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Not Letting Jesus Be Jesus: Some Responses to Religious Pluralism

In my last blog, I began a discussion on religious pluralism by first making observations about religious diversity. We mentioned Oprah Winfrey’s claim that there are millions of ways to God. The idea of one way to salvation is considered an arrogant holdover from colonialism. Somehow, Christians, Muslims, and other traditional religionists have failed to grasp the “reasonable” Enlightenment message of a generic natural religion (Deism) that strips away special revelation or savingly unique perspective.

I’m presently reading a fine biography of Thomas Jefferson—Sworn on the Altar of God by Edwin Gaustad—in preparation for visiting Monticello on our family vacation; Jefferson, following David Hume, maintained that experience, not authority, must be our guide regarding religion, and, since our experience witnesses nature as uniform and unchanging, miracles cannot take place. Deism bears some resemblance to the pluralism of John Hick and others pluralists—embracing a more generic deity, rejecting religious particularism/exclusivism, explaining away miracles that support a religion’s uniqueness, and so forth. In the discussion below, I’ll raise some questions regarding religious pluralism in favor of Christ’s uniqueness.

First, religious pluralism eliminates the possibility of specific, historical divine revelation. Religious pluralism seeks to begin from the ground up by observing what goes on in mosques, churches, synagogues, temples, and Sikh gurdwaras. Many pluralists like John Hick believe Jesus was just a God-conscious person who did not rise from the dead. His later followers ascribed divinity to him in much the same way that some of Buddha’s followers did to Buddha. The pluralist, if correct, ultimately undermines the historic Christian faith. Jesus is not allowed to be the Savior of the world; rather, the Christian faith is one of many legitimate ways of finding salvation or liberation.

According to orthodox Christianity, God begins with particular persons and events—Abraham or the Incarnation. He does have the universal in mind, seeking to bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1–3). Like ripples from a stone tossed into a pond, the Christian mission to the world flows from the Incarnation; the gospel offers salvation to all through God’s enabling Spirit. Pluralism, however, leaves us with a property-less, content-less Ultimate Reality. How then do we need to respond to It? Do we need to love It, or pray to It, or just live ethically? Can we know It even exists?

Second, religious pluralism is logically just as exclusivistic as the Christian — or any other faith. The pluralistic-sounding Dalai Lama actually turns out to be quite the exclusivist. He has declared that Tibetan Buddhism is “the highest and complete form of Buddhism”: “Only Buddhists can accomplish” what is necessary for liberation. Likewise, religious pluralism is just as “biased” and “exclusivistic” regarding the status of religious truth-claims. The religious pluralist believes that his view is true and that the exclusivist — whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist — is wrong in rejecting pluralism. The pluralist believes he has a virtue the Christian or Muslim does not. Pluralism implies that Christians need to abandon belief in Jesus’ deity, atoning death, and resurrection — beliefs that pluralists take to be literally false and simply inspiring metaphors or symbols. Though the Christian faith is a particular exclusivism, religious pluralism is a generic exclusivism: if the pluralist is correct, then the central doctrines of the world’s great religions are false.

While pluralists may appeal to analogies such as roads that lead to the tops of mountains or blind men touching an elephant, we could ask how they know that each religion’s road leads to the top and why those who disagree are wrong. How is it that they have the correct vantage point? Besides, these analogies do not prove a point; they only illustrate it. If Jesus is the only way, we could then change the analogy to one that appropriately supports this point. For example, religions are like a labyrinth or a maze with only one way out. Here Jesus proves to be an advantageous starting point. Jesus claims to reveal God to us and to direct our destiny, which is bound up with our response to Him personally. Indeed, Jesus himself steps into the maze of our miserable human condition and guides us to salvation and grants us hope.

Third, despite its claims, religious pluralism is geographically-limited—which is the very charge made by pluralists against religions like Christianity (“If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you’d be a Muslim”—a view known as the “geography objection”). But even if religious belief is largely shaped by geographical and historical circumstances (statistically speaking), this fact in itself does not guarantee religious pluralism’s truth; this hardly proves the pluralist’s point.

