In trying to clarify the idea of Pluralism, I drew a diagram like the one below:
On seeing it, a friend exclaimed, “That’s exactly what I believe!” “And why so?” I asked.
“Well, I think that when anybody worships or prays to or thinks about ‘God’, the name may be different, but that Supreme Being is the same.”
“Then you do not claim to hold to any religion?”
“Actually, I’m a Buddhist. But I believe everyone’s religion, be it Hinduism, Christianity, or Islam, lead to the same Ultimate Being, just as in your drawing. I can’t see how anyone can claim this or that to be the only correct way.”
“Does Buddhist literature ever state that Bhahma, Vishnu, or others, along with Buddha, lead to this Ultimate Being?”
“Hmmm—I guess not.”
I found this idea of “all roads leading to Rome”” to be espoused by the majority. Sometimes, it was not an open claim, just a lingering suspicion in the back of the mind, even among those professing their faith strongly.
“When Jews or Muslims, for example, praise God as Creator of the world, it is obvious that they are referring to the same Being. We may assume that they are intending to worship the one Creator God that we also serve… If people in Ghana speak of a transcendent God … how can anyone conclude otherwise than that they intend to acknowledge the true God as we do?
“Of course Buddhism is not Christianity and does not try to be. But how does one come away after encountering Buddhism and deny that it is in touch with God in its way?” Clark H. Pinnock, quoted in Ramesh Richard, The Population of Heaven (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1994), p. 81.
“God is in the world—but Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad are in their little closets, and we should thank them but never return to them.” W.E. Hocking, Living Religions and a World Faith (New York, MacMillan, 1940), p. 231.
“To understand God is to listen. Listen to Jesus and Muhammad and Buddha, but don’t get caught up in the names. Listen beyond them; list to God’s breath”—a Zen saying, quoted in God’s Breath, John Miller and Aaron Kenedi, editors. (New York: Marlowe & Company, 2000), back cover.
“Pluralism—recognizes not only the existence of other religions but their intrinsic equal values.” Timothy George, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zonadervan), p. 128.
Whenever I asked if this was found in their written literature, there was hesitancy first, then a slow acknowledgement that it was not there. So I went to the various scriptures to see what really was there.
“I am the goal, the upholder, the master; the witness, the home, the shelter and the most dear friend. I am the creation and the annihilation, the basis of everything, the resting place and the eternal seed” (Bhagavad-Gita, 9:18).
“Let there be one scripture…for the whole world—Bhagavadgita; Let there be one God for the whole world—Sri Krishna: one hymn, one mantra, one prayer—the chanting of his name” (Introduction to the Bhagavad-Gita).
“Allah! There is no God but He—The Living, The Self-subsisting, Supporter of all—His are all things in the heavens and on earth—His throne doth extend over the earth—He is the Most High, The Supreme” (The Quran, 2:255).
“Verily I am Allah; There is no God but I (The Quran 20:14).
“This Lord is truly the Arhat, fully enlightened, perfect in his knowledge and conduct, well-gone, world-knower, unsurpassed, leader of men to be tamed, teach of gods and men, the Buddha, the Lord” (Conze, Buddhist Scripture).
“For thus said the Lord, who created the heavens, who is God, who formed the earth…. I am the Lord and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:18).
“I have sworn by Myself; the word has gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, that to Me every knee shall bow” (Isaiah 45:23).
“For there is no other name under heaven, given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 11:24).
These statement were unequivocal, sharp, and clear. No ambiguity need be entertained. No, I did not find in any of the writings the sanction that the other religions were a good, equal alternative.
“In a broad sense all religious traditions are exclusivist, inasmuch as they maintain their central affirmations to be true.” Ramesh Richard, The Population of Heaven (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), p. 73.
“At the heart of every religion is an uncompromising commitment to a particular way of defining who God is or is not and accordingly, of defining life’s purpose…. Every religion at its core is exclusive.” Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods (Nashville: Word Publishing Group, 2000), p. vii.
“What is truly arrogant is the postmodernist pluralism which, in vain pursuit of a superficial tolerance, negotiates away the ultimate commitment by which any religion lives” (George, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Mohammad?)p. 93.
