I. The Challenge of Religious Pluralism
1. Only a generation ago, the following lines would have been sung enthusiastically in Christian gatherings, especially when thoughts were focussed on the theme of world missions:-
Let the song go round the earth,
Lands where Islam’s sway
Darkly broods o’er home and hearth,
Cast their bonds away.
Nowadays, however, the invitation to sing such lines would lead to puzzlement, embarrassment, or even anger. The sentiment contained in this hymn seems patronising, arrogant, and just plain mistaken.
The fact is that a considerable change has taken place in our corporate mentality. Until quite recently, most Christians would have assumed that their faith was the only way of salvation, and that adherents of other faith therefore needed to be converted to Christ in order to be saved. But there has been a massive loss of confidence in such a point of view. Increased immigration, world travel, and mass communication, together with a shift towards a supposedly more tolerant society (at least in Western cultures) have contributed to this change. The exclusive claims of Christianity are now considered arrogant and outmoded, even by many who are themselves professing Christians.
One spokesman on behalf of the newer approach is the theologian John Hick. He has noted the following factors in the decline of what he calls Christian ‘imperialism’:-
- A realisation of the religious variety of mankind, together with an awareness that Christians constitute less than 1/4 of the world’s population, has cast ‘a massive shadow over any assumption that it is God’s will that all mankind shall be converted to the Christian faith.’
- The vast majority of people adhere to the religion in which they were brought up. One’s own faith then is more a matter of chance circumstance than of absolute truth.
- The older caricature of other religions are being replaced by serious study which demonstrates the real value and dignity of these other faiths.
- Since the 1950s, there have been increasing numbers of representatives of other religions in this country, encouraging a more tolerant and accepting attitude.
In Hick’s view, ‘the older Christian view of other faiths as areas of spiritual darkness within which there is no salvation, no knowledge of God, and no acceptable worship, must be mistaken. This older view, which few still entertain in practice today, was enshrined in the traditional Roman Catholic dogma, “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (outside the Church no salvation).’
This re-evaluation of Christianity’s former exclusive claims has led to new attitudes towards the world’s religions. The annual services held at Westminster Abbey for the observance of Commonwealth Day, have in recent years taken on a completely inter-faith character. The Prince of Wales, in his televised interview with Jonathan Dimbleby on 29th June, 1994, declared that he preferred to see the monarchy as ‘Defender of faith’, rather than as ‘Defender of The Faith’, i.e. ‘just one particular interpretation of the faith’; since ‘we are all actually aiming for the same ultimate goal’.
In his 1986 Sir Francis Younghusband Memorial Lecture, Dr Robert Runcie affirmed that for Christians the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus would always remain the primary source of knowledge about God and thus ‘firm and fundamental’ and ‘not negotiable’. He then declared that ‘other faiths reveal other aspects of God which may enrich and enlarge our Christian understanding.’ He quoted with approval the words of Paul Tillich: ‘In the depths of every living religion there is a point at which the religion itself loses its importance, and that to which it points breaks through its particularity to a vision of spiritual freedom and to a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions of the ultimate meaning of man’s existence.’
Dr Runcie seemed to view Christianity as inferior to Hinduism in some respects: ‘There were the marvellous early Hindu sculptures at Mahabalipuram, near Madras, where gods and goddesses take hundreds of different forms and images. The sheer diversity of the divine was disconcerting. God seemed somehow greater than western monism.’
For Dr Runcie, no one religion offers a unique or complete revelation of God: ‘We have already begun, painfully, to emancipate ourselves from the isolation which limits religion to the insights and errors of one stream of tradition…Was it Max Muller who urged that in respect of religion, “He who knows one, knows none”?’
According to the 1993-4 Barna report, nearly two out of three adults believe that the choice of one religion over another is irrelevant because all religions teach the same lessons about life. It doesn’t matter which god you pray to because every deity is ultimately the same being called by a different name.
2. We are faced, then, with the challenge of religious pluralism. The religions of the world, it is now claimed, are like so many spokes of a wheel: the closer we draw to the nameless, dogma-free centre, the closer we draw to one another. Or, to put it another way, the teachings of the different faiths should be viewed as shells containing kernels that are common to all religions. These teachings are best thought of as symbols representing traditional explanations, insights and practices, rather than as objective truths.
A pluralistic approach has to a very large extent become the new orthodoxy. Its attractions are immediately obvious: it seems to reflect ideas and attitudes that lie at the very core of the Christian faith itself: love, tolerance, understanding, co-operation, humility, and so on. But Christians need to consider whether their uncritical acceptable of pluralism is not, in fact, a dereliction of duty and a denial of the Christ whom the claim to follow and serve.
II. The Problems of Religious Pluralism
1. One of the great fallacies of the pluralistic approach is its assumption that deeper you delve into the different religions of the world, the more commonality you will find. This is simply not so. Religions may have superficial similarities (such as believe in a deity, holy writings, religious observances and ceremonies, moral codes) but the more one examines and compares these things the more contradictions one finds.
