The Only Way to the Only God?
For Sunday May 3, 2009
Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
1 John 3:16–24
Muslim women in Bangalore.
Few opinions generate more incredulity than Peter's proclamation from the lectionary this week: "There is no other name [than Jesus] under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Peter's declaration echoes the very words of Jesus: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).
Peter's uncompromising words not only provoke controversy; they raise an honest question that deserves an honest answer. In his World Christian Encyclopedia (2001) David Barrett identifies 10,000 distinct religions, 150 of which have a million or more followers. Is it reasonable to believe that Jesus is the only way to the only God, and that the other 9,999 religions are false?
What's a Christian to think?
Many people today favor some version of "pluralism" — the belief that no one religion can or should claim to be normative for all people and superior to all others. Consistent pluralism demands a radically egalitarian perspective that grants parity and equal validity to all religions. For example, a traditional Japanese saying suggests that despite their outward differences, all religions connect with the same divine reality — "Although the paths to the summit may differ, from the top one sees the same moon." Or in the Bhagava-Gita of Hinduism Lord Krishna proclaims, "Whatever path men travel is My path; no matter where they walk it leads to me."1
Hasidic Jew in Jerusalem.
There are two broad types of religious pluralism. A "soft" version appears in popular culture, the media, entertainment, and everyday conversations with friends, and is epitomized in the rhetorical question, "Don't all religions really teach the same thing?" A "hard" version among academic scholars like John Hick argues a sophisticated pluralist position in historical, philosophical, and religious treatments of the subject.
Both the soft/popular and hard/scholarly versions of religious pluralism dismiss the words of Peter and Jesus as (1) morally repugnant, (2) intellectually untenable, and (3) politically disastrous. John Hick speaks for many people when he writes of traditional Christian views that "only diehards who are blinded by dogmatic spectacles can persist in such a sublime bigotry."
Religious pluralism sounds and feels good, it tries to capture the moral high ground, and I've always wanted to believe it. But I can't, because I don't think it's true. Instead, I've come to a number of conclusions that, although they don't "solve" the problem, guide my thinking. Like many of life's biggest and most important questions, we don't attain the clarity and certainty we wish, but instead must walk a middle path between saying too much or too little.
* Some religious views and practices seem clearly false, harmful, and even despicable. David Koresh doesn't deserve religious parity with Mother Teresa. Aztec human sacrifice and Buddhist almsgiving shouldn't expect equal allegiance. Hindu widow-burning, female infanticide, phallic worship (Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Rome, India, Japan, Native American), and the mass suicide of 913 people at Jim Jones' "People's Temple" in northern Guyana all strike me as badly wrong. These simple observations raise a telling point — pluralism that consistently treats all religions as equally valid comes at the unacceptably high price of endorsing the diabolical as well as the divine. In truth, most people do not and should not believe that "all religions are true," which is to say that they think that consistent pluralism is wrong because some religions are false.
* The claim that all religions teach the same thing is silly; this is precisely what they do not do. At a general level one can easily document broad similarities among religions, such as various renditions of the Golden Rule. But when you examine the historical and theological particulars of religions you discover drastic differences. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all famous for their "radical monotheism;" they all teach that their religion alone is right about the one true God. But Shinto and many African traditional religions are polytheistic, Therevada Buddhism is non-theistic, and the scientific materialism of a Richard Dawkins is atheistic. Two corollaries follow. It's patronizing in the extreme to say that all religions teach the same thing, to tell a Bahai, for example, that her beliefs are really no different than those of a Rastafarian. Further, contradictory religious claims like the ones I've just mentioned (and we could list many more) might all be false, but they can't all be true — monotheism and polytheism, for example, can't both be right.
* Pluralism acknowledges and tries to solve this problem of conflicting truth claims in two ways. People like John Hick appeal to agnosticism, saying that the "Ultimately Real" (he thinks the word "God" biases the discussion) is unknown and unknowable, "forever hidden beyond the scope of human conception, language, or worship." For Hick religions are imperfect, cultural, relative and symbolic expressions of "the Real." This sounds nice and modest, but if we apply his criterion to his own religious views of pluralism, how can Hick stand "outside" or "above" the discussion and claim to know the way things "really" are? Clearly, he does not think his position is just one imperfect one among others; he thinks that he is right, he wants to persuade us of that, and even convert us to his opinion. Further, why does Hick argue that all religions are true? Why not argue that they are all false? If the appeal to agnosticism remains consistent, you can't confidently claim to know anything about ultimate religious reality. A second strategy identifies a "common essence" in all religions, some lowest common denominator in them all, but this tends toward subjective interpretation, it stumbles upon the previous point, and it distorts how adherents understand their own religious traditions.
