It’s Okay to Be an “Exclusivist”

It’s Okay to Be an “Exclusivist”

A few years ago I attended the graduation of my stepdaughter at Seattle University, a highly respected Catholic institution. During her studies she had developed a love for philosophy and friendship with her philosophy professors, one of whom was a professed Buddhist. At a post-graduation function, I had an opportunity to chat with him and asked how he felt about a recent speech by Pope Benedict, one in which the pope sought to reach out to Muslim leaders.1 I was impressed by the speech and wondered what his reaction might be.

He responded rather curtly, “I didn’t care for it. I thought the pope was being exclusivist.” I was somewhat taken aback since the pope’s speech was getting generally high marks. But I think I knew what he meant. While the pope may have been sensitive and thoughtful, it was clear he believed his religion was true to the exclusion of other religious beliefs. This made him, in the eyes of the philosophy professor, an “exclusivist,” code for being “intolerant.”

Hoping for a productive dialogue, I asked: “If I believe the world is round, am I an exclusivist if I believe that is true and claims that the earth is flat are untrue?” His response was to simply walk away.

Is it wrong to be an exclusivist? Does our Christian faith call for exclusivity? How do we reconcile that with tolerance and respect for other opinions? Is it okay to be an exclusivist in matters of spiritual faith?

Our culture says no. In matters of spirituality, one is viewed as rigid and intolerant unless one is a pluralist—embracing the notion that multiple expressions of spirituality are all equally valid. In a spirit of professing tolerance, Harvard’s Professor Emeritus of the Comparative History of Religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, has put it this way:

…consciousness can comprehend both Islamic and Christian movements, and the relation between them. The historian can now see that both are true and neither is. Unless one recognizes that both are true, and that both are false, one is a poor historian.2

In other words, one is a “poor historian” unless one is willing to accept the equal validity of the contradictory truth claims of Christianity and Islam.

The point I was trying to make is that science does not operate that way. Science operates in conformity with what logicians call the “law of noncontradiction”—two mutually inconsistent truth claims cannot both be true at the same time in the same sense. It seems obvious, but that is not what today’s culture demands in the realm of spirituality. To be spiritually “tolerant,” one must be prepared to accept mutually contradictory truth claims as equally “true.”

How do we explain operating with different views of truth in matters of spirituality and science? Stephen Jay Gould has tried to negotiate this problem by declaring there are two “nonoverlapping magisteria.”3 He argues that the realm of science and the realm of religion are separate because they deal with different kinds of questions. They are two “magisteria” (from magisterium, the Catholic Church’s teaching authority) that do not “overlap.” As an evolutionary biologist, Gould used this idea to address debates over the teaching of evolution in the classroom, hoping for a middle ground that would keep everyone happy. Given this allusion to one’s “teaching authority,” one implication is that science teachers should stick to science and religious teachers should stick to religion.

We can start by agreeing with Gould that science and religion occupy two different realms or magisteria. In (philosopher Immanuel) Kantian terms, there is the “phenomenal” world of the senses—the world of science that is accessible to us through reason—and there is the “noumenal world,” the transcendental or religious world. The respected philosopher Frederick Copleston has called this a “bifurcated reality,” consisting of the phenomenal world of Newtonian science, and the “supersensuous (noumenal) world of the free human spirit and of God.” They are bifurcated in the sense that the phenomenal world can be known through science while the supersensuous or noumenal world can neither be proven or disproven. It is a world of faith, the world of religion, spirituality and God.4

But what about Gould’s claim that these two magisteria are “nonoverlapping?” Here he is pretty clearly in error. First, when Scripture makes truth claims about the phenomenal world, then the realm of religion “overlaps” into the scientific world. That’s the whole premise of Reasons to Believe—scriptural truth claims relating to the phenomenal world can be tested by science. Similarly, when scientists make truth claims about the noumenal or religious world, as many do when they claim science can deny the transcendental or the soul, they are overlapping into the spiritual or religious realm.

When these overlaps occur, they need to be acknowledged for what they are and analyzed consistently. That process would seem to require us to operate with rationally consistent concepts of truth. But that becomes a problem if we claim the law of noncontradiction is valid only in the scientific realm, which happens when we embrace spiritual pluralism while cloaking it with the loaded word, tolerance. Spiritual pluralism implies spiritual truth is a matter solely of one’s personal subjective spiritual experience, and all claims of truth arising from such experiences are equally valid. In taking that position, one is, in effect, permitting a radical shift to occur in our concept of truth as we move from the scientific to the spiritual realm without explaining or justifying it.

Ironically, the charge of exclusivism means evangelical Christianity uniquely operates with rational consistency between the scientific and the spiritual realms, as it does when it claims spiritual truths are universal and objectively true. God pretty much tells us in Exodus that this is expected of us; we are to honor him as the one, true, exclusive God. In the very first of the Ten Commandments he tells us: “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” (Exodus 20:3, KJV). We are called to be exclusivist.

What then of the question of tolerance? We might start by asking: Are scientists intolerant when they have disagreements? They certainly can be, but no one would claim the mere fact of their disagreeing makes them intolerant. They can respect each other, acknowledge neither can make a claim of certainty, and agree to disagree. That is the posture I believe we are called to take in spiritual matters as well. If it’s okay to think like a scientist, it ought to be okay to be an exclusivist in matters of spirituality.

To Find out more about Paul Lorenzini, please check out his bio.

  1. Pope Benedict XVI, “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections,” University of Regensburg, September 12, 2006.
  2. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Modern Culture from a Comparative Perspective, ed. John Burbidge (State University of New York Press, 1999), 17.
  3. Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997), 16–22.
  4. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume IV: Modern Philosophy from Descartes to Leibniz (Image, Doubleday, 1960) 55–61.