I shall define religious pluralism as a condition or system in which multiple spiritual groups, ideas, positions, principles, or sources of authority coexist and are all regarded as equally valid.
At the end of 2008, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll that found that among American Christians, 52% believed that “at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life.” And of those in this majority, 80% could “name at least one non-Christian faith that can do so.” Only 29% of those polled believed that “my religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.” Six percent of respondents did not know who achieves eternal life or refused to answer.
In our modern era, pluralism is a principle embraced and accepted in mostly all arenas, so it is no surprise that this ideology spills over into the realm of faith. This phenomenon speaks to the modern Christian, who now must live in a world where a sweeping relativism of truth has happened, melting down truth with a capital T to lowercase t truth. This turns certainty away from the external and objective into a matter of personal preference and subjectivity, in part fueled by an ethos of consumerism, where “I” reigns supreme. Combine this in a world where attention is short, new trends change minute to minute, where no one has time for “old,” “ancient,” “antiquated,” and “unchanging” spiritual rules, and it’s no wonder inclusiveness triumphs over exclusiveness. The ultimate end result is religious pluralism, where truth and what one follows are solely based on what “feels right,” and validation is sought internally. There are many things that people desire to be valid, and this can lead either to a universal view of faith or the rejection of those tenets in your own faith that seem too “messy.” Vanity remains the motivating force in both conditions. Yet in these paradigms, God cannot be true for everyone because God begins on the inside and is then projected outward.
This model was written about in Acts 17:16, where the apostle Paul is in the midst of Athens, a place that he describes as being “full of idols,” and many different sects did what was right in their own eyes. Resultantly, in I Corinthians 10:14, Paul says to “flee from idolatry,” cognizant that there is a perpetual temptation in this world to fashion an object of worship that suits ourselves, essentially forming a deity similar to what we see in the mirror. The underlying problem behind the Pew poll is the idea that multiple viewpoints can be simultaneously correct. If science and reason tell us that the world is full of exclusive absolute truths, then why do the rules change for God? Well, quite simply, because it’s easier that way.
Religious pluralism inherently leads to a god who is self-contradictory, so logic mandates that there can only be one truth. For example, Judaism says that Jesus is not the Messiah. Christianity says that Jesus is the Messiah and the only way to eternal life is through Him. So both ideologies are mutually exclusive, and if one is right, the other must be wrong. Both cannot be right because if they were, then God would not be god but a nebulous and constantly changing, contradictory entity that conforms to the whims of different cults.
The truth then has to be exclusive of nontruth, or else it wouldn’t be the truth in the same way that if the sky is blue, it can’t be red, purple, or orange. And simple probability is on the side of exclusivity: if a creed is overly strict, all of its followers will be overly disciplined but will achieve eternal life by “getting it right.” If a creed is overly lenient, they risk getting it wrong, leading to damnation. Reason then points us in the direction of ideological religious exclusion in the pursuit of the ultimate truth. This is no way a dismissal of people, who should always be welcome, but is an invitation to draw a firm line in the sand by excluding false principles. It’s a marvelous and wonderful thing for people to coexist peacefully, but it becomes degrading and intellectually dishonest if all religions are remolded so that they look and feel like all the rest. Like the people in the Pew poll, anyone who thus says that “all roads lead to Christ” or “many roads lead to God” hasn’t taken the time to study the routes.
How then should the routes therein be studied? By their truth claims.
Many faiths may provide guidelines for more ethical living and can illustrate proper guidelines in order to be “happier” and live more fulfilling lives. But is temporal happiness an appropriate end point? If God doesn’t exist, then there is nothing greater than our world, so one ought to maximize satisfaction in the present, knowing that beyond this reality, nothing exists. But if God does exist, what can reconcile us back to God, a higher power, cognizant that all human beings are tainted by sin? In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, one of the central themes of Christianity is made clear: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (II Corinthians 5:19). The love of God, manifested in grace, is the only divine phenomenon capable of transcending the tit-for-tat conception of the natural rules of judgment, “karma,” where “we reap what we sow” and “what goes around comes around.” Many faiths and creeds may influence happiness or induce behavior change, but who will vouch for you on the final Day of Judgment, make atonement for all the bad things that you’ve already done, and sanctify and justify you before God?
There is only one answer in all of religion: Jesus Christ.
Throughout On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria helps to explain the exclusive truth claim of Christianity. That is, in order to reconcile the fallen creation (humans) back to God, salvation had to occur through a wholly divine mediator, perfectly embodied in Christ. Had Christ not been wholly divine, Athanasius argues, then He would have needed a mediator Himself to bring us into fellowship with God, and that imperfect mediator would therein need another mediator, creating an endless succession of imperfect mediators without any resultant salvation. In short, in order to recreate creation and turn the corruptible (humans) back into the incorruptible, God needs the same substance or “stuff” in order to bring that imperfect back to being perfect. Athanasius beautifully and repeatedly argues that the entire process is motivated by the love of God for His creation, and to suggest that He would impart upon us a less-than-perfect mediator would in fact demote and diminish that love motivation to less than steadfast, permanent, perpetual, and all-encompassing. Athanasius says, “[I]t was our sorry case that caused [Jesus] to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love He was both born and manifested in a human body.” He also says, “The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself … immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, and, itself, remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection.”
There is a stark difference between learning about why other faiths believe what they believe and assimilating those beliefs into the Christian creed. Most global religions do tend to prescribe ethical and moral standards that are essentially very similar to one another, and most people can find agreement with edicts such as “be kind to others” and “don’t lie.” Where the religions begin to diverge is what the object of our worship is. The need to worship is evidenced by the fact that, domestically, more than 95% of Americans believe in some form of a higher power, and globally, less than 5% of people identify themselves as atheists.
Faith then is the trust in that object. So how could any rational person decide or believe what the truth is with a capital T? In all faiths except Christianity, there is no connection between the divine and the human, and there is never any form of a bridge between the Creator and the creation that can give human beings the proof that they need to believe that God exists somewhere out there.
That proof has already been provided in the historical, flesh-and-bone incarnation of God into a man: Jesus Christ. An incarnation so palpable and so real that in Antiquity, you could have walked up to Jesus, given Him a handshake, and washed His feet; so real that you could have touched His cross and watched His blood dribble down your hand; so real that even those faiths that deny His deity (Judaism and Islam) never deny that He existed. The power of Christendom recognizes that we were all designed to worship, yet that desire and need to glorify will only be quenched if we praise He who made us for Himself. This is what Augustine means in Confessions when he says, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
We live in a world where taking a stance for the ultimate truth has become controversial and narrow-minded. Is the loss of eternal life worth the price of secular acceptance? Many Christians seem to already think so.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal