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APOL 500

Discussion Assignment Instructions

The student will complete two discussions in this course. The student will post one thread of at least 400 words for the assigned Module: Week. There are two parts to each prompt, so approximately half of the 400 words should be dedicated to each part. For each thread, students must support their assertions with at least one scholarly citation for each prompt part. Be sure to avoid extended quotes. These citations must be in current Turabian format. Acceptable sources include the textbooks and the Bible.

Some attacks that cast doubts on Christianity come from one of several types of pluralism, that is, from an inclusive understanding of religious belief. The following are discussed in Gould:

a. Simple Religious Pluralism (Gould p. 129-31)

b. Sophisticated Religious Pluralism – Knitter’s Version (Gould p. 131-32)

c. Sophisticated Religious Pluralism – Hick’s Version (Gould p. 132-37)

All three versions are really an attack on the uniqueness of Jesus.

In this discussion, you will need to do two things:

1. Describe how one of these forms of religious pluralism is an attack against the uniqueness of Jesus (use of the textbook is required here but other sources may be of great help).

2. Construct a scriptural argument in defense of the uniqueness of Jesus (while using sources for support is good, be sure that your argument in dependent on scripture and not on those sources).

Religious Pluralism Defined

What, then, is religious pluralism? Religious pluralism is the view that there are many (i.e., a plurality of) ways to God—where “God” is broadly construed to mean any ultimate reality beyond the natural world—and that many (if not most or even all) of the religions of the world provide these ways. It follows from this that, for the pluralist, there is no one religion that is exclusively correct.

There are many ways to be a pluralist. Let’s first look at what we will call simple religious pluralism (simple RP) according to which all or most religious views are literally correct. Though the view is simple and even somewhat naive, it is very common among students (and most Hollywood celebrities!). There is something attractive about simple RP in the sense that we never have to say someone’s view is wrong. We never have to rain on anyone’s religious parade. Everybody is right about everything!

Sounds great, right? Well, get your umbrella; it’s about to rain. The problem with the view is it is logically incoherent!

Christianity says that God is trinitarian (three persons in one). Islam says that God is strictly unitary (no division at all). Buddhism says that there is no personal God. The obvious problem here is that, just as a matter of logic, these couldn’t all be true. It couldn’t be that God is trinitarian, strictly unitarian, and nonexistent. If God is trinitarian, then this logically entails that God is not strictly unitary. If the Muslim is right that God is unitary, then it follows that the Buddhist is wrong in thinking God does not exist. Each of these could perhaps be false (i.e., polytheism could be true), but they cannot logically all be true. In sum, simple RP is logically incoherent since religious traditions make mutually incompatible claims.

If this weren’t bad enough, simple RP is also self-refuting. Suppose one had the religious view (as most Christians arguably do) that simple RP is false. Given the thesis of simple RP—that all religious views are true—this would mean that it is true that simple RP is false (let that sink in!). Thus the truth of simple RP would have the logically incomprehensible consequence of falsifying simple RP.

So, though simple RP is a common view, it is not a defensible view. The view literally collapses under its own logical weight.

But why do people hold this view? It is sometimes claimed that religious exclusivity is arrogant and that simple RP is a position of tolerance. But these claims are unsustainable as well. Exclusivism can’t be thought arrogant merely because the exclusivist claims that his or her view is true. To see why, consider that pluralists also claim their view is true and would then also be arrogant. Moreover, it is difficult to understand what it means to say that a claim itself is arrogant. This seems to be a category error—this is where a property or attribute is ascribed to something that can’t possibly possess that property or attribute (e.g., to say, “The color red is heavy”). Claims are either true or false. It is people (or, more specifically, the way people act) that are either arrogant or humble. Though one may defend exclusivism in an arrogant way, one may defend it with humility as well. The pluralist can also act arrogantly (or humbly). The views themselves are neither arrogant nor humble, and it is a category error to think they are.

How about tolerance? Is it intolerant to be an exclusivist and tolerant to be a pluralist? Tolerance has become something of a contemporary buzzword. It is often taken to mean that we are tolerant insofar as we believe all views are equally valid. That is, it is intolerant to claim that one view is true and the rest false. If this is how we understand tolerance, then of course the exclusivist is intolerant. However, is the pluralist tolerant in this sense? No, not even close. The pluralist claims our view, the view of Christian exclusivism, is false. It claims that all exclusivist views are false. Given that the pluralist disagrees, this makes the pluralist, by definition, intolerant as well.

But this is not what tolerance really even means. A more sensible definition is the idea that even though we believe others have false beliefs, we respect their right to hold to and defend alternate beliefs (i.e., we do not silence them, inflict violence on them, unfairly tax them, etc.). We are all for this idea of tolerance, since it allows for meaningful discussion. But this definition assumes that we in fact disagree with (i.e., assert the falseness of) contrary views. After all, if we didn’t disagree, then there wouldn’t be a reason to tolerate them.

