A Defense of Christian Truth in a Pluralistic Culture

For I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of God
for the salvation of everyone who believes: for Jew first, and then Greek.
Romans 1:16 (NAB)

One night in mid-January, my roommate was walking back into Harvard Yard. As he passed through Boylston Gate, a man lounging against it called out to him: “Do you know about Jesus Christ?” My roommate, surprised, responded affirmatively but didn’t stop walking. The man started walking beside him, continuing his questions: “Do you know him as your personal savior? Have you accepted him into your heart so that you can have eternal life? Have you?” He was walking right next to my roommate, their shoulders bumping every few steps, and my roommate mumbled a few vague replies. The conversation was cut short, but he remembered it and complained to me about annoying Christians when he got back to our room later that night.

This is the kind of experience that makes people resent Christianity: pushy insistence on salvation, blindness toward others’ discomfort, and an arrogance that one is right and no one else is. No one wants to be associated with a religion like that, and this is why people roll their eyes at you when any hint of Christian absolutism comes up. After all, haven’t we realized by now that religion isn’t something you can convince anyone about? Non-Christians think it is high time that we stop trying to force our beliefs down other people’s throats and accept the fact that other religions and beliefs are just as valid as Christianity.

This attitude reflects our cultural commitment to diversity, respect, and tolerance: cardinal virtues on both the Harvard campus and in the nation’s broader intellectual climate. In our pluralistic society atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and believers from other religions all live side-by-side. Within this heterogeneous fabric, proposing that everyone should believe in Christianity seems presumptuous in the extreme. A popular argument is that religious pluralism exists because it is not possible to find the “one true religion,” only a religion that best fits an individual’s personality and cultural background. My goal is to demonstrate that this is unjustified and to separate the sociological fact of religious pluralism from the philosophy of religious relativism that usually accompanies it.

Religious Relativism as a Model for Religious Truth

Religious relativism is a dangerous philosophy for religious truth. As Cardinal Ratzinger stated in the Declaration Dominus Iesus: “The Church’s constant missionary proclamation is endangered today by relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism, not only de facto but also de iure (or in principle)” (sect. 4). Justifying pluralism by adhering to religious relativism denies the possibility of absolute truth claims in any religion under the assumption that absolute truth claims do not allow co-existence with other religions. Instead of being a means of finding truth, religion becomes a mere tool for taking care of peoples’ spiritual needs in a way that fits their personality and upbringing. This makes perfect sense to many people, but it comes at a price: no tradition can claim absolute and universal truths.

There are several different models of relativism that are used to justify pluralism, and each is a comprehensive understanding of what religion is and how it relates to truth. Each model necessarily excludes other models, but they all have the common fundamental assumption that religions cannot make a claim to absolute truth. In fact, one prevalent model denies that objective truth exists at all. This is an extreme statement about truth, and when pressed most people will admit that they don’t hold to it. After all, such a statement would undercut empirical science and bar the possibility of truth in everything from research in cell biology to particle physics.

The most common relativistic model states that religion cannot make claims about objective truth and that religion is unable to encapsulate the ultimate nature of the universe. The closest that religions can come to objective truth is in their shared ethical teachings: love your neighbor, avoid attachment to material goods, recognize that the ultimate reality is love or compassion. I have heard people state that since these basic teachings are the real fruit of religion there is no need for organized religions. This is poor reasoning, however, because each tradition produced those fruits after long periods of teaching, practicing, and searching for the truth, supporting their findings with corresponding beliefs and grounding them in a theological framework. Claiming the right to circumvent organized religions prevents a person from seeing that teachings are rooted in the traditions they come from: really knowing a spiritual truth is a product of participating in that tradition. Saying that “God is love” without providing any reason why is logically unsupportable. The mistake of seeing universal truths and spiritual teachings as a kind of meta-religion is that people are free to pick and choose what precepts they desire without regard to how they correspond. Each individual becomes their own religious system. One need only think of the well-documented celebrities who claim to be intensely spiritual, but only practice the parts of religions which are convenient for them.

