Since the year 2000, the world has been confronted with the “Coexist” bumper sticker. This small but mighty bumper billboard creatively substitutes symbols of different world religions and ideologies for particular letters of the word “Coexist.” The image was first produced by graphic designer Piotr Młodożeniec who used it in an international art competition sponsored by the Museum on the Seam for Dialogue, Understanding, and Coexistence.
Admittedly, many times when I have met this bumper sticker in the past, I have done so with a certain frustration. This frustration, I believe, arose out of a disagreement with the dictates of the pithy proclamation, coupled with a lack of the particular knowledge and articulation of a tenable defense. Yet, to paraphrase Thomas Sowell, you know you are in trouble when you realize that a person’s one or two line statement is going to require hours and paragraphs to begin to refute. And ultimately, what real dialogue is possible anyway, when the other person is not only inaccessible, but is literally about to flee the scene?
First, we should ask: What is right about the “Coexist” bumper sticker philosophy? Undoubtedly, every person we meet, regardless of their convictions and beliefs, is worthy of our love and respect. Hearing another person out gives them dignity. In this sense, we are absolutely called to tolerate and coexist with others. Hatred, division, and violence is never a part of the answer, let alone a way of living to which Jesus calls us.
However, while we are called to charitably tolerate every person, we are not obliged—in principle–to tolerate any and every idea. The question remains: What is wrong about the “Coexist” bumper gospel?
I think that there are two problematic aspects to the “Coexist” philosophy. Certainly, no common person wants to stand out and object to such a seemingly compassion-centered approach to others. Yet these issues need to be realized, outlined, and proclaimed, as there are far too many Christians who are borderline complicit, if not intentionally so, with this questionable philosophical worldview.
The two problematic outcomes of the “Coexist” worldview manifest in either insanity or tyranny.
Ultimately, objective truth exists, whether one wants it to be so or not. Without the journey to objective truth, in which humanity necessarily participates, all becomes nonsense. Language and conversation itself would not, in fact, be possible without the objective tenets of linguistics. If objective truth did not exist we would not even be able to talk to each other, let alone share anything of substance.
Simply said by Chesterton, “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.” Humanity—endowed with reason and will—was created to live with adventure and conviction. It was not created to settle for and embrace a relativistic apathy that is rationally and existentially crippling. If every religion and ideology truly existed on the same playing field with no winner in the end, then why really believe anything? Life then comes down to mere preferences with no real incentive to invest one’s life in anything.
Tyranny manifests when the “Coexist” philosophy is embraced by an increasingly prevalent and influential atheistic, progressive modernism. Among this group, there exists a great intolerance to those who disagree with their particular worldview. Here, there is little room for disbelief in the literal nonsense of unbridled relativism. Real conversation is thrust aside and an accusatory litany of “ists” and “isms” are forcibly introduced. Ironically, this divisive outcome, in fact, works against the initial goal of embracing peacefully coexisting belief.
Fundamentally, no Christian can completely embrace the “Coexist” worldview, charitable interaction excluded. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. It is through Jesus’ existence that humanity has access to the Father and through his sacrifice on the cross that all of humanity has the opportunity of receiving salvation, regardless of creed or upbringing.
That being said, the Church—in recognizing the greatness of God’s love and mercy—holds to the possibility of salvation for persons of other faiths and creeds. The Catechism states, “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation” (CCC 847; emphasis added). This understanding does not, however, conveniently exempt one from honestly seeking the truth, nor does it exempt the Church from boldly proclaiming the Gospel. It is Jesus’ desire that all may be one and that all may come to know the fullness of truth.
Any Christian who owns a “Coexist” bumper sticker need not completely fret, but needs to seriously start asking questions: Why do I believe what I believe? How do I know it’s true? Do these beliefs impact my life in any tangible way, or are they just a part of my background information, casually and sporadically referenced? Do I value others sharing my own beliefs because I know them to highlight the true path, or are they just preferences that need not be shared?
These probing questions would, in fact, be good for any Christian to ask of themselves as, unfortunately, these essential questions, which help to deepen and activate belief, could be just as quickly and easily passed over by any Christian, bumper sticker or not.