During the days following the catastrophic terrorist events of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush called for a national day of prayer.
He urged people of all faiths to pray for America. Interfaith religious services were televised from the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. and from Yankee Stadium in New York. These services included clerics from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. They offered prayers to the God collectively addressed as "the God of Abraham, the God of Muhammad, and the Father of Jesus Christ." Popular television personality Oprah Winfrey led the service held in New York City and boldly declared that all people pray to the same God.
Is Oprah right? Do Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus worship the same God? If so, people of all faiths can live peaceably in this world, can't they?
Religious pluralism is the view that all religions, certainly all major or ethical religions, are equally valid paths to God or to ultimate reality. For the pluralist, many religious roads lead to God and salvation. And yet, given the present cultural milieu of globalism, multiculturalism, relativism (in both truth and morality), and especially the postmodern spirit, the growing climate of religious pluralism poses a serious challenge to the integrity of the Christian faith.
Popular Religious Pluralism
Entering the twenty-first century, America embodies significant ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious diversity. Urban and suburban dwellers come from all parts of the globe. One's next-door neighbor to the right might come from Southeast Asia or Australia. The one to the left might originate from India, Africa, Europe, or the Middle East. America, as a democratic nation, places great value on the principle of tolerance, especially the tolerance of religious expression. The Bill of Rights guarantees American citizens the right to free exercise of religion.
Unfortunately, some people take the notion of equal toleration of religious expression to mean that all religions are equally true, thus equally valid paths to God. In effect, democracy has been applied to ultimate truth.1 This seemingly "politically correct" approach to religion, though popular in this culture, represents deeply convoluted thinking. The acceptance of social pluralism (tolerance of diverse religious expression) does not logically imply the truth of metaphysical pluralism (that all religious truth claims are equally valid and simultaneously true).
The popular notion that all religions are true ignores three imperative considerations. In order to think through and respond to the issue of religious pluralism, one must recognize and understand each of these points.
1. While the religions of the world do share some common beliefs and especially moral values, fundamental and irreconcilable differences clearly divide them on many crucially important issues, including the nature of God, the source and focus of revelation, the human predicament, the nature of salvation, and the destiny of mankind.2 A plethora of views exists just concerning the nature of God (or ultimate reality). Some religions affirm monotheism (one God); others, polytheism (many gods); still others affirm pantheism (all is God); and some even affirm atheism (no God).3 In Judaism4 and Islam, God is personal (and singular); in Christianity God is clearly more than personal and singular (superpersonaland triune5); while in strands of Hinduism and Buddhism God is less than personal and singular (apersonal and diffuse).6
Some of the world's religious traditions view God as wholly transcendent (beyond the world), others as wholly immanent (within the world), and still others as both transcendent and immanent. Some religions view God as infinite in nature and nonidentifiable with the world, whereas in other religions God is finite and identified with the world. Clearly no universal agreement exists among the world's religions as to who or what God really is. As scholar Harold A. Netland states, "Careful examination of the basic tenets of the various religious traditions demonstrates that, far from teaching the same thing, the major religions have radically different perspectives on the religious ultimate."7
Identifying mankind's ultimate problem (sin, ignorance, unenlightenment), the necessary human response (faith, obedience, meditation), and how that dilemma must be resolved in terms of encountering the divine (salvation, liberation, enlightenment) creates other stark contrasts between religions. Fundamental differences exist between the dominant religion of the West, Christianity, and the dominant religion of the East, Hinduism. Christianity affirms that redemption in Christ for the believer involves an eternal personal relationship with God in the afterlife. Hinduism, on the other hand, affirms a cycle of rebirths leading ultimately to the absorption of one's individual consciousness into God or ultimate reality. Those two visions of future reality are simply irreconcilable.8
2. The religions of the world are so diverse in belief and in worldview orientation that they defy attempts to reduce them to a single common theme or essence. Indeed, this vast and complex array of religious perspectives makes religious reductionism a dubious venture altogether. Oxford theologian Alister E. McGrath notes, "There is a growing consensus that it is seriously misleading to regard the various religious traditions of the world as variations on a single theme."9
Netland draws a similar conclusion about attempts to consolidate the religions according to a single salvific (relating to salvation) objective: "It is highly misleading to speak as if all religions share a common soteriological goal and simply differ on the means to reach it."10
Attempts to reduce a variety of religions to their lowest common denominator usually succeed only in distorting the religions. Homogenizing the religions is a costly price to pay to solve the problems of religious diversity, for in the end the religions must sacrifice the very features that make them unique and appealing in the first place. Moreover, the various religions do not easily conform to any particular reductionistic category.
