What's So Special About Jesus?
Responding to the Challenge of Religious Pluralism
by Ivan Satyavrata
In the midst of a society that is increasingly multireligious and culturally diverse, what should the Christian posture be toward the diverse faiths of our neighbors?
Religious conflict marks the post-9/11 world. Many today, however, see the real enemy of global peace and harmony as not terrorism per se or religious violence, but religious fundamentalism or totalitarianism. In an article entitled “The Real War”1 published in the wake of 9/11, New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, candidly expresses this view, placing the blame for 9/11 squarely at the feet of what he terms the ideology of religious totalitarianism — “a view of the world that my faith must reign supreme and can be affirmed and held passionately only if all others are negated.” He places all faiths that come out of the biblical tradition — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — within this category because of their tendency to believe they have exclusive truth.
Friedman is a strong advocate of an ideology of pluralism that embraces religious diversity and allows equal recognition of alternative faith communities, so people can nurture their faith without claiming exclusive truth. Citing Rabbi David Hartman in support of his view, Friedman asks: “Can Islam, Christianity, and Judaism know that God speaks Arabic on Fridays, Hebrew on Saturdays, and Latin on Sundays, and that He welcomes different human beings approaching Him through their own history, out of their language and cultural heritage?
“Is single-minded fanaticism a necessity for passion and religious survival, or can we have a multilingual view of God — a notion that God is not exhausted by just one religious path?” This is a classic pluralist strategy of stereotyping religions that lay claims to absolute truth as “single-minded fanaticism” and trivializing the differences between religions as essentially linguistic, reflecting historically and culturally conditioned responses to ultimate reality. The issue is one with serious implications, raising a series of tough questions, some of which strike at the jugular of the Christian faith.
In the midst of a society that is increasingly multireligious and culturally diverse, what should the Christian posture be toward the diverse faiths of our neighbors? Do we view them as enemy-occupied territory that we need to conquer for Christ, or pilgrims traveling on different paths, eventually leading to the same destination? When we confess Jesus as the universal Lord and Savior, does this mean that Christianity is the only true religion and that there is no truth or goodness whatsoever in any other religion? If every religion claims to be the only true one and sees its mission as converting those of other faiths, will it not intensify religious bigotry, fanaticism, and communal strife?
The Seduction of Pluralism
Plurality of religions and cultures has been an integral feature of life within the human community since time immemorial. However, the twin forces of modernization and globalization have helped give rise to a phenomenon that is distinctively modern, both in terms of the cultural diversity experienced by societies today, and the contemporary response to this reality within the global cultural environment. While plurality refers simply to the fact of cultural and religious diversity, pluralism more properly describes an egalitarian perspective that maintains a rough parity among religions concerning religious truth.
Pluralism holds that no one religion can claim to be somehow normative and superior to others — all religions are complex historically and culturally conditioned human responses to the one divine reality. We must celebrate diversity of religious experience and expression as something good and healthy, and we need to acknowledge salvation [or enlightenment or liberation] as present and effective in its own way in each religion.
A complex set of historical and sociological factors have led to the growing attraction pluralism holds for people in our world today. For much of the history of the world most people lived in isolation from the ethnic and cultural other. The advent of globalization, however, has resulted in unprecedented proximity to one another of people of different religions and cultures. Travel and technology have brought about a mingling of peoples and cultures that our parents could not have imagined.
Today, interconnectedness between different corners of the globe has changed our world irrevocably so our planet has become a web of crisscrossing influences. The cultural “other” has thus become less alien and unfamiliar resulting in increased acceptance of difference. An important by-product of this intermingling of cultures is the idealization of ethnic and religious diversity and skepticism toward claims of absolute truth in religion.
The modern encounter between cultures can be an exotic and exhilarating experience, but it is also fraught with tension and potential for violence. Religion, which is at the heart of most cultures, has been the most powerful source of social conflict in recent times.
The rise of religious fundamentalism is thus another factor that has added to the seduction of pluralism in our times, since some would argue that fundamentalist ideology in any religion appears to generate hatred, suspicion, and fear in its followers toward other religions. Recent works documenting the rise of religious terrorism point out the close connection that we often observe between religious fundamentalism and terrorist violence.2 In this context pluralism appears to offer an attractive ideological basis for social tranquility.
