APOLOGIA is a column I write for The Carillon, a southeastern Manitoba newspaper. ("Apologia, etc." consists of some of my extra-Carillon musings.) I address issues having to do with faith, science, and ethics, and I try to use careful reasoning and evidence to seek what's true. Undoubtedly I will end up disagreeing with at least a few people. My hope is that I will show respect to those with whom I disagree. Happy reading! - Hendrik van der Breggen
The phrase "religious pluralism" is
ambiguous, i.e., it has more than one meaning. To avoid confusion, it's
important to distinguish these meanings. I will make some distinctions, then,
with the hope that doing so will be helpful to us as we live—and think—in our
religiously pluralist society.
Acknowledgment/confession: I've gleaned much of
what follows from Bethel University philosopher and seminary dean David K.
Clark. See his essay "Religious Pluralism and Christian Exclusivism,"
which can be found in the fine book To Everyone An Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview, edited by Francis
J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and J. P. Moreland (InterVarsity Press 2004).
Religious pluralism can be understood to have
three meanings or senses: (1) a factual sense, (2) a legal/political sense, and
(3) a philosophical sense.
Religious-pluralism-sense-1 is, according to
Clark, “the factual claim that various people follow
Just as it's a fact that Canadians live in a society
that has a political plurality—i.e., some folks are Liberal, some Conservative,
some NDP, some Green—so too it's a fact that we live in a society that has
people who are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, New Age, etc.
In other words, the first sense of religious pluralism
merely refers to the reality of religious diversity, the reality of multiple
Religious-pluralism-sense-2 has to do with a type of legal
or political system.
Clark explains: “In the second category, ‘pluralism’
names certain legal realities. These are statements about the rights people
possess. People have the legal right (in the West) to adopt whatever views they
choose…. people have the right to adopt any religion—or none at all.”
In other words, the second sense of religious
pluralism is religious freedom.
Religious-pluralism-sense-3 is a philosophical theory
According to Clark, religious pluralism in the philosophical
sense means this: “Any (or perhaps all) religions lead to God or salvation.
Following any religious path enables believers to reach the religious goal.”
In other words, the third sense of religious pluralism
is the view that all religions are legitimate ways to the same end: all paths
lead to the top of the mountain.
Clearly, as Clark points out, the first and second
senses of religious pluralism are not controversial (in the West, for the most
part). It's true that there is in fact a variety of religions, and it's true
that religious freedom is an important legal/political reality, worth defending.
But religious pluralism in the third, philosophical sense is controversial—and
To be sure, the third sense of religious pluralism,
i.e., that all paths lead to the top of the mountain, appeals to our desire to be
tolerant and inclusive.
But some important questions—uncomfortable questions—remain.
Consider the following questions.
Is it true
that all paths get us to the top of the mountain? Or do some paths lead to a
swamp (or something worse)?
What about the fact that religions actually say deeply
contradictory things plus encourage their followers to do radically different
Ask a devout fundamentalist Muslim and a devout
evangelical Christian whether the Qur'an is historically accurate when it denies
Jesus' death, resurrection, and deity. The Muslim will say Yes, the evangelical
Christian will say No.
(Food for thought: The Qur'an was written about 600
years after the life of Jesus and was written in a country in which Jesus
didn't live, whereas the New Testament evidence for Jesus has much greater
proximity in time and geography.)
Also, ask a devout Muslim and a devout Baha'i whether
Mohammad or Baha'u'llah is God's greatest prophet. The answers will be deeply
different and both cannot, on pain of contradiction, be true. The answers will
also greatly influence how one lives one's life. Mohammad was a tribal warlord,
Baha'u'llah a pacifist.
(Food for politically incorrect thought: Boston
College education professor and culture critic William Kilpatrick, in his book Christianity, Islam, and Atheism
[Ignatius 2012], writes: "for the last couple of decades, about 95 percent
of terrorist attacks have been perpetrated in the name of Islam.")
