Normally I begin with a link to some interesting news story. Not today. Below is a video that caught my attention as I was searching for videos to help explain philosophical concepts. The video is only 8 minutes long but it has a strong message that I think Christians need to hear.
This is the most poignant and compelling presentation of the argument for religious syncretism I have ever seen. If you are saddened, frustrated, or angered by religious abuse and violence, then this video resonates. It just might make you want to adopt the animator’s worldview that worldviews are like cupboards. Some people build them differently but no one is really building them wrong. Wikipedia gives a great summary of Syncretism. “Syncretism may involve attempts to merge and analogize several originally discrete traditions especially in the theology and mythology of religion, and thus assert an underlying unity allowing for an inclusive approach to other faiths.” Wouldn’t the world be a less violent place if we all just recognized that my cupboard is just different than your cupboard?
There is only one problem. There is an implied premise in the argument that makes this video so compelling. It’s the claim that adopting a worldview is analogous building a cupboard. If it is, then there is no reason to act like the boy’s parents did. If worldviews are like this, there is no reason to condemn his cupboard. But what if it isn’t. What if adopting a worldview is something else, something less creative like learning to take out an appendix, then we wouldn’t want that kind of leeway.
It reminds me of a story Ravi Zacharias likes to tell about his first visit to an art center in Columbus Ohio:
I was minutes away from beginning my lecture, and my host was driving me past a new building called the Wexner Center for the Performing Arts. He said, “This is America’s first postmodern building.” I was startled for a moment and I said, “What is a postmodern building?” He said, “Well, the architect said that he designed this building with no design in mind. When the architect was asked, ‘Why?’ he said, ‘If life itself is capricious, why should our buildings have any design and any meaning?’ So he has pillars that have no purpose. He has stairways that go nowhere. He has a senseless building built and somebody has paid for it.” I said, “So his argument was that if life has no purpose and design, why should the building have any design?” He said, “That is correct.” I said, “Did he do the same with the foundation?” All of a sudden there was silence.
Perhaps adopting a worldview is perhaps more like designing a foundation than designing the furniture. If so, a certain amount of dogmatism is called for.
Is there any reason to think that this is true however? I cannot be certain but I have the suspicion that the target of this animation is the adopting of a religious worldview. At least the imagery of meetings and group reading of the “manual” seem to imply it. If that is true, then I think there is good reason to reject the “cupboard” analogy. Adopting a religious worldview is not like building a cupboard. If it were, I too would be outraged at anyone trying to tell me my cupboard was the wrong design. IKEA would be my holy sanctuary and I would revel in designing the perfect cupboard for me. Of course, since its IKEA I would still have to take it home and put it together using the Swedish equivalent of a wrench made for Keebler Elves!
But the thing is, adopting a religious worldview isn’t like that. Religions don’t just tell you how to live, they make claims about the nature of reality. I have said it before but if the primary value of Christianity is to instruct people how to live good lives, then Christianity isn’t very special. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves and so do a whole host of ethical theories. Paul tells us to imitate Christ and so does Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey. Christian ethics are just not that original. But what are original are the claims of Jesus. “I am the way, the Truth, and the Life and no one comes to the Father except through Me.” and “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” are not advice for living well; they are claims about the way things empirically are and a call to accept it.
I’ve been struggling all day to find a good analogy to replace the cupboard one in this video. Here’s the best I’ve come up with. Adopting a worldview isn’t like building a cupboard but more like answering an internet dating profile. You search through a lot of profiles and each of them makes claims about the way things are. But suppose you read an ad, purporting to be from a 33 year old Jewish male carpenter who is into fishing, long walks (preferably by the sea, on the sea or in a garden), meals of bread and wine etc. But when you go to meet him, you find a 60 year old Hispanic woman with a wooden leg (I apologize if this is actually your profile) you might be confused about a mix up or annoyed about a deception but one thing you wouldn’t be is syncretistic. You would not be willing to except that this woman’s appearance is merely superficially different from her claims. And if anyone tried to explain to you that your insistence on an accurate portrayal of your date was unnecessarily dogmatic, you would think them slightly daft. In other words, specific claims imply essential facts. And unlike the creative design of furniture, those claims make for either a strong or weak foundation from which to build a life.
If you can think of any other analogies that might work better than my dating analogy I would love to hear them.