How did it come to be virtually taken for granted that there are many paths to God, and that for any one of these (including Christianity) to make any claim to exclusiveness is either ignorant or arrogant?
John Stott discusses the various arguments for religious pluralism that have evolved in recent decades:-
1. The new global consciousness. Stimulated by threats to the environments, fears of nuclear conflict, and the continued existence of North/South economic divide. The survival of the race seems to depend on our ability to live in global harmony, and whatever divides us, including our religions, is regarded with increasing disfavour.
Of course, Christians should be at the forefront of those seeking global harmony. But this does not mean that we need to renounce our belief in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Unit should never be at the expense of truth. Christ divides people as well as uniting them, Mt 10:34.
2. The new appreciation of other religions. This has been stimulated by television and travel. Increased knowledge of the “immense spiritual riches” of the world’s religions has ‘tended to erode the plausibility of the old Christian exclusiveness” (Hick). The resurgence of some of the ancient religions has coincided with a decline of Christianity in the West.
We should welcome a more thorough knowledge of the world’s religions. But if it is true that Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God, it would be unloving to leave our neighbour in ignorance of him. If the Christian faith is in some places declining, that does not mean the Gospel is untrue, but should lead us into repentance.
3. The new post-colonial modesty. For four centuries the West dominated the world in political, military, economic and scientific terms, and took for granted its own superiority. The end of the Second World War, however, signalled the end of the colonial era. The status of Christianity has been amended from that of superiority to that of parity.
If by ‘superiority’ we mean intolerable conceit, then of course we need to repent of it. But the Christian missionary enterprise is not in itself a mark of arrogance; it indicates rather a profound sense that the gospel is superior because it is God’s revealed truth.
The authors of The Myth of Christian Uniqueness add three ‘bridges’ they have crossed in travelling from exclusivism to pluralism:-
1. The historico-cultural bridge (relativity). Since people began to apply Einstein’s general theory of relativity beyond physics, nothing absolute seems to remain. Religions as simply “creations of the human imagination” (Kaufman), each culturally determined. Accordingly, Christian theology must abandon any claim to absolute or final truth, because it is itself “a human imaginative response to the necessity to find orientation for life in a particular historical situation.”.
We gladly concede that the Bible is a culturally conditioned book, but it is more than that: it has a divine and well as a human authorship. The gospel is not the product of human imagination but of divine revelation.
2. The theologico-mystical bridge (mystery). According to this view, all religions contain some sense of the Transcendent, which itself remains beyond our apprehension. Our theologies are more or less valuable ‘conceptual images’ of God. According to Wilfred Cantwell Smith, there is “no fundamental difference between a doctrine and a statue”: the former is an intellectual image of God, the latter a visual image. “For Christians to think that God has constructed Christianity…, rather than that He/She/It has inspired us to construct it…that is idolatry.”
God is indeed Transcenent Reality beyond all human imagination. Nevertheless, we can know him in so far as he has revealed himself in the Word incarnate and in his written word. ‘To acknowledge the finality and absoluteness of Christ himself…is not idolatry but authentic worship.’
3. The ethico-practical bridge (justice). If the sufferings of the oppressed constitute the greatest outrage in the world today, then pluralism is not an end in itself, but rather a means to the end of liberating the oppressed. The only possible criterion by which to judge religions would then not be doctrinal or mystical, but practical, namely, their ability to prmote human well-being.
We must agree that issues of social justice should be of enormous concern to all Christians. We should be ashamed of evangelical neglect in this area over the past century. We do not agree with Hick’s assessment of the Christian social record as “a complex mixture of valuable and harmful elements”, no worse or better than that of other religions.
Each of the six points above begs the question of truth: Has God fully and finally revealed himself in Christ, and in the total biblical testimony to Christ, or not?
Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 296-305