In contrast, absolutism states that religious claims have universal and objective truth; religions make statements about the nature of reality, and each religion frames a comprehensive understanding of the world. Ironically, religious relativism asserts its own universal claim by denying religious absolutism. It removes absolute truth from religions and places absolute truth in its own model instead. Relativism claims a clear vantage point from which it surveys all religions and declares them to be limited.

In general, models of religious relativism that acknowledge the existence of a transcendent reality understand Christianity as one of many equal religions. Each religion leads to the same God or Ultimate Reality, just by different paths. Spiritual practice, religious observance, and adherence to a religious tradition feed a person’s growth and awareness, whether they are Christian, Muslim or Jewish. Marcus Borg, a liberal Christian theologian, espouses a version of this viewpoint in his book The Heart of Christianity. He deems the “many paths” analogy too simple because it makes religions seem overly similar. Instead of paths, he uses the analogy of a home, a place where you grow to maturation; and he insists that “we do not need to feel that our home is superior to every other home in order to love it” (224).

This relativism is appealing because it allows us to treasure what we know and still feel comfortable celebrating the diversity of our pluralistic culture. However, even though it does recognize a sort of truth in religion, it is only a limited truth that cannot expand beyond the borders of a particular faith. Nothing in them can be taken literally, and their claims are more about a vague spiritual reality than about how we should understand the workings of the world and God. A claim that Jesus is fully God and fully man, for instance, could not be understood as actually identifying Jesus’ nature, because there are other faiths who think of Jesus as just a man. From this it is understood that Christianity is not literally true because other faiths would be wrong. Instead, it is seen as an expression of the Christian reverence for Jesus-it is circumscribed so that religious relativism can comfortably place it alongside other faiths.

The Absolutist Interpretation of Christianity

I discuss here only a few key beliefs of the Christian faith, but these few illustrate that alteration in the absolute nature of Christian doctrine makes the whole structure collapse. Even though pluralists such as Borg are comfortable with a lack of absolute truth in Christianity, I am not. For those who seek to know the truth, it is not enough to find a practical or good religion-it should also be a true one. For instance, adopting belief in the gods of Valhalla might strike me as particularly inspiring, but that belief wouldn’t be an attractive option unless it held objective truth. Worshipping gods that don’t exist just isn’t appealing. Our basic human intuition is to seek truth, and we press on to find out about the nature of reality, not just arbitrary opinions. While this section discusses the claims of Christianity in an absolutist interpretation, I do not argue here for accepting these claims. What I do argue for is that if they are true at all, then they are absolute.

The distinctive aspect of Christianity that sets it apart from every other major world religion is that it centers around a person and not a set of teachings or doctrines handed down from a great teacher or prophet. There are certainly many teachings in Christianity, but without the person of Jesus Christ they would all fall short of the goal of Christian life-direct, personal access to God. This is why the doctrine that God was incarnate is essential, because it means Jesus bridges the gap between God and creation: the two came together in Jesus, and for the first time since the Fall humanity was able to have a personal relationship with God. Because of the basic inadequacy and sinfulness of human beings, it was not possible for them to be intimate with God without Jesus. Where we are sinful, limited, and fearful, God is perfect, transcendent, and loving. The incarnation meant that God came to us because we could not go to God. If it is not true that Jesus was fully God and fully man, then he could not serve as the mediator that Christians believe we all need. As an event in history, the incarnation needs to be true for any of the other Christian claims about humans relationship to God to be true. Abandoning this belief therefore amounts to undercutting the entire Christian plan for salvation.

