Another Path to Reconciliation?

“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix, circa 1830

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

I am about to transition from speaking about reconciliation within the Christian Church to speaking about reconciliation in the world as a whole. In doing so, I am taking not a small step but a massive philosophical leap. Up to this point, I have been arguing that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only true path to lasting reconciliation. More than that, it places upon us an imperative of reconciliation. Such an argument is easy to make when the majority of people in question agree that the gospel message is both true and important (at least in principle). Once you move into the wider world, where there is no agreement as to the truth of the gospel and few common beliefs of any kind, appealing to Christian principles does not have the same effect.

The world is never going to want to solve problems the gospel way. Why? Because it is really, really hard. Now, when I say “really, really hard”, I don’t mean it in the sense that solving a Rubik’s Cube is hard, or staying upright on skis is hard, or even completing a PhD is hard. I am referring not to complexity, but to gut wrenching sacrifice. The gospel is hard because it requires everything we are. To follow Jesus Christ is to die to self that we might be raised with Him, and when that happens, we cease to be the same person we were previously. The life of a Christian, lived according to the gospel message, is one of continual dying to self. This is the grace of God, but it is costly grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.[1]

Scripture points to the cross as proof of the sacrifice involved with the gospel, both in Christ’s statement that, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me,” (Mark 8:34b) and in the Apostle Paul’s assertion that the crucified Christ was “to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness”. (1 Corinthians 1:23b) Sometimes that means a sacrifice of material things, sometimes of our pride and human certainty, and sometimes even of relationships, as Jesus also taught.

If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it?

Luke 14:26-28

Some people reject the gospel because they do not understand it, but many reject it precisely because they do understand it. They have counted the cost and found it too high. If we are to make any progress as Christians in bringing reconciliation to the world, we need to first acknowledge the difficulty of what we are asking people to do. Indeed, if there was any other way to create peace and harmony in this world – one that did not require this kind of sacrifice, that could be more easily accepted, and that did not fly in the face of so many deeply held human assumptions – then it would be almost cruel to suggest that people should embrace this gospel, which is good news to those who accept it, but something else entirely to those who do not.

Therefore, the question we need to be asking is this: “Is there another way?” In thousands of years of human history, brilliant men and women have put forward any number of theories as to how we might improve our lot on this planet. Some of them have had real merit, while others were consigned to the dustbin of history. So why do we insist on the gospel? Why not one of the other ideologies that have helped to bring about greater peace on earth and lent dignity to the common man?

It may seem truly intolerant of me to suggest that the gospel is the only path to reconciliation. Indeed, it might appear to go against the very concept of reconciliation. Have I not argued about the importance of compromise and respect for others? Yes, but I have also made clear that true love must always include truth, and apart from the truth, there is no real love. Love is the basis for reconciliation, and it depends upon the truth.

The reason that none of these ideologies can produce lasting reconciliation of the type that the gospel creates is that they each have within them a fundamental flaw, for there is something of the truth that is lacking. Inevitably, this always boils down to one of two things: 1) an incorrect understanding of God, or 2) an incorrect understanding of man. These two mistakes lead in turn to a mistaken assessment of humanity’s problem and the ultimate solution. Before we consider how other worldviews err on these two key topics, let us first review the Christian belief.

God: A fully sovereign being, existing in Trinity, all-knowing and eternal, possessing and defining all the traits of goodness, desiring to reconcile humanity to Himself, making possible that reconciliation, moving to save those who are sinners, and empowering regenerate believers to carry out the work of reconciliation.

Man: A fallen being, created in the image of God but now bound to a sinful nature, severely limited in power, flawed in reasoning and mortal, incapable of earning salvation, deserving of Hell, in constant discord with his fellow man, fully dependent upon the grace of God, capable of being redeemed by the saving work of Christ, made regenerate only by the power of the Holy Spirit, no more or less valuable than other humans, commanded to love all people, and tasked to be an ambassador of reconciliation.

