IS MONOTHEISM INTOLERANT?
by Bob Wheeler
Jeffrey Tayler, in his salon.com article, “The left has Islam all wrong,” argues that Islam is inherently repressive and intolerant. But he goes further than that and tries to argue that all monotheistic religion is intolerant. He says that the God of the Israelites was “jealous and vengeful, capricious and megalomaniacal.” He then claims that the First Commandment (“You shall have no other gods before Me”) is “an absolutist order implicitly justifying violence against those who haven’t gotten the memo.” He then blames Christianity for the Medieval crusades, and Jesus for teaching eternal punishment.
Tayler’s argument raises two basic and distinct questions. 1) Is monotheism inherently intolerant? And 2) Does Christianity sanction violence against unbelievers?
On the first question there is a sense in which monotheism is intolerant: it will not countenance the idea of any other gods besides the one, true and living God. But any system that claims to represent truth will oppose contrary systems as not representing truth. The only way around it is for all of us not to claim to know truth at all. We could then all live in blissful ignorance! And in the case of monotheism the denial of other gods is simply a recognition of the fact that God alone is the Creator. The universe was designed by a single, intelligent Supreme Being. It is this fact that gives the universe its rational structure and logical coherence. Thus everything besides God owes its existence to Him, and it is only proper and fitting that we acknowledge our dependence upon Him and pledge Him our allegiance. Anything else would represent a misplaced loyalty.
Psalm 100 in the Bible explains it this way. The whole earth is exhorted to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord’ (v. 1). (Note: not mumble our way through a couple of hymns and then struggle to stay awake during the sermon!) We are to worship the Lord “with gladness” and “with singing” (v. 2). Our worship is not to be a formal, half-hearted performance, but a genuine expression of joy and gladness.
But why? “Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves” (v. 3). We are to worship only Him because only He is worthy of our worship. He alone is the Creator. We did not bring ourselves into existence, and everything we are, and everything we have, we owe to Him. Hence it is only proper and fitting for us to acknowledge Him as the source of all our blessings. For us not to do so is the height of ingratitude.
But does this mean that God is a “Despot on High” who is “jealous and vengeful, capricious and megalomaniacal,” as Tayler would have us to believe? Not in the slightest. For the psalm goes on to say, “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting, and his truth endureth to all generations” (vv. 4,5). Just because God is the all-powerful Creator, it does not follow that He is a cruel tyrant. That is a little bit like saying that President Obama is a cruel tyrant just because he believes that he alone is currently President of the United States! (Of course God doesn’t have to deal with Congress!). Indeed, God’s very position as Creator and source of all of our blessings points to His infinite wisdom, goodness and faithfulness. Verse 5 uses three terms to describe His character. God is “good,” i.e., favorably disposed to do us good; and He has “mercy,” or lovingkindness, as the word is sometimes translated; and He has “truth,” or faithfulness as it might better be translated. If God has blessed us with health and life, with food and clothing, and with human companionship, then those very facts point to the goodness of His character. And if He would send His own Son into the world to redeem a lost and sinful human race, then that speaks even more eloquently of His character. A benevolent Despot, yes; a cruel Tyrant, no.
Does this mean that Christianity is intolerant? Yes, but in the same sense that science is intolerant. Neither one will admit of more than one version of the truth (just ask a secular scientist what he thinks of creationism!). Christianity and science both operate on the premise that there is such a thing as ultimate truth. Does that make Christians, or scientists, bigots? Can we afford to be indifferent to truth?
This, in turn, brings us to the second question, does Christianity sanction violence against non-believers? The answer is most definitely “no.” Christ instructed His disciples to preach the gospel; He did not tell them to cut people’s heads off.
To understand why, it is important to understand the nature of Christ’s kingdom. Jesus did, in fact, claim to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but what does that entail? To many Jews it meant that the Messiah would restore the kingdom of David – essentially establishing an earthly, political state, complete with civil laws and political structure to enforce them. Thus when Jesus was arrested and brought before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, Pilate was definitely interested in the political implications of Jesus’ message. He asked Jesus flat-out, “Are You the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33; NKJV). What Jesus told him was this: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (v. 36). Pilate pressed Him for clarification: (Are You a king then?” Jesus’ answer was, that He came into the world to bear witness to the truth, and that those who are of the truth will hear His voice (v. 37). In other words, we make disciples through argument and persuasion, not violence. The sword can produce a multitude of hypocrites, but not true believers. Only the Holy Spirit at work in the hearts and souls of individuals can create genuine saving faith.
Yes, Christianity is intolerant – it will admit of no rivals. But it does not follow from this that Christianity is violent. Truth can be discerned only through free inquiry. And ultimately God must reveal Himself to the individual soul. Only then can true faith arise.