The centerpiece of this divine plan is that God and humanity were reconciled by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross-the sins of humanity carried a penalty that was paid for by Jesus, who because of his perfection was able to carry the full weight of that penalty. This is a familiar teaching, but it is certainly not anything less than a claim to absolute truth. If Jesus’ crucifixion actually accomplished the reconciliation of humankind and God, then we now have access to God in a way that wouldn’t be possible without Christ’s sacrifice. Saying that the crucifixion is meaningful for Christians but not for Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists is absurd, because the teaching is that it was done for all mankind. Saying that it was a reconciliation only intended for those that it reconciled is circular-it is clear that if Christ’s death actually had an effect in the world, then it was an effect meant for all humans.

This is why the alternative possibility is that Jesus Christ died, but didn’t accomplish any reconciliation. Religious relativism supports this because Christ’s universal sacrifice can’t be true in an objective sense if it didn’t affect all of humanity in a totally unique way. The denial of Christ’s universal effect amounts to a rejection because there is no middle ground-it either occurred or it didn’t.

The view that the crucifixion didn’t accomplish a reconciliation between God and man is not completely unacceptable to a some believers. It means a rejection of the salvific work of God, but there are people who do not believe that any salvific work was necessary in the first place. If the fundamental problem is not the inability of man to be in relationship with God but rather his ignorance of how to be in relationship with God, then the crucifixion and resurrection could be seen as a metaphorical guide to the death and resurrection that is necessary in the spiritual life (Borg 216). Of course, this a much larger topic, but it is enough to point out that when the truth of the Christ’s crucifixion is lost, our understanding of the rest of the Christian faith has to change as well.

This absolutist understanding of the Christian faith is traditional, and for good reason. These truths of our faith all fit together to provide a complete picture of God’s plan for humanity, and they cannot be altered arbitrarily or limited in their scope. Another teaching relevant to this discussion is that since God’s work through Jesus was universal, Jesus is the sole source of salvation. This is made clear in John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (NAB). Also, it is explicit that Jesus’s followers have a mission to evangelize, as stated in the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (NAB). Both of these teachings reference the beauty and fullness of Jesus’ identity. John 14:6 attests to his uniqueness and excludes the possibility of other paths to God. The Great Commission reflects the desire of God for his saving love to be known by all-he refuses to be limited to a specific people or place, and claims the whole world as his territory. This makes sense: if Jesus is all he claims to be, then everybody deserves to hear about the beauty, love, and redemption he offers to us.

Understanding Christianity and Other Religions

Surveying these doctrines can be uncomfortable once we put them in context with other world religions. In our pluralistic environment at Harvard it seems arrogant, insensitive, and backward to claim that Christianity contains absolute truths, especially the doctrine of exclusive salvation through Jesus Christ. In fact, the insistence on absolute truths makes it all too easy to see every Christian as a fundamentalist, like the man who scared my roommate. The beliefs I advocate for should be seen as the framework for a complex, perceptive, and compassionate theology, not as hammers with which to pummel others. Absolutism does not limit Christianity to fundamentalism, and part of its core is a comprehensive understanding of how it relates to other religions.

There is a well-defined theology surrounding this that can be read in documents like the Declaration Dominus Iesus, John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio, and others. The starting point for any discussion of the status of other religions is a full understanding of the universal salvation that Jesus provides. This universal salvation is available to everyone who ever lived, in any time or place. Even when a person has no knowledge of Jesus, his grace is still available to them. Many fundamentalists would resist the idea that someone can be saved without explicit belief in Jesus Christ, but I believe this is not consistent with the universal desire of God, “who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Jesus Christ is the single mediator who accomplishes our salvation for us, but Christian teaching holds that this mediation works through a variety of means in different religions and cultures. This makes sense, because God would not allow someone to be lost because of their historical and cultural situation. He is powerful and resourceful enough to reach toward every person who has ever been born, but “always consistent with the principle of Christ’s unique mediation” (Dominus 14). We do not know the specific way that the Christ’s mediation operates in other religions, but we do know that it is Christ’s work and no other’s. Other faiths would no doubt disagree with this since they understand salvation to work through different paths.