The Challenge of Pluralism
The ideology of pluralism has been steadily gaining credibility and spreading its influence in recent decades. It forms an unofficial orthodoxy in much of academia today, is widespread in popular contemporary culture, and is firmly entrenched within the entertainment and media elite. A matter of serious concern, however, is its growing acceptance among professing Christians. Consider, for instance, two sample statements from Christians based on interviews conducted by sociologist Christian Smith in a study of American Christianity:
“I am not a believer in missionaries. If we want to go to Africa and provide medical help and teach people how to farm, great. But if we go to Japan and try to convert Shintoists, no way. If they came here and tried that on me, I’d get mad, and I think they have every right to feel the same. Christianity is great. If I’m anything, I’m a Christian. But I think that others have a right to believe for themselves; and if they go to hell, they just took the wrong turn.”
“To say that other religions are wrong is self-centered and egocentric. I am not even comfortable with saying all religions point to the same God. Whatever trips your trigger is fine with me, if that’s your belief system. We are mortal. Who is to say who is right and wrong? If it helps you get through your life and helps bring meaning to your life, then fine.”3
These are not the opinions of radical relativists or atheists, but self-confessed Christians who have bought into the pluralist ideology and view Christ as one among many alternative paths to God.
Pluralism raises crucial questions concerning the nature and purpose of Christian mission and Christianity itself. The Christian gospel maintains that all humans are sinners in need of redemption, and that God desires the salvation of peoples of every race, culture, and religion. It also asserts that God’s salvation comes to us through a particular person — Jesus Christ — the decisive self-disclosure of God who took upon himself the sins of the world, and that only by faith in Him can human beings be restored to right relationship with God. Pluralism rejects this understanding of the gospel as intellectually untenable and morally repugnant. It strikes at the nerve center of Christian faith at three crucial points.
First, pluralism challenges the claim of historic Christianity to have privileged access to divine revelation in the unique authority accorded to the 66 books of the Protestant canon. Pluralists assert that tolerance toward other religions requires that Christians accept the scriptures of people of other faiths as possessing the same authority as the Bible. Biblical Christianity, on the other hand, maintains that while the doctrine of general revelation does provide a basis for acknowledging the presence of truth in other religions (Romans 1:18ff; 2:12–16; Acts 14:15ff), this does not have the same authority or salvific value as the revelation in Christ.
Second, pluralism seems to lay the axe to the central constitutive claim of the Christian faith — that Jesus of Nazareth was not simply one of many, or even the greatest of all human religious figures, but He is the decisive self-disclosure of the eternal God himself. Pluralists regard this as an arrogant claim, an impossible obstacle in the movement toward interreligious harmony so essential to world peace. While Christians may hold that Jesus is unique and normative for them, they cannot claim that Jesus is unique or normative in a universal sense. Jesus may be the Savior for Christians, but He is not the only Savior for all peoples. Pluralists thus seek to frame a radical revisionist Christology that effectively empties Jesus of any decisive claims.
A third serious problem with pluralism is its belief that different religions represent many different paths leading to the same ultimate goal. The different religious traditions thus merely describe responses from different contexts within which men and women experience essentially the same salvation/enlightenment. Pluralists assume that sincere and morally respectable people simply cannot be mistaken about basic religious beliefs, especially when such beliefs and practices seem to have beneficial effects. This perspective understandably has some emotional appeal, but clearly undermines the grounds and motivation for Christian mission.
Pluralism manifests itself in a wide range of expressions, from a rather crude, undeveloped intuition that God will accept sincere and good people of any or no faith to sophisticated philosophical models. But is the pluralist position tenable? Rarely, if ever, do we come across serious attempts at a biblical defense of pluralism. A relatively modern trend, pluralism also has little or no support in church tradition. Consequently, theological criteria employed in pluralist constructions tend to be arbitrary. Pluralism, however, may be weighed and found wanting on its own terms. We will see that it fails to hold together both empirically and logically as we interrogate it along two lines: 1] Does it fit the facts? Does the actual data of religions and religious experience support the pluralist claim? 2] Does it make sense? Is it logically coherent and consistent as an alternative solution to the problem of religious diversity?
