Today we will address a common objection to Christianity. It goes something like this: “So, you think your religion (Christianity) is the true religion, that Jesus Christ is the only way to God? Other religions are false and lead nowhere? Don’t you think that is a bit arrogant? Aren’t those who practice other faiths as sincere in their belief and as faithful in their religious practice as you are?” As we will see in our analysis and response, this complaint, even in this brief form, contains more than one kind of objection. And it is often combined with a long list of associated objections, such as the following: “how likely is it that you just happened to be born where and when the true religion was dominant? Wouldn’t God want everyone to have access to him?” All of these objections and others like them seem to originate from the intuition that religious truth should be universally available and easily accessible. Perhaps we will address this intuition in future posts, but in this post I want to focus on the question of arrogance.
First let’s subject the arrogance objection to a little analysis. Clearly, its power is contained in associating a moral fault with a truth claim, so that asserting truth becomes an arrogant act. No one wants to think of themselves as arrogant or to be thought arrogant by others. Arrogance is an attitude of personal superiority to others. Arrogant people see their real or imaginary characteristics as indicative of their special importance. And for a person to think she or he possesses greater worth or dignity or value than others violates our sense (in the modern western world) that all people are of equal worth. It seems as ugly as it is false.
As I noted above, the arrogance objection explicitly attempts to associate the attitude of arrogance (a moral fault) with the act of claiming that Christianity is true. It implies that an attitude of personal arrogance cannot be dissociated from the truth claim. But here it makes an obvious error. In our analysis of arrogance above we saw that arrogance is a personal attitude that draws an unwarranted moral conclusion from a person’s real or imaginary characteristic or possession. Suppose I really am very rich or brilliant or accomplished in my field. Being rich or brilliant or accomplished in a field does not necessitate personal arrogance. In themselves the statements of fact that describe someone as rich or brilliant or accomplished are either true or false; they cannot be humble or arrogant. Likewise, the statement “Christianity is true” or “Jesus Christ is the only way to God” is true or false. By itself it is not arrogant or humble. Sentences can’t lie or brag or show distain. Only people can be arrogant or humble.
Let’s look at the “arrogance objection” from another angle. Arrogance, as I argued above, characterizes the mood of a false judgment about one’s superior worth based on one’s real or imagined qualities. But when believers express the judgment that Jesus Christ is the revelation of the true God or the only way to God, they are not expressing a judgment about their superiority over others. They are not even making this judgment in reliance on their own (superior) insights into God, other religions, or human nature. Their judgment is not based on a direct comparison of Christianity with other religions, which would require viewing the question from a neutral position and possessing godlike powers of discernment.
Believers’ affirmation that Jesus Christ is the only way to God is a statement of faith derived from their faith in the apostolic testimony to Jesus’ resurrection and glorification. If God raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus is Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36). Paul and the original apostles declare that God raised Jesus from the dead. Either they are correct or they are incorrect. Either they are lying or they are telling the truth. Contemporary Christians believe the apostles are correct when they declare “Jesus is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). My assertion that “Jesus is Lord and Savior” is not my personal assessment attesting to my own superior judgment in matters of religion. It is my confession of faith. And when I confess Jesus’ Lordship, I also confess my trust in the apostolic word of testimony. In their act of confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord of all believers are not vaunting their own personal superiority over others but humbly expressing their reliance on the word of the apostles and their determination to live as disciples of the Lord.
Is Jesus Lord of all? Did God raise Jesus from the dead? These questions call for “yes” or “no” answers. Arrogance has nothing to do with it.
To start with God and trickle down, God has occasionally been charged with arrogance by non-believers for acting to glorify His own name (for example, I’m working through Joshua at the moment, and God’s motivation to bring glory to Himself is ubiquitous in Joshua). Good friends of mine of a more atheistic bent have even characterized the project of salvation and damnation in terms of arrogance: God, they say, is like a middle school bully who just wants others to acknowledge His power and existence, to pay attention to Him. If they don’t, the story goes, then He will fly into a fit of rage and damn that person to Hell—a way of saying, “Hah! Let’s see you deny my power now!” However, I submit that God, as the maximally excellent and necessary being, truly deserves our worship simply by being who He is. Regardless of whether He does or says anything that we like or benefit from, He deserves our worship. Thus, He does no wrong by holding us accountable to worshipping Him or acting to maximize His own glory. This is no more arrogance than a 4-star U.S. General holding Privates and Lieutenants accountable to calling him/her “Sir.” It is not arrogant because the relation (Creator-creature, Superior Officer-soldier) is a true one.
It seems to me also that humans claiming certain superlatives or accolades for themselves are arrogant only if they are false, but innocuous as long as the claims made are true. If I claimed to be the best chess player in the world in 1985, it would be arrogant (and also false), but if Garry Kasparov made the same claim in 1985, it would simply be a fact—no arrogance to it. If N.T. Wright claimed today to be one of the world’s foremost scholars on Paul, it would be simply true (but if Bart Ehrman or William Lane Craig or whatever other non-Pauline scholar made the same claim, it would be quite arrogant). Similarly, claims of the exclusive truth of Christianity are not arrogant if they are indeed true. Claiming that the Holocaust is an objectively true historical event is not arrogant simply because there are those who claim the opposite. A diversity of disagreements or contrasting opinions does nothing to invalidate a truth claim, nor discredit the one making the truth claim via ad hominem.
Now a further claim could be made viciously off of a true claim in this vein: “As a Christian, I will enjoy eternal life after the general resurrection. Therefore, I am more valuable than a non-Christian.” In such a case, the second sentence, the value claim, would indeed be arrogant—but also false (the truth of Christianity would actually entail the value judgement’s falsity!). Arrogance comes into this picture when a false conclusion is invalidly inferred, even if from a true premise.This can be a serious issue in today’s Christianity, but it seems clear to me that any invalid inferences one might make from Christianity’s truth has nothing at all to do with the truth of Christianity’s message.