Posted by: Philip Rushton | October 11, 2011

Seeing the Elephant in the Room: Exploring some contradictions with religious pluralism.

I am currently working through Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, with my Tuesday morning men’s group. This is a great book for those of you who are seeking to find more defined answers to some of the major objections people have with the Christian faith.

In the opening chapter, Keller responds to the objection, “there can’t be just one true religion.” Many people object to the way in which religions claim to have an exclusive hold on truth. This is often deemed to be narrow minded and even dangerous, because it can cause strife and conflict. As a result, many people have opted for a more pluralistic view of religion. Religious pluralism suggests that all religions are equally valid or that each religion is simply a different way of saying the same thing.

Keller suggests that there are some problems with the arguments for religions pluralism. Keller was invited to speak on a panel of religious leaders who represented all of the major world religions. As a panel they agreed that there were irreconcilable differences between the faiths. During the question period a frustrated student stood up and said that the differences between religions were superficial and insignificant and that at the core these religions believed in the same God. Keller asked this student to define this ‘same god’ that he was referring to. The student replied, “God is an all-loving Spirit in the universe.”

The problem with this response is that it is inconsistent. The student was basically trying to find a middle ground by claiming his own type of religion. He was putting forward an over-arching view of God that itself is an absolute. The problem with his view of God is that it does not line up with many of the world faiths. Buddhism, for example, does not believe in a personal God. The way God is described in Judaism, Islam and Christianity is much broader then just love. Keller summarizes, “ironically, the insistence that doctrines do not matter is really a doctrine itself. It holds a specific view of God, which is touted as superior and more enlightened than the beliefs of most major religions. So the proponents of this view do the very thing they forbid others to do.”

Other pluralists argue that the each religion is simply presenting a different perspective of the same god. Some use the illustration of four blind men who come across an elephant. One touches the trunk and assumes it is a snake, one touches the side and thinks it is a wall, while another touches the tusk and thinks it is a spear. They all understand part of the elephant but can not decipher the whole. This is a metaphor is applied to religion to suggest that each faith can only see part of the whole when it comes to god. However, Keller argues that this illustration backfires on those who use it. He writes, “The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?” The problem with religious pluralism is that it arrogantly asserts that it is able to see the whole picture.

One of the major problems with the arguments for religious pluralism, then, is that it is based on truth claims of its own. While denouncing the arrogance of religious particularity, pluralists inevitably develop a view of God that is itself very particular. Keller concludes, “it is no more narrow to claim that one religion is right than to claim that one way to think about all religions (namely that all are equal) is right. We are all exclusive in our beliefs about religion, but in different ways.”

The challenge for us as Christians is to discover how we might express and communicate our particular beliefs without being oppressive towards those who we disagree with. One of the reasons people are frustrated with religious particularity is that it often results in violence and oppression. Keller argues that the Christian faith includes teaching that should prevent domination and violence from taking root. While Jesus maintains religious particularity (I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me,) he also condones grace, mercy, hospitality towards outsiders, and non-violence towards enemies.

How can we avoid the pitfalls of religious pluralism while simultaneously learning to live with tolerance in a pluralistic world?

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Responses

  1. Great summary of Keller’s “The Reason for God” as it pertains to religious exclusivity. One way I think we can avoid the pitfalls of religious pluralism is to try to understand our culture and what people are thinking (which can be hard work and be time consuming). At the same time, I think it’s important to look hard at our core beliefs and how those relate/react/oppose/connect with a pluralistic world.
    I think tolerance comes with humility. We can be firm and strong in our beliefs, yet still love those who think differently. That’s a growing edge for me.


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