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The Plurality of Religious Pluralism

Clarifying the Terms

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A Not-So-Straightforward Question

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.

Clarifying the Concept

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." Without doubt, this is due in part to the impact from extensive immigration, developments in the areas of travel, information technology via the Internet and global media outlets. When we narrow the scope to our North American context at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it cannot be denied that factually we live in a religiously pluralistic society. "It is virtually impossible today to live in a major Western city and not come into contact with some aspect of a major non-Christian religion." We work with, live beside, and perhaps participate in civic activities with Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and scores of other religious traditions. To many, this situation should not be considered "neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad." It is simply a fact and so is descriptively true.

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." To ensure the rights of religious others to practice their religion within the limitations of a democracy is to be welcomed as opposed to some forms of unwarranted exclusion, marginalization, and religious intolerance that too often characterizes many parts of our world. Human beings are created in the image of God and, therefore, are intrinsically valuable. Thus, people should be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their religious faith. Being in support of this ought not to be of controversy to Christians. It is important to note that advocating religious freedom and tolerating religious diversity in our society is not the same as having to accept the content of the various belief systems as being wholly true or equal paths to God. Nor should affirming religious liberty be viewed as excluding interreligious dialogue. This is the case not only for the purpose of being more informed about another religion, but also for the purpose of persuasion. In a sense, all communication is persuasion of one sort or another. Undeniably, there are morally appropriate and inappropriate ways of engaging in interreligious dialogue.

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." A more extensive and sophisticated expression of this idea is to be found in the work of prominent religious pluralist, John Hick, when he writes:

[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.

Some General Concluding Concerns

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." Though not a pluralist in a strict sense, his comment nevertheless exemplifies what is true for many-that one cannot accept religious freedom and social tolerance without embracing philosophical religious pluralism. This is simply false. It is difficult to consistently hold these two together. Given that tolerance, as historically understood, is accepting of what one thinks to be erroneous, it seems difficult to say that we tolerate others and at the same time are required to embrace the content of tolerated beliefs and practices. I think it is important and appropriate for Christians to insist that these are distinct issues, such that one can consistently affirm religious liberty while rejecting philosophical religious pluralism.

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.

1 [ Back ] Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices, Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 1997), 4.
2 [ Back ] Netland, 4.
3 [ Back ] D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 17.
4 [ Back ] David K. Clark, "Religious Pluralism and Christian Exclusivism," in To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview, eds. Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and J. P. Moreland (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 292.
5 [ Back ] For an insightful discussion of these issues, see Netland's Dissonant Voices, 283-314.
6 [ Back ] Clark, 292. For a more robust critique of sophisticated religious pluralism by David Clark, see his chapter entitled "Christian Theology and the World Religions" in To Know and Love God: Method for Theology (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003). For a more sustained philosophical and theological critique of religious pluralism with implications for Christian missions, see Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).
7 [ Back ] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 240.
8 [ Back ] Carson, 19.
9 [ Back ] As quoted in Netland, 16.
10 [ Back ] Space limitations prohibit any sustained exegesis of many of the relevant texts. For good discussions of some of the key biblical passages concerning salvation being found only in Jesus, see James R. Edwards, Is Jesus the Only Savior? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) and D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God.

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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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