By Karl C. Schaffenburg
The ubiquitous blue COEXIST bumper sticker incorporates symbols of Islam, pacifism, male and female, Judaism, Wicca, Taoism, and Christianity. Piotr Młodozeniec, a Polish graphic artist, created the original COEXIST image. Various companies sell merchandise with some form of the image, and — o a note of inevitable conflict — some have threatened legal action to protect their control of profits. At it core the image represents a belief that spiritual harmony can be wished into existence.
What is not to admire in this goal? Why would a Christian hesitate to display this sticker during a daily commute? We may begin with how philosophy — that supposedly esoteric pursuit — matters in our everyday lives. A fundamental rule of logic is the “law of noncontradiction”: a statement cannot be both true and untrue.
Consider how the Abrahamic faiths understand Jesus Christ. At John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me.” Judaism considers Jesus a prophet but not the Messiah. In Islam, Isa (Jesus) is a messenger of God. Islam makes the specific claim that revelation did not end with “the people of the book” (the Jews) or with the prophet Isa, but with Muhammad.
Jesus cannot coexist with contradictory claims to truth made in other faiths. If Jesus had been content with coexistence he might have escaped crucifixion. We should live peaceably with all people (Rom. 12:18), but we ought not reduce this peace to a glib assertion that all paths lead to God. The assertion that all faiths are the same and there is no exclusive truth is itself a doctrine, and one that excludes all but the universalist. It represents an incoherent quest for tolerance.
What, then, about a coherent philosophy of tolerance? What about the idea that all faiths contain and reveal some elements of truth? This is, in fact, classical Christian doctrine. In Anglicanism we confess that our faith is informed by Scripture, reason, and tradition. Reason, sometimes referred to as natural law, says that because human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26) we have an ability to observe creation and gain some knowledge about God the Creator. We can apprehend truth. Faith is a human act, and in non-Christian religions we still find a very human seeking after truth. We recognize in each other a shared humanity and seek something (Someone) greater than ourselves.
The real danger of COEXIST, besides sloppy thinking, is its underlying assumption that how we live is ultimately a matter of human agency. The lessons of history, across societies, make clear that we will never achieve peace and harmony on our own. The purpose of life is determined from beyond humanity. Living in a society in which there is no dysfunction (even if this were possible) is not the same as attaining the kingdom of heaven, in which we are one with our Creator and see “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Coexistence that treats Jesus Christ merely as an important moral teacher disregards that he revealed himself as God and reduces the saving act of God to a set of rules. It claims that if we live in a certain way we will attain salvation, thus toying with Pelagianism. For this reason, COEXIST is unworthy of anything more than a bumper sticker.
The Rev. Karl C. Schaffenburg is rector of Grace Church, Sheboygan.