Pluralism: A Theological Challenge

Week of Monday, November 19, 2001

Christian:“Who can doubt that the Christian religion is the true religion or rather the only one?”
Non-Christian:“Almost the whole world.”
—Jean Bodin (1530–1596), Colloquim of the Seven About Secrets of the Sublime 1

In his newly released World Christian Encyclopedia, demographer David Barrett says that about 85 percent of the world's population follows one of the more than 10,000 distinct religions of the world. With 2 billion adherents, no single religion has more followers than Christianity; Muslims number about 1.2 billion, and Hindus not quite a billion. But viewed a bit differently, Christianity is a minority religion, since even after two millennia of missionary efforts, at least 70 percent of the world is not Christian. What is a Christian to think of those 9,999 other religions followed by a large majority of the world? This is the question of theological pluralism, as distinct from mere empirical or civic pluralism. 2

In recent decades, due to a number of influences, many people in the West have come to make a determinative judgment about this state of religious affairs, contending that no one religion can or should claim to be normative or superior to any other religion. This egalitarian and democratic perspective views all religions as equally rational and valid. For example, the traditional Japanese saying—“Although the paths to the summit may differ, from the top one sees the same moon”—suggests that despite their outward differences, all religions are in touch with the same divine reality. Or in the Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Krishna proclaims, “Whatever path men travel is My path; no matter where they walk it leads to me.”3

Viewing the world's 10,000 different religions from this perspective of radical parity comes in two broad versions. At one level, it is widespread in popular culture, the media, entertainment, and the like. For example, all of us have heard at some time the popular cliche, “Don't all the religions really teach the same thing?” At another level, among scholars there are sophisticated, intellectual versions that argue this case, John Hick, perhaps, being preeminent among such people. Both popular culture and the intellectual elite repudiate the traditional Christian position that Jesus Christ alone is the way of salvation, considering it (1) morally repugnant, (2) intellectually untenable, and (3) politically disastrous. Hick speaks for many in our modern culture when in reference to the traditional Christian position he once wrote, “only diehards who are blinded by dogmatic spectacles can persist in such a sublime bigotry.”

My own thinking on this thorny issue tracks along the following nine lines.

  1. A truly pluralistic stance comes at an unacceptably high price, for consistent religious parity would require that David Koresh and Jim Jones are just as valid as Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama, that Hindu widow-burning and Aztec child sacrifice are as valid as Buddhist alms giving and Muslim pilgrimages. I don't buy that for a minute. Some religious views and practices are false and harmful.

  2. All the religions do not teach the same thing. In fact, this is precisely what they do not do. At a superficial level this is partially true; for example, it is easy to document numerous variations of the Golden Rule in diverse religions. But at their deepest levels, the major religions understand ultimate reality very differently, and each one thinks it is true (why else would one be an adherent?!). Muslims, Jews, and Christians are monotheists, Shinto is polytheistic, Theravada Buddhism is non-theistic, and a scientific materialist is atheistic. Perhaps all these views are somehow false, but they cannot all be true.

  3. Pluralism typically addresses the problem of the previous point in one of two ways. Sometimes it appeals to agnosticism, as when Hick says that in itself the Ultimately Real is unknown and unknowable, “forever hidden, beyond the scope of human conception, language, or worship.” Human religions are merely cultural, relative and symbolic expressions of the Real. But if this sauce is good for the goose, it is good for the pluralist gander, and one is left to wonder (a) how pluralists can claim to know the way things “really” are, and (b) why they argue that all religions are true. Why not argue they are all false? Appealing to agnosticism consigns all religion, including pluralism, to one big Empty Referent about which we cannot say anything at all with confidence.

    Pluralists also try to identify a “common essence” in all religions. But to do this they must identify some lowest common denominator in all religions (so as to include all religions). In doing so they infer that all religions, in fact, are wrong about how they understand themselves. The “remarkable irony”, of course, is that this is patronizing intolerance in the extreme, the very thing pluralism wants to avoid at all costs. 4

  4. For a Christian, it is unthinkable that God will treat any person of any time, place or religion unfairly. Rather, we are absolutely confident that He will treat everyone with perfect love and fairness (Job 34:10).

  5. The Christian need not reject everything about other religions. There will be some areas of overlapping agreement, and some areas of disagreement, and it is only the latter that a Christian needs to reject (and in this instance the Christian is far more liberal than the atheist, who must reject all beliefs of all religions).

  6. Broadly speaking, Christians want to hold together two major Biblical themes. First, God desires that no person should perish, but rather than everyone be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). Second, Christ alone is the only basis or means of salvation (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). How these themes of universalism and particularism go together is hard to say. Some, like CS Lewis, believe that a person can be saved by Christ without calling on Christ or following Him.

  7. I don't think it is intolerant to try to convert people. As Netland points out, toleration used to mean “the acceptance in one sense of something one does not accept in another sense.” That is, we should not prohibit, hinder or coerce the beliefs of someone, even though we might disapprove of those beliefs and have the power to interfere. But today there has been a shift so that toleration means never saying anything negative about another religion. “The implication of this new understanding, however, is that any time one disagrees with someone else's sincerely held convictions one is necessarily intolerant.” 5 The pluralist wrongly assumes we cannot be morally good to a person with whom we disagree religiously. Christians should always protect and promote the right of people to hold any or no religious faith, and extend to them unfailing courtesy and kindness, but that does not mean you cannot conclude their beliefs might be false and consequently try to change their minds.6

  8. The challenge of religious pluralism is not unique to Christianity; it is an equal opportunity nemesis with which any and all religions must grapple. By and large, Christianity probably does just as good a job as any other religion in this task. As with the problem of evil, simply rejecting Christianity, or how Christianity handles the challenge of religious pluralism, does not make the problem go away. The equal challenge is there for Muslims, Jews, Zorastrians and the other 9,996 religions Barrett documents.

  9. A long time ago I gave up feeling like I had to solve every theological problem that I ever faced. I realize my understanding of many things is limited in a number of ways. I like Saint Augustine's advice, that we must do our best to seek answers to difficult questions, and that having done that we must “rest patiently in unknowing.” Instead of fretting about what I don't know, I can be practically obedient to what I do know, and one thing I do know is that Jesus commands me to share the good news of His kingdom with all the world.

  1. Cited by Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001, p. 97).
  2. David Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  3. Netland, p. 212.
  4. Netland, p. 246.
  5. Netland, pp. 142–145.
  6. Michael Kinsley makes this exact point in his Time Magazine editorial of February 9, 2001, on trying to convert Jews, “Don't Want to Convert? Just Say No.”

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.