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Religious Pluralism: Is There Really Only One Way to God?

Introduction

One of the essential tenants of Christianity is that Jesus is the only way to God. As it says in John 14:6 (NIV) – “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” However, the idea of religious pluralism has become so pervasive in our culture that many now believe that there are ‘many roads to God.’ All religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – lead to the same God. They just take different roads to get there. This view is anchored in several misconceptions about logic, culture, and truth claims.

The Conundrum of Contradiction

Firstly, when it comes to pluralism, simple logic shows that this view is philosophically incoherent. Justification for this comes from the law of non-contradiction, which insists that contradictory truth claims cannot simultaneously be true. For instance, the religion of Islam teaches that God is a Unitarian being, while Christianity teaches that God is Trinitarian. Furthermore, Hinduism and Buddhism say we are reincarnated after death, while Islam and Christianity teach that heaven or hell is our final destination. Consequently, to state that all of these views are true at the same time is as inconsistent as saying that three plus three equals six and seven. The answers are mutually exclusive. It’s possible that they are both false, but it’s not possible that both are true.

The Barrier of Cultural Bias

A second line of reasoning some people like to assume is that the truth claims of all religions are equally false. Their objection goes like this: ‘All moral and spiritual claims are the product of our particular historical and cultural moment, and therefore no one should claim they can know the Truth, since no one can change whether one assertion about spiritual and moral reality is more true than another.’(1) This idea, centred in the theory of social constructionism, would have us believe that our understandings of God are merely social constructs influenced by history, geography, and the culture around us. For example, some may argue that ‘one is only a Christian because they have grown up in a context where Christianity is the prevailing worldview. However, if they were born in the Middle East they would have likely grown up believing the teachings of Islam.’ Sociologist Peter L. Berger notes that many have concluded from this fact that, because we are all locked into our historical and cultural locations, it is impossible to judge the rightness or wrongness of competing beliefs.(2) Yet, Berger goes on to say that if you infer that the social conditioning of a belief means ‘no belief can be universally true for everyone,’ that belief is itself a comprehensive claim about everyone and is also the product of social conditions meaning it also cannot be true, on its own terms. ‘Relativism relativises itself’(3) says Berger. Therefore, this argument is self-refuting.

The Paradox of Pluralism

The third logical failure, is the presumption within pluralism that undermines its own claims. The belief in one way to God – also known as exclusivism – affirms the possibility that one religion is objectively true and therefore, contradictory religious claims are false. “Pluralism says we must reject exclusivist truth claims about religion and instead embrace all religious views as equally true.”(4) The irony is, pluralism turns out to be exclusivist too – by excluding exclusivism. On that account, pluralism attempts to get others to abide by rules that it itself is not willing to submit to.

Conclusion

By examining the framework of pluralism under the lens of logic, considerations of culture, and the analysis of truth claims, it becomes clear that this way of thinking cannot stand up under scrutiny. First, the fact that all truth that is objective, is by its very essence exclusive, shows that Pluralism is simply incoherent. Second, if religion is defined to be a social construct and thus can be dismissed as false, then Pluralism must also be so classified and rejected as false. Finally, Pluralism excludes all those who have beliefs that are exclusivist, and as such fails its own test. This third point is in direct contrast to the message of the New Testament that claims the offer of salvation is available to all. Instead of being exclusive Christianity is actually very inclusive. Everyone is welcome to come to Jesus. It does not matter who they are, or what they have done. The Bible tells us, “…whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life” (John 3:16).” (5)

(1) Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Pg 9-12. Penguin, 2009.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Berger, Peter L. A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural. Harmondsworth: Pg. 40. Penguin, 1969.

(4) Stonestreet, John, and Brett Kunkle. A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World, Pg. 323. David C Cook, 2017.

(5) Morrrison, Jon. Clear Minds & Dirty Feet: A Reason To Hope, A Message To Share. CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013.

the cross

All religions the same? Take a closer look

An oft repeated sentiment today is that all religions are basically the same in that they are all subjective, unscientific, and just plain false. So in today’s secular climate, how does someone go about filtering out the good from the gunk? Is there even a concept of good religion, or are they all gunk?

