In many cases, reasonable dialogue is stifled due to lack of clarity concerning key terms in a discussion. Consider the case of two disputants discussing whether or not the claim that "Fred and Carmen have the same car" is true. After listening to the discussion, an outside observer rightly asks for clarification. "Is the word 'same' in the statement to be understood as meaning identical or similar?" This seems to be right-headed since the truthfulness of the statement is dependent upon what is meant by the term "same." If the former understanding is correct, then the statement is an affirmation that the vehicle that Fred and Carmen share is one and the same with an identical vehicle identification number. It is also clear that if the latter understanding is in view, then the implication is that there are at least two vehicles of similar make or model that both Fred and Carmen have in common. What this shows is that the word "same," like many terms in natural language, often suffers from a degree of ambiguity. Surely, ambiguity will never be fully eliminated from human discourse and it is not always destructive of meaningful dialogue. Even so, ambiguous terms can lead to a failure of communication.
Likewise, the term "religious pluralism" is somewhat ambiguous. How might we respond to the question, "What do we think about religious pluralism?" On the surface, it would seem to be clear that Christians ought to dismiss the notion out of hand and affirm in step with biblical teaching (John 14:6, Acts 4:12) and historic orthodoxy that Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation. However, depending on how the term "religious pluralism" is being used and understood, an indiscriminate rejection of the notion may be misguided. To be sure, the claim being made is not to deny that Jesus is the Savior and the only means for humanity to be related to God. It is, instead, to highlight that some conceptions of religious pluralism are at odds with biblical teaching, whereas others are not. Therefore, it is important that we clarify our terms so that we can not only have a better understanding of the topic, but also have more meaningful and productive discourse with others concerning this volatile issue.
Any discussion of religious pluralism is complex and can be addressed on many levels. First, there is the descriptive sense of the term. History is replete with examples of peoples and cultures having differing beliefs and practices concerning religion. While "religious pluralism" is often used to describe this state of affairs, it is more suitable to think of this as religious diversity. Undoubtedly, this is not a new phenomenon in our world. It has always been this way. What is new in our contemporary setting is "the widespread awareness of religious pluralism resulting from an unprecedented exposure to many different religious traditions."
Another way to understand "religious pluralism" is in a legal sense that can best be described as religious freedom or religious liberty. The freedom of religious expression within the confines of a social political democracy is something that most would consider of tremendous value. We live in a society where religious freedom is protected by law. "Religious freedom is not a factual claim describing what people actually do. It's a legal reality describing what people may do."
The last and more problematic way of understanding religious pluralism is when it is used as a philosophical theory about the nature of religion. We can think of this as philosophical or prescriptive religious pluralism. A basic or popular depiction of this idea is that "any (or perhaps all) religions lead to God or salvation. Following any religious path enables believers to reach the religious goal."
[T]he great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to, the Real from within the major variant ways of being human; and that within each of them the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness is taking place. These traditions are accordingly to be regarded as soteriological "spaces" within which, or "ways" along which, men and women can find salvation/liberation/ultimate fulfillment.It is this theoretical approach to religious diversity that has justifiably concerned Christians. If philosophical religious pluralism is true, then Christians have radically misunderstood the claims of Jesus Christ and the teaching of Scripture for centuries. Whether in its more popular or more sophisticated forms, the implication of philosophical religious pluralism is clear:
Philosophical pluralism has generated many approaches in support of one stance: namely, that any notion that a particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another is necessarily wrong. The only absolute creed is the creed of pluralism. No religion has the right to pronounce itself right or true, and the others false, or even (in the majority view) relatively inferior.
It is not the purpose of this brief essay to engage in a full-fledged critique of religious pluralism. Instead, it is to highlight the multifaceted nature of any discussion of this topic. Nevertheless, I want to conclude by simply raising three general concerns.
First, despite the distinctions made between the various ways of understanding religious pluralism, they are still often conflated. One well-known example of this is the statement by Hindu Swami Vivekananda at the World's Parliament of Religions in 1893. He stated that he was "proud to belong to a religion that has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions to be true."
Second, some of the more common forms of philosophical religious pluralism are logically problematic. It is difficult to understand how all religions can effectively lead to the ultimate religious goal given that the various traditions make mutually exclusive and at times contradictory claims about the nature of the ultimate reality, the human predicament, and the solution to this predicament. It would seem that any pluralistic model would need to have the resources to account for the contrary claims among the religious traditions.
Third, it contradicts the teaching of Scripture, and so ought to be rejected by Christians as a legitimate theoretical model about religious diversity.
Clearly, more needs to be said concerning these matters and pertinent questions remain. While Christians, I think correctly, reject philosophical religious pluralism on solid biblical and philosophical grounds, there are no legitimate reasons to be opposed to religious freedom and to deny the reality of religious diversity. It is not a stand for orthodoxy to do so. It may seem to some that our acute awareness of religious diversity may be an obstacle for Christians. I think, however, we should see this reality as a tremendous opportunity for commending and defending the gospel of Jesus Christ. In a real sense, so to speak, the world community is at our doorstep.
Patrick T. Smith is assistant professor of theology and philosophy at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.
Issue: "Jesus Among other Christs" May/June 2009 Vol. 18 No. 3 Page number(s): 24-25
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