On Sundays at the moment we are focusing on and exploring ‘The Questions of Faith that People Ask.’ Here is the first part of the answer to the second question.
How can you claim there’s only one true religion?
How would you respond to the statement: ‘It’s arrogant to claim that your religion is the only true way’?
Let us start by considering the counter claim – that all religions lead to God or that all religions are equally valid.
1. It is untenable to claim that all religions lead to God
To claim that all religions lead to God is untenable because the claims of the different religions are incompatible. Hinduism and Buddhism, with some variations, believe the human problem is that we are trapped within samsara – the cycle of rebirth. For Buddhists this is characterised by dukkha – suffering and dissatisfaction. Escape is through enlightenment through the four noble truths and the eightfold path. In Hinduism escape is either through enlightenment, devotion or selfless action – or a combination of all three. There is no cycle of rebirth in Islam. The problem is human weakness and paradise is earned through submission to the will of Allah, particularly through the five pillars of belief, prayer, fasting, alms and pilgrimage. In Shintoism the problem is cosmic disharmony and the goal is a healthy, balanced life. You cannot easily reconcile these beliefs!
Sometimes it is said God is like a mountain and the different religions represents different paths up the mountain.
But the world religions do not even agree on the destination let alone the roads. We are not climbing the same mountain! Some forms of Hinduism believe in a number of gods who appear in different forms. Other variations of Hinduism believe that everything is god (‘monism’); that god is immanent throughout the world. Animists believe in local deities or ancestral gods. Islam believes in one personal deity, Allah, who is transcendent over the world. Indeed the ultimate sin in Islam is idolatry, believing in any god apart from the one God, Allah.
I was talking with some Muslim friend the other day. I was trying to persuade them that Jesus was God and they were trying to persuade me that he wasn’t. We can’t both be right! Either Jesus is God or he’s not. It’s not a question of different perspectives on the truth. They are mutually exclusive assertions.
Some people have tried to get round this by saying that religious truth is not like ordinary truth. Religious beliefs refer to ethical intentions. If I say ‘God is love’ I am really saying, ‘I ought to be loving.’ But this is not what the major religions believe. Pluralists start out arguing every religion is true, but in order to do this pluralists must say that in reality every religion is false.
2. It is disrespectful to claim that all religions lead to God.
The only way you can claim all religions lead to God is by ignoring their central truth claims – and that is disrespectful. The only way you can say all religions lead to God is by ignoring what they actually claim and viewing religions as stories made up to convey profound experiences. You reduce religion to something that societies constructs either to control or to comfort the members of that society.
You may say religion refers to an inner reality that is true for the individual concerned, but not true for everyone. The problem is this is not what adherents of the major religions claim. They claim to make metaphysical statements. So the only way you can say that all religions are true in some inner, personal sense, is actually to say that all religions are false.No-one wants to be told that we don’t really believe what we really believe. You are not taking religious truth claims seriously. They start out by trying to value every religion, but in the end pluralists value no religion.
3. It is arrogant to claim that all religions lead to God
There is a traditional story called ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’ which was written as a poem in the 19th century by John Godfrey Saxe. It begins:
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The first blind man feels the stomach of the elephant and concludes it is a wall. The second feels the trunk and concludes it is a snake. The rest conclude it is a spear, tree, fan and rope, depending upon where they touch. Saxe’s conclusion is:
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
What the story purports to show is that all religions are blind attempts to understand ultimate reality that all reflect the truth, but none grasps the whole truth. But the real question is: How do you know it’s an elephant? How do you know it’s not a wall and five of the blind men are wrong? The story actually reveals the arrogance of the pluralists or relativists. They claim to be the sighted ones in a world of blind men. They claim the know the truth towards which others can only partly, blindly stumble.
4. It is intolerant to claim that all religions lead to God.
The move to religious pluralism is often driven by the question: How can we live together in a pluralistic society? Pluralists claim that believing Jesus is the only way is intolerant. But tolerance is not saying every belief is valid. That is often how tolerance is conceived in our society, but it is a perversion of true tolerance. True tolerance says: ‘These are my convictions, but I respect your right to hold different beliefs.’
Indeed, far from leading to tolerance, saying every religion is true actually leads to intolerance. As soon as this attitude meets a claim to absolute truth (and that after all is the nature of religious truth claims) it cannot tolerate it. You can say what you like, the pluralist says, as long as you don’t say it is true. A claim to absolute truth must be rejected, even suppressed. When it comes to absolute claims, pluralists are extremely intolerant.
True tolerance, in contrast, can cope with absolute claims.True tolerance says: ‘These are my convictions, but I respect your right to hold different beliefs.’ True tolerance depends on love – not on pretending everyone and everything is right. True tolerance is conviction plus respect for others. Jesus said we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. So Christians need firmly to oppose prejudice against Muslims and other religious adherents. Christians need to be loving our Muslim neighbours. If we keep at a distance then our communities will become polarised. Jesus says: ‘The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.’ (John 14:10) God does his work through the words of Jesus – not through , law, manipulation, or financial incentives. When they came to arrest Jesus one of his followers drew a sword, but Jesus said, ‘Put it away’. God’s work is not done through force. God’s work is done through the message of Jesus. So Christians may try to persuade you to follow Jesus. But no Christian who is true to Jesus will ever want resort to or the law or manipulation to do God’s work. God’s work isn’t done that way.