President Obama and the Problem of Religious Conviction
“I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt – not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.”
Those are the words of President Obama at the 2015 national prayer breakfast, following controversial comments about how human beings, no matter their religion, possess a sinful tendency to distort religion’s goodness for violent ends. Many conservatives have focused on the president’s implied moral equivalence between Islam and Christianity, but it’s the latter section (quoted above) that best illuminates the president’s view of religion.
For President Obama, faith is not the enemy, but confidence.
In Slate, William Saletan puts forth a similar view. In his list of conservative responses he finds problematic, he includes this belief as dangerous: Jesus is the only way to God. Saletan then compares Christians who believe in the uniqueness of Jesus to Islamic extremists:
There’s only one true faith—ours—and anyone who says otherwise isn’t a real Muslim. In this respect, the debate within Christianity mirrors the debate within Islam.
Obama is right. At its best, religion is about humility. It starts with a faith in something greater than yourself. Part of that faith is understanding that you’re not great enough to understand who God is. All you know is that he isn’t you.
When you start to think that you know God’s mind, that he speaks only to you, that you alone are in possession of the truth, that’s when you become dangerous. And being a Christian won’t save you.
According to President Obama and Will Saletan, religious belief isn’t dangerous, as long as it knows its place. It doesn’t matter what religion you belong to, as long as you hold to it loosely, with a measure of doubt, humbly recognizing that you are not great enough to understand who God is. The problems of our world flow, not from religious belief, but religious conviction. Certitude, conviction, and confidence are the drivers of religious conflict.
This understanding of religion may be widespread in our pluralistic society, but it runs aground on its own premises. Underneath the surface of humility lies an imperialistic methodology intent on shaving off the distinctive edges of the world’s major faiths and leaving a bland morality in their place. In fact, even speaking of “religion” so generally – as if the teachings of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims can be lumped into one pile – is condescending; it fails to properly consider the variety of religious belief.
Furthermore, if you take a look under the hood of humility, you find an engine of certitude that is just as powerful as that of the religious adherents targeted for critique. The one thing the president and Will Saletan are certain about, convinced of, and confident in is that none of the religions have an exclusive claim to truth. All the religions are made up of opinions that we are free to believe in or dismiss, as long as we don’t harm anyone else.
“Faith must begin with doubt,” says the president, but how can we accept such a statement without being confident and certain we are right, the very thing he believes is the fuel for religious conflict?
“No religion can possess the full truth of God,” says Will Saletan, but how is it humble and not breathtakingly arrogant to tell all the religious adherents of the world: None of you can be right?And how is it “humble” to consign convinced Christians or Muslims to the category of “dangerous” simply for believing they are right and others are wrong?
For many today, an exclusive claim to objective truth is ruled out from the start, under the guise of open-mindedness and inclusiveness. This is precisely what G. K. Chesterton foresaw a century ago: the movement of “humility” from doubting oneself to doubting the truth.
“Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced.”
When you think the problem is due to someone having too much confidence in the truth of their religion, you are implying that the content of their religious beliefs is irrelevant. But the Christian Church is built upon the conviction that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. Therefore, the content of Christian belief matters.
So, yes, there is a sense in which Saletan is right: we shouldn’t think we are ”great enough to understand who God is.” Thinking we are “great enough” is the mark of self-righteousness and an overly exalted view of human nature. And that’s precisely where the content of Christianity comes in, agrees, and then turns the whole scenario upside down, You are not great, but God is, and He is so great and so good that He has revealed Himself to humanity. It’s not the belief that you are right and all religions are wrong that humbles you, but the content of Christian teaching that says, Don’t be confident in your attempts to understand God. Be confident in God’s revelation through His Son.
My point is this: you don’t deal with violent expressions of faith by pretending that confidence is the problem and content doesn’t matter.
And yes, sinful humans have committed atrocities in the name of Christ, but in each of these cases, the problem was a failure to be true to the content of the Christian faith. It wasn’t certitude and confidence in Christianity that led to the Crusades, but the idea that Jesus could be coopted by a political and military endeavor. The crusaders weren’t “holding too tightly” to the content of Christianity; they weren’t holding tightly enough. How else can we explain the transformation of a Savior suffering for His enemies into a warring king charging into foreign lands?
So here we are in the 21st century. And ironically, despite the popular pluralism espoused by the president and writers like Saletan, one of the drivers of religious conflict today and one of the explanations of the West’s inability to deal adequately with radical Islam is exactly this failure to consider the content of the beliefs being presented.
It’s simply not true, no matter how often our leaders tell us, that confidence in our beliefs is bad while the content of our beliefs is neutral.
Trevin Wax is the Managing Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum developed by LifeWay Christian Resources. He blogs daily at Kingdom People. He is also the author of Holy Subversion (Crossway, 2010) and Counterfeit Gospels (Moody, 2011).