the "problem of gandhi"

In my earlier post about comparing religions, I introduced something I’ve pondered for a little while that I call the “problem of Gandhi.” Check the first post for an introduction for some context to that way of phrasing it (it’s near the end of the post). But here I think I’m articulating the “problem” as I see it a little more clearly.

For the “problem of Gandhi” I’m not really thinking of a problem of people thinking, “hey, there’s a guy who was really good. Why would God leave him out?” Christianity is not about being “good enough” for God or earning our salvation. But that is not where I’m going with the “problem.” I am talking, instead, of a problem of making the case for Christianity from its affects on its adherents.

Maybe I should put the question this way instead of how I worded it in the original post:
(1) God is good and created us good.
(2) We’re not good due to our rejection of God, the source of all goodness.
(3) A big part of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is to reconcile us to him who is good (justification) and to restore us to being good as he is good (santification). We should add here that Wesley (whom I follow on this) taught that God in his grace (prevenient), does restore a measure of goodness to us (a) so that we may live together without total anarchy and (b) so that we may have the ability to respond to the gospel.

Given these statements, would we not be warranted in saying that whenever people live out goodness they are somehow reflecting or connecting with God, the source of all goodness? If so, when we find cases in which someone lived out goodness exceptionally well, would we not be warranted in thinking that the connection with God, the source of all goodness, would be exceptional as well?

I think that’s a logical move and a common and intuitive one for most people. The question is, if Christianity is true and Christ is both God’s full self-revelation and his only salvation for humanity, then how do we explain someone whose life seems to reflect, in their lived goodness, an exceptional connection to God, the source of all goodness?

One way people explain that is to move away from the exclusive claims of Christ’s person and saving work. I have a problem with that. So, I’m looking for other alternatives. The alternatives that have potential from my previous post that may align with this understanding of both Jesus as the exclusive Savior of the world and my “problem of Gandhi” would be soft exclusivism or inclusivism. Pluralism would not. Nor would strict exclusivism.

What say ye?

Published by Guy M Williams

Christian | Husband, Father | Pastor | 8th-Gen Texan | Texas A&M ‘96 | Asbury Seminary ‘01 | Enjoy family, reading, running, golf, college football

6 thoughts on “the "problem of gandhi"

  1. Some initial Friday night thoughts:
    1. God sends rain on the just and the unjust. God likes being good to people – and I think this might go as far as displaying his goodness in people whether they ask for it or have an adequate theory of it or not. We can see this as an extension of the Common Grace of Calvinism.

    2. We – the Western Christian tradition – have too often traded salvation for merely going to heaven when we die. If holiness (can we call this God’s goodness displayed in our character?) is treated as either impossible in this life, only for the few, or just one option at the spirituality cafeteria, how many would coose it? Sure looks like very few. I think this is a case of our poor theories getting in the way of what God wants to do.

    3. We need to keep our concept of goodness under critical view. Goodness is not something we just know when we see it. It is possible for people to throw up “good people constructs” as suggested impediments to theology. The best strategy I can think of is just praising God for good people and for any good that not so good people do.

  2. One of the things that makes wrestling with the example of Ghandi hard is that Ghandi was not just a person who did good things. He was a person shaped by study of the Word and the biblical worldview.

    There is not a strong tradition of active resistance to injustice in the Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, or Confuciusian faiths. This prophetic role is a Judeo-Christian concept, from someone who was raised in western schools, studied the bible deeply (and knew the bible far better then the gita), and who embodied much of what we understand to be the way of Jesus.

    So speaking of Ghandi just as someone who was a gentile, that acted in such a way to suggest some of God’s law was inscribed on his heart; may not be accurate.

    Perhaps a different way to phrase this problem is to call it “The problem of wheat and tares.” This is what happens when humans try and seperate wheat from weeds.


    Given these statements, would we not be warranted in saying that whenever people live out goodness they are somehow reflecting or connecting with God, the source of all goodness?

    That sounds pretty simular to the Johnian position. Is a future article going to be the Johnian problem ;)

  3. Hi, Nate,

    Thanks for your comments. I must press you on the “wheat and tares.” The parable of the wheat and the tares is best understood, I think, as referring the people of God–namely, the Church–rather than humanity in general.

    Gandhi certainly seemed to embody the way of Jesus far more authentically than many, even most, Christians do. But my point is that he never became professed Christian faith himself even though he was friends with one of the great Christian missionaries of the 20th century, a Methodist, E. Stanley Jones. Gandhi, though he followed the teaching and example of Christ, could not be said (to the best of my knowledge) to have received the Christian gospel. I think this precise distinction presses the issue pretty forcefully.

  4. Guy,

    As a person prone to typos, can I ask you to expand the statement:

    “my point is that he never became professed Christian faith”

    Is the question one of what someone professes, (say a christian faith)? Is it about who someone becomes (say a christian or child of God)? Is it about who someone becomes like (perfection)?

    I am not sure those are all the exact same thing. Would you disagree?

  5. ha ha ha… yes, thanks for catching that. I was probably way to tired to be typing anything at the time. It should read: “my point is that he never professed Christian faith…”

    As for your other questions: Where I’m working from is this. Due to my basic theological commitments, I reject pluralism. If one held different commitments, then pluralism is one way to explain the presence of persons of extraordinary goodness who’s religious commitments were varied and even seemingly (according to pluralism) divergent.

    Your 3 questions are good ones. But orthodox Christianity has claimed that they are interrelated–profession, belonging, imitation. We maintain a commitment to salvation (that is, reconciliation and union with God) “by grace through faith” and we maintain that this initiates us into a process of being formed into the likeness of Christ.

    For Gandhi (as an example), we see a remarkable example related to your 3rd question of who someone becomes like. But it is divorced from Q’s 1 and 2. To begin, we would need to ask: Do not we believe in salvation “by grace through faith” and not “by works”?

    Need to go now, but will get to more later.

    How does this conversation relate with my thoughts in the comparing religions, part 2 blog? I think this dialogue might be helped by my second part to this “problem of Gandhi” blog that I’m working on presently. I’m happy to continue here, but know that I am formulating some thoughts for another post in the next week-ish.

  6. Guy,

    I would affirm my Orthodoxy by agreeing that the questions of Profession, Belonging, and Becoming are related. I am not sure they are the same thing however. By that I mean to suggest that people become more like Christ before they profess and I would even be comfortable affirming that someone already can belong to God before they profess faith (perhaps wider then previant grace but in the same direction).

    In that I want to totally reject the faith vrs works discussion. I am not suggesting that God should accept Ganhdi because Ganhdi did good things, I am sugggesting that the fruit of Ganhdi’s life suggest acting in faith and thus membership in the kingdom.

    I think many christians have linked a public profession of faith to having faith. I think acting in faith, is different from the typical construct of profession. But both speak of having faith. Surely there is no sinners prayer, no asking for a personal relationship w/Jesus Christ, no public baptism and accepting of vows in Ganhdi’s life.

    I guess my question from your previous blog is to ask can a person become a christian without publicly professing christianity?

    I love your question at the end of the blog:

    The question is, if Christianity is true and Christ is both God’s full self-revelation and his only salvation for humanity, then how do we explain someone whose life seems to reflect, in their lived goodness, an exceptional connection to God, the source of all goodness?

    One way to do so is to move away from the exclusive claim of Jesus the Christ as the way, the door, etc. I am suggesting that based on my best read of history … Gandhi’s life suggests that his goodness comes from direct interaction with the person of Christ, but that interaction did not involve a public profession. I am just not sure if that position fits into your soft/hard exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism catagories.

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