By no means is this all Christianity has to say about either God or man, but these two working definitions should serve us well throughout the course of this discussion. How do some major ideologies compare to this Christian view, and how do the differences in their opinions about God and man affect their attempts at reconciliation? Let’s take a look.

Statue of Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, Italy. (Author photo)

Stoicism

Of all the philosophical movements to arise out of ancient Greece, this one seems to have the greatest impact on our present society. Zeno of Citium is typically credited as the founder of this school of thought, which influenced such diverse figures as Cicero, Epictetus, and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. To speak of one homogeneous form of “Stoicism” is therefore somewhat misleading, as there have been many variations on the theme.

Today, we use the word “stoic” to refer to someone who remains somewhat above the fray, is able to suppress certain emotions, and is stable even when things around them are crazy. It can have either a positive or negative connotation, depending on whether we view their sense of calm as an admirable steadfastness or a form of heartlessness. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

The Stoics did, in fact, hold that emotions like fear or envy (or impassioned sexual attachments, or passionate love of anything whatsoever) either were, or arose from, false judgements and that the sage—a person who had attained moral and intellectual perfection—would not undergo them. The later Stoics of Roman Imperial times, Seneca and Epictetus, emphasise the doctrines (already central to the early Stoics’ teachings) that the sage is utterly immune to misfortune and that virtue is sufficient for happiness. Our phrase ‘stoic calm’ perhaps encapsulates the general drift of these claims.[2]

Stoicism always had a very practical focus, and this is perhaps why it is so easy to adapt to 21st century life. The way it typically gets translated into modern society is in the idea that one must pursue a kind of common virtue – a general sense of good that will bring one happiness. One must not become bogged down by harmful emotions, but rise above one’s circumstances.

The view of God within Stoicism largely depends on which brand of Stoicism you choose to embrace. Many of the ancient philosophers would have held to some form of polytheism, with a range of gods and goddesses alternatively collaborating and competing. Modern stoics are more likely to be either atheists, agnostics, or deists. The common factor in all of these conceptions of God is that none of them hold to a fully sovereign who is actively involved in the world and in complete control of history. The result is that everything seems rather chaotic, because no one is in control. Likewise, Stoics love to speak about man’s quest for virtue, but without a universal definition of virtue to which all human beings can be held, who is to say that one person’s virtue is any better than another’s?

Stoicism also makes some incorrect assumptions about man. First of all, emotions are often seen to be the problem, when in fact asking a person to cut themselves off from their emotions is essentially to ask them to cease being human. It is sure to be a losing battle. Moreover, this is a system of self-improvement in which, if a person simply tries hard enough, he or she can overcome all those destructive emotions by reaching a kind of higher intellectual or spiritual status. This severely underestimates the realities of sin and suffering in this world.

Therefore, Stoicism will not bring about lasting reconciliation because it cannot create a moral common ground between all humans, it envisions a universe of chaos rather than one where God is in control, and it fails to properly address the real problem of the human heart, which is the sinful nature.

1933 propaganda poster by Gustavs Klucis portraying (L-R) Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin.

Marxism

Named after its founder, Karl Marx, this school of thought is famous for its diagnosis that class struggle is at the heart of all human discord. It can be difficult to separate the original philosophy present in the writings of Marx and Friedrich Engels from the ultimate political realities of Soviet Communism and Maoism, both of which deviate significantly from pure Marxist theory. But though he often protested against philosophy, Marx certainly espoused his own philosophical ideology that had a major impact on the 19th and 20th centuries and is felt even to this day.

One of the keys to Marx’s thought can be found in his assertion that, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”[3] When linked in with his economic and political thought, this leads to the ideology of class struggle. Marx placed high value on the average worker. He famously taught that religion was the “opium of the people” (a paraphrase of the original German), by which he meant not so much that it was an effective way to deal with pain and suffering, but that it was essentially created by the state to dupe the common man by providing a form of false hope and limiting revolutionary aspirations.