Secularism has firmly removed religion from the public sphere of objectivity and ‘science’, and placed it in the private corner of subjectivity and ‘faith’. This means that religion can never really be considered true in any meaningful sense. It can provide meaning for adherents in a utilitarian sense, but can’t authoritatively direct mankind due to its obsession with ancient books and garden fairies.

I don’t see the majority view changing on this anytime soon, so for the purposes of this post, I will appeal to an objective and scientific concept to bring the objective backing the world craves to the subjective sphere they despise. This concept is known as falsifiability.

What is falsifiability?

The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, suggested the criterion of falsifiability – a scientific hypothesis must be inherently disprovable before it can be accepted as a legitimate theory. While this criterion was originally only used within the physical sciences, it was eventually used across a number of social sciences, including anthropology and history.

By applying falsifiability to a small number of the world’s great religions, we begin to see weeds amidst the wheat. Take a look at these origins stories:

Islam

An Arabian merchant begins to receive visions from the Almighty God (Allah) whilst in a mountain cave. Turns out these vivid hallucinations are actually the words of Allah, the one true God. Muhammad is the True Prophet and forms a people in submission (the meaning of the word, Islam) to Allah.

Buddhism

The Buddha, or “the awakened one”, shares his eternal insights with man on how to transcend our earthy desires to reach the spiritual Nirvana.

Mormonism

Disillusioned by the various Christian denominations before him, a young boy named Joseph Smith asks God to give him wisdom for which path to choose. One day, while in a wood, Joseph receives an angelic vision of the true faith and Mormonism is born.

Can you see the similarities between these three religions? They all originated from moments of quiet contemplation. This does not necessarily mean that they aren’t true but it does create skepticism when considered in the broader context of the respective religious histories. Turns out caves and trees are perfect places to start a religion.

It isn’t that these three religions aren’t falsifiable – their claims can be investigated and doubt shed. The issue is that they automatically reject criticism based on their internal frameworks, making them inherently unfalsifiable. Muhammad and Joseph Smith can’t be wrong because they were declared as authoritative prophets of God. Rejecting Buddha’s teachings proves that you are filled with desire, and thus not worthy. What we see is the proverbial bait and switch – offering a falsifiable claim only to remove it right before your eyes using their own theology (or in Buddhism’s case, a-theology).

Take a look

Wasn’t Christianity founded by a solitary figure, you ask? Didn’t Jesus claim that he heard directly from ‘The Father’? Isn’t he also circularly impervious to the attacks of the enemy? Good questions. Let’s look at them next time.

 

Michael Horton addresses common questions about the Christian faith

horton1

Michael Horton recently sat down and answered five of the most common apologetics questions people get when they share their faith with their friends and family. Horton is a professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, co-host of White Horse Inn and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine.

How Can Jesus Be the Only Way?

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What happens to those who haven’t heard the gospel?

One of the hardest issues that the Christian can face is the fate of the unevangelized. At a time when we are aware of both the religious diversity in the world and the fact that many people have yet to even encounter Christianity, it can seem arrogant and intolerant to defend Biblical texts like John 14:6 (“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.””) and Acts 4:12 (“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved”). For many, the idea that God could condemn individuals who have not had the opportunity to hear the gospel is repugnant. And it is this revulsion at this traditional understanding that has made answers such as the one put forward by Rob Bell in Love Wins even more popular.

Read more

Tiger Woods, Brit Hume and Religious Discourse

Brit Hume made headlines and ignited a firestorm on the blogosphere when he urged Tiger Woods to embrace the Christian faith. About a week ago, at a panel on the Fox network, Hume was asked what advice he’d give the scandal-struck golfer. He responded:

“Tiger Woods will recover as a golfer. Whether he can recover as a person, I think, is a very open question. And it’s a tragic situation. . . . But the Tiger Woods that emerges once the news value dies out of this scandal, the extent to which he can recover, seems to me to depend on his faith.

