We live in a time where the ideology of religious pluralism is becoming more and more dominant in our culture. I don’t know how familiar you are with that term “religious pluralism”, but a religious pluralist is one who believes that all religions are different paths that lead to the divine, and therefore, all religions are valid, in other words, it’s like there’s this one God out there but He just wears many faces when you look at the landscape of all the world’s religions.
I was going to read you a quote from, ironically, this is from a Jewish rabbi. His last name is Boteach, and he gives us a glimpse into religious pluralism when he says, “I’m absolutely against any religion that says one faith is superior to another. I don’t see how that is anything different than spiritual racism. It’s a way of saying that we are closer to God than you and that’s what leads to hatred.” Now, I do find that quote interesting coming from a Jewish rabbi, when you read in the Old Testament continually these words, “I am God and there is no other God.” But the bottom line is that today in this crazy world we live in, the world that seems to be threatened on all sides by terrorism, by all different types of war, nuclear war, that there’s this great need in humanity to have unity. We need to be unified as a people around the world, and therefore so many contend that any aggressive claim on the part of any of the world’s religions to have the truth for all can only be regarded as treason against the human race.
But what I find when it gets right down to it, just in my day-to-day life, and talking to men, is that when it gets right down to it, modern pluralism has such great appeal because it just seems to make common sense, it’s just good common sense, it’s, you know, it’s not controversial, it’s a way to be, I guess, a way, in one sense, to respect everybody else. It’s a way to be tolerant, that the good tolerant approach to religious truth, but the problem is, what do you do as a Christian when you turn to the scripture and you read verses such as John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man comes to the Father but through Me.” Peter says in Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else for there’s no other name under Heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” And then I Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God and one mediator also between God and men, the Man Jesus Christ,” and then probably one of the most significant is when Paul in the book of Philippians says, “One day in the future, at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Guys, this is why John Stott, who Time Magazine, a couple years ago, recognized as the probably most respected Christian leader in the world today, he made this comment, he said, “Religious pluralism as an ideology is the most critical issue facing the church today because when the church challenges this position, we’re considered arrogant, intolerant, narrow-minded, even bigoted,” but, you know what you’ll find interesting guys, is that this is really exactly what the early church faced in Rome. You see, the Roman Empire was probably one of the most pluralistic cultures ever and Christians would have never been persecuted if all they had done is taken the position that Jesus is just one of the many gods that are out there, but they didn’t, and they suffered for it, but you know what, one of things I do find interesting is that all of the gods of that era, that were so dominant, are all gone. They’re all gone, heard from no more.
Now, I’m not sure what your position is this morning on this topic. I know a number of people are here because they told me, because they’re not sure of what to think. Now, that’s understandable, but my desire this morning is just to share some thoughts with you, to produce light, and not heat, in other words, understanding and not seeking to stir up any type of emotional response, but I do think at the end, you’re going to see how religious, the religious pluralist position, is very weak, even though it sounds kinda, you know, it sounds very good, very respectful, but yet, logically, it’s very weak.
So, this morning what I want to do is consider the issue of religious pluralism and ask you to try to think clearly and logically because, in my opinion, too many people throw out logic and reason when it comes to this issue. You know, since Lewis had two really good friends, Owen Barfield and A.C. Harwood, and they were friends all of their lives, but, at some point in their friendship, both of these men begin to gravitate to this new-age type of religious pluralism, and Lewis was deeply disappointed and disturbed with both of them because they had abandoned, in his mind, the laws of logic which he recognized had formed the spine of Western thought throughout the ages, and, as one of Louis’ biographers, a guy named Aeschliman, he believed that one of the keys to Lewis’ greatness was that he did not cave in to this type of thinking that was becoming so predominant at Oxford, which was where he lived and where he taught, because Lewis believed that reason was the order of the universe, and that reality was ruled by the laws of logic and he wrote an essay called “Modern Man”, and his categories of thought, and he spoke of how irrational people were becoming in their approach to religious faith, and what he began to notice, as he spoke throughout England, in all these audiences that he would meet with, he said, I quote, “ I have repeatedly found it almost impossible to make them understand that I recommend Christianity because I think it is objectively true, but people today are simply not interested in whether religion is true or false. They only want to know if it will be comforting or inspiring or socially useful.” You think you realize what he’s saying here that if religion is to be approached and treated with intellectual integrity, it must stand the test of truth. You see, all religions make certain true claims about spirituality, but the question is, are their claims true, and Lewis is saying modern people don’t seem to care about whether it’s truthful or not. They’re only interested in how it appeals to you and how it makes you feel, how it fits into your life.
