Following a Unique Christ in a Pluralistic Society

By Paul Copan

How can pastors and other Christian leaders encourage those entrusted to their care to handle pluralistic challenges?

How do believers respond to the attacks from a pluralistic society? What are some of the common errors by those who espouse pluralism? If Christianity is the exclusive source of salvation, how do we respond to the question concerning those who have never heard the gospel? Paul Copan deals with these issues in his article on pluralism.

The gospel is no stranger to religiously pluralistic environments.1 The disciples first proclaimed the good news throughout the religiously mixed Mediterranean world with its many gods and temples, Greek philosophies, and emperor worship. Today’s religious pluralism, however, offers an appealing approach to liberal democratic Western societies by claiming that all religions are equally capable of salvation or liberation, none being superior to another.2 This agrees with educator Allan Bloom’s analysis of our culture: “Conflict is the evil we most want to avoid.”3

Isn’t it arrogant to proclaim Jesus as God’s unique revelation in the face of other religions? As feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether declared, “The idea that Christianity, or even the biblical faiths, have a monopoly on religious truth is an outrageous and absurd religious chauvinism.”4 At the popular level, Oprah Winfrey once said on her show: “There are millions of ways to be a human being and many paths to what you call ‘God’; … there couldn’t possibly be just one way.”5

Now, we can readily agree with the benign, descriptive fact of pluralism — that many religious beliefs exist. The more dangerous, evangelism-threatening pluralism, however, takes on a prescriptive tone: “It is true — and therefore you need to believe — that all religions are capable of saving or liberating.” In such a view, the claim that Jesus is unique is narrow-minded and imperialistic — a relic of the colonial age. Pluralism is much more suited to our individualistic, consumer-oriented, buffet-style approach to religion that says, “I’ll take some of that; no, I don’t like that.”

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Describing Religious Pluralism

According to some pluralists, the different religions are simply different manifestations of the Ultimate Reality or the Transcendent — God, Brahman, the Tao, Nothingness. Like a three-dimensional hologram, the film or picture underneath projects a different image depending on the angle and distance from which one observes it. So, one person might view the same underlying Ultimate Reality different from another person. Or religions could be compared to gold or silver (representing the underlying Ultimate Reality). These metals can be (1) solid, shaped, and polished; (2) a molten liquid; or (3) a rough, unrefined ore (representing the various world religions).

We are told, “All roads lead to the top of the mountain.” Another analogy speaks of six blind men from India (think: Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Confucian, and Taoist) who touch an elephant. Each touches a different part of the elephant and draws a dogmatic conclusion about what an elephant is based on his limited experience (a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan, and rope). An observer of their debate thinks their rigid beliefs are comical. (For a fuller explanation of this analogy, see the sidebar “Tolerant or Intolerant?”) Applying this picture to “theologic wars,” poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816–87) wrote of religious disputants with their exclusivistic claims: they “[r]ail on in utter ignorance” and “prate about an elephant not one of them has seen.”

John Hick, perhaps the most notable religious pluralist today, calls for a Copernican revolution of religions. Cosmology has shifted from a Ptolemaic geocentric (earth-centered) view of the universe to a Copernican heliocentric (sun-centered) one. Similarly, we must replace a Christocentric view — the triune God’s revelation in Christ as central with all other religions revolving or orienting themselves around it — with a God/Reality-centered view, in which all religions, including Christianity, revolve around it…


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