Responding to Religious Pluralism
by Kenneth R. Samples

Apologetics (from the Greek apologia, 1 Peter 3:15) refers to the branch of Christian theology that seeks to provide rational justification for the truth claim of Christianity. For nearly two thousand years Christian apologists have vigorously defended the faith. This defense has involved not only providing positive evidence for the faith but also answering question, confronting objections, and critiquing alternative (non-Christian) systems of thought. As the Christian church approaches its third millennium, what major apologetic challenges lie ahead? Given current trends-globalism, multiculturalism, and relativism (in both truth and morality)-religious pluralism looms large among them. Religious pluralism is the view that all religions, certainly all major religions, offer equally valid paths to God, or to ultimate reality.

Popular Pluralism
America on the cusp of the twenty-first century embodies ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious diversity. Our urban and suburban neighbors come from all parts of the globe. America, as a democratic nation, places great value on tolerance, especially tolerance of religious expression. As American citizens, we are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights the free exercise of religion. Unfortunately, some people have taken 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.(2) This type of thinking, however, reflects non-thinking. Social pluralism does not equate with metaphysical pluralism.

This widely-held notion that all religions are true ignores two important considerations. First, while the major religions do share some common beliefs and values, fundamental and irreconcilable differences clearly divide them on crucially important issues. They disagree, for example on the nature of God, or of ultimate reality. Some religions affirm monotheism (one god); others affirm polytheism (many Gods); still others affirm pantheism (all is God); some even affirm atheism (no God). In Judaism and Islam, God is personal (singular); in Christianity, God is personal and more (a tri-unity);(3) while in Hinduism and Buddhism, God is less than personal. Some of the world's religious traditions view God as wholly transcendent, others as wholly immanent, and still others as both transcendent and immanent. Clearly the world's religions disagree on who or what God is, not to mention on other doctrines. As Harold A. Netland comments: "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, the human predicament, and nature of salvation."(4)

Simple logic tells us that all these various religious "truths" cannot be true at the same time and in the same way. For example, to say that Jesus Christ is God incarnate (Christianity) and is not God incarnate (Judaism, Islam) is to violate the law of non-contradiction. Jesus Christ must either be God incarnate or not be God incarnate; any middle position makes no sense. Since Jews, Christians, and Muslims all identify Jesus of Nazareth differently, they simply cannot, logically speaking, all be correct. Thus, the claims of religious pluralism fail to comport with the self-evident laws of thought. Christian philosopher Ronald H. Nash declares: "[A]nyone who would become a pluralist must first abandon the very principles of logic that make all significant thought, action, and communication possible."(5)

Philosophical Pluralism
Some philosophers of religion argue that religious pluralism is tenable if the contradictions among the world's religions are only apparent rather than real. Perhaps 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 these (and most) religions? Pluralist thinker John Hick uses the familiar elephant analogy to illustrate the point: One blind man encountering an elephant for the first time compares it with a living pillar, another with a great snake, another with a plough-share, based on limited contact with the elephant's leg, trunk, and tusk, respectively."(6)

Mankind cannot possibly grasp the totality of the infinite God says Hick. Thus, since we lack an ultimate perspective, people may experience the same reality differently, because of their differing historical, cultural, or philosophical biases.

No one questions the reality of biases and limited knowledge, but these truths do nothing to shore up this argument's weaknesses. First, the elephant analogy implies a radical skepticism concerning knowledge of God; specifically, it says that no one (no religion) can know God satisfactorily.(7) However, if God is largely unknowable, how are we able to know that he is unknowable?(8) For that matter, on what basis would we even know He exists? Second, while the analogy attempts to validate the truth of all religions, it succeeds rather in showing that all religions fail to adequately identify and comprehend God. In this case, the analogy demonstrates not that all religions are true but that all religions are largely false.

The analogy is fatally flawed, however, if 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 (Jn 1:1, 14, 18). This same Jesus makes exclusive claims to divine authority that are incompatible with the homogenizing views of religious pluralists (e.g., Jn 8:58: 10:30). In fact, to accommodate pluralism, Christianity would have to shed virtually all of its distinctive doctrines: the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Atonement. As Oxford theologian Alister E. McGrath has noted, "The identity of Christianity is inextricably linked with the uniqueness of Christ, which in turn is grounded in the Resurrection and Incarnation."(9) If the analogy were altered to fit Christianity, it would portray the elephant healing the men's blindness and personally introducing Himself. God is disclosed in Christ.(10)

Another attempt to rescue pluralism comes from the writings of Joseph Campbell. Campbell has argued that all religions can be simultaneously true because all religions merely make mythical or poetical claims, not historical, factual truth-claims. But, again, this notion 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 an historical Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, and He suffered and died at the hands of another Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. And according to his apostles, his resurrection from the dead was an historical-factual event. As the Apostle Peter proclaims, "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).

A Christian View of the World's Religions
Does a commitment to the unique veracity of Christianity imply that every feature of non-Christian religions is false? McGrath provides a helpful Christian frame of reference for viewing other religions: "The Christian attitude to other religions rests firmly on the doctrines of creation and redemption. Because God created the world, we expect to find traces of him throughout his creation; because God redeemed the world through Christ, we expect to look to Christ for the salvation that the Christian gospel promises."(11) While other religions may derive truth about God from general revelation (nature or conscience), salvation comes uniquely through the special revelation found only in Jesus Christ. General revelation helps explain why many religions can, and in fact do, agree on particular beliefs and values.

In a cultural climate that vilifies and misdefines intolerance, how can we graciously and honestly respond to those who are offended by the "exclusiveness" of Christianity?12 I have four suggestions: (1) We can emphasize that the gospel invites all people everywhere to receive the gift of salvation, made possible by Jesus' sacrifice. (2) Consider that a world where all religions are simultaneously true would be, in one philosopher's description, a "cosmic madhouse." (3) Exclusivity seems unavoidable. Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga poses this rhetorical question: "Doesn't the pluralist believe exclusively that all religions are equally good paths to God?" (4) Christianity's exclusivism arises not from the narrow mindedness of individual Christians but from the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ (Mt 11:27; Jn 14:1-6), attested by those who were eyewitnesses to his life, death, and resurrection (Jn 3:36; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim 2:5; 1 Jn 5:11-12).

1.  Mortimer J. Adler, Truth In Religion (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990), p. 2.
2.  R. C. Sproul, Reason to Believe (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 35.
3.  This is reflected in the unique Christian doctrine of the Trinity, according to which, the one true God exists eternally and simultaneously as three distinguishable persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
4.  Harold A. Netland, Dissonant Voices Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p. 37.
5.  Ronald H. Nash, Is Jesus the Only Saviour? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), p. 55. For a clear and insightful discussion of the formal laws of logic, see Ronald H. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), pp. 103-12.
6.  As cited in Michael Peterson, et al., Reason & Religious Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 224.
7.  See C. Stephen Evans, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking about Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985).
8.  Nash, p. 36.
9.  Alister E. McGrath, Intellectuals Don't Need God & Other Modern Myths (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), p. 119.
10.  McGrath, p. 118.
11.  McGrath, p. 116.
12.  See Kenneth R. Samples, "The Challenge of Religious Pluralism," Christian Research Journal, Summer 1990, p. 39.

© 1998 by Reasons To Believe.

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