Trinity Baptist Church: Sunday School, March 1, 2009



Week 3: Pluralism and relativism (RFG, Ch. 1).  Is all truth relative and culturally determined?   Are all religious claims equally true?  Is there such a thing as absolute morality?

The objections to religious exclusivity are motivated in part by a belief that absolute truth claims cause violence, hatred, and self-righteousness.  As Keller says, there is a great deal of truth in this: “Religion, generally speaking, tends to create a slippery slope in the heart” (p. 4).  At the same time, it is important to realize that God does call us to an exclusive worship of himself.  Why?  The Bible calls people into a covenant relationship with God, one in which we are completely committed to him and in which he is completely committed to us.  The human relationship that most closely resembled this covenant is that of marriage.  In fact, the Bible consistently speaks of God as being the husband of his people and they his bride.  Conversely, human marriage is meant to be a reflection of the love between Christ and his church.  What do we learn from this analogy?  We learn at least one of the reasons for the demands of exclusivity.  How would my wife feel if I told her that it was fine for us to be married, but that shouldn’t mean that I should be prohibited from chasing after other women?  She would be horrified.  In the same way, God demands exclusivity because it is the natural consequence of the character of our relationship with him.

Someone might object that the problem of exclusivity is not so much whether an individual person worships a single God, but how we view other religions.  “It’s fine,” they might say “for you to follow one particular version of religion.  But it’s intolerant to tell other people that their versions are wrong.”  This is a huge problem for many modern people, so let’s look at it in more detail, framed by the following questions:

 Aren’t all religions are equally true?

What do we mean when we say this?  We clearly can’t mean that all statements made by all religions are equally true, since some teachings are mutually exclusive.  For instance, most Muslims believe that Jesus did not die on the cross, but Christians believe that he did.  Either he did, or he didn’t, so both Christianity and Islam cannot be correct on this subject.  Quite apart from any specifically religious teachings, various religions also make objective, historical claims which are mutually exclusive.  So when we say that all religions are equally true, we clearly cannot mean that all religions are equally true in all of their teaching.  Even more pertinent, if a religion were to teach (as many do) that all religions were not equally true, then by our own reasoning, it would not true in making this statement.

Don’t all religions basically teach the same thing?

“Ok,” we might reply, “perhaps religions differ on details, but in their main teachings, they all teach the same thing.”  Again, to defend this statement we need to be clear about what we think the main teaching of the religions are.  One of the central teachings of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth was God in human form.  This teaching is explicitly denied by both Islam and Judaism.  Similarly, Islam would teach that Mohammed was God’s final and ultimate prophet, which Judaism and Christianity would deny.  Again, these claims are mutually exclusive.  If we want to claim that all religions are the same in their central teachings, we can only do so by redefining what each religion claims are its central teachings.  Is that fair?  To me, it seems very condescending to dictate to other religions what their main claims are and to completely ignore what they would say themselves!  As a Christian, I am commanded to love those with whom I differ deeply; I don’t have to pretend that we believe the same thing.

Don’t all religions worship the same God?

Yes and no.  Christians need to be very careful when answering this question lest on the one hand, they cause needless offense and confusion or on the other hand deny the teachings of the Bible on the nature of God.  From a secular perspective, the similarities between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism seem tremendous.  All three religions worship an omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, invisible God who created and sustains the universe.  Furthermore, all three religions recognize this God as the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and the God of Abraham.  It is no wonder that secular persons dismiss Christians as needlessly and offensively divisive when we say that Muslims or Jews worship a different God than Christians. 

That being said, an illustration is in order.  Let’s say that I meet two men who both claim to acknowledge the President of the United States as their leader.  When I ask them to tell me about the president, they both answer that he is the elected head of the executive branch of the government and the Commander and Chief of the armed forces.  But when I ask them what the president’s name is, one says “Barack Obama” and the other says “Charlton Heston”.  On one level, both men acknowledge the president of the United States, but on another level, what and who they mean by this president is radically different.  In the same way, it is important to recognize that many different religions do acknowledge God as the eternal, omnipotent, good creator of the universe, but make very different claims about the character of God.  In one sense, they are worshipping the same God, but in another sense they are not worshipping the same God.

Doesn’t each religion see only a part of spiritual truth?

The classical illustration of this idea is the parable of the blind men and the elephant.  Five blind men approached an elephant to determine what an elephant is like.  The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.  A wise man explains to them: "All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned.”

This parable is attractive because it appears to be so tolerant and affirming of different religious beliefs.  But at its heart is an amazingly overlooked problem.  The parable is told from the perspective of a wise (non-blind) man who can see the whole elephant!  What seems like a very humble and inclusive perspective is actually the most comprehensive and exclusive perspective of all; the wise man has the real truth which the benighted blind men fail to see.  We might retell the parable in the following way: six blind men approached a pillar, a rope, a tree branch, a hand fan, a wall, and a pipe.  But a wise man explained to them “You are all actually touching an elephant.” 

Isn’t religious belief almost entirely determined by environment, culture, and upbringing and therefore relative?