While some rightly identify similar ethical values as a common motif, upon closer inspection it becomes evident that even the similar moral principles are motivated by, and grounded in, fundamentally different views of the nature of reality. Religion cannot be reduced simply to ethics, for religion makes claims about the ultimate nature of reality (metaphysics), to which ethics appeal for justification. The renowned authority on world religions, Cal Berkeley professor Huston Smith, clearly rejects the notion all religions are basically the same:
For as soon as [the notion of sameness] moves beyond vague generalities––'every religion has some version of the Golden Rule'––it founders on the fact that the religions differ in what they consider essential and nonnegotiable.11
The similar ethical values shared by religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism cannot be separated from the distinctive doctrines promoted by those particular religions. This distinctiveness is especially true in terms of historic Christianity; for Christianity is not primarily a system of ethics. Instead, Christian ethics flow from a redemptive relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore the ethical teachings of Jesus in the New Testament cannot be separated from the unique Christian doctrines that emerge directly from the great redemptive events of Jesus' life (such as the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection). In other words, the truth of Christian ethics is tied to the truth of Christian theology.
3. Formal laws of logic demonstrate the impossibility that all religious truth claims can be true at the same time and in the same way (the law of noncontradiction: A cannot equal A and non-A). For example, Jesus Christ cannot both be God incarnate (Christianity) and not be God incarnate (Judaism, Islam). Contradictory religious claims have opposite truth value, meaning that they negate or deny each other. Therefore exactly one is true and the other false. And, accordingly, Jesus Christ must either be God incarnate or not be God incarnate; no middle position is possible (the law of excluded middle: either A or non-A).
Since Jews, Christians, and Muslims all conceive the identity of Jesus of Nazareth differently, logically speaking, their conceptions simply can't all be true. While it is logically possible that all three positions are false, they definitely cannot all be true. Thus, the claims of popular religious pluralism fail to comport with the self-evident laws of thought. This fact led Christian philosopher Ronald H. Nash to conclude that "any one who would become a pluralist must first abandon the very principles of logic that make all significant thought, action, and communication possible."12
Some people argue that applying logic to religion is false or misleading. They insist that ultimate truth comes only through some type of nonrational intuition. Their argument betrays them, however, because in arguing against logic they must first presuppose the laws of logic to attempt a refutation. To do so is, of course, self-contradictory. As Christian apologists Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks point out, "Even those who claim, 'Logic does not apply to God,' use logic in that very statement."13
To divorce oneself from the self-evident laws of thought when it comes to ultimate reality is to resign oneself to irrationality. Netland explains a price too great for most people to pay because it requires the "forfeiture of the possibility of meaningful affirmation or statement about anything at all––including statements about the religious ultimate. One who rejects the principle of noncontradiction is reduced to utter silence, for he or she has abandoned a necessary condition for any coherent or meaningful position whatsoever."14
A Philosophical Approach to Pluralism
Some philosophers and religious scholars believe there is a way of making religious pluralism intellectually tenable. Could it be, perhaps, that the contradictions among the world's religions are only apparent rather than real? That is, maybe all the religions are experiencing the same divine reality but in different ways? After all, isn't an encounter with a mysterious and unfathomable God at the core of most religions? Surely God transcends the finite human mind.