(Food for politically incorrect thought, continued: University
of Calgary religious studies professor Irving Hexham, in his book Understanding World Religions [Zondervan
2011], writes: "for the majority of Muslims worldwide, jihad [a Muslim
religious duty] has the primary meaning of war on behalf of Islam," whereas
only a "small minority" take jihad to mean merely an inner personal/ spiritual
struggle, "as many Western writers like to emphasize." Hexham adds:
"the popular, milk-and-water version of Islam found in most religious
studies texts [in Western universities] is, to say the least, misleading.")
The late Clark Pinnock (a theology professor at
McMaster Divinity College) has pointed out that religion is sometimes “dark,
deceptive, and cruel." We should also ask, then, along with Pinnock: What
about Aztec sacrifices, Haitian voodoo, and the Hindu deities Kali and Shiva?
What about Hinduism's caste system that “sanctions pious neglect of the
poor"? (Pinnock is cited in Michael Peterson's book Reason and Religious Belief [Oxford University Press 2013].)
(Food for thought: Of course, Christians have
done—and do—bad things, too. But, we should notice, these bad things go against
Jesus' teaching to love others, including the poor and the weak, as well as
Also, we should ask: If tolerance and inclusiveness
mean we shouldn't believe that our own view is correct and other views are
mistaken, are religious-pluralists-sense-3
intolerant and exclusive (because they believe their own view is correct and non-pluralist
views are mistaken)?
To summarize: Religious pluralism in the factual sense
(sense 1) is true and cannot be denied, and religious pluralism in the
legal/political sense (sense 2) is truly important and should be defended; however,
when it comes to religious pluralism in the philosophical sense (sense 3), we
should think very carefully.
Do all paths lead up the same mountain? Or is there really
only one path—a narrow path?
Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the
life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). Because
of the New Testament evidence for Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, I have come
to believe that Jesus Christ is in fact the Son of God—God in the flesh—and I
have decided to follow Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour.
It seems to me, then, that it's false that all
religions are legitimate paths to the same end. But, I hasten to add, it also seems
to me that God has given us the freedom to accept or reject Jesus Christ—though
rejection is not recommended.
I am, therefore, on a mission: I am determined to do my
best to share what I believe is true about Jesus, plus I am determined to do my
best to show respect to those persons with whom I disagree, plus defend their
right to disagree.
I hope that the distinctions between the three senses
of religious pluralism are helpful.
• At risk of presuming on
God's grace, I am inclined to believe that people from non-Christian religions
or of no religion at all may be able to obtain salvation through Jesus' death
on the cross without conscious knowledge of Jesus. How? By virtue of how they
respond to the light they are given in nature and conscience. But, I should
emphasize: I am speculating here. I believe, too, that Jesus commands us to proclaim—with
a sense of great urgency—that the clearest and truest Light comes only through a
saving knowledge of, and love relationship with, Him.
I recall an evening in my mid-20s, when
I was not a Christian believer. I sat alone in a hotel room, half drunk, and watched
a Billy Graham Crusade on TV. According to Graham, Jesus is Lord and Saviour—Jesus
is The Way—so I should choose to put my faith in Jesus and follow Him.
I wasn't converted at that particular
time, but Graham's message about Jesus stuck in my mind, and a few years later
I did commit to follow Jesus Christ.
I am no evangelist, and I often stumble
as I follow Jesus, but perhaps sharing the story of my conversion may be of
interest to readers contemplating ultimate questions.
I grew up in a home with fine, loving
parents who regularly took my three sisters and my three brothers and me to a
local church (a United Church). But, as is typical with many young people, in
my case the religious teachings didn't stick. For all practical purposes, when
I left home (at age 18) I wasn't a believer.
I joined the military, worked for an
oil company, worked in a restaurant, worked in an institution for delinquent
kids, and went to university off and on. A couple of important personal
relationships with significant others didn't work out. I also drank much
alcohol. The point of life eluded me. I felt deeply alone, and I became
depressed, sometimes suicidal.
