We are living in a pluralistic world dominated by relativism. Pluralism has infiltrated every arena of life and heavily impacted the society. Religious pluralism is a dangerous teaching that has been rapidly picking up attention all over the world. The modern secular worldview shuns any form of absolutism in religion. The challenges posed by religious pluralism to evangelical Christianity is enormous. The belief that Christ is the only way to God is disdained and Christianity is reckoned as one of the ways to God. The problem of religious pluralism is not peculiar to Asia but even vast sections of the West are insinuated with various religions and cults. This paper intends to study the idea of religious pluralism, expose the contradictions within the position and develop a Christian response to the challenges posed by it.
RELIGIOUS PLURALISM: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
The three paradigms doing rounds in the world of religion are – exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. In order to get a clearer understanding of religious pluralism we need to define it in light of the other two paradigms. The exclusivist position firmly affirms Jesus Christ as the full and final revelation of God and salvation is available only through Him. It also denies the possibility of salvation attainable through any other religion. The inclusivists believe that God who is gracious is redemptively at work in all religions. So grace operates outside the church and can be encountered by other religions because of Christ’s universal payment for sin. Pluralism on the other hand claims that all religions lead to salvation. It says salvation is made available in its own way in each religion. Religious pluralism is a culturally conditioned attempt to move from self-centredness to Reality centredness whether we call this Reality Allah, Jehovah, Krishna or Brahman. Religious pluralism was made popular by John Hick whose work “An Interpretation of Religion” is the most sophisticated model for a pluralistic understanding of religion. According to Hick, God who is the Maker exceeds all human attempts to grasp him and devoted people of all world religions worship that one God through different overlapping concepts or mental icons of him.
EVALUATION OF RELIGIOUS PLURALISM: A CRITICAL PERSPECTIVE
In light of pluralistic ideals it appears that an exclusivistic claim towards a particular religion is an unpardonable offence. One needs to study religious pluralism and its ideas more deeply and critique it in order to expose the inherent contradictions within the system.
Positive Side: An Appreciation of the Motives
The positive side of religious pluralism is its call to become an integral part of the global community. The absolute claims of religions have undeniably wrecked havoc and created pandemonium among the religious people. On the other hand religious pluralism has unity and harmony in mind. It also teaches the need for tolerance in order to live in peace with one another. The emphasis is on equality by not placing any religion on a pedestal. One can see the rationale behind the pluralistic mentality which is good although not justified.
Negative Side: Exposing the Fallacies
Pseudopluralism – All Religions are Exclusivistic
Pluralism is favoured because of its open-mindedness to all religions. The adherents to faith systems who claim every religion is a pathway to God are revered most. On the contrary, we see that all religions are guilty of exclusivism. For instance, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was considered by the West as a religious pluralist who viewed all religions as legitimate ways to God. But he looked at every religion from his Advaita Vedanta Hinduistic philosophy. He considered the mysticism of nirguna Brahman to be the inner core of all religions which clearly distorted data from other traditions. In a stricter sense he cannot consider himself to be a pluralist. Similarly, Islam is very clearly an exclusive claim to God and no Muslim will tell it doesn’t matter what we believe. Buddha ended up rejecting the dogmatic claims of Hinduism on Karma and reincarnation. These evidences seal the fact that all religions are exclusivistic in nature.
Equality of Religions is a Myth
In order to understand the logical contradictions between religions one needs to understand the meaning of truth. Truth is the characteristic of a statement or proposition that corresponds to reality. Any statement or proposition cannot be true or false at the same sense and same time. When one religion claims that the ‘Ultimate is personal’ and another ‘Ultimate is impersonal’ they are logical contradictions. Similarly, religions differ in fundamental doctrines like God, humans, destiny, salvation etc. So all these differing claims cannot be true at the same time. It is a clear proof that equality of religions is only a myth.
Pluralists are Guilty of Exclusivism
Exclusivism tries to arrive at an objective answer to truth or falsity of religious beliefs. While religious pluralists criticise them, they themselves are guilty of the same allegation. Inspite of a pluralist’s claim to be tolerant, he is still exclusivistic because he believes he has an answer which no individual religion does not have. He considers himself to be right while others are wrong. The moment a person holds his belief to be right and others to be wrong he becomes exclusivistic.
