“Do All Religions Lead to God?”
“Do All Religions Lead to God?”
Kenneth Samples (Reasons To Believe)
During the days following the catastrophic terrorist events of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush called for a national day of prayer. He urged people of all faiths to pray for America. Interfaith religious services were televised from the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. and from Yankee Stadium in New York. These services included clerics from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. They offered prayers to the God collectively addressed as “the God of Abraham, the God of Muhammad, and the Father of Jesus Christ.” Popular television personality Oprah Winfrey led the service held in New York City and boldly declared that all people pray to the same God.
Is Oprah right? Do Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus worship the same God? If so, people of all faiths can live peaceably in this world, can’t they?
Religious pluralism is the view that all religions, certainly all major or ethical religions, are equally valid paths to God or to ultimate reality. For the pluralist, many religious roads lead to God and salvation. And yet, given the present cultural milieu of globalism, multiculturalism, relativism (in both truth and morality), and especially the postmodern spirit, the growing climate of religious pluralism poses a serious challenge to the integrity of the Christian faith.
Popular Religious Pluralism
Entering the twenty-first century, America embodies significant ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious diversity. Urban and suburban dwellers come from all parts of the globe. One’s next-door neighbor to the right might come from Southeast Asia or Australia. The one to the left might originate from India, Africa, Europe, or the Middle East. America, as a democratic nation, places great value on the principle of tolerance, especially the tolerance of religious expression. The Bill of Rights guarantees American citizens the right to free exercise of religion.
Unfortunately, some people take the notion of equal toleration of religious expression to mean that all religions are equally true, thus equally valid paths to God. In effect, democracy has been applied to ultimate truth.1 This seemingly “politically correct” approach to religion, though popular in this culture, represents deeply convoluted thinking. The acceptance of social pluralism (tolerance of diverse religious expression) does not logically imply the truth of metaphysical pluralism (that all religious truth claims are equally valid and simultaneously true).
The popular notion that all religions are true ignores three imperative considerations. In order to think through and respond to the issue of religious pluralism, one must recognize and understand each of these points.
1. While the religions of the world do share some common beliefs and especially moral values, fundamental and irreconcilable differences clearly divide them on many crucially important issues, including the nature of God, the source and focus of revelation, the human predicament, the nature of salvation, and the destiny of mankind.2 A plethora of views exists just concerning the nature of God (or ultimate reality). Some religions affirm monotheism (one God); others, polytheism (many gods); still others affirm pantheism (all is God); and some even affirm atheism (no God).3 In Judaism4 and Islam, God is personal (and singular); in Christianity God is clearly more than personal and singular (superpersonaland triune5); while in strands of Hinduism and Buddhism God is less than personal and singular (apersonal and diffuse).6
Some of the world’s religious traditions view God as wholly transcendent (beyond the world), others as wholly immanent (within the world), and still others as both transcendent and immanent. Some religions view God as infinite in nature and nonidentifiable with the world, whereas in other religions God is finite and identified with the world. Clearly no universal agreement exists among the world’s religions as to who or what God really is. As scholar Harold A. Netland states, “Careful examination of the basic tenets of the various religious traditions demonstrates that, far from teaching the same thing, the major religions have radically different perspectives on the religious ultimate.”7
Identifying mankind’s ultimate problem (sin, ignorance, unenlightenment), the necessary human response (faith, obedience, meditation), and how that dilemma must be resolved in terms of encountering the divine (salvation, liberation, enlightenment) creates other stark contrasts between religions. Fundamental differences exist between the dominant religion of the West, Christianity, and the dominant religion of the East, Hinduism. Christianity affirms that redemption in Christ for the believer involves an eternal personal relationship with God in the afterlife. Hinduism, on the other hand, affirms a cycle of rebirths leading ultimately to the absorption of one’s individual consciousness into God or ultimate reality. Those two visions of future reality are simply irreconcilable.8
2. The religions of the world are so diverse in belief and in worldview orientation that they defy attempts to reduce them to a single common theme or essence. Indeed, this vast and complex array of religious perspectives makes religious reductionism a dubious venture altogether. Oxford theologian Alister E. McGrath notes, “There is a growing consensus that it is seriously misleading to regard the various religious traditions of the world as variations on a single theme.”9
Netland draws a similar conclusion about attempts to consolidate the religions according to a single salvific (relating to salvation) objective: “It is highly misleading to speak as if all religions share a common soteriological goal and simply differ on the means to reach it.”10
Attempts to reduce a variety of religions to their lowest common denominator usually succeed only in distorting the religions. Homogenizing the religions is a costly price to pay to solve the problems of religious diversity, for in the end the religions must sacrifice the very features that make them unique and appealing in the first place. Moreover, the various religions do not easily conform to any particular reductionistic category.
While some rightly identify similar ethical values as a common motif, upon closer inspection it becomes evident that even the similar moral principles are motivated by, and grounded in, fundamentally different views of the nature of reality. Religion cannot be reduced simply to ethics, for religion makes claims about the ultimate nature of reality (metaphysics), to which ethics appeal for justification. The renowned authority on world religions, Cal Berkeley professor Huston Smith, clearly rejects the notion all religions are basically the same:
For as soon as [the notion of sameness] moves beyond vague generalities––’every religion has some version of the Golden Rule’––it founders on the fact that the religions differ in what they consider essential and nonnegotiable.11
The similar ethical values shared by religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism cannot be separated from the distinctive doctrines promoted by those particular religions. This distinctiveness is especially true in terms of historic Christianity; for Christianity is not primarily a system of ethics. Instead, Christian ethics flow from a redemptive relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore the ethical teachings of Jesus in the New Testament cannot be separated from the unique Christian doctrines that emerge directly from the great redemptive events of Jesus’ life (such as the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection). In other words, the truth of Christian ethics is tied to the truth of Christian theology.
3. Formal laws of logic demonstrate the impossibility that all religious truth claims can be true at the same time and in the same way (the law of noncontradiction: A cannot equal A and non-A). For example, Jesus Christ cannot both be God incarnate (Christianity) and not be God incarnate (Judaism, Islam). Contradictory religious claims have opposite truth value, meaning that they negate or deny each other. Therefore exactly one is true and the other false. And, accordingly, Jesus Christ must either be God incarnate or not be God incarnate; no middle position is possible (the law of excluded middle: either A or non-A).
Since Jews, Christians, and Muslims all conceive the identity of Jesus of Nazareth differently, logically speaking, their conceptions simply can’t all be true. While it is logically possible that all three positions are false, they definitely cannot all be true. Thus, the claims of popular religious pluralism fail to comport with the self-evident laws of thought. This fact led Christian philosopher Ronald H. Nash to conclude that “any one who would become a pluralist must first abandon the very principles of logic that make all significant thought, action, and communication possible.”12
Some people argue that applying logic to religion is false or misleading. They insist that ultimate truth comes only through some type of nonrational intuition. Their argument betrays them, however, because in arguing against logic they must first presuppose the laws of logic to attempt a refutation. To do so is, of course, self-contradictory. As Christian apologists Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks point out, “Even those who claim, ‘Logic does not apply to God,’ use logic in that very statement.”13
To divorce oneself from the self-evident laws of thought when it comes to ultimate reality is to resign oneself to irrationality. Netland explains a price too great for most people to pay because it requires the “forfeiture of the possibility of meaningful affirmation or statement about anything at all––including statements about the religious ultimate. One who rejects the principle of noncontradiction is reduced to utter silence, for he or she has abandoned a necessary condition for any coherent or meaningful position whatsoever.”14
Kenneth Samples is vice president of philosophical and theological apologetics with Reasons to Believe. He is founder and president of Augustine Fellowship Study Center, formerly worked for the Christian Research Institute, and has cohosted “The Bible Answer Man.” He also serves as an adjunct instructor at Biola University and lives in southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children (www.amazon.com).