Blaise Pascal made the same observation, only probably three hundred years earlier, when he said, “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs, not on the basis of proof, and what is true, but on the basis of what they find attractive.” So, this morning, I’ve titled this, even though we’re talking about Jesus, “The uniqueness of Christ in a world full of religion.” I guess you could call this particular part of the series, thinking clearly. That’s what I’d call it, thinking clearly, and where I want to start is, is considering how we, as human beings, perceive reality. You see, we have the, what I call, or most people would call, the subjective realm of life. Now this involves your tastes, your preferences, your opinions, and your feelings. I’m sure you’ve had this happen where somebody recommends to you a movie, and they say, this is one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen, and you go see the movie, and you walk out and think, that was terrible, you know, the worst movie I’ve ever seen. What was it? A good movie or it was it not a good movie? Well, as you see, there, it is for some, and it’s not for others. You can say that about artwork. I mean, you can go into the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and look at a piece of art and just ask yourself, how can you call that art, and yet people will pay millions of dollars for that that piece of artwork. It’s all a matter of preference and taste. You know, something may be beautiful to you, but it may, in fact, be ugly to somebody over here, so, that is the subjective realm. But then, you have the objective realm, where two plus two equals four, where the wallet in my back pocket is brown, my wife’s name is Holly, you know, see, truth that is objective is not subject to what I feel or what I prefer. It is external. It’s outside of opinion, and what is so important to note, guys, is you cannot bring the subjective approach to reality and apply it to what is actually objective. Let’s just assume you have a teenage son or daughter, or one who’s in college, and they go and they’re taking a very difficult math course, calculus or whatever, and they go in and they take this test, and then this major problem that makes up a big part of their grade, they get a big flat X. Wrong. Answer is wrong. You know, they can’t go to their professor and say, well, sir that answer, the answer that you have may be true for you, but it’s not true for me, or I feel I feel very strongly that the answer I put down is a good answer, you know, that does not work in the realm, in the field of mathematics.
And I share this because I believe when comparing truth claims among the world’s religions, you need to bring objectivity to any discussion and not what you feel, even though that’s so natural, it is, you know, there was a number of years ago, and I never watched The Dick Cavett Show, but from what I understand, it was a talk show like so many of them today, and he has guests, and I don’t know how he did this. This was probably 20 to 25 years ago and he somehow had as his guest Jane Fonda and the Archbishop of Canterbury. And you know he brings one of them out and they talk for a while, and they bring the next guest out, and he, I think, Jane Fonda’s already out there, and he’s talking to the Archbishop, and they get to talking about Jesus, and the Archbishop says, yes, I’m absolutely convinced Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and Jane Fonda made an interesting response. She said, well, He may be the Son of God to you, but He’s not to me. You know it was the approached that, you know, God can be whatever you want Him to be, is kind of where she was coming from, and I thought the Archbishop made a really, I mean astute, it was a very simple response, he said, “Oh no, ma’am, you’re wrong. Either He is the Son of God or He’s not.” In other words, what he’s saying, there’s nothing subjective about this statement, it has nothing to do with what you feel or what you prefer, it has everything to do as, either He was or He was not, and the reason I share this is because all of the world’s religions make certain objective truth claims about the nature of God, about the nature of life, about what happens when we die, and every single one of them tells us about what happens when we die and either these claims are true or they’re not true. It has nothing to do with your feelings or your tastes and this is what bothers C.S. Lewis so much is that people would throw logic and the laws of logic, that go all the way back to Aristotle, just throw them out the window, and I see this all the time myself.