Marx saw every kind of loyalty, whether religious or national, as a kind of distraction from the real war that needed to take place between social classes. He envisioned a communal state in which private property and oppressive forms of government would be done away with, while the people reigned supreme. In its most developed form, Marxist political theory taught that the state (that is, the governmental regime) would eventually wither away and mankind would live in a kind of enlightened worker’s utopia.

As for the view of God in Marxism, it has none. It holds that God is a myth, and a harmful one at that, for it keeps people from rising up against oppression. The doctrine of man is no better. In viewing practically everything in terms of economics and production and failing to emphasize the integral value of the individual apart from social class, Marxism makes it rather easy to use human beings as means to an end. In trumpeting the necessity of conflict, Marxism practically ensures that there will not be reconciliation. But perhaps most importantly, there is no acknowledgement of the sinful nature in man that makes a communal utopia impossible to maintain. Therefore, every time a government has attempted to embrace some version of Marx’s ideals, the end result is not a state that fades away, but one that becomes more totalitarian.

In its prescription for conflict, its denial of basic human realities, and its rejection of the concept of God, Marxism fails to provide hope for lasting reconciliation.

Portrait of the English Humanist scholar Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1527. More belonged to the Renaissance tradition of Humanism, not the later secular Humanism.

Humanism

This ideology is almost harder to define than Stoicism. There is a substantial divergence between what was meant by “Humanism” during the period of the Renaissance and the beliefs trumpeted by secular Humanists today. The former typically believed in the existence of God and held to a relatively orthodox version of Christianity. The latter are usually atheists and set themselves up against Christianity. What I can tell you is this: any form of Humanism has a fairly high view of human ability, believes that man is getting progressively better, and thinks that there is a certain amount of innate goodness in us all which, if accessed, can help bring about peace on earth.

We can see this strain of thinking undergirding the great achievements of the Renaissance period and the emphasis on classical education. It led into the Enlightenment and helped form the modern political concept of human rights. Yet, it is perhaps worth noting that while many of the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century began their academic careers as Humanists, they eventually were led not only to the ancient writings of Livy and Cicero, but to the Holy Scriptures themselves. This was an important development, for if we take a closer look at Humanism, we see some real problems.

To speak of Humanism’s view of God is not entirely helpful, because as I noted, the early Humanists believed in God while those in the present day typically do not. Indeed, the very name “Humanism” suggests that the real emphasis here is not on the divine at all, but on the human. When a Humanist looks at a man, he sees not a fallen creature in need of saving so much as a being full of good potential. He has great faith in the power of human reason to bring about progress both in science and in society. Humanists tend to get rather annoyed when they see what they believe to be archaic, backward viewpoints still holding sway on the global scene. If we only sought out the good in one another and developed the good in ourselves, they say, we would achieve the kind of global harmony for which we long. This type of thinking has actually infiltrated much of Christianity, as noted back in the 1920s by J. Gresham Machen.

According to the Bible, man is a sinner under the just condemnation of God; according to modern liberalism, there is really no such thing as sin. At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin. The consciousness of sin was formerly the starting-point of all preaching; but to-day it is gone. Characteristic of the modern age, above all else, is a supreme confidence in human goodness; the religious literature of the day is redolent of that confidence. Get beneath the rough exterior of men, we are told, and we shall discover enough self-sacrifice to found upon it the hope of society; the world’s evil, it is said, can be overcome with the world’s good; no help is needed from outside the world.[4]

What Machen is calling “liberalism” in the Christian sense is really the influence of Humanism, and we can see from his explanation how it fails in its assessment of the problem of humanity. As with both Stoicism and Marxism, it does not come to a proper appreciation of man’s fallen state. It also has the effect of minimizing the work of Jesus Christ, for if man is capable of achieving his own salvation, then what was the purpose of the Incarnation? Why did Christ have to suffer and die?

