Only Two Religions: Meditations on Religious Pluralism
It has often been said that all religions teach basically the same thing, or are just different paths to the same God. This idea of religious pluralism comes both from the mouths of those who have made a career of “religious studies” and from those who simply mean to brush aside the whole question of truth in religion. The claim itself can be answered in several ways, but I think that behind this idea stands a common presumption about the nature of God and what He expects from us.
For most, this claim is simply a matter of ignorance about what the various religions actually teach, or consider to be essential truths, but when the most foundational doctrines are taken into account irreconcilable differences immediately surface. For example, Islam says that Muhammad was the final and greatest prophet of God and that Jesus was a mere human prophet, while Christianity says that Muhammad was not speaking for God and that Jesus was actually God incarnate. Islam claims that the Christian’s divine view of Jesus is a mortal sin (the sin of “shirk”), while Christians say that you must accept His deity for salvation. There is no harmonizing these views. Other examples that could be cited would be the Buddhist idea of a non-personal God (in fact, Theravada Buddhism is essentially atheistic) vs. the eminently personal God of Christianity; or the Hindu/New-Age idea of reincarnation vs. the one-life model of Christianity.
Another thing pluralists are often guilty of is being selective about what religions to include in order to make this alleged harmonization. The religions that most modern people are aware of are relatively tame (especially from a distance), but there are many diverse and eccentric religions out there, and many more that could be added if we took historical inventory. Does the pluralist mean to say that the child sacrifices of the Canaanite priests were simply an earnest effort to reach out to the same God that Christians worship with offerings of praise and thanksgiving? Is the pluralist willing to accept all religions and all sincere expressions of those religions, or are they willing to admit that God is not likely to be impressed when a “sincere” believer flies a hijacked jet into a skyscraper?
In reality, the case for pluralism is most forcefully made by those who deny the orthodoxy of any particular religion (i.e., theological liberals), and often are not, themselves, devotees of any particular one. It is an outsider’s claim; they do not believe that God has clearly spoken through any of these religious systems. These are the people who are not so hostile to religion that they would brazenly claim it all a fiction to be discarded. There is a somewhat commendable (though misguided) spirit of mediation at work here. Unfortunately, in the attempt to reconcile the individual faiths they only succeed in misunderstanding each, and alienating those who take them seriously and would be unwilling to yield their distinctive doctrines. The pluralist is actually proposing a new vanilla religion to which he expects the world to convert. In practice, he is simply adding yet another one into the mix.
Religious pluralism is a bit like saying that all sports are basically the same because they use a ball. But this neglects the puck, the pool, the track, and the mat. Perhaps they might be tempted to say that it is all about prevailing over competition, but that would be both too narrow (many participate for the sheer love of the game) and too broad (capitalism then becomes a “sport” as well). So, again, we come back to the idea that details and distinctions matter.
Yet, pluralism rests on the idea that there is some common element or point of unity between the various religions. So, what is the “ball” for the religious pluralist? When all the world’s religions are surveyed, the common denominator of choice always seems to relate to “morality.”
I think at the deepest level the pluralist’s conclusion is its own theological claim about what God is like, or what He wants (assuming He exists at all). I don’t think the conclusion is merely based on observed similarities in the religions being sampled. If this were so then one could claim that God just wants us all to congregate in large halls, or sing songs to Him, or chant prayers – all things found in diverse religions. I think that certain assumptions guide the selective process in what is considered to be a relevant similarity.
It is instructive both that all religions do have something to say about morality, and that the pluralist would pick this out as the key ingredient. In our postmodern age there is much debate over the existence of objective morality, but here we see affirmed the fact that the peoples of the world are all preoccupied with the idea that morality is real and essential. It is both an irony and a further testament that so many moral relativists also happen to be religious pluralists. Even atheists reveal their appreciation of morality when they – as they often do – object to the idea that you need to believe in God to live a moral life. There is something worth exploring here.
So, what do the religions of the world have to say about morality?