I had an interesting conversation a couple years ago with a guy. We were sitting at a table and he brought up the subject. He wanted to talk about the existence of God and I was glad to accommodate him but it was very difficult to make any progress with this guy because I told him, I said, no let’s, this is a good starting point, either God exists or He doesn’t. One of those statements is true and one of those statements is false. His response to me was, no, both of them can be true. As you can see, it’s hard to make any progress when a person makes that kind of comment, but the good news is, is while we were having this conversation there was another guy sitting at the table and he was an accountant. The great thing about accountants is that they are very objective. When they get into trouble is when they get subjective with the numbers, but the bottom line is, this accountant, and a lot of you know him, he was very objective and he, he just sitting there thinking about what was going on in this conversation, he said, and I’ll just say this guy’s name was John, he said, “No, John, Richard’s right. Either God exists or He does not exist. They both cannot be true. They both cannot be true statements.”
And I share this example, and that Jane Fonda example, because I think they reveal how important it is, guys, to embrace and understand the law of non-contradiction, which is basically the foundation of all the laws of logic. A cannot equal non-A, two plus two equals four, it cannot equal 5. Jesus is the Son of God or He’s not the Son of God. Both statements cannot be true, and the reason I share this with you is because what I’ve just shared impacted me and it’s what caused me to reject religious pluralism, which I at one time fully embraced, and I embraced it because it just seemed to be so fair and so right, and what happened to me is at a certain point I realized that if all religions merely were merely different paths to some God that was out there and that all religions were valid, it struck me one day that meant that there’s nothing that’s false out there in the world of religion. Nothing’s false, and this was at a time when the Moonies were on the rise, and this goes back quite a while, and Jim Jones, and they just had that massacre at Jonestown, and cults were on the rise, and there are all these religions, all the spirituality, and as I kind of looked around at the landscape there was something within my objective mind that says, this cannot be true, and the problem was, if you think about it, if some religions were false, which ones were false? I mean, how do you distinguish them? Furthermore, who has the authority to deem one false and another truth? As the poet John Keats said, “Failure is, in a sense, the highway to success, because inasmuch as every discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true.” There’s an interesting gentleman and I think he’s deceased now, his name was Charles Hartshorne. He was considered one of the great philosophers of the last century. He was not a Christian, not even a really much of a religious man, but on his 100th birthday in 1998, US News and World Report did a commemorative interview with him and they titled it, “A Hundred Years of Thinking About God,” and he was asked in the interview what his main reflection was after all his thinking, and he gave a very interesting response. He said, “We live in a century in which everything about God has been said. The challenge today for us is to learn which statements to deny.” Realize what he’s saying? What he’s saying is there’s so much that’s out there, and there’s so many voices out there, there’s so much that’s been said, and what we’ve got to figure out is, what is true, and what is false.
There was an interesting man, by he was a PhD in philosophy his name was Dr. Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan. He was one of the former presidents of India and for a number of years he held the chair of eastern philosophy at Oxford and he was a Hindu, but he made this very thoughtful observation when he said, “The only thing that scares me about my belief, and about Eastern religion, is that our arms have opened up so wide that we’re trying to absorb every belief and it could ultimately result in our own strangulation.”
