One expression of pluralism is the idea that all truth claims are equally valid. (Pluralism doesn’t necessarily require this.) So does that include the truth claim that all truth claims are not equally valid? Think about it. This expression of pluralism that is quite popular today is already in trouble right from the start.
Religious pluralism is “the acceptance of all religious paths as equally valid, promoting coexistence”.
Religious pluralism sounds nice, and the motives for wanting to believe in religious pluralism are largely nobles ones. The idea of religious pluralism is born out of a desire for unity, respect for others and harmony, but can we live by it?
That we want religious pluralism to be true doesn’t mean it is true. We would like for gravity not to be “true”, especially while climbing a ladder, but wishing it so does not make it so.
My thoughts today are spurred on by a presentation by Vince Vitale on religious pluralism. You might want to listen to what he has to say about it before or after considering my thoughts.[i] He addresses several bad assumptions and several good desires that lead to pluralism. I only address two of the three assumptions here.
The introduction to Vitale’s presentation is a story about Derek Jeter that illustrates a modern reaction to truth. It suggests, perhaps, why religious pluralism has become so popular. Derek Jeter was at bat in a critical situation, when he took a pitch in on his hands. He jumped out of the way and simultaneously shook his hand vigorously and continued to hold his hand gingerly afterward. His reaction prompted aa immediate visit from the team doctor. The umpire awarded Jeter first base for being hit by the pitch.
Only he wasn’t hit by the pitch!
The replay clearly showed that he avoided the ball. The ball never even touched him. He just acted as if the ball hit him, and everyone believed the performance, including the umpire.
Here is the real kicker: upon viewing the replay and determining the truth, the announcers praised Jeter for his “gamesmanship”. Even the opposing manager lauded him after the game, adding that he wished his players were as competitive as Jeter. No one criticized him for dishonesty or cheating in falsely carrying on as if he had been hit by the ptch.
In this real life situation, no one cared about the truth. According to all who commented on it, Jeter’s truth claim (that he was hit by the pitch) was considered just as legitimate as the replay (that showed clearly he wasn’t hit by the pitch). The legitimacy of the truth claim, according to those who commented, correlated not to the actual truth, but to the truth as Jeter and his team desired it to be.
Vitale used this story as an example of how we live in a “post-truth society” (referencing a recent statement of an economist he didn’t identify). We often measure truth by what we want it to be and what “our group” wants it to be, not by what it is. We try to fit the truth to our desired ends, and we are told that we shouldn’t question another person’s truth in the process.
Pluralism is similar in that aspect. The kind of pluralism that seeks to affirm everyone and every belief thrives in this kind of a world. We want pluralism to be true. Only, that isn’t the way truth operates.
The first bad assumption that Vitale identifies in the presentation is the idea that all religions make equal claims – people believe that all religions essentially say the same things.
I believed that too at one time, but then I had a world religion class and learned it simply isn’t true. Lest you think I was indoctrinated to that view, my professor tried to show that “all roads lead to the top of the same mountain”.
This is not to say that there are no similarities or that only one religion incorporates all truth propositions to the exclusion of truth propositions in all other religions. It should be no surprise, if there be such thing as truth, that people all over the world would have some knowledge and understanding of the truth. Thus, we should not be surprised at all to find aspects of truth in all the world religions.
In fact, the similarities and convergence of truth claims in the various world religions are what lead some people (like my college professor) to try to homogenize the world religions into a compilation of religious truth, by culling out the differences and retaining only the similarities. (The Bahá’í Faith is such an amalgam of similarities, excluding the differences.)
This attempt at reduction to the least common denominator isn’t pluralism, but an attempt to fashion a new, universal religion from the parts of various world religions. The result is an amalgam of amorphous religious truisms that are stripped of all power and real substance.
There are websites dedicated to this task, like religioustolerance.org[ii]. The statement of belief of religioustolerance.org reads like a secular humanist manifesto.[iii] They acknowledge that “religious beliefs vary greatly from one culture, religion, and time to another” but only to state the principle of relativism – that they are “thus” relative. They acknowledge that the various religious beliefs assert absolutes only to highlight that they believe in no absolutes.
The fundamental problem with all of this is that truth is not relative. If I fall from a ladder, the law of gravity will operate in such a way on me that I am likely to hurt myself. My neighbor will have the same experience with the law of gravity because it doesn’t depend on my perspective or on his perspective.
