Our morality is to be the result of faith, as we are filled to overflowing with delight in the glory, joy, beauty, and grace of God. When morality is seen as merely an issue of law and justice, Christianity looks like every other religion. When morality flows out of a living and vibrant relationship with God, however, the transformation of the person by the indwelling Spirit can not be denied.

And finally, Keller says, Christians should demonstrate a practical distinctiveness that will be obvious to the watching world. And the horrific events of 9/11 gave Christians in New York an opportunity to demonstrate it. “There are perfectly good excuses for non-believers to flee this city,” he notes. “But Christians have every reason to stay. That’s a distinction anyone can see.” We are called to minister, not to escape to some imagined place of comfort and safety. Even at cost.


“Preaching Amid Pluralism: Elevating Christ in a culture that sees all religions as equal” by Tim Keller in Leadership (Winter 2002) pp. 34-36.
Chameleon Christianity: Moving Beyond Safety and Conformity by Dick Keyes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books; 1999).
“The Uniqueness of Christ—Why Only One Truth & One Way?” a lecture at the 2002 Rochester L’Abri Conference by Dick Keyes (www.soundword.com).