Religious Pluralism x 3

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, 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 different religions.”

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 religions.

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 about religion.

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 rightly so.

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 truethat 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 things?

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 one’s enemies.)

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-3intolerant 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.

• For further reading: Are All Religions the Same?

 For further reading: The Blind Men and the Elephant.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University CollegeThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

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