APOLOGIA is a column/blog in which I address issues having to do with faith, science, and ethics, and in which I try to use careful reasoning and evidence to seek what's true.
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Hendrik van der Breggen
November 21, 2013
Religious Pluralism x 3
By Hendrik van der Breggen
November 21, 2013
Religious Pluralism x 3
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.