I guess what I’m saying is, guys, at some point I realized that along the line, my pluralistic worldview was not compatible with reality, and it lacked coherence. But a second reason my view changed was I kept running into the law of non-contradiction. I studied comparative religion in college because it’s this subject that fascinated me, and I kept running into the fact that you take the four major world religions and their view of God, just God Himself. Now, here you have Hinduism that believes that there are hundreds of millions of gods and you one day can be one of them, but on the other hand, Buddhism, its counterpart over in the East, says, and most people don’t even realize this, that there is no God, it is a non-theistic religion, and then you have the Muslims who believe that Allah is one God, and then you have Christianity, who believes in the Triune God, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and if you ask any scholar in any one of these faiths, they will all tell you that their religion is true, there’s nothing false about it. But how can that be? But an even a greater issue, and probably more important issue, because this is really at the heart of what we all are concerned about, when we talk about what happens to you when you die. I mean it’d be one thing if all these religion says, well you go up and you are united with this divine being, but they can’t even agree on what happens at death, and both Hinduism and Buddhism believe in the transmigration of the soul at death, and depending on the life that you’ve led, you either move up and down the caste system, reincarnation, and assuming you did not lead a good life, you could go down in the system, you could come back as a dog or a cat or rat or even an inanimate object, and of course, the thing that plagued me was, if you’re an inanimate object, how can you die and reborn and come back and go up the system, go up the ladder, and Hinduism believe that you when you die, you’re eventually you’re released from this cycle, and the ultimate goal has become one with the cosmic all, and you just kind of become godlike and blend in the cosmos where the Buddhists say the ultimate goal is to reach nirvana, nothingness. You cease to exist, and then you have the Islamic faith. They say that when you die then there’s the judgment, if you believe in Allah, you’ve led a good life, you go to paradise and a paradise is like the Garden of Eden. It’s a great place for men, it is, it’s a great place for men. I mean, you lie on couches most of the time and you eat, and you drink, and you have these bashful virgin women that wait on you. And then, of course, you have Christianity, which it says there is one this is what contradicts and definitely refutes reincarnation, says there is one death, in Hebrews, and then there’s the judgment, and death, in Christianity is the natural termination of our earthly existence, where there will be a final judgment and those who put their trust and faith in Christ will spend eternity in God’s kingdom, and it’s the resurrection of Christ that demonstrates His power over death, and that’s why it says, I go and prepare a place for you, and Revelations says, “In heaven we shall be His people and God Himself shall be among them and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes, there shall no longer be any death, there shall no longer be any mourning or crying, or pain.”
Now, what ultimately struck me was that each of these four major religions claimed to have the ultimate truth about God and spiritual reality but logically, that cannot be the case, because it violates the laws of non-contradiction. Logically, in fact, there’s only two possibilities. One, one of them is true, or two, none of them are true, or, as Tim Keller put it, he made, I thought, a very astute observation, is the only way religious pluralism could be true is, number one, that there is no God at all. He says, “Therefore all religions are subjectively helpful, but none are objectively true, and therefore we do all end up in the same place as food for the worms. The second possibility is that there is this nebulous divine being out there who has no concern about what your doctrine is or what you believe or how you live your life.” And I think one of the real problems with that idea is that none of the major religions of the world embrace it. And this leads me to the most important point that I want to make about religious pluralism this morning, and I hope you’ll listen to it very carefully. As I mentioned earlier, most, so many modern secular people contend that Christianity is just one of many valid religions in the world and that no religion is better than any other and that they all lead to the divine reality and they contend because of this you should never seek to convert anybody to your side because you should not insist that your beliefs are true, and others are not but there is a major flaw in this contention. Major flaw when you say that there are many valid religions in the world and no religion is better than any other. If you think about it, this itself is a religious belief isn’t it? It’s a belief about spiritual reality, it’s a belief about the way things are out there in the spiritual world, and it’s a religious belief that claims to be more true than all opposing views, and I also would point out, since it’s a belief about the nature of spiritual reality, and since you can’t prove it, it’s accepted by faith. You see, the modern religious pluralist is saying that my view of the spiritual world is more accurate than yours, whether you’re a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, my view of spiritual reality is more accurate and more true than yours, and they’re tempting also to persuade us to leave our position and come over to theirs. In fact, what they’re trying to do is what they say no one else should do: to convert people to their point of view. Do you see how flawed this is?