“He’s said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.’ “

Outrage quickly followed. Many declared Hume’s remarks to be intolerant, arrogant and worse. At the Huffington Post, Eve Tahmincioglu in her column, “Beware the Brit Humes in Your Office,” wrote:

“The fact that a journalist — and I use that term loosely as it pertains to Hume — would go on a national news show and put down another high-profile individual’s faith should tell all of us that religious bigotry, and bigotry as a whole, is a growing problem in this country.”

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, suggesting that Hume had attempted to “threaten Tiger Woods into becoming a Christian”, also said:

“This crosses that principle [of keeping] religious advocacy out of public life, since, you know, the worst examples of that are jihadists, not to mention, you know, guys who don’t know their own religions or somebody else’s religion, like Brit Hume.”

The anger over Hume’s comments says a lot about religious discourse, pluralism, and the new tolerance. Ross Douthat, writing for the New York Times, has written a good op-ed piece about why it is important that we’re able to talk about religion:

When liberal democracy was forged, in the wake of Western Europe’s religious wars, this sort of peaceful theological debate is exactly what it promised to deliver. And the differences between religions are worth debating. Theology has consequences: It shapes lives, families, nations, cultures, wars; it can change people, save them from themselves, and sometimes warp or even destroy them.

Douthat is right: “If you treat your faith like a hothouse flower, too vulnerable to survive in the crass world of public disputation, then you ensure that nobody will take it seriously. The idea that religion is too mysterious, too complicated or too personal to be debated on cable television just ensures that it never gets debated at all.” He continues:

This doesn’t mean that we need to welcome real bigotry into our public discourse. But what Hume said wasn’t bigoted: Indeed, his claim about the difference between Buddhism and Christianity was perfectly defensible. Christians believe in a personal God who forgives sins. Buddhists, as a rule, do not. And it’s at least plausible that Tiger Woods might welcome the possibility that there’s Someone out there capable of forgiving him, even if Elin Nordegren and his corporate sponsors never do.

In fact, Hume’s comments about Buddhism are well supported. Boston University professor on Buddhism, Stephen Prothero, told Tamara Lush of the Associated Press: “You have the law of karma, so no matter what Woods says or does, he is going to have to pay for whatever wrongs he’s done. There’s no accountant in the sky wiping sins off your balance sheet, like there is in Christianity.” Professor of Buddhist studies at Cal Polytechnic State University, James William Coleman,  also agreed. “If you do what [Tiger Woods] has done, it comes back and hurts you.”

Of course, the problem is proselytization and how this offends the new tolerance.  Michael Gerson, writing for the Washington Post, rightly puts his finger on the root of this anger over proselytization: Brit Hume’s belief in religious exclusivity. But Gerson, responding to Tom Shales‘ call for Hume to apologize, argues that the idea of religious liberty does not forbid proselytization; but presupposes it:

” Free, autonomous individuals not only have the right to hold whatever beliefs they wish, they also have the right to change those beliefs and to persuade others to change as well. Just as there is no political liberty without the right to change one’s convictions and publicly argue for them, there is no religious liberty without the possibility of conversion and persuasion.”

The new referrees of discourse no longer see tolerance as exhibited by the person who argues that position A is correct and position B is incorrect, but who still defends anyone’s right to defend position B. Instead, advocates now think that tolerance is only exhibited by those who say that there is no one right position (except for the position of new tolerance). Gerson’s comments hit the mark:

Hume’s critics hold a strange view of pluralism. For religion to be tolerated, it must be privatized — not, apparently, just in governmental settings but also on television networks. We must have not only a secular state but also a secular public discourse. And so tolerance, conveniently, is defined as shutting up people with whom secularists disagree. Many commentators have been offering Woods advice in his travails. But religious advice, apparently and uniquely, should be forbidden. In a discussion of sex, morality and betrayed vows, wouldn’t religious issues naturally arise? How is our public discourse improved by narrowing it — removing references to the most essential element in countless lives?

