In the 20th century, there was a great religious leader who also became a great political leader. After some time in exile, he returned to lead his people as they threw off their oppressors and the foreign forces that threatened their cultural integrity. When he died, the whole nation was frantic with grief. The leader's name? It could be Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual and political founder of modern India. But, Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual and political father of the current Iranian theocracy, also fits the profile. He remains in very high esteem, not only in Iran, but throughout the Muslim world.
Can we say that both these men had equally valid and appealing grasps on the nature of the divine and what it means to be human? Or that either's guess was as good as the other's when it came to pointing to the ineffable, the sacred or the holy? Or their vision of morality and the good life? Will we not inevitably credit one more than the other? On what basis? Their respective effects on American foreign policy? The degree to which their words and actions comport with certain intellectual currents in the West? Our individual tastes?
The Mahatma or the Ayatollah. If we prefer one over the other, it will be based on something. Nobody actually in practice accords all religions and all religious teaching equal respect. Everyone uses some standard by which to measure their merits – our cultural/political/class/national prejudices and convictions etc. There is a presumed superiority in whatever standard is used and however conscious or unconscious its application. Consciously or unconsciously, something will be the measure. Christians will prefer the one whose teaching and public behavior most reflected the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.
The earliest Christian creed was "Jesus is Lord," i.e., Jesus is the measure of all things. It had to be declared. It had to be lived. It had to be, if it came to it, died for. Because it was true. If Jesus was just one among many spirit persons, even though a personal favorite, he could not – cannot – be Lord. And there would be little point in paying his life and death any more attention than that of Spartacus, Socrates or Julius Caesar. Nor would there be any conflict between worshiping Jesus and worshiping Caesar (or any nation or flag). To claim Jesus as Lord means that everything else – personal preferences, familial traditions, political ideologies, national loyalties, other religious teachings – everything is measured in light of what we know of God and life in light of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is no more presumptuous for Christians to say that we measure Gandhi and Khomeini and every other teacher or idea against the example of Jesus Christ because he is the definitive revelation of the divine-human drama than it is to use something else as the measure.
This does not mean that there is no truth or wisdom to be learned elsewhere. One can hold emphatically that Jesus is uniquely Lord and still believe that the Holy Spirit sings in and through the hearts and scriptures of those who do not know him as Lord. Listening carefully and respectfully to their wisdom can be edifying. Nor, for the purposes of this essay, does it mean that affirming Jesus as Lord necessarily means that those who do not are automatically destined for perdition. Nor does it mean that one cannot affirm Jesus as Lord and also embrace and defend the benefits of living respectfully in a pluralistic society. But, we lose something essential when we abandon the scandal of particularity that is the declaration that Jesus is Lord. With reverence. With gentleness. With humility. With forbearance. But, hold to it we must.
I am concerned that in our reaction to simplistic, heavy-handed fundamentalism, we not slip into a simplistic pluralism that has more to do with the intellectual agnosticism of modernity than with Christian witness to the mystery of God. As Stephen Prothero has pointed out, such pluralism is not only disingenuous and misleading. It is disrespectful of the otherness of the other. It is also dangerous.