John Paul II says in Redemptoris Missio that the grace of Jesus “enlightens [people] in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation” (10). This situation is composed of all the particulars of their life and faith. This was phrased eloquently in the Vatican II Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions. She looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and of life, those rules and teachings which . . . often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men” (662). Thus Mahayana Buddhism’s teachings on compassion, Islam’s devotion to prayer and admirable aspects of other traditions are valued as “rays of Truth” that point toward Jesus. Christians should not stop short at respecting these rays of light, but “acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods” that they find in other religions (663). Because other religions possess genuine spiritual and moral goods, they need to be celebrated and promoted-not ignored because they come from different traditions.

Critics of the Christian faith often do not see that many Christians find value in other religions. This is likely due to the unfortunate mistakes of Christian missionaries throughout history, including today. Gavin D’Costa offers one extreme example in his account of the declaration made in 1513 by a Portuguese explorer named Martin de Encisco. The declaration briefly summarized the history of the ancient world, the life of Jesus Christ, the institution of the papacy, and the granting of South American lands to Portugal. The whole tract was read in Spanish or Latin to natives who had no ability to understand, and afterward the natives were considered Portuguese subjects (D’Costa 136). This is not spreading the Gospel, but subjugation. We can no longer ignore other religions and cultures in our pluralistic environment and the deep disrespect and antagonism toward them still carried by some Christians poisons interreligious dialogue and evangelization.

Believing in the value of other religions while maintaining that there are absolute truths helps Christians to be more unified with the human family and to see others not as heretics or idolators, but as brothers and sisters who are seeking the same truth. This doctrine is perfectly in accord with the best values of pluralism: respect, tolerance, and diversity. What it leaves behind is the religious relativism that reduces every religion to a limited or incomplete expression of truth, unable to make universal claims. Maintaining belief in absolutism is actually preferable for interreligious dialogue, because it allows Christians to communicate the depth of their faith in a genuine way, being honest about what they believe and its implications.

Believing in the value of other religions while maintaining that there are absolute truths helps Christians to be more unified with the human family and to see others not as heretics or idolators, but as brothers and sisters who are seeking the same truth. This doctrine is perfectly in accord with the best values of pluralism: respect, tolerance, and diversity. What it leaves behind is the religious relativism that reduces every religion to a limited or incomplete expression of truth, unable to make universal claims. Maintaining belief in absolutism is actually preferable for interreligious dialogue, because it allows Christians to communicate the depth of their faith in a genuine way, being honest about what they believe and its implications.

Calling others to Jesus Christ and respecting their religions are not mutually exclusive: they should be seen as organically related. Christians who want to respect others may do so to the extent that they stop making invitations to learn about Jesus out of fear they will be seen as offensive. Rather than risk alienating someone, Christians prefer to keep their mouths shut about the nature of their belief in Jesus. However, once we come closer to Jesus in lives of prayer, it becomes more and more impossible to make any kind of separation between our lives and what we believe. Then, Christians can fearlessly praise what is good in others while still sharing the call to discover the fullness of truth that is in Jesus. These are conversations that happen over time and that require a deep level of understanding, and the worst service Christians can do to Jesus is to speak as Martin de Encisco did-with overbearing arrogance and no chance of being understood. Essentially, the Gospel has to be lived out, and from this it can be shared in a way that takes into account all that is unique about an individual.

If people are offended by invitations to discuss Jesus, Christians should not press them. Yet Christians are called by the conviction of their hearts to make that invitation, and to make it repeatedly. The deep joy that is felt through knowledge of Jesus cannot help but overflow and become an invitation in both action and word. At the same time, all expectations about conversion should be left by the wayside. In the end, the Christian faith affirms the universal love of God for all people, and Christians simply have to trust that those who never discover the full representation of living truth continue to seek it in a different way.

Leo Keliher is a first-year Philosophy concentrator in Canaday Hall.