The prominent pluralist thinker, John Hick,15 employs a common Eastern way of illustrating this point, called the elephant analogy. In this analogy, several blind men encounter an elephant for the first time. Each feels a different part of the animal, then attempts to determine truth about the essence of its being. One man pats a leg and sees the elephant as a "living pillar." Another man grasps the trunk and beholds a snake. The man who rubs the tusk believes the elephant to be a "sharp plough-share." Though each individual expresses one important aspect of the whole reality, none comprehends the complete entity.16
According to this analogy, one may attribute the differences among the world's religions to mankind's inability to grasp the infinite reality of God. Hick applies the famous Kantian objective/subjective distinction of the world as it is (the objective noumenal world), from the world as it appears to human consciousness (the subjective phenomenal world) to the problem of religious diversity. He argues that one must distinguish between ultimate reality as it is (the divine "noumena"), from ultimate reality as experienced by finite human beings (the divine phenomena).
Hick's pluralistic theory places the ultimate divine reality beyond the particular deities of the various religions. This divine ultimate is not experienced directly, but instead is filtered through the different historical and cultural lenses of mankind. Thus people encounter the same divine reality (Mohammed, Krishna, Jesus) differently because of their differing historical, cultural, or philosophical perceptions and biases. He further explains:
These different personae are thus partly projections of the divine Reality into human consciousness, and partly projections of the human consciousness itself as it has been formed by particular historical cultures.17
For Hick, each religion is valid because each faith provides a genuine (though obviously limited) encounter with ultimate reality. The world's religions represent "different 'faces' or 'masks' or personae of God, the Ultimate Reality."18 And, since Hick thinks that religion is ultimately about existential transformation (ethics) and not about specific doctrinal beliefs, then all religious paths are acceptable because all the major religions are capable of transforming a person from being "self-centered" to being "divine-centered." Hick views religious pluralism as a much more attractive hypothesis than either total "skepticism" of religion on one hand or traditional religious "dogmatism" on the other.
In response to Hick's philosophical pluralism, while his pluralistic vision appeals to many for both its apparent tolerance and its attempted unification of religion, it is nevertheless fraught with serious problems. An examination of Hick's views should begin with careful scrutiny of the elephant analogy.
In thinking about the elephant analogy, no one questions the reality of biases and limited knowledge on the part of mankind when encountering God, but these concessions do nothing to shore up this analogy's central weaknesses as it relates to pluralism. The elephant analogy seems to imply a radical skepticism concerning one's knowledge of God; namely, that no one, or in this case no religion, can really know God satisfactorily.19 But if God is by-and-large unknowable, then how is one able to know that God is unknowable?20 In fact, for that matter, would one even know that God exists? How does Hick know so much about the inner workings of the incomprehensible ultimate reality? Especially since this ultimate reality—in Hick's view—does not reveal itself in nature nor in propositions.
Ironically, while the elephant analogy attempts to validate the truth of all religions, it really succeeds in showing that all religions fail to adequately reveal God. So rather than affirming religious truth, the analogy demonstrates that all religions, at least in large measure, are false or misleading.21 The religions may indeed provide some core ethical values, but as was noted previously, these similar moral values are motivated by, and grounded in, essentially different views of the nature of reality. In religion, ethics cannot be divorced from metaphysical truth claims. What is good must be understood in light of what is real and true. Actions do not exist in a vacuum apart from truth.
The analogy is especially flawed, however, when viewed from the standpoint of historic orthodox Christianity. According to Christianity, God has personally entered the world of time and space in the historical person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1, 14, 18). This same Jesus makes exclusive claims to divine authority and possesses the prerogatives of deity which are incompatible with the homogenizing and accommodating views of religious pluralists (e.g., John 8:58, 10:30).22
To accommodate pluralism's unknowable God, Christianity would be forced to give up all of its distinctive doctrines, including the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Atonement. As Oxford theologian Alister E. McGrath noted, "The identity of Christianity is inextricably linked with the uniqueness of Christ, which is in turn grounded in the Resurrection and Incarnation."23 If the analogy were to reflect historic Christianity, one would find the elephant healing the men's blindness and personally introducing himself. For the Christian claim is that God is personally, intimately, uniquely, and decisively disclosed in the Jesus Christ.