The geography of a belief neither establishes nor neutralizes its truth. While a Marxist, a monarchist, or a conservative Republican would likely have joined the Hitler Youth had he grown up in Nazi Germany, we do not conclude that all political systems are equally legitimate. Independent reasons exist for preferring certain forms of government over others. We could say the same about morality: just because some groups of people grow up holding that cannibalism or terrorism or racism are morally permissible or justifiable, we are right to stick to our guns by rejecting their problematic moral perspective. Our belief in objective moral values and human rights isn’t threatened by the fact that others grow up thinking differently.

The same applies to beliefs about ultimate reality and the human condition: We rightly reject profoundly-incoherent beliefs. We correctly question claims that depend heavily on phony documents or the character of a charismatic, womanizing charlatan who founds a religion — even if his followers are morally decent people. If the Christian faith more readily explains many features of the universe and of the human condition than various Eastern religions (many of which are non-theistic) or secular worldview alternatives, then its greater plausibility should not be trumped by the geographic objection.

Hardly neutral observers of the religious landscape, pluralists who reject Jesus’ bodily resurrection or his remarkable authority claims as historically reliable are taking a gamble. Not only would Jesus’ radical uniqueness completely undermine pluralism, but orthodox Christian tradition is also buttressed by strong historical support. Indeed, the Christian faith is virtually unique among the world religions in that it is rooted in history and thus makes crucial claims are historically verifiable (e.g., Jesus’ death and resurrection).

In addition, we can turn the tables on the pluralist: If he had been born in Madagascar or medieval France, he probably would not have become a pluralist! If all religions are culturally conditioned attempts to get at the Ultimate Reality, then pluralism is just as culturally conditioned as Christians or Hindus are in their beliefs.

How then has the pluralist risen above his cultural conditioning to see things more clearly than the rest of us? Does the religious pluralist think he is just another blind man touching his part of the elephant? No. He takes the view of the onlooker who sees the entire elephant and thinks the blind men are foolish because of their narrow-minded dogmatism. There is nothing wrong with seeing the big picture. (If God has stepped into history and revealed himself savingly in Christ, Christians can justifiably present the big picture.) However, this “colonialist” and “arrogant” perspective is the very one the pluralist was opposing.

Fourth, a religion’s moral fruitfulness is not necessarily the ultimate test of its legitimacy. How do we explain moral atheists who help their neighbors but reject the transcendent and even strongly oppose traditional religion as delusional and full of false promises? What about religions that include ritual human sacrifice or racist beliefs? Are these legitimate, culturally conditioned attempts to arrive at Ultimate Reality? Ironically, pluralists like John Hick and Paul Knitter affirm an impersonal Ultimate Reality (which is also affirmed in many Eastern religions), but how can It be the basis of personal virtues such as kindness and compassion? A personal God—especially the intrinsically-relational triune God—makes better sense of such virtues.

If no observable moral difference exists between adherents of these different religions, then the common pluralistic conclusion — that all the great religions are equally capable of saving — isn’t more obvious than the conclusion that it is *not* the case that all these religions are equally capable of saving. In fact, it is reasonable to conclude that we have no idea whether all religions are or are not equally capable of saving. Being an agnostic, not a pluralist, is the more reasonable position.

Fifth, the Christian’s motivation to live humbly, gratefully, graciously, and self-sacrificially is connected to Jesus’ authority as God’s Son. According to the New Testament, Jesus does not have authority just because we find ourselves agreeing with his moral teaching. Rather, it is Jesus’ unique status as God’s Son that serves as the source and locus of his authority—regardless of whether we happen to agree with his teaching! (Thus we should reject the bumper sticker theology that affirms, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” No, God/Jesus said it. That settles it whether I believe it or not!). If Jesus is not the unique Son of God but a mere man, then the Christian’s motivation will lose much of its force. If Jesus is not God incarnate, this undercuts historic Christianity’s claims and seriously undermines our devotion to Christ. This is a pragmatic consideration, yes, but the Christian faith is bound up with historical events such as Jesus’ death and resurrection. If these never occurred, then Paul urges us to consider hedonism since a merely earthly hope in Christ is delusional (1 Corinthians 15:32).

