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II. Pluralism

Postmodernism, therefore, doesn’t offer anything that can sensibly be thought a defeater for Christian belief. But what about the facts of religious pluralism, the fact that the world displays a bewildering and kaleidoscopic variety of religious and antireligious ways of thinking, all pursued by people of great intelligence and seriousness? There are theistic religions, but also at least some nontheistic religions (or perhaps nontheistic strands of religion) among the enormous variety 438of religions going under the names ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Buddhism’. Among the theistic religions, there are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, strands of Hinduism and Buddhism, American Indian religions, some African religions, and still others. All of these differ significantly from each other. Furthermore, there are those who reject all religions. Given that I know of this enormous diversity, isn’t it somehow arbitrary, or irrational, or unjustified, or unwarranted (or maybe even oppressive and imperialistic) to endorse one of them as opposed to all the others? How can it be right to select and accept just one system of religious belief from all this blooming, buzzing confusion? Won’t that be in some way irrational? And don’t we therefore have a defeater for Christian belief? As the sixteenth-century writer Jean Bodin put it, “each is refuted by all.”554554   Colloquium Heptaplomeres de rerum sublimium arcanis abditis, written by 1593 but first published in 1857. English translation by Marion Kuntz (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), p. 256. According to John Hick: “In the light of our accumulated knowledge of the other great world faiths, [Christian exclusivism] has become unacceptable to all except a minority of dogmatic diehards.”555555   God Has Many Names, p. 27. It is no doubt true that Christian exclusivism (see below for a definition of that term) is a minority opinion in the world at large: I suppose there are no more than a couple of billion or so Christian exclusivists, with the world’s population perhaps approaching three times that figure. Of course, these matters are not really settled by counting heads. If they were, however, it would be of some interest to note that there are perhaps a million times more of those “dogmatic diehards” than people who accept anything like Hick’s pluralism.

This is the problem of pluralism, and our question is whether a knowledge of the facts of pluralism constitutes a defeater for Christian belief. The specific problem I mean to discuss can be thought of as follows. To put it in an internal and personal way, I find myself with religious beliefs, and religious beliefs that I realize aren’t shared by nearly everyone else. For example, I believe both

(1) The world was created by God, an almighty, all-knowing and perfectly good personal being (the sort of being who holds beliefs, has aims and intentions, and can act to accomplish these aims)


(2) Human beings require salvation, and God has provided a unique way of salvation through the incarnation, life, sacrificial death, and resurrection of his divine son.556556   Note that it is no part of (2) to add that those—the Old Testament patriarchs, for example, as well as countless others—who haven’t encountered this way of salvation cannot share in it.


Now I realize there are many who do not believe these things. First, there are those who agree with me on (1) but not (2): there are non-Christian theistic religions. Second, there are those who don’t accept either (1) or (2), but nonetheless do believe that there is something beyond the natural world, a something such that human well-being and salvation depend on standing in a right relation to it. And third, in the West and since the Enlightenment, anyway, there are people—naturalists, we may call them—who don’t believe any of these three things. Some speak here of a new awareness of religious diversity, and speak of this new awareness as constituting (for us in the West) a crisis, a revolution, an intellectual development of the same magnitude as the Copernican revolution of the sixteenth century and the alleged discovery of evolution and our animal origins in the nineteenth.557557   Thus Joseph Runzo: “Today, the impressive piety and evident rationality of the belief systems of other religious traditions, inescapably confronts Christians with a crisis—and a potential revolution” (“God, Commitment, and Other Faiths: Pluralism vs. Relativism,” Faith and Philosophy 5, no. 4 [October 1988], pp. 343ff.) No doubt there is at least some truth to this. Of course the fact is all along many Western Christians and Jews have known that there are other religions, and that not nearly everyone shares their religion. The ancient Israelites—some of the prophets, say—were clearly aware of Canaanite religion; and the apostle Paul said that he preached “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Greeks” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Other early Christians, the Christian martyrs, say, must have suspected that not everyone believed as they did. The church fathers, in offering defenses of Christianity, were certainly apprised of this fact; Origen, indeed, wrote an eight-volume reply to Celsus, who urged an argument very similar to those urged by contemporary pluralists.558558   See Robert Wilken’s paper “Religious Pluralism and Early Christian Thought,” so far unpublished. Wilken focuses on the third century; he explores Origen’s response to Celsus, and concludes that there are striking parallels between Origen’s historical situation and ours. “What is different today, I suspect, is not that Christianity has to confront other religions,” he says, “but that we now call this situation ‘religious pluralism’.” Aquinas, again, was clearly aware of those to whom he addressed the Summa contra Gentiles; and the fact that there are non-Christian religions would have come as no surprise to the Jesuit missionaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries or to the Methodist missionaries of the nineteenth. Still, in recent years probably more Western Christians have become aware of the world’s religious diversity; we have probably learned more about people of other religious persuasions, and we have come to see more clearly that they display what looks like real piety, devoutness, and spirituality. What is new, perhaps, is a more widespread sympathy for other religions, a tendency to see them as more valuable, as containing 440more by way of truth, and a new feeling of solidarity with their practitioners.

Now one way to react to these other religious responses to the world is to continue to believe what I have all along believed; I learn about this diversity, but continue to believe (i.e., take to be true), such propositions as (1) and (2) above, consequently taking to be false any beliefs, religious or otherwise, that are incompatible with (1) and (2). Following current practice, I shall call this exclusivism; the exclusivist holds that the tenets or some of the tenets of one religion—Christianity, let’s say—are in fact true; he adds, naturally enough, that any propositions, including other religious beliefs, that are incompatible with those tenets are false. Here we need a couple of initial qualifications. First, I shall use the term ‘exclusivism’ in such a way that you don’t count as an exclusivist unless you are rather fully aware of other faiths, have had their existence and their claims called to your attention with some force and perhaps fairly frequently, have noted that the adherents of other religions sometimes appear to display great intelligence, moral excellence, and spiritual insight, and have to some degree reflected on the problem of pluralism, asking yourself such questions as whether it is or could be really true that the Lord has revealed himself and his programs to Christians, say, in a way in which he hasn’t revealed himself to those of other faiths. And second, suppose I am an exclusivist with respect to (1), for example, but reasonably believe, like Thomas Aquinas, say, that I have a knockdown, drag-out argument, a demonstration or conclusive proof of the proposition that there is such a person as God; and suppose I think further that if those who don’t believe (1) were to be apprised of this argument (and had the ability and training necessary to grasp it, and were to think about the argument fairly and reflectively), they too would come to believe (1). Then, obviously, the facts of religious pluralism would not furnish me with a defeater for (1). My condition would be like that of Kurt Gödel, upon his recognition that he had a proof for the incompleteness of arithmetic. True, many of his colleagues and peers didn’t believe that arithmetic was incomplete, and some believed that it was complete; these facts did not give Gödel a defeater for his belief; he had his proof, after all. Furthermore, he wouldn’t have had a defeater in these facts even if he were mistaken in thinking he had a proof.

Accordingly, I shall use the term ‘exclusivist’ in such a way that you don’t count as an exclusivist if you rationally think you know of a demonstration or conclusive argument for the belief with respect to which you are an exclusivist, or even if you rationally think you know of an argument that would convince all or most intelligent and honest people of the truth of that proposition. And our question is whether it is possible to be a rational exclusivist in the above sense; our question, that is, is whether I have a defeater for my Christian belief in my 441knowledge of the facts of religious pluralism, coupled with my belief that I do not have a proof or argument that can be counted on to convince those who disagree with me. Must I recognize that the existence of these other ways of thinking gives me a defeater for my own?

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