Prior to committing myself (at age 30)
to Jesus, I was aware that I was "broken" morally. My life was a mess,
I was on a downward spiral, and I knew it (though when in a drunken stupor or high
or otherwise engaged in less-than-noble activity I would suppress this
In my clearer moments I thought that
maybe or even probably there was a God, and I sensed that I was morally at odds
with this God. But I didn't know what to think about the Jesus preached by
I recall some Christians at the University
of Calgary sharing a "Four Spiritual Laws" booklet with me,
encouraging me to accept Jesus as Lord of my life; but, again, I didn't know
what to think about Jesus.
I was aware of several competing
religious truth claims. My oldest brother was a Baha'i (so Jesus was just
another prophet or "manifestation" of God, Jesus is not God incarnate,
not God in human flesh). One of my sisters was a Jehovah's Witness (so Jesus was
the archangel Michael, not God). Another brother was an agnostic/ skeptic (so Jesus
was probably just a good man, if he existed).
My favourite philosophy professor was
an atheist (so Jesus can't be God because there is no God). Mormons asked me to
read the Book of Mormon and pray for a "burning in the bosom" (a
subjective experience) to confirm the truth of the Book of Mormon (so somehow I could become a god). Also, an old army
buddy was enamored with New Age philosophy (I am God and I am the universe).
I was confused, and the voices calling
me in multiple (contradictory) directions added to the confusion. Alcohol
helped me find peace, for a while, until it threatened to become my master.
Somehow, in my confusion and
brokenness, I groped for God and moved towards repentance (i.e., I began to turn
away from some of the things I knew were wrong). My heart attitude was
something like this: God, if you're there, I'll do your will.
I read the New Testament. I found
Jesus' call to follow Him to be attractive. Yet, in the midst of the competing
religious and philosophical truth claims, I needed to be convinced that Jesus
is actually the way, as Billy Graham claimed.
Happily, three things happened. (Note:
In retrospect I believe these things were due to the Holy Spirit working in my
life and through the lives of others.)
1. I slowly came to understand the intellectual
force of the New Testament as evidence for the reality of Jesus' physical
resurrection (and I especially came to the realization that major objections
were mostly philosophical and philosophically weak; later I even did an MA and a
PhD related to these objections).
2. I slowly came to understand that the
New Testament evidence concerning Jesus tells us that He is the God of the
universe come to earth as a human being (i.e., many of Jesus' claims and acts
are best understood as Jesus asserting Himself to be the very God described in
the Old Testament).
3. I came into contact—in person and through
books, audio recordings, and video—with some intelligent people who took these
beliefs about Jesus seriously (these Christians were gentle and respectful, plus
willing to engage in the humble, truth-seeking use of reason).
It was these things that allowed me to
take seriously—take as truth—the Gospel/ good news: i.e., that Jesus is actually the God of the universe come to earth as a human being, that He loves us, and that by dying for us He offers us
forgiveness for our moral wrong-doings (sins) when we trust in Him and follow
In fact, it became clear to me that the
physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus is central to the Gospel—and makes the
Gospel the arbitrator of the world's various religious and philosophical truth
claims. The evidence for Jesus' resurrection encouraged me to take Jesus,
instead of other religious leaders or philosophies, most seriously.
Significantly, Jesus' resurrection, in
the context of its occurrence, serves as vindication of Jesus actually being
God in the flesh and thus also vindication of Jesus' claims about forgiveness
and redemption. Significantly, too, because of Jesus' resurrection we have hope,
real hope, that death does not have the last word.
To make my long conversion story short,
I put my faith in Jesus Christ and now follow Him. In other words, I've come to
believe the good news!
I thank God for this good news, and I
thank God for Billy Graham.
