1.    The Rise of Pluralism

It used to be easy to assume that other religions are wrong and mine is obviously right, without even giving reasons. Those who belonged to ‘other religions’ were far away from me, also foreign in their culture, and clearly wrong about so many things.

But we no longer live in a society in which everyone has the same religious framework. Members of different religions rub shoulders with one another daily, and with the non-religious. When your peers – i.e. those you respect – believe and live differently from yourself, you are forced to consider that their way of life may be reasonable and not absurd. We can now see how arrogant and immature it is to assume that our culture’s way of doing things is superior. It is like assuming that the nearest house is bigger than houses further away – i.e. it is to forget the perspective on the world which we have simply because of where we are and how we grew up.

We have learnt to celebrate cultural diversity as a good thing, not a threat or a problem. So should we do the same with religious diversity? Or do religions point to something ultimate and universal that cannot be reduced to culture? Is it possible to be ‘religiously neutral’? If one religion is right, does it mean all others are wrong? Or is the saying that ‘all religions lead to God’ the wisest belief to have?[1]

2. Cultural Plurality vs. Religious Plurality

Long ago, every culture had its own religion, so there was no word for religion because it was simply an aspect of culture. But the ancient Romans noticed something about the nations they conquered that could not be explained simply as a cultural practice, having to do with the ‘worship of the gods’.[2] So they invented the word ‘religio’ which meant either ‘reading again’ (referring to rituals) or ‘binding again’. I think the latter meaning is more likely. I will define religion as the bond between humans and the transcendent world, the commitment we feel towards what lies beyond the visible world, and our indebtedness to whatever gives us all we have and are. Although in the ancient world it was possible to worship many gods at once, today most religions are exclusive, claiming absolute allegiance and offering an ethical framework along with ritual practices. It is this definition of religion that I will use, simply because it is the most helpful for engaging with today’s situation.[3]

That is why asking about the truth of a religion is not a fun pastime for idle curiosity. It changes your behaviour. To believe something does not only mean to think it true in your head. It means to follow the implications of that belief in your behaviour and life decisions, even when it costs something. Not only for yourself, but also how you give advice, vote, offer support and treat others is bound up with your religious commitments. There is skin in the game!

Some people emphasise what all religions have in common, others think the things we disagree on are still really important. What I want to talk about, however, is not so much ‘how can we get along in spite of thinking different things?’ Instead I want to ask: ‘how can I commit myself to a religious position – how can I be sure one set of beliefs is right – when, no matter what position I take, there are many out there who will disagree?’ In other words, how do I seek the truth, and how do I know it’s the truth when I’ve found it?

3.    Typical Reactions to Pluralism

The growing pluralism[4] in our society has led to three typical reactions:

  1. Defensiveness. This is to re-assert that we are right and others are wrong, without giving reasons except ones that presuppose our perspective in the first place. For example, if a Christian says ‘Christianity is the only true religion, because Jesus says he is the only way to God’, they are really saying ‘my religion is right, because my religion says so’. It amounts to a retrenchment, a refusal to listen or take another viewpoint seriously, normally caused by fear of people who are different and the feeling that our way of life is being threatened. It accounts for the rise of religious fundamentalism across the world. But who of us does not feel threatened in this world? Who of us does not feel about Donald Trump or Brexit (to use politics as an analogy), that the ‘other side’ is absurd and blind to the obvious truth?
  2. Relativism. This is to deny that anyone has universal truths. Religions are like flavours of ice-cream – choose your preference and leave other people to their choices. Anyone who claims to have truths which are valid for everyone is arrogant and deluded, an obvious example of cultural elitism. My Hinduism works for me, your Christianity works for you, that guy’s radical Islam works for him. But who among us can claim to have certain universal truth?
  3. Agnosticism. This simply says ‘I don’t know’, which is different from saying ‘nobody else knows’. The truth may be out there, but the agnostic can’t figure it out – yet. This is an unsatisfying position, because the agnostic has to live her life a certain way in the meantime: either practising a religion she doesn’t fully believe in, or abiding by moral standards without any guarantee that they are right. Religious beliefs are not abstract ideas for fun armchair debates. They change your behaviour. It matters if a god has instructed us in how to live or if our own moral intuitions, cultivated by 21st century Western society, are the only guide we have. But who among us can ever say our view is proven beyond any doubt? Are we not all ultimately agnostics?