Well, certainly religious belief is partially determined by environment, culture, and upbringing.  But does it follow that religious beliefs are therefore relative?  I believe in quantum mechanics because I was born in the United States in the 21st century instead of being born in Madagascar in the 4th century.  Does it therefore follow that the truth of quantum mechanics is false or relative?  If we accept the logic of the statement “If you hadn’t been born in Alabama, you wouldn’t be a Christian; therefore Christian truth claims are relative” then mustn’t we also accept the statement “If you hadn’t been born in Manhattan, you wouldn’t be a religious relativist; therefore relativist truth claims are relative.”?  Finally, this statement neglects the fact that millions of people change their religious beliefs every year because they ultimately decide that their cultural or parental religious beliefs are incorrect.  If religious belief is purely culturally conditioned, how do explain this fact?  If worldviews are entirely relative, then why do people evaluate and modify their worldviews when they encounter new evidence?  I think this argument is actually the most persuasive when applied to atheism, since most atheists insist that deconversion from a theistic worldview is the inevitable consequence of critically and rationally examining our belief in God.  If that is true, wouldn’t they expect conversions from atheism to Christianity to be incredibly rare and almost nonexistent, especially among the intelligent and educated?  Yet, it seems that there are many people who are highly educated and have converted to Christianity from atheism. 

Isn’t it arrogant and wrong to insist your religion is right and to convert others to it?

Let’s say that I answered “No I don’t think it is”.  Would you think that I am wrong?  If so, would you like me to change my mind?  If so, is it arrogant and wrong for you to think that I am wrong and to hope that I come to agree with you? 

I think there is an underlying assumption behind this question, which is that my (or anyone’s) religious beliefs are not really true.  Let’s imagine that you were about to eat a cookie and I snatched it out of your hand and threw it on the floor because I thought it was poisoned.  That action would be incredibly rude, arrogant, and wrong, unless of course the cookie were actually poisoned.  Even if you felt that I hadn’t had sufficient justification for my belief, if the cookie were really poisoned, wouldn’t you ultimately be glad that I had acted?  And if the cookie were really poisoned, doesn’t it seem likely that I had a good justification for my belief after all?  If Christianity is true, then how can we claim that it is arrogant and wrong to try to share that news with others?  Famous illusionist and atheist Penn Jillette recently said:

I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize.  If you believe there is a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever and you think “well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward.”  How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?  How much do you have to hate someone to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?  If I believe that there is a truck bearing down on you, and you didn’t believe it, there’s a certain point at which I tackle you.  And this is more important than that.

Shouldn’t religion and spirituality be private and not be brought into the public square?

What do we mean by religion and spirituality?  How do we define “religious belief”?  For instance, if one atheist believes that all human life has dignity and another atheist believes that only sentient, intelligent beings have dignity, which of them should be allowed to bring their assumptions into the public square?  If we answer both, then let’s say that I, as a Christian, believe that all human life has dignity.  Should my view be excluded from the public square?  Why?  Should we close down Christian-run homeless shelters, soup kitchens, drug rehabilitation programs, and orphanages?  Why not?  Isn’t this an example of religion in the public square?  We might respond that religious beliefs should only be excluded from legislation, but again, which religious beliefs? Tim Keller gives the illustration on p. 16 of two women arguing over whether welfare should be dismantled.  One woman believes in “the survival of the fittest” and the other believes that all human beings have dignity.  Which one of these presuppositions is permitted as a basis for legislation?  Why?

Doesn’t belief in absolute religious truth lead to violence, oppression, and persecution?

What if my religion teaches the absolute truth of love for enemies?  Does that absolute religious truth lead to violence, oppression and persecution?  Clearly not.  Then it seems it is not absolute religious truth per se that leads to violence, but rather the content of the religious truth.  As Tim Keller once said, no one worries about violence from “Amish fundamentalism”.

It is understandable that exclusivity was and is a major stumbling block for people when they examine the claims of Christianity.  But, as I said above, I think the main problem with this statement is that there is an underlying assumption that Christianity (or any other religion) is not really true.  The question “How can you say that there is only one true religion?” is not exactly a question, but really an expression of dislike.  Obviously, we would never ask “How can you say that there is only one true capital of Ohio?” or “How can you say that there is only one true person named Neil Shenvi who is a postdoctoral associate living in New Haven?”  Why do we never ask these questions?  Because we think there really is a true capital of Ohio and that there really is a real person named Neil Shenvi.  The belief that religious truth is different from other kinds of truth, that it alone is not absolute or “true” in the usual sense of the word “true”, is actually a very bold religious claim that contradicts the religious claims of many other religions.  If we believe this idea, then we should be willing to ask of it the same question that we ask of other people’s religious beliefs: where does this idea come from and how do we know that is true?

I think that the Christian also has a resource to address the other motivation for people’s concern about religious absolutism: namely, that violence and hatred are done in the name of religion.  Jesus taught us quite explicitly: “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-48).  Even more than that, the Bible teaches us that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:7-8).  How can I, who claim to follow the religion that teaches of a persecuted savior dying for me, his enemies, treat my own enemies with anything but love?  Indeed, Jesus taught that if we truly understand what he has done for us, if we truly have received the gospel, we will show mercy and undeserved love to our fellow man just as mercy and undeserved love was shown to us.