The Dangers of Religious Pluralism
This past Sunday, January 3, 2021, the 117th Congress convened with the opening prayer being given by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo) who also happens to be an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. In that prayer, there were many references to Christian themes and references, but Rep. Cleaver closed that prayer with words that are now the source of puns and memes across the country: “We ask it in the name of the monotheistic god, Brahma, and ‘god’ known by many names by many different faiths. Amen and A-woman.”
Now there are many, many things wrong with this prayer, and it would take way too long to dissect and critique all of them. What I want to focus on is the pluralistic tone struck by the prayer’s ending. In a purported attempt to not offend anyone, Rep. Cleaver prayed to some “monotheistic god,” to Brahma (the four-faced Hindu deity), and to the god “known by many names by many different faiths.” Let’s set aside the fact that a Christian minister did not pray in the name of Jesus Christ (which is egregious enough of an error), note how in this attempt to not leave anyone out, Rep. Cleaver is praying to and for faiths that are diametrically opposed to one another. And that’s the problem with pluralism.
So what is pluralism? First thing is I want to distinguish between a general pluralism and a religious pluralism. So what is religious pluralism? Joel Beeke, president of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI, defines religious pluralism as: “The belief that God works through all religions so that they are pathways to the divine, with or without faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.” This is the old “many paths to the top of the mountain” argument about religion. This is a way of thinking that was one of the fruits of Enlightenment thinking and was very popular in the theological liberalism of the 19th & 20th centuries.
You may have heard the old proverb that taught about six blind men each trying to describe an elephant. The one who touched the trunk said, “it’s like a thick snake,” another who touched the ear said, “it is like a giant fan,” yet another who touched a leg said, “it is like a tree trunk,” and yet another who touched the side said, “it is like a wall.” The point of the proverb is that without the ability to see the whole picture, we can only describe our limited experiences. There are those who use this proverb to describe the world’s religions. We’re all trying to grasp and describe God, but because we’re all limited in our understanding, we are all only just describing one aspect of God.
Now on the surface this all seems very humble and logical, right? We are finite, limited beings. Our knowledge grows from one generation to the next. What was considered impossible decades ago, is now routine. What was unknown a century ago, is common knowledge today. It is the essence of wisdom to recognize how much you don’t know and how much you need to learn. In fact, it was the ancient philosopher Socrates who said, “True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.”
So what’s the problem with religious pluralism? Plenty! First, let’s consider the logical inconsistencies in religious pluralism. Religious pluralism is the belief that religious systems are equally valid ways to approach God. Is that so? So Christianity with its belief in the Trinity is equally valid with Islam or Judaism with its belief in strict monotheism? Hinduism with its belief in many gods is equally valid with Buddhism and its rejection of a personal, creator god. You can’t hold as “equally valid” beliefs which clearly contradict one another. Truth admits to only one right answer. Truth, by its very definition, is exclusive. You can’t have “many paths to God” if all of those paths lead to very different God-concepts.
Second, while religious pluralism seems humble, it is the very essence of arrogance and condescension. Going back to the “elephant” proverb, the religious pluralist is the one who stands above the fray and is able to say to the six blind men that they are only seeing part of the true picture. That’s not humility, that’s arrogance. When the religious pluralist goes in front of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists and says “each of your religious beliefs are equally valid pathways to God,” he is in essence saying, “You’re all wrong, and I am right! You need to set aside your petty religious differences and come to my position.” What’s to say that the religious pluralist isn’t just a seventh blind man trying to describe the elephant?
The truth of the matter is that there aren’t “many pathways to God.” In fact, there aren’t even “many pathways,” just two: The “broad” path and the “narrow” path.
Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV) 13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
There is only one way that leads to life, and that “way” is Jesus Christ who Himself said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). All other ways are on the wide 8-lane highway to hell.