“Agreement…cannot be made without substantial compromise of core beliefs.” (Paul Marshall, et al., Islam at the Crossroads (Grand Rapids: Baker House Company, 2002), p. 34.
There was a severe clash between the sacred writings and the claim of Pluralism. Both could not be valid, and in fact, they were mutually exclusive. I would have to examine Pluralism.
- Exclusivism came “ready made,” inherent in the written codes. Pluralism, on the other hand, was a development. It had to be built up from scratch and could claim, as its base, only opinions and suppositions from various individuals. And all they were trying to do was explain the writings.The problem was that the explanations were going contrary to the written claims.
- To show necessity for change, evidence must be provided that the old was deficient, irrelevant, defunct, or false. But Pluralism could not claim to find irrelevancy or falsehood, yet say that they were all equally valid and true. To find anything to change would be to make Pluralism irrelevant. The need would be to fix that problem and not bring in Pluralism.
- The claim of equality presupposes a universally acceptable reference point. If two people claimed to be the same weight, they should have gone to the same weighing machine. But there is no such reference point for religion. How can civilized society accept that voodooism and witchcraft and child sacrifice are equal to Buddhism or Hinduism or Christianity?
- To replace anything, the authority over that jurisdiction has to be established. The religions themselves held independent authority within the religion and the body of believers, and they clearly claimed exclusivity. Pluralism had only a derived, second-hand one, if any, and therefore was not in a position to overturn any claim made by the religions.
- If Pluralism claimed to oppose only the principle of exclusivism and not the religions themselves, it would have to show evidence that the religions did not claim that position. But the writings were all too clear—they were claiming exclusivity. So Pluralism was definitely challenging the religions, at least on that point. Pluralism was questioning the truth of their claims, yet saying that they were all true. You can’t “have your cake and eat it”!
- The religions claimed that their information came from a supernatural source and was brought to us humans accompanied by unusual, “miraculous” phenomena. This is what authenticated their status as superhuman. There was nothing in Pluralism to match this. And it was only an opinion, with just that much weight to its claim.
- The Zen saying already cited asked us to listen to the founders and also to listen beyond them. The problem arose when you really attempted that, because when you listened to them, they were unquestionably decided that you should never listen beyond them to anyone else. For example, if you listened to Muhammad, he would emphatically tell you not to listen beyond him. So we have a choice either to listen to them or beyond them. To do both is not possible. The Zen saying is not practical.
- To be really serious in matters of eternal consequences, there should be a clear promise of rewards on compliance and an equally clear description of the consequences of non-compliance. Furthermore, since this would involve detailed, unerring judgments, the power and ability of that source would become extremely important questions. There should be a definite claim that no mistakes would be made—that the final judgments would be infallible. Pluralism had nothing to back itself on this point.
- If even one religion claimed to be exclusively correct, then to leave them all as before, yet to say that they were all equal, would be to give them equal as well as exclusive status at one and the same time. This would not be a logical or practical stand. Either exclusivity or equality—but not both.
- If we acknowledge that all religions lead to the same “God” and retain the fact that this “God” gave each its exclusive standing, then this “God” could be called a liar—and a devious one, at that. Such a God presumably told the Hindus about their numerous deities, then struck down that whole concept with Muhammad’s fiercely monotheistic declaration. This “God” would have reveled in this duplicity, pitting one against every other, creating strife and animosity down through the ages. The worst wars in history, after all, were “religious” wars! Pluralism has to own up to this concept of “God”.
- Proper names are a precise form of identification, and once given, society demands that we respect that identification as distinct. Of course, many people can have the same name, and one person can have many names, or aliases. Pluralism refers to this “God” with many names. The plea is that since there are many similarities, the reference is probably to the same Ultimate Being. But similarities are not as much the deciding factors as are differences. If we found 100,000 similarities between two complex organisms, would it make a difference if one’s name was Adolf Hitler, and the other’s was Mother Teresa? Even one irreconcilable difference will negate all the similarities to be found.Allah is the proper NAME of God in Arabic, Jesus is the NAME given among men.Aliases could be a possibility, but not once in the Bible is Allah an alias for Jehovah or Jesus, and not once in the Quran is Buddha or Vishnu an alias for Allah. Not once! With reference to the drawing at the beginning of this Appendix section, there is no “God” above Allah or Jesus or Brahma. Nobody has yet demonstrated the authority or the rationale for changing these names to a generic form.