For the elephant analogy to work and for religious pluralism to be true, the claims of historic Christianity must be false. For according to Jesus' words in the New Testament, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). "If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well" (John 14:7). Again, central to the message of historic Christianity is the astounding claim that God came to Earth in the flesh and has been personally known among men.
The Apostle Paul's words directly summarize this central Christian truth: "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Col. 2:9). Moreover, a fair reading of the New Testament reveals that faith in Jesus Christ is considered the unique and only way of encountering God. "Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'" (John 14:6). The apostle Peter declared concerning Jesus, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
Hick's reasons for embracing religious pluralism over historic, orthodox Christianity (the faith of his youth) is found in his rejection of the Bible as a propositional revelation from God and in his conviction that the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is both unhistorical and logically incoherent.24 He argues vociferously that the Incarnation is a myth.25 Hick also views historic Christianity's position of religious exclusivism as intellectually narrow and morally unacceptable. But Hick's bold rejection of the truth-claims of historic Christianity creates a logical problem for his broad pluralistic claim.
Christian philosopher C. Stephen Evans points out that "it is an essential part of Christian faith that Jesus is God in a unique and exclusive way. It follows from this that all religions cannot be equally true. If all religions are equally true, then Christianity is false, and therefore not all religions are true."26 In the end, the correct position must be one of these two: (1) Christianity and all other exclusive religions are wrong, and the rest of the religions, which are inclusive, are right; or (2) all religions are metaphysically wrong. In other words, what pluralism succeeds in doing is redefining religion along the line of ethical transformation and simply dismissing any concrete truth claims that might end up creating contradictions among the religions. In a very real sense a pluralist cannot take the truth claims of any religion seriously.
While some individuals believe that the exclusive claims of Christianity are provincial and arrogant, in reality their own pluralistic claims are dismissive of virtually all of a religions' distinctive features. Further, their view provides something other than a neutral or objective analysis of religion. For the idea of an unknowable ultimate reality is closely connected to an Eastern monistic understanding of the divine. Such proponents appear to be taking the greatly presumptuous position that they, unlike the religions of the world, really know the elephant.
Mythical Truth or Historical Truth
Pluralist thinkers such as Joseph Campbell have argued that all religions can be simultaneously true because all religions merely make mythical and/or poetical claims, not historical, factual truth-claims. This assertion of course means that the religions of the world are metaphorically true but literally false.27
However, again, this view flies in the face of historic orthodox Christianity. Whether one is inclined to accept them or not, the truth-claims of Christianity are historical and factual in nature. Jesus of Nazareth was born under the reign of Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, and He suffered and died at the hands of an equally real Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The historic Christian faith consistently resists and defies all attempts to homogenize and mythologize its central truth-claims. The apostles saw Jesus' resurrection from the dead and reported it as an historical-factual event.
The apostle Peter proclaimed: "We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Pet. 1:16).28 According to the laws of logic and the historical veracity of Scripture, pluralism, no matter how popular, cannot be true.
Points to Remember
- World religions defy attempts to reduce them to a single common theme for example:
— The nature of God––one God, many Gods, no God; singular, triune; personal, superpersonal, apersonal; immanent, transcendent, or both; finite or infinite.
— Mankind's ultimate problem (sin, ignorance, unenlightenment), the necessary human response (faith, obedience, meditation), and how that dilemma is resolved in terms of encountering the divine (salvation, liberation, enlightenment).
- Formal laws of logic make it impossible that all religious truth claims can be true at the same time and in the same way.
- Whenever the claims of one religion directly contradict (negate or deny) the claims of another religion, then both of these claims cannot be true. Jesus Christ cannot both be God incarnate (Christianity) and not be God incarnate (Judaism, Islam).
- A person arguing against logic must first presuppose the laws of logic to attempt a refutation. This is self-contradictory.
- Unique and central to the message of historic Christianity is the astounding claim that God came to Earth in theflesh and can be personally known among men.