The Window on the World is our weekly attempt to think about the world from the Christian point of view. My inspiration this week is a new museum in Philadelphia that devotes a surprising amount of attention to Christianity. It is called the National Liberty Museum, and it is located on Chestnut Street, not far from Independence Mall.
The purpose of the National Liberty Museum is to celebrate political, religious, and social freedom, and to instruct children in democratic values. Its exhibits champion many of the usual causes: freedom of speech, the right to vote, non-violence, and world peace. These themes are illustrated with many unusual works of contemporary art, mostly made of glass. Perhaps you have heard about the museum’s centerpiece: a spectacular, two-story, bright red “Flame of Liberty,” representing the eternal quest for freedom.
On the third floor, which is constructed to look like the inside of Noah’s Ark, there is a “Voyage to Liberty through Faith.” The artwork in this exhibit is rather disappointing, especially the uninspired stained glass panels depicting biblical heroes from Noah to Jesus. But the point the exhibit tries to make is valid: that the Bible has made a major contribution to the spread of liberty in America and beyond. The curators illustrate the Bible’s influence through replicas of manuscripts like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and through popular editions of the Bible itself. They point out that “From the beginning of the nation’s search for independence, the Founding Fathers looked to their Bible for inspiration and guidance. The strength and purpose of their biblical heroes reflected their vision of what freedom could mean in the new land. As a result, religious liberty is one of the core tenets of American democracy.”
It is encouraging to see the Bible taken seriously, for once, and to see an institution recognize the importance of biblical Christianity to America. However, there is a serious problem with the museum’s agenda: It promotes tolerance at the expense of truth. Although Christianity is treated with some respect, its claim to absolute truth is rejected. In fact, one is left with the distinct impression that Christianity was simply one step along the way to something better; namely, religious universalism. The last panel in the exhibit claims that “The foundation of American Democracy has always been religious liberty, the freedom to worship wherever and however your conscience dictates; or not to worship at all, if you choose… . We take pride that America is home to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Taoism, and all others… .”
On my way out of the museum, I picked up a poster with the following slogan: “Truth—no heritage or religion is superior, none is inferior.” Apparently, liberty has its limits. I can practice my religion as long as I realize that it is only relatively true. The only absolute truth is that no religion is absolutely true.
The problem with this kind of universalism is that it denies Christians the right to defend some of the central truths of Christianity—that there is only way to God, that Jesus is the only Savior, and so forth. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching… then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32). In other words, the best and truest freedom does not come from deciding that everything is equally true, but by finding the truth in Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ alone.
As soon as Christians start to talk in such exclusive terms, some people start to get nervous. This is understandable. Christians are not always very tolerant, and many unjust crusades have been started in the name of Christ. But the way to solve this problem is not for Christians to agree that all religions are equally true. Instead, what the world needs is Christians who are passionately committed to biblical truth, and who are also willing to love those who are outside the faith. Tolerance has come to mean that everyone must agree with everyone else. That is not what tolerance means at all. In fact, the very word “tolerance” assumes that there is a disagreement, that there is something that must be tolerated. Thus it is possible for Christians to argue for the truth of Christianity at the same time that they tolerate those who reject the claims of Christ.
There are two examples of this powerful combination of truth and tolerance in the National Liberty Museum. They are both included in an exhibit entitled “Heroes from around the World.” One comes from France, from the little village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. It was there that 5,000 citizens, under the pastoral care of the Protestant minister Andre Trocme, saved 5,000 Jews. What was it that prepared these Christians to do something that almost no one else in France was brave enough to do? It was the faithful teaching they had received from God’s Word, which taught them to love their neighbors as themselves. In the words of one woman, “Pastor always taught us that there comes a time in every life when a person is asked to do something for Jesus. When our time came, we knew what to do.”
The other story comes from Poland, where the Puchalski family hid five Jews in a hole under their small house for 17 months. There is an old black and white photograph of the Puchalskis in the National Liberty Museum. They look like a rather ordinary family, but there was nothing ordinary about their Christianity. Under the direction of their mother, Janova, they shared their food with their guests, living on potatoes and water through most of the war. In the name of Christ, they risked their lives to save the Jews. “If the Germans had discovered us,” wrote Felix Zandman, who was saved by their courage, “we would have been killed and the Puchalskis and their five children would also have been killed by public hanging in the town.”
These men and women were absolutely committed to the truth of Jesus Christ. They would have rejected the notion that Christianity was one among many equally valid religions. But just because they were Christians, they not only tolerated people from another faith, but helped to save them.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org