Does it fit the facts?
The first big problem pluralists have to contend with is the problem of conflicting truth claims. Do the different religions all make essentially the same claims and teach basically the same truth? Even a cursory survey of the world’s living religions reveals they have marked differences in their essential affirmations. Let’s illustrate by comparing three cardinal beliefs of three of the world’s major religions.
What is God [the religious ultimate] like? Allah is the one eternal creator God in Islam. Muslims regard any attempt to blur the distinction between the Creator and creation as idolatry. There is no one concept of the religious ultimate common to all Buddhists. In Theravada Buddhism, nirvana is the ultimate reality — the condition of complete cessation of attachment; in Mahayana Buddhism, Dharmakaya, the all-inclusive Law Body of the Buddha essence is the ultimate; and in Zen Buddhism, the ultimate reality is sunyata or emptiness.
In Hinduism, the highest philosophical conception of ultimate reality is monistic: the absolute, impersonal Being is nirguna Brahman of advaita Vedanta. Popular Hinduism, on the other hand, is polytheistic with a pantheon consisting of a mind-boggling 330 million male and female deities. There are also monotheistic sects within Hinduism as well as atheistic Hindus who are pure materialists.
What is the nature of the human predicament? For Islam, the ultimate sin is shirk, associating anything created with Allah, and idolatry is unambiguously condemned. Sin is more a weakness, a defect, or imperfection than a radical corruption of the nature and will. While there are some minor differences, Hinduism and Buddhism both share the belief that humankind is trapped within samsara, a cycle of rebirth and transmigration based on karma. The root problem of human existence is not moral sin, but innate, primordial ignorance regarding the true nature of reality.
What is the nature of salvation/liberation? According to Islam, a glorious future salvation awaits the faithful: on the Day of Judgment Allah will admit those whom he declares worthy to the delights of Paradise. In Hinduism, salvation is moksha — total liberation from the chains of karma and the cycle of rebirth. People can attain this in one of three ways: the way of selfless or disinterested action [karma marga]; the way of mystical knowledge [jnana marga]; the way of devotion to a personal deity [bhakti marga].
All Buddhists view salvation as release from samsara through nirvana, the complete elimination of desire and the conditions producing rebirth. But while some regard this as strictly resulting from one’s own efforts, others regard self-effort as futile and maintain that only faith in the mercy and merit of another can bring enlightenment.
Is the ultimate reality personal or impersonal? Is there one God, many deities or no higher Being of any kind? Is the human predicament the result of moral sin or cosmic illusion? Is salvation essentially a release from the cycle of rebirths, or the promise of a blissful, sensual paradise rewarded to the faithful?
Too much diversity of beliefs exists in the various religions, and many cardinal assertions are in fact mutually incompatible. This forces pluralists to resort to a reductionist reinterpretation of religious beliefs and practices in ways often unacceptable to orthodox followers of religions. The pluralist argument, that despite their divergent beliefs that all religions are more or less equally true, is thus clearly untenable. The facts simply do not fit. Pluralists must “chip” these facts if they are to fit the theory.
Does it make sense?
An essential premise in the pluralist vision is that if the various religions of the world surrender their divisive, tradition-specific distinctives in favor of pluralist approaches, religious harmony will automatically follow. The pluralist thesis rests on the assumption that there is no privileged religious tradition. A critical question for pluralists: Is there such a thing as a nontradition-specific approach?
Let’s test this against the views of a leading modern proponent of pluralism, John Hick. In Hick’s view, the best hypothesis that explains religious plurality positively is: All religions are paths to the Real. This is most plausible because it does justice to the wide range of religions. The Real is ultimately beyond all description and certainly not exhausted in the descriptions of the various religions, all of which are partially true and partially false.4
The crux of the matter here is simple: How does Hick know what is true and false in the descriptions of the various religions? What criteria does he employ in making such judgments? More specifically, how does Hick know all that he asserts about the nature of the Real? Hick’s definition of the Real is intended to be all-inclusive, but in effect it excludes all forms of orthodox religious belief, Christian or otherwise, which may claim that the Real has revealed itself. But how does Hick reject all of the contrary claims as false? He does so based on the tradition-specific starting point of liberal modernity, influenced by eastern mystical monism.
