Of all the various ways of conceptualizing religion, I personally have found the most insight in distinguishing the extent to which religious perspectives emphasize exclusivity vs. inclusivity. An exclusive faith emphasizes certainty and complete commitment to what is regarded as “the one true” perspective, with the ultimate goal to achieve a uniquely sacred value, such as eternal salvation. In general, “strict” religions tend to be more exclusive, such as many conservative, Evangelical Protestant churches (for example, Assembly of God, many charismatic churches). In contrast, an inclusive approach emphasizes a recognition of uncertainty and thus an openness to different perspectives. More liberal religions often tend to be more inclusive, such as many Mainline Protestant churches (for example, Episcopal, Presbyterian).
There appear to be unique advantages and disadvantages to each of these religious approaches. The fastest growing religions in the world are exclusive, something that sociologist Dean Kelley pointed out in the 1970s, with the explanation being that exclusive religions best meet individuals’ primary need for meaning. My research also suggests that exclusive religions, such as Evangelical Protestant religions, often may show a tighter relationship between commitment and happiness, perhaps in part because of the emotional benefits of certainty. Finally, exclusive religions tend to have closer relationships within them, as often there are tighter bonds forged within the context of shared beliefs and commitments. On the other hand, inclusive religions better recognize the reality that religious certainty is an impossibility. They tend to promote better ideas that come from the intellectual growth following exposure to diverse perspectives. They also are more likely to accept others from different backgrounds.
Within the Christian tradition, it is possible to see a rationale for both an exclusive and inclusive approach to faith. Probably the favorite biblical passage for exclusive Christians refers to Jesus’s remarks that “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Furthermore, James writes that “you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. . . they are double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:6-7). And, yet, Paul recognizes that complete clarity is impossible in this earthly life when he writes that “we know in part. . . for now we see only a reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12). Of course, Jesus was remarkably open to relating with people from all walks of life, even when it broke strong social norms and religious traditions.
Personally, I always have found it easier to doubt than to have religious certainty. Increasingly, I recognize that this stems from my education, which has prized exposure to different ideas and backgrounds. In many ways, this has been beneficial to my intellect and my ability to interact effectively with people from different perspectives. Yet, this also has led to worry and anxiety in the experience of a lack of ultimate trust.
What I most seek now is a balance of both an exclusive faith and an inclusive faith. Often when I now sing Christian music, and really tune into and accept the words, I find a deep sense of peace. Now when I read my Bible, and deeply pray and accept the teachings, I find an amazing sense of well-being. In these ways, Augustine’s words increasingly make profound sense to me: “My soul is restless until it rests in You.” Yet, more than anything, I value sincerity, and so it also is important that I recognize that I cannot be completely certain of that which I trust; it’s just that I choose to trust it and intentionally place my hope in it. This recognition of uncertainty helps me to be open to others and to remember our shared humanity, as we all are doing the best we can to live well and answer the ultimate questions. I respect others, even if we differ. As Aristotle once said, “The mark of an educated mind is to entertain an idea without accepting it.” Finally, I am reminded of Richard Mouw’s conviction that, in being open and honoring to others, I do not weaken my faith, but rather live out one of its core principles to love as I would want to be loved myself. As Mouw has said:
“People. . . who are civil often lack strong convictions, and people with strong religious convictions often are not very civil. What we need is convicted civility.”