Each of the world’s religions has had a different effect on the cultures it has shaped and influenced. Gavin Read has written: ‘The dominant beliefs of a society…put a stamp on its whole way of life. A country dominated by Islam is very different from one where Buddhism is the major influence…Christianity, Judaism and Islam produce more activist cultures than Hinduism and Buddhism with their traditions of meditation and passive endurance of adversity…If the spiritual understandings of a nation have been dominated by atheism or secularism then it will show. Losing the conviction that they are made in the image of God, people will tend to treat each other as animals or machines. A person is what he believes.’
The religions of the world are not at their heart simply different expressions of the same ultimate reality. As Alister McGrath has pointed out, ‘there is a growing consensus that it is seriously misleading to regard the various religious traditions of the world as variations on a single theme.’ In the words of David Tracy, ‘there is no single essence, no one content of enlightenment or revelation, no one way of emancipation or liberation, to be found in all that plurality.’ J.I. Packer has put it this way: ‘People with no ear for music say that it all sounds the same. Music-lovers, however, know different. Likewise, people who lack spiritual concern or knowledge tell us that the world’s religions are really all the same, and it makes little difference which one you follow. But they too are mistaken, as Christians can clearly see.’
According to Michael Green, the differences between the major religions of the world are fundamental and profound: ‘The God of Hinduism is plural and impersonal. The God of Islam is singular and personal. The God of Christianity is the Creator of the world. The divine in Buddhism is not personal and is not creative…Christianity teaches that God both forgives a man and gives him supernatural aid. In Buddhism there is no forgiveness, and no supernatural aid. The goal of all existence in Buddhism is “nirvana”, extinction – attained by the Buddha after no less than 547 births. The goal of all existence in Christianity is to know God and enjoy him forever.’
2. Another fallacy of the pluralistic approach is its assumption that religion is ‘a good thing’. This is simply not so. Some religions may be good in at least a relative sense. But others are palpably and definitely wicked. It is nonsense to suppose that religion itself (in its vast array of forms) is ‘good’. Donald Macleod has asserted: ‘Religion is not in itself a good thing. On the contrary, man’s religions have always been his greatest crimes. Indeed, the whole Old Testament is one sustained, unrelenting polemic against religion (in the shape of polytheism and idolatry). To portray as morally indifferent systems which for centuries have been instruments of deception, degradation and oppression would be a dereliction of duty.’ As Pascal once put it, ‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.’
3. A pluralistic perspective would lead us to suppose that the Christian faith itself teaches us to view the claims of other religions as equally valid to those of our own. We assume that Christian principles of love, tolerance, and mutual understanding force us in this direction. We need have no scruples, it is asserted, with the attitude of the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “The soul of religions is one, but it is encased in a multitude of forms…Truth is the exclusive property of no single scripture…I cannot ascribe exclusive divinity to Jesus. He is as divine as Krishna or Rama or Mohammed or Zoroaster.”
But this cannot be acceptable to the followers of Jesus Christ. The same Scriptures that teach tolerance and love also teach us that Jesus can have no rivals. The uniqueness of Christ and his own exclusive claims are the heart of the issue here. It is not a question of dogmatism but of faithfulness to our Lord and Saviour. The historical evidences for Christ mark him out as utterly unique and peerless.
- Only he was foretold in detail centuries before he came, Lk 24:27
- Only he declared that he came from outside the word, Jn 6:38
- Only he was without flaw of character, Heb 4:15
- Only he claimed that he was God, Jn 8:58
- Only he died for the sins of the world, 1 Pet 3:18
- Only he rose from the grave
It is, or should be, inconceivable therefore that Christ should have any rivals; that any other religious leader could be his equal. Our rejection of the world’s religions as means of salvation is based primarily, not on a sense of personal superiority on our part, but on our faithfulness to Christ himself.
In contradiction of the view that the Spirit of God is at the heart of all religions, Jesus himself asserted that the Holy Spirit is present with his followers, not with the world at large, Jn 14:16-17. The comparable assertion that religion is a manifestation of a divine spark in the heart of every person, is a denial of the biblical doctrine, Eph 4:18.
3. It is sometimes supposed that the challenge posed by other religions is a new one, but this is not so. Both Old and New Testaments were written against a background of polytheism and idolatry. Patriarchs, judges, and kings; apostles, prophets and evangelists; – none of those who spoke God’s word or led God’s people could ignore the claims and challenges of other faiths. Let us not suppose that the historic Christian faith has developed a certain approach to the religions of the world out of mere ignorance of them, or lack of exposure to them.
The Book of Acts contains a rich vein of material on this question. In Acts 1:8, we find recorded some of the last words of Jesus Christ before his ascension to heaven. “You will be my witnesses,” he tells his disciples, “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The Christian gospel was not just for a select minority; it was not just for one geographical area; it was not just for one culture; – it was for the whole world. The remainder of the Book of Acts is a record of the expansion of Christianity in precisely the order indicated in 1:8. Christianity is essentially a missionary religion. It prizes the Good News so highly that it cannot fail to work and pray for the conversion of the whole world to Jesus Christ.
