There’s a lot of conflict in our world right now. Disagreement over the pandemic and this year’s riots in America tell the story all too well. Despite the mess and division, I think most of us long for unity.
One of the ways we express this desire for peace in our times is to suggest that all paths lead to God. Many today say that that all religions are different ways of expressing the same ideas about God, the universe, and how we should treat each other.
This belief, known as pluralism, is accepted wisdom in the West. No one even feels the need to defend pluralism because it’s so widely assumed to be true. In our cultural moment, it’s scandalous to suggest, for example, that Jesus might be the only way. Pluralism seems to be a useful way to bypass the conflict and make sure we all get along.
“Most of us long for unity.”
There is a famous parable from India that conveys this idea of pluralism. You may have heard of it. It’s called ‘the tale of the blind men and the elephant’ and it goes like this:
Five blind men inspect an elephant. One feels the trunk and concludes it’s a snake. One touches its ear and decides it is a leaf. Another finds the leg and thinks it’s a tree. One puts his hand on the elephant’s side and believes it’s a wall. The final man holds the tail and says it is a rope.
The point of the parable, then, is that ultimate truth isn’t found in just one religion. Rather, by our combined insight we can arrive at an all-encompassing truth together. If we shared our wisdom, we’d realise that all paths lead to God.
But does it really work that way?
Let me first clarify that people of different faiths can get along fine without agreeing on everything. I have Muslim and Hindu friends, for example, and our friendship isn’t under threat because of our differences of opinion. If anything, when the topic of faith comes up, I find it easier talking with people from non-Western backgrounds about faith because it’s not a taboo topic for them like it is for so many Westerners.
I’m all for a society where we can talk openly and comfortably about our differences and live alongside each other in peace. But that doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. The beauty of the West, after all, is that we don’t depend on ‘blood-and-soil’ nationalism to live in free and peaceful societies. What holds us together isn’t our skin colour or religion, but our shared values.
“People of different faiths can get along fine without agreeing on everything.”
The problem with pluralism is that it tries to force agreement where there can’t be. In doing so, pluralism insults everyone (except for pluralists, of course).
Pluralism does this by failing to understand the unique claims of each world faith. The founders of every religion—and most of their followers—believe that their path of salvation is needed, precisely because the other options don’t cut it.
Think about it.
For Buddhists, enlightenment became possible only because the Buddha discovered the eightfold path.
For Muslims, the five pillars of Islam are the true path of submission to Allah.
“What holds us together in the West is our shared values.”
For Hindus, the way of release is how people can have union with the ultimate life force.
For Jews, following God’s law is the only way to truly obey him.
And the list goes on.
According to pluralism, though, none of this is true. The central claim of each faith—that salvation is only possible through their specific path—is shot down in flames by pluralism.
According to pluralism, Buddha’s eightfold path, Muhammad’s five pillars, Hinduism’s way of release, the Jewish law, and Jesus’ death and resurrection weren’t really needed, because hope could have been found elsewhere.
“The problem with pluralism is that it tries to force agreement where there can’t be.”
Notice that the parable of the blind man and the elephant is hiding a secret. Pluralists don’t mention the most important fact in the story: there aren’t five men, but six. The sixth man is the narrator, the one telling the story. Only he has all the facts; only he perceives everything objectively.
Do you see it? Pluralism congratulates itself for its tolerance, but it actually makes the most arrogant claim of all. It paints itself as the only truly objective point of view—the one that all other religions failed to see.
The blind men and the elephant is a nice story, and surely it has use in other areas of life. But if we try to apply it to the world’s religions, we create a bigger mess than the one we started with. Pluralism becomes simply another ideology—and a bad one at that—for all of us to disagree on.
“Faith seems to find an echo in every human soul.”
So where does this leave us? If we can’t find a unity between the world’s religions, do we just reject them all?
That won’t work either, because faith seems to find an echo in every human soul. In the West, we have given the secular project a good run. We’ve tried to live like the universe just is—as though God is just an optional extra. But faith hasn’t gone away. The world, even in the West, is as religious as it’s ever been.
All of the world’s religions might be wrong. But one thing is for sure: they can’t all be right.
“The world, even in the West, is as religious as it’s ever been.”
I am a Christian. That means I believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one can come to God except through him. That might offend the modern world, but that’s okay. There are lots of things about the modern world that offend me. Somehow, I still find a way to live in peace with those around me.
Being a Christian doesn’t mean closing my mind to other claims about the world.
In truth, I see the fingerprints of God in every worldview. I see people with eternity written across their hearts. I see people reaching out, not just for something greater than themselves, but for a way out of our human predicament—even if that predicament is framed in a thousand different ways.
“Being a Christian doesn’t mean closing my mind to other claims about the world.”
But in Jesus, I see something unique. Instead of asking us to live better or strive harder or reach higher, I see a God who has come down to us, who has stepped into our situation, and done for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
In Jesus, I see the enlightened one that even the Buddha needed. More than a prophet, I see the truest ‘Muslim’, the one who perfectly submitted to God and enables us to do likewise. I see Hinduism’s way of release in human form. I see the God that even atheists can’t seem to escape. I see the Messiah, the hope of Israel.
Maybe I’m just seeing things. Or maybe Jesus is the true God—the one we’ve all been searching for.
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* This article is an updated version of How Pluralism Points to Jesus.