Buddha says to “be lamps unto yourselves; work out your salvation with diligence.” The path to salvation, according to Buddhism, is through the personal pursuit of “enlightenment” facilitated by such moral guidelines as the Five Precepts and the Eightfold Path. Hindu (and New Age) salvation depends on the idea that one advances upward to the Godhead through cycles of incarnations, where one is rewarded or punished in the next life according to the good or bad deeds in this one. Islam teaches that one’s good deeds must outweigh the bad ones, and credits are earned through obedient living, especially by application of the Five Pillars of Islam. The ancient Greeks believed that the dead were judged in the underworld, and the good could ascend to the Elysian Fields while the evil descended to fiery Tartarus. In ancient Egypt, eternal life was achieved if the burden of sin and evil in one’s heart weighed less than the feather of Ma’at. And the list goes on and on.
The common theme seems to be one of personal striving for self-righteousness or a level of virtue acceptable to the divine judge. While there may be differences in where that striving lands you, or who/what does the judging, there is still the hope and expectation that the goal is yours to achieve. And the religious pluralist joins them in spirit: he says that if there is a God, then surely all He wants is for us to be “good” people. But there is one religion that is not a good team player, and is often bypassed because of it.
Christianity teaches that it is true in principle that we are justified by our works, but that it is a losing proposition. If there is one thing that is clear from the testimony of history, our social experiences, and our own hearts, it is that humans are fundamentally and deeply flawed creatures. To deny this one would first have to declassify a host of sins. Additionally, even our “good” deeds are suspect when we consider factors such as motives and standards of comparison. But even assuming we have managed some righteousness pleasing to the Judge, how good is good enough? Does He grade on a curve? Maybe just 51% goodness is enough? Yet even that would be found optimistic if we deeply examine ourselves and meditate long on the idea of perfection.
In what sense can we call the Judge “just” if He winks at so much sin? There is certainly nothing in our experience that reflects this sort of attitude toward law and crime. We are not entitled to knock off a bank for our retirement fund even if we’ve been law abiding for the balance of our lives. Anyone who is looking for a God of unconditional loving tolerance has not been a parent, or has neglected all lessons of child rearing that prove the results of zero discipline. If absolute holiness is not required, or imparted to us, then heaven will be filled with a great many persons with marginal credentials, and that is no heaven at all.
Christianity is absolutely unique among the religions of the world. It turns these ideas of morality and merit on their head: salvation comes before works. It teaches that it is the height of arrogance to think that our goodness can match God’s holy standard, or that He owes us anything for our petty deeds. Christianity demands that you repent not only of your sin, but of all your labors to bury it and your presumption that you can impress God.
God has already provided the perfect righteousness in Jesus Christ; we have merely to put our trust in this provision. It is both the hardest and easiest religion to follow. Hard, in that one must first yield up the ego. Easy, in that one has but to “enter the Sabbath rest.” And those moral motions, which every other religion is so keen to affirm, spring inevitably from a genuine faith.
At the end of our days when we stand before God and He asks why He should receive us, the answers will fall into two categories. On the one hand the proud will say, “I performed the rituals and festivals and prayers,” or “I was basically a good person.” On the other hand the humble will say, “I am unworthy and filled with sin. Even my good deeds are as filthy rags before your Holiness. I throw myself solely on Your mercy.” One seeks to be judged on his own merits; the other throws himself on the mercy of the court. Scripture tells us how this will play out. For those not covered by the atonement of Jesus, the books will be thrown open and everyone judged according to his works. The results leave no room for optimism.
Ultimately, there are only two religions: man’s religion of self-righteousness vs. God’s righteousness and His provision for sinful man. One must be surrendered to the other, and the religious pluralist says it must be the latter. This is why classical Christianity is implicitly excluded in talk of pluralism. It is the black sheep (or I should say, the spotless white lamb) in this pasture. If the distinctive doctrine of the atonement of Christ is removed from play, as liberal theology seeks to do, then Christianity becomes just another moral system founded by just another man telling us how to get to God. We may just as well recall the missionaries; there is already enough “religion” in the world.