Is there a 4th option? Can you actually believe something, and live accordingly, when people we love and respect believe differently and have good reasons for doing so? Can we search for truth with the hope of finding it? Can we have confidence in any truth we have found?

I shall now turn to three common approaches to this question.

4. Three Alternative Models

First Alternative: The Elephant and the Mountain

One popular model imagines each religion as a blind man touching a different part of an elephant. One says the elephant is like a snake, another that it is like a wall, and another that it is like a tail. They disagree over what the elephant is like, because each of them has only part of the truth, and none of them can see the whole truth.

A similar image which is often used is that of a mountain, with the truth at the top, and each religion seen as a path up the mountain. Each of us must pursue the truth as it seems to us, and the closer we get to the truth, the closer we will come to each other, until we reach the top together.

How do we evaluate this idea? The first thing we must notice is that both analogies assume a superior, objective perspective on religion that not only is possible, but has already been reached.  It is a more enlightened view than that which sees one religion as having more of the truth than another. If you can see the elephant, then you have much greater insight than any of the blind men who can only see part of it. If you can see the paths up the mountain, then you can’t be on any of them. This view attempts a kind of super-religious position which surveys all the religions from a supposedly non-committed standpoint.

But the truth is there’s no way to know whether this is true. I do not mean we can be sure it’s wrong. We can’t be sure it’s wrong any more than we can be sure it’s right. Some people try to show how religions contradict one another, but we cannot know whether apparent contradictions hold a hidden synthesis further up the mountain. Nor can we know whether some religions are leading down the mountain instead. The only thing we can do is to take a position concerning these questions, which is to be one of the paths, be one of the blind men, and no longer pretend to have any superior viewpoint.

Many disagreements in the world can be understood according to this model. But is it not rather arrogant and reductionistic to imagine that all disagreements ultimately resolve to parts of a larger truth, and never to one being more right than another? To switch to politics as an example, should Marxism, Nazism, and Capitalism all be seen as paths up the same mountain? Are we happy to call Nazism one of the blind men, in touch with their own part of the truth that all the rest of us need? The near-universal repulsion to this idea is the root of Godwin’s Law (i.e. if there’s anything we all agree on, it’s that Nazism is bad). Furthermore, how does this model help you choose your way of life when you are confronted with major decisions? How does it help you overcome the relativism of seeing religions as personal preferences, like your choice of what movie to watch this evening?

Second Alternative: The Pick-n-Mix Buffet

I don’t think any one religion has the whole truth. They all have some things right and some things wrong. I pick the bits that are good about each religion and kinda go my own way.”

This view has soared to great popularity in recent decades. It seems eminently reasonable and mature, and by contrast, to imagine that one religion happens to have everything right seems naïvely narrow-minded. Isn’t it better to filter each religion for what’s best about it?

But this view has a problem. A religion claims to be a guide to understanding what is good and bad in the first place. If each of us were able to judge good and bad reliably and consistently for ourselves, there would be no different religions. This pick-n-mix approach assumes the opposite: that I already have the truth, and am therefore able to recognise its presence or absence in the world’s religions. This view fails to understand even any possible difference between what seems good to an individual and what really is good. It hasn’t got past the first hurdle of cultural relativity. The holder of this view has created a new religion for themselves, with a single member who is also its high priest.

Each of the major religious traditions developed over thousands of years, and contains great riches and wisdom from across many ages and cultures. They deserve respect at the very least. What makes any 21st century individual man or woman think that they have deeper insight into the truth than any of these great, long traditions of belief and lifestyle? It would be better to belong wholly to any of them, to submit to its teachings even when they are uncomfortable and conflict with contemporary wisdom, than to take this (consciously or unconsciously) supremely arrogant standpoint of claiming to be the judge of them all.

Third Alternative: Belonging to More than One Religion

I have a friend who tried for a long time to be a faithful Buddhist and Christian at the same time. He emphasised the overlap between the two, especially in the emphasis on compassion, self-denial, and not belonging to the world. He drew on the spiritual resources of both as much as he could, and tried to find ways of reconciling apparent contradictions between them.

But one day he realised that this wasn’t working for him, although he couldn’t quite explain why. He was feeling torn between the two, as he tried to go deeper into each. Why is it that I feel compelled to pursue one at the expense of the other, he asked me? This is the answer I gave.

Suppose you went to the Buddha and asked him ‘what do you think of Jesus and of following Jesus?’ And suppose the Buddha said, ‘Jesus is great! What a great idea for you to follow him!’ And suppose you took the Buddha’s advice and chose to follow Jesus. What would be the basis for your trust in Jesus? It would be a consequence of a prior trust in the judgment of the Buddha. Or suppose the opposite: that you went to Jesus and asked him, ‘what do you think of the Buddha?’ and Jesus said, ‘The Buddha is a wonderful example of the values of the Kingdom of Heaven. He is worth listening to.’ You would then learn from the spiritual wisdom of the Buddha, but only because Jesus suggested it. In both cases one is the supreme judge who judges the other, even if that judgment is positive.

And there can only ever be one supreme judge in your life, where the buck truly stops. There can only be one final arbitrator, because no matter how similar any two may seem, eventually there will come a place where they tug in different directions. For many people without religion, that supreme judge is really themselves, even if they’re not aware of it.[5] That is why the pick-n-mix buffet style of religious engagement is so popular.

5. If Christianity is right, are all other religions wrong?

Most people reading this will be Christians, or have been Christians, or at least be friends with a large number of Christians. To be a Christian means to make Christianity the standard of judgment and the light by which to discern truth from falsehood. And by this stage in my argument we have established that there is no neutral standard or standpoint, and that one must always judge religions in light of some ultimate truth-commitment, even if for some that is only oneself. So I am now going to explore the question of religions from the Christian point of view, because it happens to be my own and thus the only one I can sincerely represent.

Jesus says, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). Paul concurs, ‘there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus’ (1 Tim 2:5).

Now the first point I want to make is that this claim of Christianity is far from strange or unique. In light of the above framework, it is basic common sense. Every religion makes this claim or it is not really a religion as I have defined it. Jesus demanded absolute and total allegiance. If he hadn’t done this, he wouldn’t have founded a religion; he would have been just another wise teacher like Socrates, Confucius, etc., whose sayings are followed because they make sense to the listener or because of the reputation of the speaker.

But there is all the difference in the world between believing a lie, and believing only part of the truth. If Jesus is the truth, this in no way implies that every other religion is all lies. How could they be, when they agree on so much? It is a strange feature of the modern way of thinking that it loves to posit radical ‘either/or’ alternatives, without seeing the overlap, the layers, the inclusiveness of one thing in another, and the deeper synthesis which reconciles surface-level contradictions. For a start, to be a Christian automatically implies agreeing with Judaism on practically everything Judaism believes. Insofar as Judaism denies Jesus as the messiah, there is a conflict. But this is not a positive belief of Judaism, only an absence. And for Christians to consider Islam ‘totally wrong’ is a massive failure of perspective, an inability to notice the enormous overlap Christians have with Muslims, not only on the One Transcendent Creator God, but on all kinds of ethical issues, prayer, worship, fasting. Something similar applies to Hinduism, which is often mistakenly considered polytheistic only because of its reverent denial of the conceivability of Transcendence, from which some Christians would do well to learn.[6] To notice first what we disagree on and let that obscure all the common ground is a failure of charity and graciousness, which makes it a fundamentally unChristian attitude.

There is all the difference in the world, as well, between calling Jesus the truth and calling Christianity a complete explanation for everything, as if Christians had nothing more to learn. To believe in Jesus is not to understand even Christianity in all its fullness, let alone the ways in which Jesus is manifest as in a glass darkly through cultures that have never heard of him, or who have heard of him only as a symbol of Western imperialist capitalism. For Christians, Christ is before all things, and in him all things hold together’ (Col 1:17). That means everything has contact with Christ simply by being a thing, by existing. ‘All things came into being through him [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people’ (John 1:3-4). So if anyone has life, they have their being in Christ, and the light of Christ reveals at least some truth to them.

For Christians, Christ is the fullness of the truth, and all else is only part of the truth. But Christians still have only part of the truth, because their knowledge of Christ remains incomplete and imperfect. Why could another religion not reveal more of Christ, as long as it didn’t contradict the trusted revelation of Christ in the Bible? How would we know, unless we took the time to listen and learn about other religions, without fear, without defensiveness, without needing to prove things or score points in an argument, also without compromising the ultimate authority of Christ as the supreme judge? Throughout the history of Judeo-Christian religion, the insights of ‘outsiders’ have been accepted as true and become part of the faith of ‘insiders’. Proverbs 22-24 is lifted from Egyptian literature. The ideas of circumcision, a sacred temple, and a divinely appointed king all originated from practices in the surrounding nations, adopted and sanctified by Israel. Paul quotes Greek poets as speaking truth about God (Acts 17). Justin Martyr recognised truths taught by Plato which enlarged the Christian understanding of God and the world. His maxim, “all truth wherever it is found belongs to us as Christians,” summarises the generous attitude Christians ought always to have in their search for wisdom and truth, without ever watering down the fullness of the truth in Christ.