This is the point at which the pluralist project fails miserably: the flawed assumption that it is possible to have a helicopter vantage point above all of the religions from which we can formulate transcendent theologically neutral criteria for evaluating religious truth claims. The fact is, there is no such privileged high ground in any theological evaluation of religious truth claims. Like all other religious truth claims, pluralist truth claims are also inevitably tradition-specific. This, then, is the most serious weakness of the pluralist position — the huge logical inconsistency inherent in its attempt to deny the right of other religions to make any privileged claims even as pluralism itself employs tradition-specific criteria in evaluating religious beliefs.5
Since all pluralists are committed to holding some form of tradition-specific truth criteria, nothing called pluralism really exists. When we unmask pluralist ideology, we see it for what it is — an alternative, syncretistic religious ideology that makes exclusive truth claims about the nature of reality just like any other religious system of belief.
The Incomparable Christ — Pluralism’s Nemesis
The inevitable starting point in any attempt to come to grips with the message of Jesus must always be Jesus himself: What did Jesus say? What did Jesus claim to do? Who did Jesus claim to be? The New Testament portrait of Jesus is of a man without any equal. His birth is miraculous. He makes claims to deity: authority to forgive sins, to give life to the dead, and to judge the world. He predicts His own death and resurrection and then fulfills the prediction. Those who recorded the details of Jesus’ life were convinced He was God in the flesh, and that in His life, death, and resurrection God has provided salvation for all.
If for whatever reason we doubt the reliability of the New Testament and its witness to Jesus’ life and ministry does not convince us, we should simply walk away from Christ and the Christian faith. We have no right to select facts arbitrarily from the New Testament record and fashion a Jesus of our own making who we can then accommodate within our prefabricated presuppositions. This is precisely what Christian pluralists try but fail to do convincingly, because pluralism meets its nemesis when it comes face to face with the incomparable Christ, who declared himself to be “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
As followers of Jesus Christ, what we have to share is not essentially a set of timeless truths or a sophisticated ethical system, but a story — His story — the story of Jesus. We did not invent or create this story. God has entrusted it to us, and we have no right to change it or keep it to ourselves. We do our best to share this story noncoercively, sensitively, and humbly with neighbors of other faiths (1 Peter 3:15). We must be willing to exercise tolerance as we allow others the same freedom to practice their faith as we desire for ourselves. We must also not hesitate to acknowledge any rays of truth, goodness, or beauty that we observe in the devotion, culture, or lifestyle of people of other faiths. But we must never cease to proclaim: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched … concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1) — our unique and incomparable Christ, the Savior of the world.
1. What can Christians do to avoid the stigma of religious totalitarianism?
2. In what ways might it be possible to affirm our distinctive Christian convictions and share Christ with neighbors of other faiths without arousing violence?
3. Why will God not welcome those who approach Him through their own history, out of their language and cultural heritage?
4. How might we confess Jesus as the universal Lord and Savior and still acknowledge truth, goodness, or beauty in other religions?
1. The New York Times [November 27, 2001].
2. Mark Juergensmeyer’sTerror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence offers chilling insight into the worldview of disparate cultures of religious violence and the unending fanaticism of true believers within all of the world’s major traditions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism (London: University of California Press, 2000).
3. Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Leicester: Apollos, 2001), 13,14.
4. Netland, 221–31.
5. See Gavin D’Costa’s incisive critique in The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (New York: Orbis, 2000), 19–47.
Wright, Chris. 1997. Thinking Clearly About the Uniqueness of Jesus. Crowborough: Monarch.
Fernando, Ajith. 2001. Sharing the Truth in Love: How to Relate to People of Other Faiths. Grand Rapids: Discovery House.
Netland, Harold. 2001. Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission. Leicester: Apollos.
[RK1]This reference in John is 14:6 not 16:4