The Fallacy of Relativism
Religious pluralism is operated on the principle of relativism. It considers that there are number of saving contacts between God and all routes will lead to Him. The assumption what is truth to me is not truth for others is ridden with self-contradictions. Paul Copan proves in his book that relativist is an absolutist in relativist’s clothing. The relativist believes that relativism is true not just for him but for everyone and thereby becomes an absolutist himself. The solution here is not accepting every religious claim as true in order to satisfy all. Instead, the need is to evaluate them in order to see if it corresponds to reality. Religious pluralism with all its weaknesses can never be a reasonable belief. Ravi Zacharias rightly says that truth cannot be sacrificed at the expense of a pretended tolerance.
POPULARITY OF PLURALISM: AN ACUTE CHALLENGE TO CHRISTIANITY
Religious pluralism is the greatest challenge facing evangelical Christianity in the world today. Pluralists consider God to be the centre around which all religions revolve. The classical evangelical position of Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation is under severe attack. Pluralist Hick challenges that if Christians claim to have a direct connection with God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, then they should be morally superior to believers in other religion. Since Christianity fails the moral test he concludes that pluralism is true.
Another interesting point is that more than being committed to religious pluralism, people are antagonistic towards the ‘absolutist’ or ‘exclusivist’ understanding of only way to God. Hick quotes the Bhagavad Gita to prove that all religions will lead to God. Christians who hold Jesus as the only means of salvation are considered to be narrow minded, bigoted, and arrogant. The idea of one religion being superior over all others is inconceivable to modern thought. Pluralism strives to keep all religion on par with each other. The famous Indian theologian Stanley Samartha argues, “Where alternative ways of salvation have provided meaning and purpose for millions of person in other cultures for more than two or three thousand years, to claim that the Judeo-Christian-Western tradition has the only answer to all problems in all places is presumptuous.” The world permeated with pluralism labels any form of exclusivism as absurd religious chauvinism. Pluralists apprehend such kind of lofty attitude toward any religion will lead to violence and hate. An open minded, liberal tolerance is considered to be the need of the hour.
ENCOUNTERING RELIGIOUS PLURALISM: THE CHRISTIAN RESPONSE
Christians cannot remain silent in view of the legitimate claims from religious pluralism. It is high time we learn to respond fittingly to the allegations raised by the critics. The following should be the Christian response to religious pluralism.
World Religions: Looking From A Christian Point of View
In order to counter religious pluralism Christians should have the right perspective of other religions. Some of the allegations raised against Christians being intolerant is partly true. We are guilty of despising other religions and failing to realise the implications of our action. We need to understand all religions have some truth in them as religion is about mankind trying to reach God who has revealed Himself through creation and human conscience. Man being made in God’s image has the ability to find out the truth. So glimmers of truth seen in other religions should not be counted as rubbish as it is a product of God’s general revelation. While we firmly acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the only way to God, if an aspect of a religion confirms to this truth then we should affirm it. Christians need to acquire knowledge of other belief systems to encounter them effectively.
Its crucial we learn to give importance to both similarities and differences between Christian faith and other faiths in order to evangelize effectively. In Acts 17:22 we see the Biblical example of Paul observing the religiosity of the people of Athens. In commenting about their inherent spirituality, Paul was able to find a stepping stone to minister to them. He showed good understanding of their religion and even quoted their own authorities to make it convincing. Similarly, Christians should constantly look for openings in other faiths to drive home the truth. It makes the hearer more attentive and also gives a positive note to the conversation.
Doctrinal Issues: Drawing the Line of Distinction
As we grapple with issues of pluralism in religion, Christians should delve into the Bible to ascertain the uniqueness of their faith. As we look at teachings of every religion relating to origin, meaning, morality, and destiny there is a coherence among Jesus’ answers unlike any other religion. Its too costly for a Christian to compromise with the pluralists on fundamental doctrinal issues. The Christian should firmly draw the line from counterfeits in order to portray their unparalleled faith.
