By Eli Ayala
What is Religious Pluralism?
Religious pluralism is the idea that multiple religious perspectives can coexist peacefully and respectfully within a society. It recognizes and respects the diversity of beliefs and practices, emphasizing tolerance and understanding among different faiths. In a general sense, coexistence is a good thing. I am not advocating for violent interaction between differing religious perspectives. Rather, I would encourage respectful dialogue and healthy debate with those whom we disagree with. I think the danger of religious pluralism comes when all religions are seen as equally valid and true. This position of course is philosophically and biblically unacceptable. In a world where everyone is afraid to insult others by positing that they have the truth, how might we interact with a religious pluralist from a presuppositional perspective? This article will seek to lay out a general outline of how to do that.
Exclusive Nature of the Christian Worldview
In discussions with a religious pluralist you will want to get across the notion that at the core of differing worldviews or religious perspectives, there are unique and competing presuppositions. These presuppositions impact, inform, and guide everything upon which they are built. Because these core presuppositions differ, it cannot be the case without logical consequence, that all of these worldviews reflect or lead to the truth. If the religious pluralist affirms that all religions do in fact lead to the same truth, we will need to challenge that presupposition. The way in which we might do that is to get into some of the details of the varying religious perspectives.
It is interesting to observe that many people in our culture today have a very shallow understanding of comparative religion. People see that religions tend to have similar ethical teachings and so conclude that the differences between varying religions are minimal, but at the core, all religions are basically the same. This conclusion however is demonstrably false. But to bring out the falsity of such a claim requires some brief illustrations.
In preparing for sermon once, I went to a Starbucks to study. In the Starbucks I met two Buddhists discussing religion and movies. Without going into the details, I was able to insert myself into the discussion. They were kind and open to some push back so they allowed me to explain my position as a Christian. One of the Buddhists kindly looked at me and said, “You know what? You would be a better Christian if you were also a Buddhist.” When I asked him how that even made sense he answered, “Because the principles of Buddhism are consistent with the principles of Christianity.” He then continued to explain that “ultimately, all religions are equally valid paths to the truth.” Such a response was no doubt the perfect summary of the sort of religious pluralism I presented at the beginning.
As our discussion continued I asked the gentlemen respectfully, “So, you believe that all religions are true, or equally valid, or lead to the same truth?” Both gentlemen responded with a resounding yes. So then I asked, “If that is the case, what about the religions that say you are wrong, are those religions true too?” Both gentlemen did not except such a response. One of the gentlemen had the look of suspicion on his face as though I was trying to trip him up or perhaps I was trying to play word games. However, the other gentlemen had the look on his face as though he was really thinking hard about my question. This gentlemen eventually said, “You know what, I never really thought about it like that; you have given me something to think about.”
I hope the point was brought across clear. While different religions can have surface level similarities, they cannot all be true or equally valid for the simple reason that at the fundamental level, they are all asserting something very different about the nature of reality. They all make competing and mutually exclusive claims. For instance, it is impossible for monotheism (belief in one God) to be true while at the same time and in the same sense, polytheism (belief in many gods) be true.
Christian: A Revelational Worldview
Another way to bring out the core differences between Christianity and other religions is to emphasize the fact that Christianity is a religion of divine revelation. For the believer, the source of our knowledge broadly speaking, and source of our religious knowledge more narrowly, comes from divine revelation or God’s communication to mankind. And the unique nature of this divine revelation shapes and informs our worldview. Contrary to popular belief, many religions do not share the same concept of revelation as the Christian worldview posits. And if they share a concept of divine revelation it does not hold the same role as in the Christian worldview. For instance, if there is a worldview which puts forth the idea that reality is at base, ultimately impersonal, then you are not going to have a personal divine revelation.
Eastern religions for example tend to have an impersonal transcendence at the heart or base of reality. This belief and indeed, this presupposition will necessarily impact other aspects of that worldview. This is fundamentally at odds with the Christian worldview perspective which holds to the notion of an ultimate and fundamental personality at the base of reality. Christianity holds to the idea of an ultimate personal being who reveals himself whereas many Eastern conceptions of reality hold to an ultimate impersonality which does not reveal, or does not reveal in the same way as put forth in the Christian worldview.
I bring all this out to say that such differing conceptions of reality cannot be said to be equivalent or equally valid in any way, shape, or form. Christian revelation is unique. Now, this is not to say that there are no other religions which also hold to some conception of revelation, it is simply to say that not all of the conceptions are the same and therefore, they cannot all be said to be true. Islam for example has a conception of revelation but it is not equivalent to the Christian concept of revelation. For instance, within the Christian worldview, the Second Person of the Trinity becomes a man and dwells among his own creation. In essence, we would say that God became man (John 1:14). Islam on the other hand cannot entertain such a notion because of their specific beliefs about the nature of God and what they believe about how he has revealed himself. This is not to say which view is true or not, but it is simply to point out the mutually exclusive conceptions of how God reveals himself. Both conceptions cannot simultaneously be true or equally valid, and hence the religious pluralist would be incorrect in the assumption that they can.
Mutually Exclusive Epistemologies
I have mentioned elsewhere and on a number of occasions that when we think in worldview categories it is important to recognize the pillars that undergird them. Among the 3 main categories, every worldview has a metaphysic (theory of reality), epistemology (theory of knowledge), and ethic (a theory of right and wrong). One way in which we can engage the religious pluralist is to bring out the distinct nature of religious epistemology, and we have done this a bit in the previous paragraph. But we can simply put the question to the religious pluralist: What is their authoritative source of truth? If he says he doesn’t have one, you can point out therefore, that it is then impossible to say that all religions are basically the same since at the core of all religions, all involve beliefs and presuppositions about how knowledge is gained which differ from each other. If he says he does have an authoritative source of truth, ask him what it is. If it is not the God of scripture, then the competing source of truth is not the same as the Christian source of truth and therefore the positions are not basically the same as the religious pluralist asserted at the start of the conversation. Because epistemology and presuppositions about knowledge are so basic to every worldview perspective, it will be helpful to bring these differences out lest we get caught up in debate over surface level issues.
What was expressed above was in essence and expression of worldview analysis. We presented the Christian worldview as a worldview, and acknowledged that religious perspectives exist within a worldview, but at the fundamental level, it does not make sense to assert that they are all basically the same. We demonstrated this by participating in worldview/religious critique to show why the religious pluralism was incorrect in their assertion that all religions are basically the same or equally valid. Non-presuppositionalists can do the same in their apologetic interactions but I would suggest that is it the presuppositional method that lends itself to the most effective and powerful analysis of worldviews while at the same time not falling into the epistemological pitfalls of non-presuppositional apologetic methods. Nevertheless, I would strongly encourage interacting with the religious pluralist at the most basic and fundamental level as it is the clearest way to demonstrate its self-refuting nature.