- To introduce and sustain Pluralism, the initial requirement is to go to the founders—Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, or others—and show them to be wrong, bigoted, and intolerant and compel them to change their declarations to suit your idea of truth. Whatever method is used, the attempt will end up in complete despair or in mutilating the religions to a point beyond recognition. All that will be left will be a heap of garbled, incoherent, meaningless utterances, for which you can give neither rhyme nor reason. Try it and see for yourself.
- To follow all religions at the same time is not possible. One religion, or portions of different ones may be possible. So could an individual choose any part of any religion, at random, to make up a set of beliefs? But that would be forming a new religion, and this new one would take its place among the others, just as did the others before it. The round of questions would start all over again. Making circles is not a sign of progress.
Furthermore, a new “God” would be needed. But a “manufactured” God would have no inherent power or position—only that which the individual has seen fit to bestow. Who would be dominant—“God”, or the individual?
- The religions not only claimed exclusivity, they pointed to the drawbacks of others.“The Buddha held that this belief in a permanent self or soul is one of the most deceitful delusions ever held by man” (Chen, Buddhism, the Light of Asia. p. 44). He (Buddha) was referring to the core teaching of the Hindus.“All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers” (John 10:8). These are the words of Jesus.
They “…are like a donkey laden with books. Wretched is the example of those who deny God’s revelations” (The Quran, 62:5).This statement from the Quran refers to the Jews and Christians.
Statements such as these make it impossible for Pluralism to maintain the concept that they all are equally valid, good, and credible, and therefore, acceptable.
- An illustration keeps making the rounds, whenever this topic comes up – of the king’s elephant that three blind men felt and described. One felt the tail and said the elephant was like a brush. The one whose arms circled the leg called it a tree. The one who played with the trunk pictured it as a pipe. So, in the religious world, each religion is but a part of the whole, and people are able to describe and advocate only portions of the actual whole. Nobody should ever claim that his or her statement is the only, and last, word on the subject.It sounds good, until it is questioned. The three blind persons represent the whole of humanity. Then who is the king, and who is the story-teller? If they are not of this world, then what is their identity? How did the reporter know that there was a king and an elephant? If they are part of humanity, how did they escape the universal blindness, so as to be able to see the elephant and the other blind people? Both the king and the poet are actually non-existent. Therefore, any report is a fabricated one, or from just another blind person who cannot claim to have seen the elephant. The illustration lack a fundamental basis.It would be more reasonable to opine that we all have tunnel vision and are able to appreciate only certain narrow, limited values. The brush, the tree, and the pipe are different entities, just as are the different religions, and each is claiming to be the truth. There is no basis for saying that they all ultimately belong to one identity—one generic religion.
- Pluralism takes a cue from another common expression: “All roads lead to Rome.” Thus the claim that all religions are only different paths to the same final destination. During the days of the Roman Empire, the roads did not start out in the periphery. They were all built centrally first, and then went out in all directions. In other words, the destination came first and preceded the network of roads. This cannot be said of religious endeavors. Our starting point and the direction of progress is exactly the opposite. We have not reached the destination. And that brings us to the most crucial observation. Rome was established in the minds of people as real, concrete, and well-known. Universal agreement prevailed regarding this reality. Once in Rome, one could observe the fact that all the roads were leading there. The various travelers coming in and going out could also vouch for it. The expression was valid only because of this. Without a real Rome—without real journeys to and from the real destination—there would be nothing to back the expression. Likewise, in the case of religions, this expression of Pluralism would be valid only if the destination had been actually reached from different paths, coming from different directions. But truth be told, there is no universal agreement regarding the destination. We cannot vouch for anything about it, let alone its relationship to every road. What then, is the basis of saying that these roads actually reach there? Can there be any other way of validating the claim? No, indeed there cannot! None of those who make the claim have been to the destination and back. Alas, then, the base, the foundation, is absent. This claim has lost touch with reality.
Pluralism is nothing more than wishful thinking. It is not found in the sacred writings, and the reasons for it do not stand scrutiny. As an honest inquirer, I must lay it aside and prefer the clear, exclusive claim of each religion.