Ultimately, a Humanist will be frustrated to find that while we might make progress in the realm of science, we make less progress in terms of morality and that nebulous concept of “humanity”. The past 100 years have been proof enough that the powers of human intellect are not sufficient to make us better humans, but can ultimately lead to destruction. Lasting reconciliation is not found in human ability.

Interior of the Wat Yai temple in Phitsanulok Province, Thailand. Photo by JJ Harrison

Buddhism

The teacher we know as Buddha lived sometime in the 6th to 4th centuries B.C./B.C.E. His given name was apparently Siddhartha, though the details of his life are somewhat sketchy. The term “buddha” simply refers to an enlightened person. Based upon his teachings, the religion of Buddhism developed in India, building upon the local religious ideas that had already existed. Because of this, Buddhism bears some similarities with what we now call Hinduism, though it flourishes mainly outside of India. Buddhism is a complex religion that looks a bit different in each region. However, there are a couple major teachings of the Buddha that are worth noting here. The first is Buddhism’s view of reality.

The Buddha departed from traditional Indian thought in not asserting an essential or ultimate reality in things. Moreover, he rejected the existence of the soul as a metaphysical substance, though he recognized the existence of the self as the subject of action in a practical and moral sense. Life is a stream of becoming, a series of manifestations and extinctions. The concept of the individual ego is a popular delusion; the objects with which people identify themselves—fortune, social position, family, body, and even mind—are not their true selves. There is nothing permanent, and, if only the permanent deserved to be called the self, or atman, then nothing is self.[5]

This leads into the Buddhist concepts of rebirth – that is, being incarnated again and again as different beings – and karma. Essentially, your actions in this life will dictate your circumstances in the next life. Karma also affects the present life to a certain extent, as when something bad happens and a person comments, “That’s karma coming back to bite you.” The ultimate goal is to reach a state of Nirvana, which literally means to be extinguished, thus ending the cycle of birth and rebirth. This is just scratching the surface of Buddhist belief, but already I think we can see a few red flags.

First of all, there is no single God in Buddhism, but rather an assortment of gods and demigods, depending on who is providing the description. Certain Buddhists dislike the very term “God”, because it suggests to those in the West a being similar to the Christian God. You may hear Buddhism described as being “pantheistic”, and those who reach Nirvana are said to gain a kind of omniscience. However, the concept of a sovereign, unchanging being does not exist in Buddhism.

Furthermore, while the system of karma may seem to provide accountability and order to the universe, it can actually have the opposite effect. The rejection of certain aspects of reality, the drive to get to a higher level of consciousness, and the lack of any final judgment for all time mean that things are not particularly set in stone. While Buddhism is very concerned about suffering and misery in this world, it cannot provide final healing, because nothing is final. Your best hope would be to separate from the world entirely by reaching Nirvana, which is a kind of negation of your earthly self.

More to the point, the idea of good and bad karma is a far cry from the doctrine of sin within Christianity, which holds that all human beings are bound to a sinful nature and need to be made regenerate by the power of the Spirit. Like so many other ideologies, Buddhism fails to provide a correct assessment of why mankind is really suffering, and it likewise fails to provide a true answer for the guilt we all bear.

Therefore, Buddhism errs by rejecting reality, not acknowledging the effects of sin, and providing no basis for ultimate justice. It cannot bring about true reconciliation, but only the hope of being reincarnated as something better…or nothing at all.

Supplicant at the Majid Al Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia in 2003. Photo by Ali Mansuri

Islam

I have sometimes joked that Islam was the religion I would create if I was going to create a religion. That may seem odd to people who think of suicide bombers and burkas when they hear the word “Islam”. However, my experience with this religion goes much deeper than that. What I mean when I say Islam is the religion I would create is that its theology is remarkably logical and user-friendly.

