Our church offered a very brief (25-minute) Ash Wednesday service this evening. We had some corporate, responsive reading of Scripture. A super-brief homily. A little singing. And the imposition of a cross of ashes on our foreheads as we were reminded, "From dust you were created, and to dust you will return."
One common objection to Christianity, or complaint against Christianity, is that Christianity is arrogant and exclusive and divisive because it makes truth claims and therefore says that those who don't agree with those claims are wrong. (Obviously, this objection could be leveled against any system that makes exclusive truth claims.) The objection continues: claiming that others are wrong necessarily involves devaluing and dehumanizing them, as well as likely leading to intolerance, hatred, and potentially even violence. Heck, look at the Inquisition, the Crusades, and Westboro Baptist.
The common response to this objection is that pluralism is just as much of an exclusive truth claim. If you say that "there is no one truth," or even, "we can't know if there's one truth," such statements are just as exclusive as saying "there is only one truth." If you say, "there is no one truth," then you are excluding those who make truth claims from being right. And so on. The idea behind this response to the objection is to change the question from "Are there truth claims?" to "Which truth claims are right?"
But, I would rather take issue with the objection itself. After all, Christianity doesn't just make random, contentless truth claims. It makes particular truth claims. So, are the truth claims of Christianity arrogant, exclusive, and divisive? Well, without detailing all of them, it's clear that some of them, some of the most basic, are not.
For example, the Christian claim that there is only one God may theoretically be viewed to exclude those who are polytheists or atheists. But in reality, it doesn't. For what that claim entails is that there only one God, and I am not Him, and neither are you. It puts us all on equal footing.
But the Christian claim goes further. It is not just that there happens to be one God and here we happen to be in this corner of the galaxy. The claim is that God created us intentionally and specially. He took some dust of the earth, formed a man, and breathed His life into Him. In doing so, God made the man like Himself. Then God made a woman out of that man, so that the man and woman would be counterparts to each other--different persons but of the same substance. And together these man and woman, and all their offspring after them, bear the image of the God who created them. This puts us all not only on equal footing, but also on special footing. This image-bearingness that you have and I have and everyone has means that all of us are special, inherently, by our very nature. Our very existence displays the glory of God, even before we do or say or believe anything. Therefore, any action or attitude or word that would seek to exclude or divide someone else from the glory that it is to bear the image of God cannot be consistent with the Christian truth claim--no matter what the one doing or thinking or saying it claims. And perpetrations of hatred or aggression can never be the outflow of a truly Christian truth claim.
So when a cross of ashes on the forehead reminds us of the Christian claim that "from dust you were created and unto dust you will return," it is not done so to devalue the life and dignity of human beings. Rather it reminds us that of all the things that God could have done with the lump of dust that makes you up, what He chose to do was create you. He chose to create you to bear His image and display His glory in your part of the world. No matter what you have done and no matter what you believe, you cannot erase that image from your existence. It may be distorted; it may be overwhelmed and hijacked and enslaved by sin, but it cannot be eradicated. And in that cross we see the extent that God would go to in order to restore and redeem and free you to bear His image fully.
boon-dog-gle: (noun) work of little or no value done merely to keep or look busy.
free: (adjective) provided without, or not subject to, a charge or payment.
"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people."