Let me take it a step further. I think the first time I, and this is his biggest flaw, in my opinion, I first heard this illustration, and I believe in college 30 years ago, but I’ve heard it over and over again, if you’re not familiar with it you need to hear it, it’s what most people did, they used to kind of explain religious pluralism and defend it, and it’s the story of a king who brings four blind men into his palace and into this large room and these men can’t see anything and he has this large elephant, he takes the first blind man over the elephant, and he lets him touch the trunk of the elephant and feel it moving and whatever, and he steps back says this must be a giant snake. The second blind man, he takes up to the elephant and lets him touch the massive side of the elephant, an elephant, and he says this is just this is a great wall massive wall, then he takes the third blind man and takes over and lets him feel these big legs of the elephant, and he says this must be a tree trunk. It feels just like the trunk of a tree, and then the final man, I know, if you’ve ever noticed, the tail of an elephant looks like a long piece of string, he grabs it, and touches it, and feels it, and says, this must be a rope, and the king then turns and uses this as a parable, and says these blind men represent the world’s religions. They all come to different conclusions about the spiritual world and they each contain a portion of what’s true, but they just can’t see the total picture and if we were like the king and we could see the entire picture, we would forsake our exclusive beliefs, and realize that we are all, so to speak, feeling the same elephant.
You know, the first time I heard this illustration, it was very persuasive with me, and I thought, you know, that makes a lot of sense, but you know the problem with the illustration is you’ve got to ask this question, who plays the role of the king? Who is the person that sees all the total picture? You say that’s what the religious pluralists is saying he’s saying I’m the king. I’m the one who sees all. You Christians, you have part of the truth, you Muslims, you have part of the truth, Hindus, Buddha ,you all have parts of the truth, but I see the entire picture, I see the whole elephant, my knowledge of the spiritual world is superior to all others, you see the significance of this, to say that every religion is valid, and that every religion sees part of the truth, assumes that you can see all of the truth. I have a superior vantage point over everybody else. I mean, you see the arrogance, not realizing it, but it’s an unbelievably arrogant position. Now, some people say, well, isn’t that also true of Christianity, say that it’s the only way, or even the Muslims, well I’m gonna tackle that in our next session. I think you’ll see that it’s really not even though you it appears to be, it really is not, but I will come back to that.
I want to wrap this up and make two or three kind of concluding remarks that I think are important, and it’ll bring this together and lead us into next week’s session but I want ask you this question. Have you ever considered what is the spiritual authority that stands behind your faith? Is it your feelings, what you feel, I think that is for a lot of people, if this feels right to me, no worries, you’re just kind of, your gut instincts, what’s the authority behind what you believe? You know, we don’t do this when it comes to our health. We have a health problem, we just don’t say, well let me see what if my feelings are telling me, you know, what we do is we generally will go to someone who has authority in the field of medicine. I will never forget, and this is over it this was in 1977, I was in the Newark, New Jersey Airport, I was going to a wedding ,and I was trying to fly out of Newark New Jersey, and it was I was snowed in. I wasn’t sure when I’d get out and there in the airport, I mean, I’m sitting there waiting for my plane to board, my plane that, but there in the middle of the airport is this young girl, probably 19 20 years old, and she was handing out flowers and looking for donations. I kind of assumed she was a Moonie because that was when they were everywhere and you know she just was had this little smile on her face handing out flowers to people that would take one and take a donation. I’d been there several hours now and you know most people were trying to avoid her, so I went up and talked to her. I wanted to find out who she was and what she believed, what she was doing. Well, it turned out she was not a Moonie, she was part of some mystic Eastern religious cult, I say cult or group, and we began to converse and I started asking her a bunch of questions about what she believed, and then, finally, I asked her a question. I said, who is your leader, who, who’s the authority behind what you believe, and I’ll never forget, she has a backpack on. She takes her backpack off her back, she unzips it and she yanks this picture out, and it’s a picture of her guru. They lived somewhere over in India, and he’s got this long beard, and this, I have said this girl was way out there, she really was, she was way out there, and I said, why are you putting your faith in this man, she said, she thought