The Challenge of Toleration

by Carl Johnson

America, as a democratic nation, places great value on tolerance, especially tolerance of religious expression. As American citizens, we are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights the free exercise of religion. Unfortunately, some people have taken 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. This type of thinking, however, reflects non-thinking. Social pluralism does not equate with metaphysical, or religious pluralism.

First, it's important to understand that "religious pluralism" is the view that all religions, certainly all major religions, offer equally valid paths to God, or to ultimate reality.

This widely held notion that all religions are true ignores two important considerations. First, while the major religions do share some common beliefs and values, fundamental and irreconcilable differences clearly divide them on crucially important issues. They disagree, for example, on the nature of God, or of ultimate reality. Some religions affirm monotheism (one God); others affirm polytheism (many Gods); still others affirm pantheism (all is God); some even affirm atheism (no God). In Judaism and Islam, God is personal (singular); in Christianity, God is personal, and more (a tri-unity); while in Hinduism and Buddhism, God is less than personal. Some of the world's religious traditions view God as wholly transcendent, others as wholly immanent, and still others as both transcendent and immanent. Clearly the world's religions disagree on who or what God is, not to mention on other doctrines.

This fact is ... the major religions have radically different perspectives on:

1) the religious ultimate;

2) the human predicament; and

3) the nature of salvation, just to name a few.

Simple logic tells us that all these various religious "truths" cannot be true at the same time and in the same way. For example, to say that Jesus Christ is God incarnate (Christianity), AND is not God incarnate (Judaism & Islam) is to violate the law of non-contradiction. Jesus Christ must either be God incarnate or not be God incarnate; any middle position makes no sense. Since Jews, Christians, and Muslims all identify Jesus of Nazareth differently, they simply cannot, logically speaking, all be correct. Thus, the claims of religious pluralism fail to comport with the self-evident laws of thought.

However, does a commitment to the unique veracity of Christianity imply that every feature of non-Christian religions is false? As one theologian put it: "The Christian attitude to other religions rests firmly on the doctrines of creation and redemption. Because God created the world, we EXPECT to find traces of Him throughout His creation; because God redeemed the world through Christ, we expect to look to Christ for the salvation that the Christian gospel promises."

While other religions may derive truth about God from general revelation (nature or conscience), salvation comes uniquely through the special revelation found only in Jesus Christ. General revelation helps explain why many religions can, and in fact do, agree on particular beliefs and values.

In a cultural climate that vilifies and misdefines intolerance, how can we graciously and honestly respond to those who are offended by the "exclusiveness" of Christianity? I have four suggestions:

1) We can emphasize that the gospel invites ALL people everywhere to receive the gift of salvation, made possible by Jesus' sacrifice.

2) Consider... that a world where all religions are simultaneously true would be, in one philosopher's description, a "cosmic madhouse".

3) Exclusivity seems unavoidable. Indeed ... doesn't the pluralist believe EXCLUSIVELY that all religions are equally good paths to God?

And finally, and most importantly...

4) Christianity's exclusivism arises not from the narrow mindedness of individual Christians (or even churches), but from the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ Himself who said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." In addition, the writers of New Testament books, men who were eyewitnesses to His life, death, and resurrection made equally emphatic statements. Peter said, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." The Apostle John said, "And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life." And then there was the Apostle Paul who said, "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus."

While we should never tolerate deceptive or irresponsible tactics in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, we must never retreat from the biblical command of Jesus Himself who said, "Go and make disciples of all nations..." Anything less would be disobedience.