It’s an old problem; religious pluralism was one of the first hurdles that Christians in the early church faced. The Roman Empire was composed of a wide variety of religious choices, including the imperial cult that deified the emperor. Historian Larry W. Hurtado wrote that in the Roman era, Christianity was considered “a dangerous development” as well as “irreligious, impious, and unacceptable, a threat to social order.” Thus, the earliest Christian apologists were concerned with defending their faith against such hostility and in a society abounding with religious options
Likewise, we in the West no longer have one dominant religion or worldview. You can no longer assume that Christianity is the default religion of a person in America. Apologist Paul Copan calls this descriptive religious pluralism. However, the religious pluralism that we see today is also a new problem in that it is not merely a collection of equal if competing philosophies. Instead, it is itself celebrated as a value and philosophy. To celebrate pluralism means that the multiplicity of spiritual options and the marketplace of worldviews is not simply a fact to be accepted but an ideal to pursue and a value to uphold. Copan calls this prescriptive religious pluralism.
Why religion gets a bad rap
Have you ever heard someone say that it’s intolerant to believe that your faith is the only true religion? Perhaps you have encountered someone who told you that it is arrogant and dangerous to say that only one religion can be true. These are expressions of religious pluralism, and they come from a deep place of mistrust in religious truth claims.
For example, I was once discussing faith with an agnostic friend. He shared with me how he was open to spirituality but believed that dogma was a dangerous belief. Through discussion it became clear to me that by dogma he meant any claim a religious person makes that their faith is more true than another.
Religious pluralists also point to the many examples of wars and violence over religion throughout human history. A recent example would be the extremism of Islamic terrorists and the attack on 9/11. Journalist John Burke wrote an article titled “Four Ways 9/11 Changed America’s Attitude Toward Religion” and noted that in the wake of the terrorist attacks, millennials were quick to call out and criticize the divisiveness of religion. He referenced Harvard student Sarrah Shahawy, who advocates for interfaith dialogue because “9/11 showed the destructive potential of any exclusive claims to religious truth.” Shahawy was quoted, “For one religious group to claim a monopoly on truth should be obsolete.”
Where pluralism falls short
The world’s answer is the philosophy of religious pluralism. Oprah Winfrey once said, “There are millions of ways to be a human being and many paths to what you call God. There couldn’t possibly be just one way.” Oprah’s statement references a common illustration for religious pluralism — the story that all religions are like various pathways leading up a mountain. Though they follow a different route, each one is ascending to the same reality.
This philosophy is largely based upon the “pluralistic hypothesis” of the philosopher John Hick. Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis was that all religions and beliefs are various expressions of the same divine reality. Each religion is simply one viewpoint from that founder’s or writer’s perspective of who (or what) God is.
The most famous illustration for this is the story of the blind men and the elephant. According to this parable, the world’s religions are like blind men feeling different parts of an elephant. One man might feel the belly and claim that the being is large and round, while another man feels the trunk and claims that the being is actually long and slender. Religious pluralism declares that in the same way, every religion and worldview is an expression of one perspective on the same thing. This is why your Christian faith might be criticized as “intolerant.” From the pluralist’s perspective, you are arrogantly asserting your view over others that are equally legitimate.
How can Christians thoughtfully critique this philosophy that is deeply embedded in our culture? Again, the central tenet of religious pluralism is that “All religions are equally valid and have the same truth value.” First, we should reply that this statement is logically invalid. If all of the world’s religions had the same truth value, then we should expect them to be in basic agreement about the largest questions. For example, Christianity, Judaism and Islam declare that God is a personal being who is separate from the rest of creation. Meanwhile, most Eastern spiritualities are pantheistic, meaning that God is an impersonal divine force and is one with all of reality. It is logically invalid to say that God is both personal and impersonal at the same time. So all religions cannot be equally valid and true.
Second, this assumption of pluralism is morally unacceptable. Were the ancient religions which required child sacrifice equally true and good? Is a cannibalistic religion just as valid as Buddhism or Christianity? We could point to the religion of an Islamic extremist versus a peaceful, loving Muslim. Certainly the beliefs of the latter are morally better than the former. Religious pluralism is unable to make moral judgments and abandons us to the mercies of a relativism that cannot prevent injustices.
Finally, the philosophy of religious pluralism is self-defeating. The illustration of the blind men and the elephant reveals the pluralist’s hypocrisy. After all, in the illustration all of the religions are represented by blind men, but the viewpoint of the pluralist has comprehensive sight. No one else can see and understand as the pluralist is able to do. Therefore, while claiming to be tolerant, religious pluralism demands just as much assent to its view as anyone else. While claiming to equally affirm and honor every religion, religious pluralism dishonors the reality of various worldviews and their differences, and instead makes its own exclusive claims. Under the guise of humility and tolerance, religious pluralism fails its own test.
A Christian response
Christianity may not appear capable of placating the religious pluralists since the Bible asserts that Jesus is the only way to salvation. However, we have already showed that pluralism is just as exclusive to other viewpoints as any religion. Here are three points for a Christian response to religious pluralism.
Christianity is exclusive in its claim to salvation only through the name of Jesus.
We should neither hedge that statement nor loosen our commitment to it. Salvation is only possible by the work of Jesus Christ and we are saved only through faith in His name. When Peter preached before the Sanhedrin he boldly declared, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Likewise, Paul rejected that all religions are different pathways up the same mountain when he wrote, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…” (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
Christianity is the most inclusive of all the exclusive options.
Every religion is exclusive in that it is making a truth claim. The truth claims of the gospel are the most inclusive of any faith for two reasons. First, Paul urged Timothy to pray for “everyone” because “it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4). The God of Christianity desires that every person be saved. As Jesus himself said, “For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The second reason Christianity is the most inclusive option is that the gospel offers us salvation by grace, not works. Every other religion tells you that you can be saved if you are good enough or wise enough. Therefore, they are only for the good, intelligent and strong. Christianity offers salvation to the wicked, the weak and spiritually sick (Mark 2:17).
The contours of the gospel form a people to be respectful, civil and loving towards their neighbors who disagree with them.
Pluralists are concerned with what can happen when religious adherents take the tenets of their faith too seriously. What would be the result of Christians taking their faith seriously? What would Christian radicals look like? If we truly have a radical faith, then we will be obeying the Hero who died for the villains and told His followers to love their enemies. The way to sow peace in our pluralistic society is for Christians to diligently follow Jesus, and in our obedience to be shaped into people who look more like Him.
Copyright 2020 Aaron Shamp. All rights reserved.