It’s Okay to Be an “Exclusivist”

By Paul Lorenzini

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…

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It’s Okay to Be an “Exclusivist”