Some aspects of truth may be relative in the sense that my experience may be slightly different than my neighbor’s experience. I might manage to escape injury while my neighbor may experience a ride to the hospital with a broken arm. The law of gravity that operated on each of us, however, operated the same way on both of us.
We may believe different things about the law of gravity, but that doesn’t make it a relative truth. We may even have different experiences with the same law of gravity, but that doesn’t make the law of gravity different or dependent on the perspective of the one experiencing it.
The “truth” of the law of gravity applies to anyone who falls from a ladder, regardless of what anyone believes about the matter. Some people may be more accurate in their perception and understanding of the law of gravity than others, but the law of gravity is what it is regardless of what anyone believes about it.
All truth (reality) is like that. The reality of religious truth is the same. It isn’t dependent on the person who is considering it.
These things may explain why the “Golden Rule” can be found in various religious literature all over the world in virtually all religions. Not all religions state the Golden Rule in the same way, but the “law” of the Golden Rule is the same regardless of our perception of it.
At the same time, the differences in perception are significant and shouldn’t be brushed aside like the replay in the Jeter example. The claims of the various world religions are simply not the same.
Another bad assumption is that each religion has equally valid (or equally rational) claims. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.” This claim is unique and exclusive. It may or may not be true, but it cannot be equally valid with other religious claims because it excludes them ab initio.
The fact that Christianity makes exclusive claims (as do other religions) doesn’t make it true, but it necessarily excludes a position that all religions make equally valid truth claims. To the extent the claims are different, they are also not equally rational. Some religious truth claims are more rational than others.
No religion, but Christianity, claims that God became man, died for us, and rose from the dead. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is true. It is either true or false, but it can’t be both true and false. It does set Christianity apart from the claims of other religions, because no other religion makes an equivalent claim.
(The idea that the Christian claims about the death and resurrection are similar to or borrowed from pagan religions is simply not substantiated by any scholarly work. In fact, that claim has virtually no modern scholarly adherents and only finds an audience on Internet sites ).
If true, the resurrection makes all the difference and sets Christianity uniquely apart from other religions. If false, should we trust anything that Christianity claims?
Not its ultimate claims. Not if truth is important!
(The early Christians, of which Paul was most prominent, knew this to be the case. Paul urged the Corinthians in his first letter to them, “[W]e testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied….’” (1 Cor. 15:15-19, 32)
As with any other endeavor to understand reality/truth, some theories and claims will be closer to the actual reality, the actual truth, than others. Our knowledge and understanding is continually changing as we learn and think through the possibilities. This is true of science as it is for religion, philosophy and any other aspect of reality and truth.
Not all truth claims are equal. Not all truth claims are equally true.
No other religion claims anything like Christianity. There are pagan myths that are similar, but (again) similar doesn’t mean the same. Most of the pagan myths that are similar arose after the 1st century and (likely) borrowed from the New Testament. They also read clearly as myth, while the New Testament story is clearly intended as a historical account (as evidenced by Pauls’s concern about the truth of the resurrection). Though the idea that Christianity borrowed from pagan religions remains popular, it is centuries behind any real scholarship (that moved on a long time ago.)[iv]
Christianity makes claims that no other religion makes, beginning with the resurrection. Christianity asserts the resurrection as historical fact. That doesn’t make it so, but we can falsify such a claim. It can be analyzed as we do with any historical claim. We can’t prove it like a mathematical equation, of course, but no historical fact is provable in that way.
If we begin with an assumption that miracles don’t and can’t happen, we might as well stop our search there. Significantly, the Gospels themselves describe miracles that Jesus performed and the responses to them, including people who didn’t believe them because they had already made assumptions about who Jesus was. If you don’t have room in your worldview for the possibility of miracles, there is no sense even looking at the historical evidence.
At the end of the day, one thing that isn’t true and can’t be true is the claim that all religions are basically the same. They simply aren’t. That isn’t to say that there are no universal truths in the various world religions. Far from it. The similarities suggest that there are some universal truths, though the nuanced perceptions of those truths require us to determine which system(s) of religious claims are more true than the others.
I believe that Christianity stands alone as the most rational, testable and truthful of the religious systems. It isn’t a system, though, which is one thing that sets it apart from religions that offer systems. Christianity points to a personal God who desires relationship with us. In this sense, Christianity offers not only rational, falsifiable truth claims; it offers the experiential claim of relationship with the source of truth. This experiential component is just another way to test the truth claim.
An interesting postscript to the issue of pluralism that is valued in a society that discounts objective truth and gravitates toward a position that truth can be relative is found in this short clip from the Jimmy Kimmel show: