Christianity and Religious Diversity Part 3: Coexist or Else

8 January 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

“Coexist.”

You’ve probably seen the bumper stickers, or even t-shirts. You would have seen it in the U2 video for “Yahweh” featured in yesterday’s post.

There are at least two things (though I suspect more) being acknowledged here:

  1. the symbols composing the word itself acknowledge a plurality of religious beliefs
  2. the word itself emphasizes the need for religious tolerance

As we’ve seen in yesterday’s and Wednesday’s posts, we live in a culture of great religious diversity. Religion, as we defined it yesterday, is an organized way of looking at the transcendent with a view toward giving our own lives meaning and coherence.

This post is designed to engage the possible ways of responding to religious diversity.

SAME DIFFERENCE

Are all religions the same?

Well, first of all, what do we mean by same? No one could reasonably deny that religious practices differ quite widely. But what is argued, as noted philosopher John Hick does, is that religions differ in the way they describe the transcendent, but ultimately are describing the same thing (the blind men and the elephant thing…remember?)

But when I use the word “same” I am referring to this issue: do all religions lead to salvation? All religions address the issue of “salvation” in one form or another – even the eastern concepts of Moksha and Nirvana refer to one’s highest goal.

SOME VOCABULARY

So: do all religions lead to salvation? It’s a yes-or-no question. He’s either married or a bachelor. She’s either pregnant or she’s not. Yes or no?

You must answer this question.

The way you answer it determines a lot about this conversation. Historically there have been a myriad of ways of understanding this issue. Let’s go over these. Take notes. Quiz later.

If you read a good text on religious philosophy, you’ll notice they slice the pie pretty thin. I don’t want to gloss over this, but I do want to help simplify this for our thinking.

The responses ultimatley boil down to four broad categories:

  1. Exclusivism (or Particularism): only one religion leads to salvation. Within Christianity, this position is known as restrictivism – i.e., salvation is restricted to those who place their faith in Christ.
  2. Inclusivism: only one religion leads to salvation, but all are saved through that faith. Within Christianity, this is known as accessibilism – i.e., salvation is through Christ alone, but all have access to salvation regardless of their faith.
  3. Pluralism (or Universalism): all faiths lead to salvation.

Philosophy students, calm down. I’m only trying to use these terms in the way they are most commonly used in public discourse.

It seems clear that Brit Hume is an exclusivist. Only faith in Christ can save (which also makes him a…you got it, restrictivist).

Culture at large tends to embrace pluralism. And the collision between pluralism and exclusivism is really at the core of the Brit Hume debate.

So let’s look at pluralism a bit more closely.

PLURALISM

Is pluralism such a bad thing?

Originally the word only meant that there is a diversity of different religions all (ahem) coexisting together. And that’s good. I enjoy living in a nation that offers freedom of religion. One only has to walk the streets of Baghdad to see the bitter fruits of a country that does not embrace this (and other) ideals.

But the problem is that pluralism is often used to mean that all religions should not only coexist, but that all religions are essentially the same.

Alister McGrath, citing Leslie Newbigin makes a distinction between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” pluralism:”

  1. Descriptive pluralism: simply describes the diverse religious character of contemporary society – makes no judgment regarding the validity of any given religion.
  2. Prescriptive pluralsim: emphasizes pluralism as something to be embraced as positive.

Newbigin writes:

“It has become commonplace to say that we live in a pluralist society – not merely a society which is, in fact plural in the variety of cultures, religions and lifestyles which it embraces, but pluralist in the sense that this plurality is celebrated as a thing to be approved and cherished.”(Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

COEXIST OR EMBRACE?

I see no reason to be unkind and dismiss the spirit of the “coexist” stickers entirely. But the question is whether this message is one of descriptive or prescriptive pluralism.

I suspect it’s the latter.

We are not merely being asked to permit religions to peaceably coexist, but to actually embrace the idea that they all lead to the same ultimate truth.

Now I think we’ve been able to exactly pinpoint the conflict in this whole Brit Hume thing.

In this corner, we have Brit Hume, a Christian, an exclusivist and a restrictivist.

And in this corner, we have the popular culture, celebrating prescriptive pluralism.

The incident at Fox News Sunday? The bell went off. Now we have a lot of people cheering for both sides.

Can we take a side? In our next post we’ll delve a bit more deeply into the nature of prescriptive pluralism. Stay tuned. Stay subscribed. Stay informed (I love saying this because it makes me feel like a bigger deal than I actually am…).

8 January 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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