6. Concluding Thoughts for Those on a Journey

The following points are true for everyone, religious or not, Christian or not. But I believe them because I am a Christian, and my Christian faith is evident in them.

  1. Provisionality: faith is a journey, truth is a destination. To call it ‘faith’ means that it is not certain, that it is provisional, that it can grow and change. Everything you believe is always provisional. Never say ‘I will never change my mind on this’ because you do not know the future. Rowan Williams describes Christianity as a basic life commitment which one takes before having all of the facts and evidence.[7] In other words, to be a Christian means to be betting your entire life that following Jesus is the best way to live. You can’t prove this, you can’t be certain of this. You can’t even evaluate its likelihood from any neutral or objective standpoint. But you only have one life, and how you spend it will be your bet.
  2. Authenticity: live your beliefs to the max. That is the only way you may find them to be false, or the only way others will be attracted to them if they are true. Much of the confusion in the world is a result of hypocrisy. Do not add to it. Learn also to articulate your own beliefs clearly to yourself and others. This means getting to know them by diligent study.
  3. Empathy: learn to see the world from other points of view. In 2017 the world’s top religious leaders issued a joint appeal: “make friends with followers of other religions.” Some people say there is too much talk and not enough action in the world. I say there is not enough real dialogue, not enough listening, which implies someone is talking. No harm can be done to anyone’s faith by listening, seeking to understand, not prejudging. And for Christians, it is a requirement, not an optional extra, because it is the basis of love. True tolerance, as John Dickson puts it, isn’t the easy acceptance of every viewpoint but the noble ability to love those with whom we deeply disagree.
  4. Hope: the truth gives itself to be known. The universe does not fundamentally lead astray those who seek the truth with all their heart. This cannot be proven. That is why it is called hope. But certainty is not a luxury granted to anyone. You only have a choice between hope or despair, i.e. hope or its absence. Neither option makes more rational sense than the other, yet as life-attitudes they pervade your every choice and belief. Which one will you adopt as your own?

Further Reading

Clooney, Francis. The Future of Hindu-Christian Studies : A Theological Inquiry, 2017.

Hart, David Bentley. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Yale University Press, 2014.

Moyaert, Marianne. In Response to the Religious Other: Ricoeur and the Fragility of Interreligious Encounters. Lexington Books, 2014.

Ricoeur, Paul. ‘Experience and Language in Religious Discourse’. In Phenomenology and The ‘theological Turn’: The French Debate. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.

Youtube video, ‘Listening to those of other faiths‘ with Stanley Hauerwas.

[1] I am very grateful to Carmen Bayly who read and commented on an earlier draft of this article. Her helpful suggestions and insights have enriched its offering. The input of Simeon Burke is equally appreciated and has given shape to some of the points made.

[2] According to this website.

[3] In some Christian circles it has become popular to say that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship (see e.g. this article). In fact, every religion is a relationship, properly understood, but a relationship like no other, with the transcendent source of your existence, so it is manifest through every part of reality and every aspect of your life. It is legalistic Pharisaism that these Christians mean to denounce, which they have misleadingly called ‘religion’.

[4] By ‘pluralism’ I am referring to the existence of a society in which many people have different beliefs, not a belief about whether multiple beliefs are good or bad.

[5] There is a sense in which our own judgment is always final, because even if we choose to trust the judgment of another, it is because they are trustworthy in our judgment. But nonetheless there is a difference between judging your doctor to be a better judge of health than you, and judging yourself a better judge of health than your doctor. The former is a giving away of your judgment by means of your judgment, whereas the latter is a holding on to your judgment, trusting nobody more than yourself.

[6] Although the apophatic strand of Christian faith is alive and well in Catholic and Orthodox circles, it has been rather forgotten in many Protestant churches.

[7]   Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Presbyterian Publishing Corp, 2007), viii.

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Barney is the lead editor for the site. A theology fellow at Oxford University, he also hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers.