Pluralism (What You Need to Know–and Why)

Guest post by Rob Powell. Part of a series on truth.

In continuing our discussion about truth and absolutism let’s move to how that idea intersects with the wide diversity of faiths represented in our world, specifically in the concept called “pluralism.”

We’ve all heard the allegory of the blind men feeling different parts of an elephant.

Each man describes a completely different animal based on what part they are feeling.

The moral of the story is that each is relating just a small but true part of a larger truth.

This parable is a feel good way to reconcile the differences between the thousands of different religions in society.

In fact, somebody should make a song out of it so they can add a verse to It’s a Small World.

Pluralism: The Good and the Bad

On the surface pluralism seems like a reasonable explanation for the diversity of faiths we see.

Nobody gets their feelings hurt by being told they are wrong and everybody gets to do what they think is true.

A little deeper inspection though shows that just like relativism this view falls apart under it’s own weight.

To allow all these discordant faiths to agree the pluralist has to do a few things, but first let’s take a look where faiths disagree.

Do All Religions [Basically] Agree? Eh, No.

To make that less than a 2 year doctoral thesis we’ll limit our discussion to the most populous religions.

Not that numbers equals truth but even the most PC pluralist isn’t going to say that the Heaven’s Gate Cult or the Branch Davidians has a truth claim equally as valid as Buddhism or Islam.

Bottom line: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism all have a diagnosis for what is wrong with humanity and a cure to fix it.

It’s past the scope of this article to delve into all the differences but they are not insignificant. Here are a few:

The number of gods. Some religions believe there is no God while others believe in only one and still others embracing many.

The problem of sin. All religions describe a very different program to curing sin.

The body and mortality. Each religion seeks to explain the purpose behind our bodies and solve the riddle of death.

In all these examples, the cures range from faith in Christ, to an esoteric experience where we see we are immaterial self aware beings with all knowledge or to realizing that all we are is fleeting conscious states.

The pattern here is clear.

There are a diversity of perceived spiritual problems–and a myriad of just as diverse solutions.

What We Must Avoid

To try and boil all this down and just say that people are broken and need a cure would be as silly as saying a person has “sick” and needs “better”.

If your appendix has ruptured you will not find a doctor that recommends in vitro fertilization.

Each specific diagnosis needs a specific remedy.

Maybe the pluralist believes that God will save those not of a certain tradition based on how they responded to what knowledge they had accessible to them. For example, the Christian God might save Buddhists because they were sincere in their belief.

Unfortunately this is not what ANY of these individual faiths teach. Also, past just the general diagnosis, religions disagree on what makes up a human.

What the Pluralist Must Do to Make Religions “Agree”

Do we have an enduring soul or are we merely a collection of momentary states? Either people come in two (or more) distinct flavors or you have to believe these both of these self contradicting things to be true at the same time.

So how does the pluralist make all of this work for them?

For example, there is no mechanism in the Christian worldview where the Buddhist’s sin problem is resolved outside of faith in Christ. Nor is there is no mechanism in the Buddhist tradition whereby the Christian becomes enlightened.

So the pluralist must create their own system whereby the two are compatible and neither can hold the other as incorrect.

This involves either treating all religious exclusive claims as either being non-literal (mythical) or having limited importance.

This would include any claims to miracle which would seem to add credence to one faith over another. What really matters to the pluralist is harmony, love, justice and unity.

In other words, how you live your faith (orthopraxy) is more important than what how your faith says you should live (orthodoxy).

The Pluralist’s Sleight of Hand

But did you see what just happened there? The pluralist in attempting to negate all the exclusive claims of different religions created an exclusive claim of their own.

The pluralist denies the Muslim a chance to define his or her own religion with exclusive claims but is completely free to do so themselves.

Pluralism fails pluralistically. Which brings us back to the elephant.

A pluralist takes each person describing their religious truth and enlightenment and says “Yes but what you don’t know is that you are blind and only see in part.”

That’s perfectly laughable because the implication is that the pluralist can see just fine and in whole–and you can’t.

In the end, he’s more than happy to make a claim to exceptional knowledge that he won’t let any single faith make own their own.

The Pluralist Is Just as Blind

As you can see, pluralism isn’t an overarching view that combines all faiths in one big bubble bath of goodness. It’s just one more view claiming special enlightenment and truth–which isn’t very pluralistic, don’t you think?

So when someone says “What matters is that it makes sense to me and enables me to grow spiritually,” it’s easy to see the benefit to this claim even taken at face value and not applying it to itself.

It allows everyone to do what they want how they want to do it.

But if there is no objective truth to be found outside of one’s belief then you can never be wrong in what you believe.

In essence you’ve created a Stepford God that is made in your own image–he’s a robotic butler who will never contradict you but always please you.

Unfortunately this approach destroys the distinction between the terms “truth” and “belief” and implies that something is true because “I believe it.”

Where Pluralism Threatens the Christian Church

So where does pluralism affect the Christ follower and it’s church. Here’s a quote from JP Moreland’s book  that I think says it well:

[Such] a church . . . will become . . . impotent to stand against the powerful forces of secularism that threaten to bury Christian ideas under a veneer of soulless pluralism and misguided scientism. In such a context, the church will be tempted to measure her success largely in terms of numbers—numbers achieved by cultural accommodation to empty selves. In this way, . . . the church will become her own grave digger; her means of short-term “success” will turn out to be the very thing that marginalizes her in the long run.

The call is clear to preach the obnoxious and offensive gospel to a world and church that most of the time doesn’t want to hear it.

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