him back for a second, and said, well, I guess because he’s enlightened. He’s enlightened. And I said, how do you know, she said, I just know, and I share that because very sadly, I think that so often, people get sucked into believing things and there’s no strong foundation to it and it leads to, I think, a very pertinent and important question and that is, who in this life has the spiritual authority to point us to what is true, and next week, we’re going to consider this as we tackle the uniqueness of Christ versus all the others out there who claim to have spiritual authority and I have to say, it’s quite fascinating, but, you know, when it gets right down to the heart of this, and I know this is true, some of you, because I’ve talked to you, is and I find this true in a lot of it with a lot of men who are struggling to find their faith and try to find coherence, to really what they believe, and they wonder about. I had a man call me yesterday, an attorney here in this town, an older gentleman calling wanting to talk about this, and the question is, I, well, what about the Muslim, the good Muslim over here, or the Hindu who lives in a culture that he’s never had an opportunity to hear the gospel, what about this person, and when I hear that, I’m always reminded of some of Jesus’s final words to Peter. You know, Peter’s betrayed Jesus, but then Christ has risen He’s been restored. Christ is about to leave and then in John chapter 21 he tells Peter about what’s going to happen to him in the future. He says truly, truly I say to you when you were younger you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished, but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go. Now this he said signifying by what kind of death Peter would glorify God and when he had spoken this he said to him Peter follow me he just told Peter, Peter you’ll be crucified one day, and he was, he was crucified upside down. Well then Peter, after Jesus said this, turn around and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them. This was John and so Peter said to Jesus after just hearing these words, well, Lord, what about John? What’s gonna happen to John, and Jesus said to him, if I want him to remain, in other words, if I want him to just stay here until I return, what is that to you, Peter, you follow me, you follow me, see what Jesus is saying? Peter stop worrying about what happens to everybody else. I have a plan for John, and you don’t know it, and you never will know it, because I never tell you other people’s stories. I only tell you your own. You have no idea what is fair or what is unfair. You don’t know what is just or unjust. In fact, in Proverbs, we’re told as sinful people we do not understand pure true justice. You don’t know the secrets of people’s hearts or the details of their lives. You don’t know the intent of their souls, stop looking, yet others, Peter, look at me, follow me, what is this man to you, Peter, you follow me.
I think that’s good instruction guys. J I Packer the famous Anglican theologian who I have so much respect for just turned 80 who’s pondered this for years and years he makes it, I think, a really good point. He says, “We have no warrant to expect that God will act with us in any single case where the gospel is not known or understood, but if we’re wise, we shall not spend much time mulling over this notion. Dealing with these people is God’s business. He is just and also merciful and where we learn is one day we shall how he has treated them we shall have no cause to complain.”
Guys, I’ll leave you with the words of J I Packer because, I think, I mean not J I Packer, excuse me, Philip Yancey, he says this, “I’ve learned about magnifying glasses because I’ve had to use them when looking up words in my dictionary. When I trained the glass on a word the tiny print shows up crisp and clear in the center or focal point while around the edges it grows progressively distorted. In an exact parallel, Jesus has become the focal point of my faith and increasingly, I’m learning to keep the magnifying glass of my faith focused on Jesus in my spiritual journey as well as in my writing career. There are times I find myself lingering for a period for a long period of time over in the margins pondering difficult questions,” like the question we’ve looked at this morning. He says, “Over time, if I stay out there, in the end, the fringes too long my faith and everything else in my life becomes fuzzy, but when I focus my eyes on Christ, the authority who stands behind all that I believe, then clarity and coherence returns to my life.”
And next week we’ll actually look at the uniqueness of Christianity in contrast to the other religions of the world and you will find, I believe, what I share to be quite stunning. It’s a hope you’ll be here next week. Let me close in prayer. Father I do thank You for just our time together and that You do reveal Yourself to us. If you’re not silent and Lord we do realize we don’t understand so much, we’re so limited, because we’re finite, and yet, we do thank You for Jesus. We thank You that You did send Him into the world. I just pray Lord that You’d give us wisdom as we seek to really gain understanding and we do thank You in Christ’s Name. Amen.