Affirming ‘absolute truth’ is not a knock against Christianity

I write this column to young, 20-something Catholics. You are a treasure for the church, and in need of real answers to the hard questions you face. I also write to parents who suffer when a child leaves the church and perhaps even loses her faith in God.

Today’s young people need clear answers to questions that come at them from friends, the culture and even family members. Parents need help answering questions children pose. We must do better in this regard because the church is hemorrhaging young people. Polls show that four of five people who leave the church leave as young adults. Fifty percent of the young people in your catechism class will one day say they have no relationship to the church.

We have not done well with our young Catholics in demonstrating reasonable answers to the cultural critiques of our faith. We need to dust off the mind and dig into the riches of our faith. In truth, there are answers to even the most difficult questions.

The last couple of years I have hosted several 20-something Catholic missionaries from Franciscan University in Steubenville Ohio. They traveled here to Magadan, Russia, to share their faith. Through them I am meeting young people in Russia who really wonder about God and the meaning of life. These people are not aggressive against Christianity or the church. Rather, the faith and the church just don’t seem relevant to their life.

Tim Keller, a Protestant pastor in New York, took a poll of young people who felt ambivalent or even negatively towards Christianity. He lists six reasons why young people don’t believe in Christianity. Sociologists call them the “defeater beliefs.” Today, I want to look at just one — Christianity’s claim to have absolute truth.

This defeater belief goes something like this: “All religions are equal and none can claim to have absolute truth. All religions have a part of the truth. All lead to the same place. To claim to have the one, true faith is arrogant, narrow minded and — worst of all — intolerant.”

This mindset is found in our schools, the media, our families and even in church circles.

To be clear, respect and tolerance are absolutely needed in discussing and sharing one’s faith with others. But claiming that all faiths are basically the same is intellectually dishonest and unhelpful.

As open-minded and all-embracing as this opinion seems, it amounts to standing atop the mountain of the universe and claiming to see the whole truth of reality. When someone says no religion can claim absolute truth, they are attempting to claim something absolutely true about all religions, namely that all views are relative except their own. Thus, they do the very thing they say religions cannot do — claiming a superior view to all others. As this example illustrates, we all hold absolute truths, even if we don’t admit them.

It is important to be respectful in how we speak about each other’s beliefs, but suggesting there are no absolute truths serves to dishonestly trump all religious beliefs. That is actually the least respectful, and most arrogant view of all.

Think about the impact of a person saying that your deepest religious convictions are not even worth discussing. Talk about a conversation stopper. We don’t do this when it comes to discussing politics, the arts, music and other deeply held views. Why should religion be excluded from discussion?

So let’s consider Christianity for a moment. It claims that a man, Jesus, died on a cross, asking not for revenge, but forgiveness and mercy for his enemies. This man claimed to be God and showed deep love for the outcast, compassion for the poor and profound criticism of social injustice. He said true freedom is found in giving oneself up for the other, peace is found in forgiveness.

If you follow such a man what will your life look like?

Skeptics might point out all the suffering in the world: Look around you. God can’t be good and compassionate if he allows all this suffering. He certainly can’t be a mighty God if he is helpless to end it. We will tackle this criticism next month.

The writer is pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia.

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