Beliefnet
At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

As readers know, this series, “Thinking Clearly, Choosing Wisely,” was partially—but only partially—provoked by an exchange I had with a friend, a fellow Roman Catholic who has proceeded to put into question, if she hasn’t altogether rejected, some of the most fundamental teachings of the Christian faith.

The concerns that my friend expressed are the same that I’ve heard expressed by various people over the years.  My two decades’ worth of experience teaching philosophy, including philosophy of religion, has made me that much more exposed to the sorts of objections to traditional Christianity raised by my friend.

So she is more the most recent catalyst for this series than the sole inspiration for it.

One topic that she raised is that of the existence of other religions.  Many people, particularly self-identified Christians living in the contemporary Western world, seem to think that the existence of other religious and philosophical traditions undermines the unique claims made by their own faith.

This view is as popular as it is wrongheaded.

First, only an a priori—and patently false—assumption that religious belief is of the same magnitude as taste could issue in a logic as illicit as the logic that leads people from the observation that there are multiple religious views to the conclusion that no one view can be exclusively true, or that all are equally legitimate.

To be clear, though endemic today, the sophistry and rhetoric regarding the “relativity” of “truth,” whether in matters of religion or elsewhere, is just that.  Truth is intrinsically exclusive, and everyone, whether in the East or West, whether Christian or Taoist, knows this.  Everyone knows, in other words, that what thinkers in the Western tradition have long regarded as the most basic law of all thought, the Principle of Non-Contradiction (PNC)—the principle that a thing can’t be and not be at the same time and in the same respect—is indubitable:

Bob is a bachelor and Bob is married.

Cynthia is pregnant and Cynthia is not pregnant.

The object is square and the object is round.

These statements aren’t just false; they are necessarily false.  And they are necessarily false because they are self-contradictory. They violate the PNC.

It’s become fashionable today amongst Western intellectuals to depict this principle without which no coherent thought would be possible as a cultural peculiarity, an invention or construction of European peoples that, as such, is an artifact of which we can dispense.  In the East, we’re assured, the PNC, having given way to something like “the relativity of all values,” is not acknowledged.

Anyone familiar with the most rudimentary logic should be able to see this line for the trendy nonsense that it is. As Aristotle noted long ago, it’s impossible to reject the Principle of Non-Contradiction because, in rejecting it, we affirm it:

The PNC states that whatever the truth-value of a proposition, its contradictory must have exactly the opposite truth-value.  If A is true, then non-A must be false, and vice versa.

Those who reject the PNC actually accept it, for they recognize that the claim that the PNC is true is incompatible with their claim that it is false. They recognize that it cannot be the case that the PNC is both true and false.

But this just means that they recognize that the PNC is true.

However, in addition to the sheer illogic of supposing that the existence alone of other religions and philosophies undermines the exclusivity of one religion’s claims over others, there are other considerations that must be borne in mind.

Second, up until the advent of Judaism some 3,000 years ago, the world was mired in polytheism.  But, as I showed in the first installment of this series, the difference between polytheism and monotheism is most emphatically not, as many people seem to think, quantitative, a difference in degree or number.  The difference between these two vantages is a qualitative difference in kind.

The gods, though divine, are finite beings subject to many of the same limitations as are you and I.  They are temporal beings living within an eternal universe.  In fact, not infrequently, the gods are depicted as living lives of debauchery.  It for this reason that Plato had the artists who supplied the culture with its depictions of the gods ejected from his ideal Republic: The gods, through their bad example, threatened the promotion of virtue in the citizenry.

Yet whether the gods were portrayed favorably or not, the point is this: Polytheism is not an alternative to monotheism. It’s true that within the world’s great monotheistic traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—it is idolatrous to affirm the existence of any god other than God.  In theory, however, a belief in many gods is logically compatible with a belief in One, True, Ultimate God.  After all, the gods, being finite, are no less dependent upon others than are humans.  This being so, the gods too would depend, in the final analysis, upon something that itself is independent.

The only genuine alternative to monotheism is atheism: Either you believe that God exists or you do not.

Either you believe that there is a Ground of reality or you do not.

Either you believe that this cosmos of finite, dependent beings is dependent upon something that is not dependent or you do not.

Monotheism or atheism: these are our only logical options.

Third, as I argued in another installment of this series, it is the God hypothesis alone that “saves the appearances” of the world that everyone, irrespectively of whether they are theists or atheists, takes for granted.

It is the God hypothesis alone that can account for the belief in objective, or real, value, the belief in truth, beauty, justice, goodness, virtue, right, wrong, love, meaning, and so forth.  The world of the atheist’s imagination is one, gargantuan mass of matter.  Objective moral, spiritual, and aesthetic values can have no place in such a world.

Fourth, I also contended that within monotheism there is one version that best accounts for the belief that love is both objectively good and the highest of values, the value that unites all of the others.

And that version is Christianity.

Christianity alone conceives of God as a family or community of Persons, a Three-in-One, to be exact.

It is Christianity alone that explicitly identifies God as Love, and that identifies Him as such within the context of its unique doctrine of the Incarnation, the doctrine that God became flesh for the purpose of ultimately suffering, dying, and rising from the dead so as to reconcile humanity to Himself.

No other species of monotheism is adequate to the task of accounting for the position that love is both objectively real and the greatest of all objective values.  The Hindu version of monotheism is pantheism. For the pantheist, God, appearances be damned, is all that exists.  The God of the pantheist is not personal, and because it is not personal, love is not associated with it.

It’s difficult to see how the God of the deists—God as imagined by, say, Aristotle, or by any number of 18th century Enlightenment intellectuals—can love, to say nothing of being love.  A deistic God, after all, is a God that has long since decided to ignore the world that he (or it?) brought into being.

This leaves but three choices within monotheism: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Judaism and Islam can both definitively explain the objectivity of value.  And that they both reject pantheism and deism, choosing instead to affirm the existence of God as Creator, means that they can, potentially, account for our belief in the objectivity of love.  But not only do both Judaism and Islam repudiate the Christian conception of an intra-personal God, they view as blasphemous Christianity’s insistence that God so loved the world that He entered it and became one of us so as to save it.

While Christianity sees God as transcendent and immanent, as far as Judaism and Islam are concerned, God is too immanent by the Christian’s reckoning.

So God is not and cannot be Love for the Jew and the Muslim.

However, we must ask, if God is not Love, and if, as neither Jew nor Muslim would ever care to deny, love for and between persons is real, then from whence springs this most powerful and binding of human sensibilities?

The Christian submits that love is real only because it derives from Love.

Love is real only because it derives from God, Who is Love.

In the next installment, we will look more carefully at how a Christocentric worldview relates to the reality of other religious and philosophical perspectives.