• Beliefs about truth have
consequences, not only for the hereafter but also for the here and now. As I
followed Jesus as Lord, I changed from being a predominantly self-centered
person to someone much more concerned about the well being of others (of
course, I'm still a work in progress). Alcohol no longer is my master (I even
managed to quit smoking). I do not entertain immoral thoughts as often as I did
(I sometimes stumble, but repent and persevere). I no longer have an ongoing
depression and feeling of being alone (instead, I have a deep peace and joy, plus
a sense that God is near; I sense this most clearly when I am obedient to God).
In addition, I am delighted to report that God has blessed me with a wonderful
wife, two excellent sons, and a beautiful daughter-in-law (and perhaps another beautiful daughter-in-law!). I
thank God who is revealed in Jesus Christ for all of this, too.
• As I finished writing this column, my
cousin's 31-year-old dear daughter Jessica died (she was suffering from
muscular dystrophy). Family and friends are weeping and mourning, to be sure.
Yet, in the midst of the pain, we find comfort in the hope of seeing Jessica
again, a hope that's not mere wishful thinking—because of the reality of Jesus'
resurrection. We are also quite confident that Jessica is presently dancing
with Jesus! Thank you, Lord Jesus.
van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence
Recently I was hospitalized. One afternoon I was in Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre receiving shock wave lithotripsy (to smash a large kidney stone), and later that evening the pain was so great I ended up in Steinbach's Emergency Room and was subsequently admitted to Bethesda Hospital for about a week. Now (at time of writing) I am convalescing at home, awaiting surgery.
During my week at Bethesda Hospital, between doses of morphine, I had some time to think. Two thoughts dominated: Giving thanks, and asking why.
My first thought was this: I am grateful—I must give thanks to the doctors and nurses who tended to my medical needs.
Thanks, then, to emergency doctors Christo Minnaar and Hillary Widdifield. Thanks for getting me through the most painful night I've ever endured. Thanks, too, to the emergency room nurses. I'm sorry that I don't remember your names—the pain killers you administered worked too well!
Thanks also to hospitalist doctor Mohammad Shokri and thanks to the following nurses (BNs, RNs, LPNs, HCAs): Audrey, Bettima, Carrol, Cori, Dani, Daniella, Jamie, Janis, Jennifer, Jill, Kelly, Lyn, Millie, Theresa, Tina, Sharron, Sue. And special thanks to housekeeping: Verna.
I appreciate your expertise, and I appreciate your caring hearts.
Please know that I marveled at your pace: When you walked, you walked very quickly—and you often ran. You worked hard. You often worked overtime, again and again. Thank you for caring.
My second thought was this: Why? Why do we care for the sick and the weak? Why do we have hospitals?
I have no doubt that my pain was minor compared to that of others, and I have no illusion of thinking of myself more special than anyone else.
I saw an old man suffering from great pains in his heart. I saw a frail fellow who had a leg amputated above the knee. I heard a tiny newborn babe, crying its first breaths.
But why do we care for all who suffer, whether old or young, whether of high social status or low social status?
I find it interesting that the ancient Greeks and Romans generally saw aiding the sick and dying, especially those who were slaves or laborers, to be a sign of weakness.
Religious and social historian Rodney Stark writes: "in the [Greco-Roman] pagan world, and especially among the philosophers, mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion: because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice." (Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity [HarperOne 2011], p. 112.)
Sociologist Alvin J. Schmidt writes: "the Greeks and Romans had some form of hospital before the Christians introduced them, but [these] were not places where the sick of the general public were housed and cared for out of charity. They were at best only places for treating soldiers."
Schmidt adds: "Charity hospitals for the poor and indigent public did not exist until Christianity introduced them." (Alvin Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World [Zondervan 2004], p. 155.)
Please don't misunderstand: I'm not saying that every hospital is Christian or that every nurse and doctor holds Christian beliefs. Rather, I'm wondering: Why do hospitals value people—all people?
I find it interesting that, whether we are Christian or not, Jesus Christ's influence on our culture—His call to care for "the least of these"—is still with us.
For this I am grateful, too.
(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.)