The exclusivity of salvation in Jesus Christ is asserted by Peter in Acts 4:12: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
Acts 10 records the meeting between Cornelius and Peter, an event which is one of the great turning points in the spread of the gospel. The goods news breaks decisively out of its Jewish constraints and begins its journey to the ends of the earth. Of particular relevance to the question under discussion is Acts 10:34f, which records the words of Peter, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” This might sound almost like a proof-text for religious pluralism, but, as John Stott has pointed out, ‘The emphasis is that Cornelius’ Gentile nationality was acceptable so that he had no need to become a Jew, not that his own righteousness was adequate so that he had no need to become a Christian.’ In fact, Peter goes to preach the gospel, and to teach Cornelius about the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ (vv36-43).
In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas have fled to the Lycaonian cities of Derbe and Lystra. There, their healing of a lame man leads to the locals treating the two apostles as if they were gods. But Paul and Barnabas will have none of it. Moreover, they call on those who worship them to “turn from these worthless things [their gods] to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.” (v15)
When Paul was in Athens (Acts 17), he was ‘greatly distressed to find that the city was full of idols,’ (v16). His response is tactful, yet forthright; invited to account for the strange new teaching he was bringing to the city, he remarks that its inhabitants are “very religious” (v22). He comments on an altar that he has seen that is inscribed, “To an unknown god.” Then he seizes his opportunity, and exclaims: “What you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” (v23).
Whatever reasons the pluralists may claim in their favour, they cannot with any validity claim that Scripture is on their side.
III What, then, should be the Christian attitude to other religions?
1. The words and actions of many of our Christian leaders and ministers have been seriously misleading. Those who have taught their congregations to doubt the uniqueness of Christ, who insists that Christianity, Islam and Buddhism are essentially one, or who advocates or promotes inter-faith worship, should seriously consider their position in the Christian church. Such people have every right to hold pluralistic views, but not as ministers of Christian church and spokespersons for the Christian faith.
But nothing that has been said so far should be taken as meaning that Christian should not be totally committed to religious toleration, and to religious freedom. “I disapprove of what you believe; but I will defend with my very life your right to believe it.” Even if the differences between Christianity and the religions of the world are profound, any common ground can and should be explored, and it will be found possible even to make common cause on a range of issues. In the religions of the world, there is a wide variety both of truth and goodness (and of falsehood and evil). There is much that one can admire in the lofty monotheism of Judaism and Islam, for example. Christians can stand shoulder to shoulder with adherents of other religions (and none) in promoting a range of practical and moral causes.
It is, however, a great mistake to suppose that commitment to religious toleration is to be equated with a recognition of equal validity or truth. It is not to be denied that the world’s religions represent a spiritual quest which is often sincere and deeply-felt. Throughout history, humankind has longed for meaning and purpose, for forgiveness and for immortality. But these longings arises out of our common creation in God’s image, and out of the witness of conscience which God has placed in our hearts, Rom 2:15. Left to their own devices, these longings do not lead to a true knowledge of God, because of the fallenness of human nature and the malevolent influences of Satan, the father of lies and the master of disguise, Jn 8:44; 2 Cor 11:14. Such is the devil’s influence that he is called ‘the prince of this world’, Jn 12:31. The religions of the world therefore have a double source: the spoiled remnants of the divine image in man, and the malevolent influence of Satan.
Other religions take bad men and try to make them better. Jesus Christ takes dead men and makes them alive. ‘In a sense,’ says Paul Little, ‘other religious systems are sets of swimming instructions for a drowning man. Christianity is a life-saver.’ Or in the words of Thomas Arnold: ‘The distinction between Christianity and all other systems of religion consists largely in this, that in these others men are found seeking after God, while Christianity is God seeking after men.’
2. Christians have sometimes, in recent years, sought some kind of ‘half-way house’ between exclusivism and pluralism. They do not want to surrender faith in Christ as Lord and Saviour of the world, but neither do they want to condemn to hell countless millions who have never heard of Christ or who, having heard of him, and declined to transfer their allegiance to him. A frequently-proposed solution has been to suggest that adherents of other faiths can indeed find salvation in Christ, even if Christ remains unknown by name them.
It is difficult, however, to find much scriptural support for such a compromise view, attractive though it is. Indeed, one of our the major problems, on both sides of this debate, is that we want to know more than God has revealed to us. Not satisfied with the revelation that ‘God is love’, we want to push this to mean that God will find a place in his eternal kingdom for everyone, whatever their faith (or lack of it). Not satisfied with Christ’s statement, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” we want a definitive statement on the eternal destiny of those who have never heard of Christ.
May God give us the faith to believe and follow what he has revealed in Scripture, and the humility to say, “We cannot tell,” in those matters on which his word is silent.
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)