A Distinctive Person – Jesus Christ
One of the most controversial issues in world religion is the doctrine of Incarnation of Christ and His Divinity. Hick rejects the Incarnation by saying that the exaltation of a religious teacher into a divine figure is common in other religious traditions. So a human Gautama was considered to be the incarnation of a pre-existent Buddha just as a human Jesus was made as incarnation of the Divine Son The pressure is always on Christians to be Theocentric than Christocentric. But in the Bible, Christ is represented as a person having two natures – divine and human. Paul reminds us in 1 Tim 3:16 of the great mystery of godliness when God was manifested in the flesh. At His incarnation Christ added to His existing divine nature a human nature, and became the God-Man. The Old Testament and New Testament affirms of this truth time and again. Even in church history any doctrine that denied the Incarnation was considered heretical. Alister McGrath points that the pluralistic agenda forces its advocates to take the heretical stand.
As different from the Hindu concept of Avatar, Jesus’ Incarnation is “….real, historical, permanent and a once for all time act of God, whereas avatars are multiple, not historical, and not permanent.” While some avatars are in subhuman forms, Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man. Unquestionably, Jesus is Divine and Christians need to defend this truth without conceding to the pluralistic view.
A Distinctive Message – Salvation by Grace
Religions are very confused about the destiny of human beings. Conflicting theories on salvation by works, reincarnation, self realisation have severely complicated the issue. In the midst of enormous variations, the Christian concept of salvation focusses on the establishment of relationship between God and His people. The Christian salvation is grounded deeply in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Moreover, salvation from its commencement to consummation is associated with the grace of God. The Bible confirms in Rom 3:23 that all human beings are under sin and have fallen short of God’s standards. There is nothing that a human can do in order to gain God’s acceptance. But God in His grace through Christ paid the price for sins of humanity that all who believe in Christ will be forgiven and reconciled. Salvation in its Christian sense is made available universally and not restricted to particular people groups. The term redemption covers the entire work of God in Christ delivering man from the guilt, penalty, and presence of sin.
Sinners are saved by grace through faith in Christ and not by good works. In order to approve the efficacy of the reconciliation work of Christ at the cross, the Lord raised Him from the dead so that we can proclaim the message of finished salvation. The onus in Christian salvation is on God and not on man. Christians need to present the unadulterated Biblical message of salvation in the midst of staunch antagonism towards this position. Any addition or deletion to this message is a compromise.
A Distinctive Stand – Exclusivism
The Bible is emphatic in its claim that there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). In the Old Testament the Israelites encountered pluralism and handled the issue with a zealousness to maintain the purity of their faith and stayed away from people of other beliefs. In times of the New Testament, the early Christians were living alongside people of other religions and cultic groups. But they traditionally maintained that God has revealed Himself in the Scripture and in the incarnation of Christ. The first Christians were uncompromising in their stand as the apostolic teaching insisted that salvation was possible only in Christ.
The firm affirmation of Christianity is that people are not saved apart from the work of Christ on the cross. The particularist or exclusivist position holds that individual salvation depends on explicit personal faith in Christ. It is here we need to look closely at God’s special revelation. The Bible clearly attests in Heb 1:1-4 that God has spoken supremely and completely in Christ. Jesus made a powerful statement in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through Me.” Thus, Jesus closes all other ways by claiming Himself to be the way, slams the possibility of any other truths by affirming Himself to be the truth, and vouches triumphantly that He is the only life giver. Ravi Zacharias in his conventional style says, “Jesus Christ didn’t come into this world to make bad people good. He came into this world to make dead people live.” Jesus’ claim to uniqueness eliminates all other possibilities of salvation. It is impossible to hold on to a Christian faith that adheres to pluralism. Christianity without particularity doesn’t have any ground to stand.
To subscribe to the theory that all religions lead us to salvation is an error. While there is an element of contention between inclusivism and excluscivism, the subject is beyond the scope of this paper and has been left out.
