Nel Brace | 3 March 2020 | 7 min read
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'”
Christianity is exclusivistic. It claims to be true and by implication that all opposing religious views are false. Religious pluralism is the belief that every religion is true and that each provides access to God, some perhaps more efficiently than others, but all are adequate. Even a cursory study of world religions will reveal many contrary and even contradictory teachings and beliefs. Religions do not only differ in ritual and practice, but also in fundamental tenets such as the existence and nature of God, the nature of man, the means and necessity of salvation, the nature of suffering and evil and the existence and nature of the afterlife. How are we to understand the pluralist’s claim that “every religion is true” in light of these differences?
At issue here is the age old question, so tellingly raised by Pilot before the crucifixion of Jesus: “What is truth?” The outright skeptic might well reply that there is no such thing as truth. More to the issue at hand, truth about God is not knowable and therefore all religious endeavors are feeble. Of course the skeptic is making a dubious if not conceited claim to have knowledge that no knowledge of God can be had. Even in the context of religion, absolute skepticism remains self-refuting.
Perhaps then, religious truths are merely subjective convictions akin to taste or preference. Contrary beliefs of this nature present no problem for the pluralist. Under such an understanding of “truth” religious tenets are just another aspect of cultural diversity and should be celebrated rather than compared and contrasted. All religious “roads” make their unique ways up the “mountain” to the “top” where a variety of pilgrims eventually encounter God.
It is not at all clear that such subjective beliefs are what underlie the commitment of religious believers. If anything, the history of most world religions points to convictions that are deemed universal, objective, and exclusive by their followers. Adherence to a religion often requires an unconditional commitment to self-control, sacrifice, and even martyrdom. These are not the type of actions that are based on mere preference. Perhaps it is some of these very actions that flow from stronger convictions that the pluralist is trying to preempt in an attempt to ensure peaceful coexistence. As noble as this attempt may be, he cannot simply alter the nature of religious truth claims for his purposes.
Religious truths are not merely subjective. So, for a somewhat stronger grounding, while maintaining strong inclusivity, the pluralist might appeal to a poetic understanding of truth. Much of religious scripture and teaching is encased in narrative. Religious stories convey truths, but these are neither of a logical or exclusive nature since differences in detail or content are not of primary importance in our understanding of narrative. No one expects factual correctness from mythical texts but only affirmation of the moral teaching universal to the human experience. The focus should not be on differences in the details but on similarity in significances. All people share the human experience of trying to make sense of their existence in this universe. No one narrative that claims to provide an answer is better than another. They are all equally valid attempts to make sense of our existence and to improve it.
Although many of the world’s religious texts do include a great deal of narrative, it would be wrong to categorize it all as myth. Assuming the anti-supernatural bias of the modern age, the pluralist, as well as most liberal adherents of the faiths, will dismiss or downplay the metaphysical, historical, and scientific claims found in religious texts as necessarily inconsistent and even contradictory “poetic truths.” But is this view of truth consistent with the way in which orthodox believers understand their scriptures?
In the case of Christianity (and others), it is not. The central teaching of orthodox Christianity concerns the physical resurrection of God incarnate within space-time history. In the fifteenth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul writes that “if Christ has not been raised, [our] faith is worthless…[and] we of all men most to be pitied.” In the preceding verses, the apostle goes out of his way to provide factual evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus and no lesser claim can be the grounding of the faith that he is proclaiming. The argument here is precisely against a mere Easter myth that can be synthesized with the stories of other saviours.
There are religious truth claims that are logical and factual in nature and these often comprise the core of each of the various systems. That truth can be known, and that it is logical and factual is not a popular view in our postmodern age. But, “for all who think that reality exists independently of the mind (i.e. apart from me) and that reality is what it is regardless of how we think about it, the definition of truth is the agreement of thought with reality. What makes a descriptive proposition true is that it corresponds to the way things really are.” Many religious truth claims are propositions of this nature, and therefore contradiction between them cannot simply be brushed over and ignored. Either both propositions are false and do not correspond with reality or one is true and the other is false. Opposing factual truth claims cannot be true if they are describing the same reality.
Religious truths form part of the unity of truths that describe reality. Just like scientific, mathematical, historical, and philosophical claims, the human mind can judge religious truth claims and they can have or lack the support of evidence and reason. Granted, many religious truths cannot be judged by our preferred empirical methods, but some can. Of course, those claims that are beyond rational proof are not therefore necessarily logically incoherent or irrational. Perhaps it is to be expected that theology as the highest science will transcend our rational abilities. Notice though that even such claims are still open to disproof and can therefore form part of the coherent body of truths that describe our reality.
It seems then that the religious pluralist who maintains that all religions are true is either misinformed or willfully ignorant. Moreover, his attempt to place all religions on a “level playing field” is not motivated through a desire or conviction of the “players,” it is his own, rather venal attempt to avoid the conflict that should follow from logically contradictory truth claims. But one cannot simply alter the nature of a proposition to suit one’s purposes. The rational approach would be to examine carefully the diversity of religious truth claims, to reject those which do not correspond to reality and to embrace wholeheartedly those that do.
Adler, Mortimer J. Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company,1992.
McGrath, Alister E. “The Challenge of Pluralism for the Contemporary Christian Church,” JETS 35/3 (Sept. 1992): 361-373, available at https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/35/35-3/JETS_35-3_361-373_McGrath.pdf, accessed Feb. 22, 2020.
Zacharias, Ravi. Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002.
The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.
 John 14:6.
 Notice the implicit “bird’s-eye-view” of the pluralist claiming knowledge of the “destination” and the fact that all the “roads” do in fact lead there.
 Mortimer Adler, Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth (MacMillan Publishing Company), 21.
 Philosophical arguments for the existence of God, the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, and the historical and textual evidence for reliable composition and transmission of the biblical text are some examples of religious beliefs supported by empirical evidence.
 Here one might include claims about the nature of God, salvation, inspiration of a text, and eschatology.
 See Adler, Truth in Religion.
 Notice, religious pluralists never really commit to playing the game. They often have no religious commitments of their own or hold very loosely to any that they might have. Yet somehow, they deem themselves able to “referee” those who “play”, by proposing that the “game” really has not set “rules.”