10 Things You Should Know about Religious Pluralism

We must acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of human beings in history have died without ever hearing the name of Jesus. What may be said about the eternal destiny of these millions of souls? Are they forever condemned to hell? If so, how can it be fair or an expression of divine justice that they entered eternity without having had the advantage or opportunity afforded those who live in a place or time where the gospel of Christ is preached? Or could it be that many, perhaps even most of them, were saved when they acknowledged the existence of God and cried out to him for mercy, even though they were entirely unaware of the person and work of Christ?

I will answer this latter question in another article, but for now we take note of the factors that have contributed in our day to the increasing popularity of religious pluralism, that is, the belief that there is equal saving power in all religions.

(1) The so-called “scandal of particularity” may well be the most volatile and urgent issue facing the church in the 21st century. What is this “scandal”? It is the notion embraced by most evangelical Christians that only through conscious faith in Jesus Christ can a person be reconciled to God (the “particularity” in view is wrapped up in my use of the word “only”).

We live in a world that is growing increasingly uncomfortable with this concept of religious exclusivism. The traditional Christian claim that Jesus Christ is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” and that salvation is available only to those who consciously put their faith in him is now regarded as both arrogant and offensive.

(2) A significant contributing factor is the increase of globalization. No longer can one live in isolation from the rest of the world. Television, ease of travel, and especially the development of the Internet have contributed to the interconnectivity of all peoples and cultures. The world has shrunk. Once foreign and strange cultures, religions, and people-groups are now but a mouse-click away from walking into our living rooms. Traditional national, cultural, and ethnic boundaries are eroding under the collective force of modern communication and technology.

(3) The reality of immigration must also be taken into consideration. Consider Chicago, for example. At the time I moved out of Chicago, in 2004, there were 100,000 Hindus, 150,000 Buddhists, and 250,000 Muslims. There are probably many more of each today. Such folk are no longer exotic or strange but part of the mainstream of American life. They are our next-door neighbors, making the exclusive claims of Christianity less attractive to those who are now faced with having to “get along” with those around them.

(4) There is also the redefinition of “tolerance”. The older “tolerance” referred to “accepting the existence of different views” (italics mine), whereas the newer “tolerance” has in mind the “acceptance of different views” (italics mine). Please don’t miss the distinction. It is the shift, notes D. A. Carson, “from recognizing other people’s right to have different beliefs or practices to accepting the differing views of other people” (The Intolerance of Tolerance, 3). Again, “to accept that a different or opposing position exists and deserves the right to exist is one thing; to accept the position itself means that one is no longer opposing it. The new tolerance suggests that actually accepting another’s position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own. We move from allowing the free expression of contrary opinions to the acceptance of all opinions; we leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid” (3-4).

Thus in our “politically correct” society, the definition has now changed to include the idea that one must never say anything negative about another religion’s beliefs or practices, that one must never say or do anything that another person or religion should find offensive. To suggest that one religious view is correct and others are false or inadequate is deemed offensive, and thus intolerant.

(5) A related factor is the widespread, and seemingly “more loving”, belief that sincerity is more important than truth, that sincerity is enough when truth is absent.

(6) An emerging pragmatic view of religion is also important. People are less concerned with universal truth claims and more with what works, what brings fulfillment, what feels good and facilitates self-growth and sense of well-being.

(7) Harold Netland points to a growing sense of “postcolonialist guilt” (30). It is often believed today “that one way to atone for the past sins of colonialism is to embrace uncritically non-Western cultures and religions, refusing to make negative judgments about their beliefs and practices, and this sentiment naturally finds religious pluralism attractive” (30).

(8) The so-called “fulfillment” view of non-Christian religions is becoming more commonplace. This comes from the recognition of undeniable truth and beauty in other faiths, believing these to be incomplete anticipations of what had been definitively revealed in Christ. In other words, what was imperfectly and only partially revealed in other religions is perfectly and completely revealed in Christianity. The former are thus moving gradually to their consummate fulfillment in Christianity. Christianity does not replace, but fulfills, what is good and true in other faiths.

(9) Harold Netland has argued that perhaps the greatest influence is the widespread loss of confidence in Christianity as traditionally defined. This comes largely from the influence of biblical criticism which has undermined our confidence that what we read in the Bible (the gospels in particular) is objective truth. Related to this is the growth of epistemological skepticism, often associated with postmodernism. Many now say we must be less confident in our ability to know anything with absolute and objective certainty. Without such confidence in our “knowing” we dare not suggest that we are right and others wrong when it comes to religion and matters of the spiritual and eternal world.

(10) There is then the emerging belief that the real enemy of Christianity is atheism and secularism, not other religious movements.

So, what are we to say to those who point to the “scandal of particularity” and insist on the equal legitimacy of all religious beliefs? The answer will come in a subsequent post.

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