Criticisms and Allegations: A Defence of Evangelical Christianity
The following are the common criticisms levied against Christians by pluralists which needs to be defended.
1. Christians are narrow minded and arrogant in claiming that Jesus is the only way. In order to counter this allegation we need to affirm that truth cannot be different for different people. If a person says 3+3 = 6, no one will call him a narrow minded mathematician. Since the same applies to God and salvation, a person who proclaims the truth cannot be narrow minded. The ideal response of pluralists should be to find out the reliability of the truth claims of Christianity. One sees that truth itself is narrow as it excludes error or falsehood. So the common blame that Christianity is narrow minded is baseless when we have truth in perspective. As regards the arrogant claims of Christianity’s proclamation to be the only religion, there is an element of truth in it. Christians are guilty of speaking proudly and being highly judgemental of people of other religions. The body of Christ needs to repent of its sin of arrogance. The Christian ideally should speak the truth in love and humility. However, the claim that Christianity is the only way in itself is not arrogant by any means.
2. If Jesus is true why so many people reject Him. Critiques point out the growing popularity of other world religions like Islam, Buddhism and New Age movements. Comparatively, Christianity is said to be making less progress in converting people from other world religions. One of the reason is some of the world religions do not call its followers to pay a price. It makes provision for them to live their life in conventional fashion without any need for serious changes. But Jesus Christ calls his disciples to die to their self. The demands of following Christ involves a huge price, a radical realignment of life for which few people are willing. It is the reason why some people find Christianity to be less popular. It doesn’t change the fact that its claims are true.
3. Christians are Intolerant. The world has wrongly understood the meaning of the term tolerance. A lot of people think if you believe you are right and someone else is wrong then you are intolerant. Tolerance actually means to respect people who hold alternative beliefs. Genuine tolerance has to do with treatment of people and Christians do treat everyone equally. The attraction towards pluralism is not because of its profound truth claims but the false understanding of tolerance and integration promised by religious pluralists which gives them remarkable support. Christians should be tolerant and respectful of persons who disagree with their beliefs but beg to differ in fundamental doctrinal issues. The claim that Christians are intolerant is invalid.
4. What about people who have never heard the gospel? Pluralists use this question to try sound a death knell to Christianity. If Jesus is the only way to God then the question comes as to what will be the destiny of people who never get a chance to hear the gospel. Once again, Christians are not left in the lurch without answers. Evangelical theologian John Stott states that salvation is always by God’s grace alone on the ground of Christ’s payment and appropriated by faith. When a person without proper understanding of the gospel acknowledges his guilt towards God and his inability to save himself, there is a possibility that God can save such people and it will still be by grace through faith. Alister McGrath observes that a human failure to evangelize cannot imply God’s failure to save. God’s work is not restricted to human proclamation of the gospel as God has other means to save the lost. God is working in this world and can touch lives even through dreams and visions. God never disappoints a sincere seeker and above all He is a just Judge and we can be rest assured that His judgement will always be right.
FINAL REMINDER: THE NEED FOR DIALOGUE
Finally, Christians should perpetually be open for dialogue with people of other faith. Being a Christian doesn’t mean we shut ourselves completely from people of other religions. Infact, the onus is on us to approach people for meaningful discussion. Paul as an apologist reasoned in the synagogue and market places with the Jews and godfearing Greeks. When Paul preached his audience had the opportunity to ask questions and clarify their doubts. Sadly, modern Christian preaching is always an one-sided communication. It is here Apologetics serves as a major tool in defending our faith and presenting it in a meaningful and persuasive way to others.
People who enter into dialogue need not come with blank minds or suppress personal convictions but must be open to hear from each other. Dialogues help us to find connecting points with other religion and use it as a bridge in communicating the gospel truth. People of the world have questions springing from deep within their hearts and as thinking Christians we need to help them comprehend the truth. A large proportion of dialogue serves to clear the ground for evangelism.