Within Islam, there are no paradoxes on the level of the Trinity or the dual natures of the Incarnate Christ. There is simply one God who sends forth prophets to tell people what is good and what is bad. If you want to be a good Muslim, there is a five-step program for that, known as the Pillars of Islam. If you follow the rules, you will earn God’s favor. The one negative (and it’s a big one, in my opinion) is that you can never be 100% sure in this life whether or not God will grant you mercy and usher you into Paradise upon your death. However, there is the general sense that if you try really hard, your odds are pretty good.

As Christianity and Islam are both Abrahamic religions – that is, they both worship the God of Abraham – there are actually a lot of similarities between them. The concept of sin in Islam is as close as you are going to get to the Christian one outside of Judaism. However, it is also here that we start to see a major divergence.

Sin in Islam is simply not as severe. The reason I say this is that within biblical Christianity, if you are a sinner, you are hopelessly lost. You cannot save yourself. You cannot simply do a bunch of good things and work yourself back onto God’s “nice list”. Islam does not see sin in such dire terms, because it teaches that you can essentially overcome it by doing the right things and then hoping that God will reward you with mercy.

Here is where we get the even bigger divergence. Islam teaches that Jesus was a prophet, but he was not divine, and he certainly did not die an atoning death for the forgiveness of sins. Therefore, the basis on which divine grace is granted is completely different. Consider the very first surah of the Qur’an, “Al Fatihah (The Opening)”.

In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

Praise be to Allah,

The Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds;

Most Gracious, Most Merciful;

Master of the Day of Judgement.

Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.

Show us the straight way,

The way of those on whom

Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace,

Those whose (portion) is not wrath,

And who go not astray.[6]

There is a lot of talk about grace and mercy there, but who receives it? The ones who follow “the straight way” and “go not astray”. Therefore, while it may be difficult to know for sure who will receive God’s grace, we can know for sure who will not receive it: the sinners. This can certainly lead to self-righteousness and an “us vs. them” mentality by drawing pride from human ability and not acknowledging that humans are completely sinful and in need of unmerited grace. The nature of grace a person is given surely affects the way they view themselves and others. The God of Christianity took upon Himself the penalty for sin and made reconciliation possible. He is not waiting for us to work our way to Him, but condescends to us.

To sum up, Islam cannot provide the same hope of reconciliation because it denies God’s atoning work in Jesus Christ and has an incorrect view of human righteousness (or lack thereof).

My goal in this essay was not to attack those with different beliefs than myself, but rather to demonstrate in a very quick and incomplete way how such beliefs cannot bring about the kind of lasting reconciliation that we seek. No, I’m afraid there is no answer but the gospel, as difficult as it may be to accept. We do not preach it simply because we like it. We preach it because it is the only way.

Jesus told his disciples in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” The Apostle Peter declared, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) The Apostle Paul likewise taught regarding spiritual renewal, “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” (2 Corinthians 5:18)

Therefore, as we seek to bring about reconciliation in this world, which is our solemn charge, let us remember the only true source of lasting reconciliation. While there may be peace for a time according to the ways of the world, Christ Himself is our Prince of Peace, and in Him we find our reconciliation.

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Translated by R.H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. (New York: Touchstone, 1995)

[2] Baltzly, Dirk. “Stoicism” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/#Bib Revised 6 December 2013.

[3] Marx, Karl. Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Original German version published in 1859. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm

[4] Machen, J. Gresham. Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), page 55.

[5] “Buddhism” in Encyclopedia Britannica. Updated 27 February 2017. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Buddhism

[6] The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. Translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Eleventh Edition. (Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 2004)

Other articles in this series:

#1 – Wars and Rumors of Wars

#2 – Discord

#3 – A Scriptural Imperative

#4 – The Cross of Hate

#5 – The Age of Sacrifice

#6 – The First Step

#7 – Impossible Questions

#8 – True Love

#9 – A New (Old) Commandment

#10 – Truth with a Capital ‘T’

#11 – Christ is All in All

#12 – Awaken!

#14 – Humble Rebellion

#15 – Those Who Live by Faith are Just