As cultural and religious pluralism increase, so does exposure to a wide variety of beliefs and practices. In this climate, it is hard to imagine that only one religion or one set of beliefs or practices is right. It seems to exclude so many people. So, how can Christians believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life? Doesn’t this leave out many who sincerely believe differently or who grow up in places where they don’t even know about Jesus? Many people prefer to believe that all religious beliefs are just different but equal ways of accessing Ultimate Reality. It would be arrogant to believe that only one group of people is right and everyone else is wrong. It seems more tolerant to admit that some beliefs are right for some people and other beliefs right for others. Besides, the religions share core similarities anyway; they are really about peace and love and being good people.
However, this approach, which is often called religious pluralism, raises a number of questions itself. For one, doesn’t every claim about anything exclude contrary viewpoints? For example, if I believe that all people are equal and that race should not be used to discriminate against another human person, am I not excluding racist viewpoints? Of course I am. And this applies in the realm of religion as well. As soon as I believe something concrete about the nature of reality, I am eliminating contradictory beliefs. This is the nature of belief. If Christians claim that Jesus Christ is both God and a human being and Muslims believe that Jesus was not God, but only a human being, then they cannot both be correct on this issue. Both religions agree that either Jesus was or was not God. They simply disagree on what the truth of the matter is.
Christian faith stands or falls on the belief that Jesus Christ is the revelation of the true God of the universe, that he died and was raised to life again to rescue us from death and from the mess we have made of our lives and of this world. If I did not believe that, I would not have any reason to call myself a Christian. That being said, just because all religions cannot all be true in all of their particulars doesn’t mean that there is only truth in one religion and that all others are completely false. Being right about something doesn’t make you right about everything. That’s why even religious believers who are committed to their beliefs should have the humility to admit that they have things to learn from others. I can be committed to Jesus and yet realize that I have many things to learn from my friends who are not Christians. And hopefully they will be willing to learn from me too. Religious pluralism says that we must all agree in order to live together. But true pluralism will only be successful if people who strongly disagree about things can live together in mutual love and respect. Religious pluralism tries to be accommodating to all beliefs, but it is actually insulting to most religions, because it strips away all of the things that make them distinctive, that make them what they are. I am a Christian because I believe in Jesus Christ. That is central to my faith. My neighbor is a Muslim because he believes that God revealed the words of the Qu’ran to Mohammed. That is central to his. Religious pluralism wants to eliminate these differences by saying that they are not important. However, that insults both of us. He and I can both respect each other far more by acknowledging the differences and choosing to love and honour each other anyway.
Excluding ideas is different than excluding people. Believing one thing is true at the expense of other things is inevitable (even the most religiously tolerant viewpoints exclude religious dogmatism). However, excluding people is different entirely. I exclude people when I simply dismiss them without taking their views seriously even if I disagree with them. I exclude people when I use violence or coercion to force them to conform to my beliefs. I exclude people when I begin to determine who gets to belong my group or religion and who does not. Many of us are guilty of this kind of exclusion; it is not unique to any group.
And even though Christians are just as guilty of this as anyone else, it is not a true reflection of their ultimate faith commitment. That is because Jesus was all about including people and breaking down the barriers that divide. In the records we have of Jesus’ life, we see women and men, oppressors and revolutionaries, wealthy and poor, religious devotees and prostitutes all at the same table. The only thing that united them in a culture divided around many of those boundary-markers was that they all wanted to be gathered around the table with him. They wanted to follow in his footsteps. This commitment to one person (which was exclusive in the sense that it was Jesus and not somebody else) was the basis for a radical inclusion, the breaking down of barriers of gender, race, nationality, social status, etc. This is in essence what the exclusiveness of Christian faith is about. It is about one person who made it possible for anyone who wants to come to be included in God’s people.
By Rachel Tulloch, RZIM Canada
Used by permission.