WHO’S RIGHT? THE PROBLEM OF PLURALISM
The Trojan Horse of Pluralism Enters the Postmodern Culture
I. What is Pluralism?
A. Pluralism (as it will be used in this context) refers to a theory that there are more than one or more than two kinds of ultimate reality. According to this view, none of the world religious traditions has a monopoly on wisdom or virtue. None of them merits a privileged position as expressing an exclusive revelation. All are very human entities, with much to be proud of but also much to be ashamed of.
B. Pluralism, which could also be called Universalism, holds that a variety of ways of truth exist. It is a mode of addressing other religions. Other modes of addressing other religions are: (1) Exclusivism - One religion alone is truth (in our case Christianity, Christ alone saves). (2) Inclusivism - Some religious truth exists in every religion.
II. A History of Pluralism
A. The Christian faith was born in a world of religious pluralism. Rome believed all religions were equally true, all politics were equally false and any form of government is better than none. The early Church preached Christ, others accepted him as Savior and Lord, were baptized into Christ, leaving their ancestral faith to hold to a whole new world view.
B. So great was the success of Christian witnesses that by the 4th century, Christianity became the official religion of the empire.
C. By the 9th century tribes of Northern and Eastern Europe had been Christianized. A fundamental change had been made in the religious geography of the known world. The Western world had become Christian.
D. During the Middle Ages relatively little was known of other peoples and their religions. (1) Anti-Semitism began to develop during this time.
(2) Islam was perceived around the edges of Christian Europe as the enemy to be conquered by the sword not only as a political enemy but also as the enemy of God (exceptions found in Raymond Lull and some early Dominican and Franciscan missionaries).
(3) At this time it was believed the full extent of Christian universality was reached and therefore the Lordship of Christ had become real.
E. With the beginning of the age of exploration and colonization in the 16th century, Christians came to a startling new awareness of the other religions of the world. First through trading relationships and then in the actual planting of colonies, Western Christians started to learn of (1) Hinduism, (2) Buddhism, (3) Islam, (4) Confucianism, (5) Tribal religions. These were no longer thought of as merely eccentricities, but as the ways in which millions of people shaped their lives and faith.
F. By the end of the 18th century Arabic, Sanskrit, and Chinese were being studied in European universities, and the riches of these cultures were being unfolded. Religious pluralism was now on the agenda of the Christian community. Awareness of our vast world as yet untouched by Christian witness came at this time; when life in the Church was being renewed by pietism and repeated revivals where the missionaries called for the conversion of all peoples to faith in Christ was to express the Lordship of Christ over religious pluralism.
G. By the middle of the 19th century came the vision of reaching the whole world for Christ. “Jesus shall reign wherever the sun doth its successive journeys run.”
H. We stand in a situation parallel to the beginnings of Christian faith. In the latter part of the 20th century, Christians are facing in a new way the continuing and seemingly incurable religious pluralism of the world.
I. By 1996, it had become politically correct to believe that all religious groups have the truth. Cultural pluralism had led to cultural, social and religious tolerance.
J. Where does it end? Will pluralism spill over into our government, into the interpretation of our constitutions? With no absolutes, judiciation is not possible.
III. What Advocates of Pluralism Say:
A. Traditional evangelism under fire (contra the idea that Christ alone saves).
1. This view is regarded as being too narrow, ignoring the wording of God in the other religions and the great values enshrined in them.
2. The traditional view is said to betray an intolerant attitude of exclusiveness that is alien to the tolerant spirit of Christ.
3. This view is associated with arrogance.
4. The desire to convert people to “our side” is regarded as a vestige of the imperialistic attitude of the colonial rulers, where one group of people sought to subdue and conquer, and exploit another group of people.
B. It is not merely non-Christians who hold to the ideals of pluralism many Christians have this attitude as well.
1. Some say that Christianity is an equal with other faiths, John Hick, the British Presbyterian theologian, rejects the idea that Christianity is in any way superior to other religions.
2. A missionary ready to return home on retirement after twenty-eight years of ministry in Sri Lanka’s leading English language Sunday paper. “I was rather intolerant of other religions at the time and thought that mine was the only true one, but all that changed during a visit to a Buddhist holy place, Anuradhapura.” He said he learned the lesson that, “all religions, lived up to their highest ideals, have the common threads of love and compassion in them, so, from that moment my ministry became not creed but need.”
3. Be diligent in your religion, whatever it may be. Sincerity makes one acceptable before God.
IV. Why Pluralism Will Not Work--It Collapses
A. World views are mutually exclusive--they cannot all be right. If Christianity is right, then Islam is wrong; if Hinduism is right, Judaism is not.
B. Most of the world’s religions claim to be exclusive.
1. Christianity, of course, claims uniqueness.
a) Jesus claimed to be the only way of salvation (John 14.6)
b) Jesus’ followers claimed that He is the only way of salvation (Acts 4.12)
c) Jesus claimed that other ways of salvation were false (John 3.18)
d) Jesus’ followers claimed that other ways of salvation are false (Acts 13. 38,39)
e) What good would the great commission be if Jesus Christ was not the only way?
f) Paul’s attitude toward the situation in Acts 17 was not pluralistic.
2. Some sects of Buddhism profess to be exclusive. One pious believer in this school once said, “I am weak and sinful, and have no hope in myself; my hope is all in Amida Buddha. I believe him to be the Supreme Being. Because of the wickedness of man, and because of human sorrow, Amida Buddha became incarnate and came to earth to deliver man; and my hope and the world’s hope is to be found in his suffering love. He has entered humanity to save it; and he alone can save. . .”
3. For differences between Islam and Christianity see Phillips and Brown, p. 179.
The point is that all religions cannot be true. There are significant differences between them, which include crucial foundational issues. We know that in a culture that embraces pluralism, the offense of the cross can only become increasingly offensive. But whereas we have limited knowledge, incomplete data, and possibly distorted perceptions of fairness, the One who will judge all men (John 5.22-27) is the same One who loves us so much that He would rather die than live without us. He comforts us with the assurance that “my judgment is just” (John 5.30). We have confidence that “the judge of all the earth will do right” (Genesis 18.25). (Phillips and Brown, p. 178)
Anderson, Gerald H. And Stransky, Thomas F., Editors et al. Christ’s Lordship and Religious
Pluralism. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1981.
Anderson, Sir Norman. The World’s Religions Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
Braaten, Carl E. No Other Gospel: Christianity Among the World’s Religions. Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 1992.
Carmody, Denise and Carmody, John. How To Live Well: Ethics in The World Religions.
Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1988.deSilva, Alfreda, “Change of Heart After Anuradhapura’s Visit.” The Sunday Observer. March 18, 1984.
Fernando, Ajith. The Christian’s Attitude Toward World Religions. Wheaton: Tyndale House,
Netland, Harold A. Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and The Question of Truth. Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.
Phillips, W. Gary and Brown, Willliam E. Making Sense of Your World From A Biblical
Viewpoint. Chicago: Moody Press, 1991.
Reischauer, A.K. Studies in Japanese Buddhism. New York: Macmillian Press, 1917.
James Strauss, Lincoln Christian Seminary, Lincoln, IL