Sophisticated Religious Pluralism

There is a more sophisticated version of religious pluralism (henceforth RP). Here the view is that all religions are, strictly speaking, false. That is, all religions, insofar as they make specific claims about God and transcendent reality, are false regarding those specific claims. Now, this might sound like atheism. But the sophisticated religious pluralist thinks, unlike the atheist, that there is a reality to which the religions of the world point. Though they believe that the specific claims of specific religions are, in their literal sense, false, most religions do provide a way to reach, in some sense, this supernatural or transcendent reality. That is, each religion provides a valuable and helpful framework for approaching transcendent reality with none being the exclusively right way of approach. That Jesus died to secure our salvation with God, though literally false as the means of salvation, helps Christians approach this supernatural reality. Whereas, following the pillars of Islam, though not literally currying favor from Allah, is valuable for getting in touch with the ultimate reality for Muslims. And so on, for the religions of the world.

What reasons are there for thinking there is a plurality of ways to approach God? Even though the view is more sophisticated, the arguments for this thesis are not always very compelling. Consider Columbia University professor Paul Knitter’s defense of RP, for example: “I suspect that one of the few things that all Christians—no matter what their denominational or theological colorings—would agree on is the recognition that God is a reality that no human mind can fully grasp.” He quotes certain church councils and the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Paul Tillich where they each make the point, in effect, that “God will always transcend, always be more than, what human beings can know or what God can give them to know.” He goes on:

Now, if this is what all Christians believe, if God for them can really be known but never fully be known, then it follows with both logical and theological necessity that there cannot be only one way to know God. Why? Because there is always more to know about God. To hold to only one way is to close oneself to knowing more of the depths of divine truth. The “more,” the excess, the transcendence of the God of Jesus calls us, therefore, to be open to “more ways” to know God.

In response, it’s difficult to see premises here from which the claim “there are many ways to God” follows as a matter of logical necessity (there seems to be no theological necessity here either), much less a plausible argument. Logical necessity means, given the premises, the conclusion is the only logical possibility. But surely it is logically possible that God is not fully known by finite minds (with which we completely agree) and yet faith in Christ is the exclusive way to God. God’s incomprehensibility doesn’t even seem plausibly to suggest there are many ways to know God. It suggests that there are many other truths about God, but this says nothing about whether there are therefore many ways to know God.

John Hick

One of the foremost defenders of sophisticated RP in recent years was the late philosopher of religion John Hick. Having grown up in a largely nonreligious household, Hick, in his own words, “underwent a powerful evangelical conversion under the impact of the New Testament figure of Jesus” in his college years. This conversion was so significant that he planned to enter Christian ministry. As he began study in preparation for this ministry, he began drifting from his evangelicalism toward pluralism. He said:

As I spent time in mosques, synagogues, gurudwaras and temples as well as churches something very important dawned on me. On the one hand all the externals were different.… And not only the externals, but also the languages, the concepts, the scriptures, the traditions are all different and distinctive. But at a deeper level it seemed evident to me that essentially the same thing was going on in all these different places of worship, namely men and women were coming together under the auspices of some ancient, highly developed tradition which enables them to open their minds and hearts “upwards” toward a higher divine reality which makes a claim on the living of their lives.

What Hick found across a wide range of experiences is that religious devotees all sought some sort of transcendent reality. He conceded the “externals” (and languages, concepts, scriptures, and traditions) are incompatibly different. However, its structure, in its most basic form, he thought was the same. On the basis of this, Hick retained the belief that there is ultimate reality beyond the natural world. Is this God? No, not necessarily, as this would commit Hick to more descriptive content than he thought we can give for the supernatural. Instead Hick referred to this reality as the “Real.” The Real cannot be literally understood or described. It goes beyond our concepts and our language. The Real is, for Hick, “transcategorial,” which means that God is beyond our ability to apply categories and concepts. But every person is, in a way, aware of the Real. Each culture, in attempting to describe the Real, has given expression as experienced by them in their specific religious claims that they make. But these should be seen only as the Real-as-experienced and not the Real-as-it-truly-is. No religion or individual has access to supernatural reality as it is in itself, but only the phenomenological experience of the Real. We can experience it, but this experiential reality, for Hick, is ambiguous, in the sense that it can be explained and described in many different but equally valid ways. Notice these are valid descriptions and not true descriptions. Again, he, along with other sophisticated pluralists, would say that all religious claims about the Real are literally false.

