The Stone of Stumbling:
10 Reflections on the Gospel and World Religions

For Sunday May 22, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Acts 7:55–60

Psalm 31:1–5, 15–16

1 Peter 2:2–10

John 14:1–14

           Jesus is the stone that makes us stumble, a rock of offense, says this week's epistle. (1 Peter 2:8). In our politically-correct culture, few opinions provoke more hostility than the words of Jesus in this week's gospel: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Or consider Peter's words: "There is no other name [than Jesus] under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

           These uncompromising words not only provoke controversy; they raise honest questions. 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 and that the other 9,999 religions are false? What's a Christian to think?

Muslim women in Bangalore.
Muslim women in Bangalore.

           Many people today favor some version of "pluralism" — the belief that no one religion can or should be normative for all people. Pluralism insists on a radically egalitarian perspective that grants parity and equal validity to all religions. 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." 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

           There are two broad types of religious pluralism. A "soft" version appears in popular culture, the media, entertainment, and everyday conversations with friends. It's epitomized in rhetorical questions like, "Don't all religions really teach the same thing?" A "hard" version among scholars like John Hick argues a sophisticated pluralist position in historical, philosophical, and religious treatments of the subject.

           Both the popular and 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."

Hasidic Jew in Jerusalem.
Hasidic Jew in Jerusalem.

           Religious pluralism sounds and feels good, and across the years I've always wanted to believe it. But I can't, because I don't think it's true. To me it's like the beer commerical: "tastes great, less filling." Instead, I've come to a number of tentative conclusions that, although they don't "solve" the problem of religious pluralism, guide my thinking.

           1. Some religious views and practices are clearly false, harmful, and even despicable. I don't think that Aztec human sacrifice and Buddhist almsgiving can expect equal respect. Hindu widow-burning, female infanticide, phallic worship, and the mass suicide of 913 people at Jim Jones' "People's Temple" in northern Guyana all strike me as badly wrong. So, 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 other words, most people do not and should not believe that "all religions are true."

           2. The claim that all religions teach the same thing is patently false; this is precisely what religions don't 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. 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 from this simple observation. It is patronizing in the extreme to say that all religions teach the same thing, to tell a Bahai person, 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 might all be false, but they can't all be true — atheism, monotheism, and polytheism, for example, can't all be true.


           3. Pluralism tries to solve this problem of contradictory truth claims in two ways. People like John Hick appeal to agnosticism. Hick says 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." 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's right, he wants to persuade us of that, and even convert us to his opinion. And 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.

           4. 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, which rejects all the beliefs of every religion.

           5. The conundrum of relating 10,000 religions to each other is not only a "Christian" problem. It's an equal opportunity problem 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 alternative solutions; we all operate with limited options. By and large, Christians do as adequate a job at addressing this thorny issue as believers from other traditions.

Tibetan Buddhists.
Tibetan Buddhists.

           6. 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 reasonable to try to change their mind.2 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 is true. Pluralists like Hick insinuate that you cannot disagree with a person and still be nice to them.

           7. 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 is 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).

           8. Instead of discarding what you don't like or understand in Scripture and ending up with a Bible that reflects only your own biases, Christians should hold together two broad themes — the universal and the particular. 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). Jesus 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, Jesus alone is God's ultimate means of salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).

Incan child sacrifice.
Incan child sacrifice.

           9. Exactly how the universal love of God and the particularity of Jesus fit together isn't 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." This point is often invoked when appealing to the salvation of people who lived before the time of Christ, adults with severely limited cognitive abilities, babies and children who die young, and people today who have no reasonable opportunity to hear the Gospel — they are saved by Christ even though they can't call upon Christ.

           10. Finally, a long time ago I quit trying to understand everything and admitted the many limitations of my knowledge. Saint Augustine advised that we should do our best to seek answers to difficult questions. Having done that, he said we should "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 ten-point position I have outlined?
* Why do so many people consider it wrong to try to convert others?
* What Scriptures on this issue are 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.

[1] Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 212.
[2] Time Magazine, February 9, 2001, "Don't Want to Convert? Just Say No."

Image credits: (1) The Milli Gazette; (2); (3) Vaishnava Internet News Agency; (4); and (5) Discovery Channel.