Sixth, if Jesus is God’s Son, this effectively undermines religious pluralism. Despite the points listed above, pluralism could logically still be true. However, if Jesus is God incarnate, then pluralism is false. Jesus was not just another great religious teacher. Consider the following subpoints:

(a) Jesus was different from the founders of other great religions. Jesus made unique claims that no other world religious leader made — to forgive sins, hear prayers, be the Judge of all, be always present with His followers, give rest to one’s soul, have authority over angelic/demonic beings, and receive worship. By contrast, Muhammad would have thought Jesus’ personal claims blasphemous; Buddha was a metaphysical agnostic as was Confucius.

(b) The earliest Christians — fiercely monotheistic Jews — bore witness to an exalted Jesus who shared in the divine identity. The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) declares that there is one Lord [Yahweh], but Paul affirmed that the one Lord is Jesus Christ who is Creator of all and the Source of our existence (1 Corinthians 8:6). The first Christians even prayed to Him (Acts 7:59; 1 Corinthians 16:22). One pluralist, Paul Knitter, claims that Jesus’ first followers were speaking *confessionally*, not *ontologically*. That is, they weren’t trying to make absolute statements about reality, but were so in love with Jesus that they used superlatives—like husbands and wives do of each other (“Honey, you’re the greatest!”). However, what we read in the New Testament is serious business; Knitter doesn’t take into account the anti-idolatrous mindset of first-century Judaism: the first followers are calling Jesus creator, praying to him, receiving forgiveness from him. This is more than just language about being in love with Jesus. This is blasphemy if they’re wrong!

Jesus’ first followers believed He shared the divine identity and attributed the honors, titles, actions, and prerogatives of Yahweh to Jesus. The New Testament writers affirmed this without dispute. Such a conviction, buttressed by Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead and post-mortem appearances, vindicated those authoritative claims — that in Him the kingdom of God, the new exodus, and the new creation had come. If there is salvation outside of Christ, then Jesus’ redemptive mission as Israel’s and humanity’s representative was ultimately a misguided failure. And contrary to Jesus’ Gethsemane impressions, the bitter cup could have been removed from Him.

(c) Jesus rose from the dead in confirmation of his claims. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul was willing to stake the Christian faith entirely on this event: If Christ hasn’t been raised, our faith is futile…we ought to be pitied above all men.

In the end, religious pluralism will not let Jesus be Jesus. If it did, it would undermine itself.

4 Responses to “Not Letting Jesus Be Jesus: Some Responses to Religious Pluralism”

  1. Hi Paul:
    Thanks for this important post. On your point “if Jesus is God’s Son, this effectively undermines religious pluralism,” John Hick, somewhat prophetically, stated some time ago that:

    “If he [Jesus] was indeed God incarnate, Christianity is the only religion founded by God in person, and must as such be uniquely superior to all other religions.”
    John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate

    My response to John Hick is from John the Apostle:
    “”And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”

    See my essay at http://www.leaderu.com/theology/mystery.html.

  2. Thanks you men. Very good post…

  3. Miles 'Uni' Smith August 12, 2013 at 4:25 am

    I am currently writing an essay on this very topic and I agree with you. Pluralism seems almost like a pat on the head or ruffle of the hair to religious believers that even though your religion is completely wrong about many things at least there is value in it.

    It is the equivalent of putting a childs drawing on the fridge despite the fact it looks terrible.

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  1. Jesus Uniquely Reveals God « ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ - December 29, 2008

    […] Of God Incarnate for a critique of religious pluralism. See also Paul Copan’s fine article “Not Letting Jesus Be Jesus: Some Responses to Religious Pluralism”.), as well as any teachings antithetical to Jesus’ revelation of God (this includes Deepak […]

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