Now, when Hick said that claims about the Real are literally false, he didn’t mean these claims are simply nonsensical or false in every sense. Though he believed religious claims are, in a literal sense, false, they may be true in a mythological sense. There are a variety of ways to understand the term myth. It is sometimes used to simply mean false or fictional. But this is not the way Hick used the term. What, for Hick, distinguished a literal truth from a mythological truth? He said, “The literal truth or falsity of a factual assertion … consists in its conformity or lack of conformity to fact: ‘it is raining here now’ is literally true if and only if it is raining here now.… A statement or set of statements about X is mythologically true if it is not literally true but nevertheless tends to evoke an appropriate dispositional attitude to X.”

Hick seemed to think of myth as something like a metaphor. We use metaphors to communicate not literal truths, but to communicate certain impressions and attitudes. Take, for example, when in Shakespeare’s famous play, Romeo says of Juliet:

What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

We immediately understand, given the context of the assertion, that Romeo doesn’t mean to claim that Juliet is a giant ball of burning gas! Rather he is, in a way, painting a picture in words of her radiance and beauty. We can almost feel what Romeo is pointing us to. Putting this in Hick’s terms, the Shakespeare quote gives us the appropriate dispositional attitude toward the character and scene. Likewise, Hick thinks that when a religious figure attempts to describe the Real, she is not saying something literally true, but only something that gives us the appropriate attitude and disposition toward that Reality.

What’s the appropriate dispositional attitude toward the Real? Hick believed that what we see in each world religion is a move away from self-centeredness. He wrote:

The great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to the Real from within the major variant ways of being human; and that within each of them the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness is taking place. These traditions are accordingly to be regarded as alternative Soteriological “spaces” within which, or “ways” along which, men and women find salvation/liberation/ultimate fulfillment.

So, the appropriate dispositional attitude toward the Real is becoming centered not on ourselves but on the Real. For Hick, any religion that takes the focus off ourselves is producing the appropriate dispositional attitude and, thus, is one of many appropriate religious frameworks.

Assessment of Hick’s RP

Hick was not a universalist in the sense that all approaches to the Real are appropriate. That is, his version of RP does not entail that all religious individuals are “saved.” He seemed to think that only those whose religious beliefs evoke Reality-centeredness rather than self-centeredness are appropriate.

The first problem with Hick’s RP is that many religious traditions seem to be fundamentally self-centered. That is, contrary to Hick’s claim, it is not clear that all or even most religions are truly Reality-centered. Consider, for example, the traditions that make heaven (or paradise, or enlightenment, etc.) the ultimate goal in being religious. This seems to be fundamentally self-interested, and transcendent reality is simply a means toward that gain. A religious devotee of this sort is seemingly only in it for himself or herself.

Second, Hick believed that the Real is indescribable and transcategorial, and yet he seemed to give descriptions of and categories for understanding the Real. In other words, why shouldn’t we understand his account as providing categories for how to think of the Real? But if this is what he has done, then the Real is not transcategorial. We just have a new set of categories by which we understand the Real.

Third, there is a problem of intention. Romeo intended for his claim to be understood metaphorically and it, for this reason, can be said to be metaphorically true. If Romeo meant that Juliet was the sun in a literal sense (i.e., she actually was a massive ball of burning gas), it wouldn’t be correct to call it a metaphor. He would not be saying something metaphorically true, because he was not using it as a metaphor. It seems to us that most religious people intend their claims quite literally. Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad, Siddhārtha Gautama, the Hindu guru, and religious people everywhere arguably intend a literal understanding of the claims they make. So these claims can’t be mythologically true unless they are intended to be understood in a mythological sense.

Fourth, Hick believed that a claim is (mythologically) true insofar as it produces an appropriate disposition toward the Real. But given the fact that the Real is transcategorial, it seems one could not know what the appropriate disposition is. In other words, what’s available to us that makes our disposition appropriate or inappropriate? Even if all religions do move us to be Reality-centered, why think this is the appropriate way to approach the Real? Maybe the self-interested religious terrorist is approaching the Real in an appropriate way by his mass killing. How could Hick say that he is not?

When it comes to metaphors (such as Romeo’s description of Juliet), we know that the sun is an appropriate metaphor for a beautiful woman since we already know what it’s like to see a beautiful sunrise. We could give a more or less literal description of a sunrise, and for this reason we know the metaphor is appropriate. However, if the Real is completely indescribable and completely beyond our ability to comprehend, then we really don’t know if the specific (mythological) approach is appropriate or not.

Thus, it seems that Reality-centeredness as a fundamental moral of all religions is unwarranted. Even if we grant the rather dubious claim that all religious traditions move people from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness, this doesn’t seem to constitute a good reason to think that this is the path of salvation. If Hick wants to say that the Real is indescribable and transcategorial, then he has no good reason for thinking that becoming Reality-centered is the path of salvation. For all we know, the Real doesn’t want us to be Reality-centered!

Paul Gould, Travis Dickinson, and Keith Loftin, Stand Firm: Apologetics and the Brilliance of the Gospel (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2018), 129–137.

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