The world is entrenched with religious pluralism as it is gaining popularity day by day. This predicament is a call for Christians to an unflinching commitment to the uniqueness of their faith pointing to Jesus Christ as the only Saviour-God. The temptation to move away from this stand is strong and liberal Christianity has sadly fallen prey to it. Christians need to respect the different religions of the world but not at the expense of compromising their own fundamental beliefs. We are accountable for the Great Commission Jesus has entrusted to us and a compromise in this regard tantamounts to playing games with people’s eternity at stake. The world is in a chaotic state, groping in darkness, caught in the mire of religious pluralism – a trap set by the devil. The future beckons committed, Spirit filled, evangelical Christians who are strongly rooted in the Word to defend their faith using their reasoning and intellectual prowess with utter dependence on God and lead the lost people of the world in the pathway of truth.
Ken Gnanakan, The Pluralistic Predicament (Bangalore: Theological Book Trust, 1992),23.
Clark H. Pinnock, “An Inclusivist View,” in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, eds. Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996) 98,100.
Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 53.
Paul Copan, Is Everything Really Relative? (Chennai: RZIM Life Focus Society, 1999), 42.
Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism, 53.
John Hick, God Has Many Names (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1980), 48-49.
Gnanakan, The Pluralistic Predicament, 119.
Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism, 215.
Ravi Zacharias, “Every Religion has a Point of Exclusion,” Apologia, July-September 2004, 8.
Sudhakar Mondithoka, “Truth in Religion(s) Are all Religions Really the Same,” Apologia, July-September 2004, 15.
Timothy O’ Connor, “Religious Pluralism,” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael J. Murray (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 179.
Copan, Is Everything Really Relative?, 45.
Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods (Chennai: RZIM Life Focus Society, 2001), 4.
John Hick, “A Pluralist View,” in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, eds. Okholm and Phillips, 41.
Connor, “Religious Pluralism,” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Murray, 166.
“Howsoever men may approach me, even so do I accept them; for, on all sides, whatever path they may choose is mine.” (Bhagavad Gita, IV, 11). Cited in Hick, “A Pluralist View,” in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, eds. Okholm and Phillips, 58.
Stanley J. Samartha, “The Cross and the Rainbow,” in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, eds. John Hick and Paul Knitter (New York: Orbis Books, 1987), 77. Cited in Gnanakan, The Pluralistic Predicament, 101.
Lee Strobel, Case for Faith, (Secunderabad: OM Books, 2000), 146.
Mondithoka, “Truth in Religion(s) Are all Religions Really the Same,” Apologia, July-September 2004, 19.
Ajith Fernando, The Christian’s Attitude Toward World Religions (Bombay: Gospel Literature Service, 1990), 114.
Strobel, Case for Faith, 151.
Hick, God Has Many Names, 60-61.
Herbert Lockyer, All the Doctrines of the Bible (Secunderabad: OM Books, 2004), 45.
Is 9:6, Jer 23:6, Matt 11:27, Jn 1:1, Heb 1:1-3, Rev 19:16
Alister E. McGrath, “A Particularist View,” in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, eds. Okholm and Phillips, 167.
M. Sudhakar, “Apologetics in a Hindu Context,” in Missiology for the 21st Century: South Asian Perspectives, eds. Roger E. Hedlund and Paul Joshua Bhakiaraj (Delhi: ISPCK, 2004), 463.
Lockyer, Doctrines of the Bible, 162.
Sir Norman Anderson, Christianity and World Religions (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 109.
Gnanakan, The Pluralistic Predicament, 1.
Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism, 24.
R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips, “A Particularist View: An Evidential Approach,” in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, eds. Okholm and Phillips, 214.
Fernando, The Christian’s Attitude Toward World Religions, 168.
Strobel, Case for Faith, 156.
Mondithoka, “Truth in Religion(s) Are all Religions Really the Same,” Apologia, July-September 2004, 18.
Strobel, Case for Faith, 163.
Copan, Is Everything Really Relative?, 52.
Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism, 321-322.
McGrath, “A Particularist View,” in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, eds. Okholm and Phillips, 178.
Ajith Fernando, The Christian’s Attitude Toward World Religions, 29.
Anderson, Christianity and World Religions, 184.
By Ashwin Ramani