* Christians need not reject everything about other religions. They acknowledge areas of both agreement and disagreement, and struggle over the latter. In most areas of human knowledge, when you encounter contradictory views you don't throw up your hands and concede, "they're both true." No, you study hard, make an informed choice, then remain open to further insight. Note, too, how this Christian view is far more tolerant and liberal than atheism. Whereas pluralism claims all religions are true, atheism claims all religions are false; Christians reject both of those positions in favor of a middle ground.
* The conundrum of relating 10,000 religions to each other is not a "Christian" problem per se, but an equal opportunity nemesis that confronts every religion and person. Dismissing the Christian approach as wrongheaded, which is one option, does not solve the problem or make it disappear. It awaits an alternative view from atheists, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and the 9,995 other religions that David Barrett has identified. Nor do we have infinite alternatives; we all operate with limited options. By and large, Christians can do as adequate a job at addressing this thorny issue as believers from other traditions.
* I agree with the liberal Jewish writer Michael Kinsley that it's not wrong or intolerant to try to convert other people. If you think that someone is wrong on some issue, it's entirely reasonable to try to change their mind2 Christians should vigorously protect and promote the right of every person to hold any faith or no faith at all, and extend to every individual and culture unfailing courtesy and kindness. We should never prohibit, hinder, manipulate, or coerce the beliefs of others. But that doesn't mean you can't conclude that someone's beliefs might be false and consequently try to persuade them of your understanding of what's true. Pluralists like Hick wrongly imply that you can't disagree with a person and still be nice to them.
* A rule of thumb in Bible interpretation is to understand the complex and ambiguous parts of Scripture in light of simple and straightforward passages. For Christians it's unthinkable that God will treat any person of any time, place or religion unfairly. We are unqualified optimists when it comes to the character of God. There are many things in the Bible that I don't understand, but I have absolute confidence that God will treat every person with perfect love and justice (Job 34:10).
Incan child sacrifice.
* Instead of discarding what you don't like in Scripture and ending up with a Bible that reflects only your own biases (as did Thomas Jefferson), Christians should hold together two broad themes. First, God desires that no person should perish, and that every person be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). Christ is the atoning sacrifice not only for Christians "but for the entire cosmos" (1 John 2:2). Peter anticipates the "universal restoration of all things" (Acts 3:21). Second, Christ alone is God's ultimate means of salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). How the universal love of God and the particularity of Jesus fit together is not clear. I like the view of the Oxford professor C.S. Lewis who in his book Mere Christianity wrote, "Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him."
* Finally, a long time ago I admitted the many limitations of my knowledge. Saint Augustine advised that we should do our best to seek answers to difficult questions, and, having done that, to "rest patiently in unknowing." At the end of the day, it's not the parts of the Bible that I don't understand that bother me, such as the many questions about religious pluralism, but the parts that I do understand, like loving God with my whole heart and loving my neighbor as myself.
For further reflection:
* Consider the extremes of atheism (all religions are false) and pluralism (all religions are true).
* What do you make of the proliferation of 10,000 distinct religions? "All men," said Homer, "need the gods" (The Odyssey, Book III).
* What are the strengths and weaknesses of the nine-point position I have outlined?
* Why do so many people consider it wrong to try to convert others?
* What Scriptures on this issue are either especially clear or unclear in your opinion?
* For a fuller treatment see my book Many Gods, Many Lords; Christianity Encounters World Religions, or Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism.
 Netland, p. 212.
 Time Magazine, February 9, 2001, "Don't Want to Convert? Just Say No."
Image credits: (1) The Milli Gazette; (2) SacredSites.com; (3) Vaishnava Internet News Agency; (4) American Public Media MarketPlace; and (5) www.exn.ca.