True tolerance consists in engaging deep disagreements respectfully — through persuasion — not in banning certain categories of argument and belief from public debate.

In this controversy, we are presented with two models of discourse. Hume, in an angry sea of loss and tragedy — his son’s death in 1998 — found a life preserver in faith. He offered that life preserver to another drowning man. Whatever your view of Hume’s beliefs, he could have no motive other than concern for Woods himself.

The other model has come from critics such as Shales, in a spittle-flinging rage at the mention of religion in public, comparing Hume to “Mary Poppins on the joys of a tidy room, or Ron Popeil on the glories of some amazing potato peeler.” Shales, of course, is engaged in proselytism of his own — for a secular fundamentalism that trivializes and banishes all other faiths. He distributes the sacrament of the sneer.

Who in this picture is more intolerant?

Is there salvation outside Christianity?

Wintery Knight has pointed out a helpful summary by Stephen Notman of the classic title in the Zondervan Counterpoints series on Christian theology, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. Edited by Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips, the book surveys the different approaches in reconciling religious pluralism with the exclusive claims of Christ.newbookcover

Traditionally, the debate has been characterized by the positions of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. The title includes a fourth position; agnosticism (defended by Alister McGrath). Here is a quick run-down of the positions in the debate:

  • Exclusivism/Particularism: This view maintains that the central claims of Christianity are true and only those who explicitly place faith in the Christ of the Bible are saved. Salvation cannot be achieved through the claims or structures of other religions. It is important to point out that exclusivists do not say that every religion is wrong in every respect, but that only where other religions contradict the self-disclosure of Christ, they are wrong. This is defended by by R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips.
  • Inclusivism: This view can be broken down into different positions. Generally, inclusivists affirm the truth of fundamental Christian claims, but nevertheless appeal to the love of God and insist that God has revealed Himself, even in saving ways, within other religions.  All who are saved are in fact saved on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, but conscious faith in Jesus is not necessary: some may be saved who have never heard of him, and may respond positively to the light they have received.
    • Soft inclusivism (Agnosticism): Unconvinced by the clarity of teaching of Scripture on whether those outside Christianity are truly condemned, advocates allow for the faint possibility that God may save some who have never heard of Christ – so long as these individuals respond to God’s grace in Creation and entrust themselves in repentance and faith. Some also go further in arguing that there is biblical reason to be hopeful and not simply agnostic about the possibility of salvation for those outside Christianity. Alister McGrath puts forward a version of soft inclusivism in the book.
    • Hard inclusivism: This view differs from radical pluralism in that it does argue for Christ as the absolute basis of a person’s salvation. But while Jesus may have been God’s principal plan of salvation for humanity, it is argued that salvation itself is not unavailable in other religions. Unlike exclusivism or soft inclusivism, this view emphasizes believing, but not believing in Christ. Jesus is therefore ontologically necessary, but not epistemologically necessary. Some hard inclusivists will also concede that God may yet use other religions as instruments of his salvation. Clark Pinnock argues for this position.
  • Religious Pluralism: This view relativizes every religious claim. According to it, no religion can advance any legitimate claim of superiority over any other religion. Every religion has the same moral and spiritual weight, and offers an equally valid path to salvation. John Hick has been one of the leading voices of this position, and he defends it in Four Views.

Read Stephen Notman’s summary of the debate in the book.

Although no longer recent, the book remains a significant effort to represent the strongest positions and the strongest advocates for those positions. R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips put forward a convincing exegesis of the important texts (Acts 4:12; John 3:16, 18; Romans 10:9-15; and John 14:6; 17:20) and provide a robust defense of the traditional Christian position. For anyone who has pondered these questions, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World is an excellent introduction.

For further reading on the topic, Ronald Nash’s Is Jesus the Only Savior? is a great book, or Paul Copan’s article If you had been born in another country, is it at all likely that you would be a Christian? The latest issue of Philosophia Christi also features a dialogue on religious pluralism with scholars Keith Yandell, Paul Moser and Paul Knitter.