Reflections on Religions
But What About Other Religions?
The question naturally arises as to whether or not Christianity is unique among world religions. Or is it only a variation on a basic theme running through all religions?
PAUL LITTLE, Know Why You Believe
The immense hall was dimly lit and sparsely furnished. Arabic inscriptions, elaborate carvings and bright mosaics graced the walls, and the entire floor was covered by an array of patterned rugs fit together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. There were no chairs or benches. Most of the people present were dressed in flowing robes and kneeling prostrate on the floor. As I studied the faces of the worshipers there at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, I couldn't escape the notion that although their religion was quite different from mine, these Muslims were at least as dedicated and sincere as most Christians I know.
Ever since I returned to Christianity wholeheartedly, encounters with
people of other faiths have raised unsettling questions. It is one thing to believe in the truth of Christianity in my own small world dominated by church activities and Christian friends, but quite another when confronted with people of other faiths who seem just as convinced and sincere in their beliefs. At these times I often ask the same questions I hear many others asking today. Do I really have more reason to believe in the truth of Christianity than in other religions? Or am I convinced of the truth of Christianity only because it is the belief system most familiar to me? Isn't it arrogant to believe Christianity is the only true religion? And couldn't all religions be different expressions of divine truth?
What are some encounters you have had with people of other religions, and how have these affected your faith?
Different Expressions of Divine Truth?
The view that all religions are very different expressions of divine truth is by far the most popular and politically correct in Western cultures right now. This belief has become so prevalent that many consider it one of the few self-evident facts and see anyone who doesn't agree with this pluralistic outlook as arrogant and narrow-minded. They are willing to tolerate anything except such intolerance. So when I was sorting through questions about other religions, this concept of pluralism was the first possibility I considered.
|In an age of toleration and pluralism, the most popular argument against the Christian religion seems to be simply that it is only one of many religions. PETER KREEFT AND RONALD K. TACELLI1|
I must confess that sometimes I wish pluralism could be true. It is an appealing belief system because it relieves us of the necessity of wrestling with hard questions of truth and of having to concern ourselves with the spiritual fate of others. Many religions share certain moral principles, so it would be easy to equate religion with moral codes and dismiss all of the radical theological differences. But I found I could not believe in pluralism for a number of reasons.
Religion has to do with much more than codes of behavior. Integral to all
world religions are concepts of the nature of God, the purpose of humanity, the status of a person after death and the source of ultimate truth. Even the most informal survey of world religious quickly reveals that the essential doctrines of the various religions drastically contradict each other.
Some try to argue that all these theological issues are inconsequential and that true religion involves getting beyond all these differences and attaining some sort of higher truth. But when we look at it, isn't this view simply suggesting another set of religious beliefs and claiming that this belief system is "higher" in other words, "truer" than traditional religions with all their theological diversity?
Upon examination pluralism actually contradicts itself. As Brian McLaren explains in Finding Faith, each religion claims (either overtly or inadvertently) that it is not just an option but the option, or at least the best option. "If all religions are equally true, as pluralism claims, then each religion is false when it claims that some or all other religions are not true... which proves that pluralism (which claims that all religions are equally true) is false when it claims that all religions are true. Does that make sense? It shouldn't!"2
|We live in an age in which tolerance is a key word. Tolerance, however, must be clearly understood. (Truth, by its very nature, is intolerant of error.) If two plus two is four, the total cannot at the same time be twenty-three.... One must be tolerant of other points of view and respect their right to be held and heard. He cannot, however, be forced in the name of tolerance to agree that all points of view, including those that are mutually contradictory, are equally valid. PAUL LITTLE3|
Also, if we are going to hold that all beliefs are of equal value, we cannot fudge later by excluding certain beliefs we happen not to like. And I have never yet met a person who didn't see it necessary to condemn some belief systems. Are we really willing to say that the belief system of a tribal chief performing human sacrifice, a white supremacist advocating mass genocide or a Satanist promoting anarchy and lawlessness is of equal value to all other beliefs?
What are some of the differences among the world religions you are familiar with?
Do you agree that if religions contradict each other they can't all be equally true? Why or why not?
What is your view of pluralism?
Isn't It Arrogant to View Christianity as the Only True Faith?
Belief that Christianity is the only true faith can be arrogant if it is motivated by pride and the desire for supremacy. But it is not when encased in humility and motivated solely by the desire to know and live truth. The Bible specifically teaches that Jesus is "the way, the truth and the life" and that no one can come to God except through him (Jn 14:6).
This is not a concept that Christians have gotten together and voted on with the desire to exclude others. It is a basic doctrine that those who believe in the reliability of the Bible cannot ignore. Of course it should never be viewed as an excuse not to demonstrate compassion, meekness and understanding in interactions with people of other faiths. For these also are basic elements of Christianity.
Do you agree that believing Christianity is the only true religion isn't necessarily arrogant? Why or why not?
What would be the major differences between the words and actions of Christians who are arrogant in this belief and the words and actions of those who are not?
But realizing that all religions cannot be equally true just led me back to the other questions. My spiritual search had led me to exciting discoveries about Christianity and mind-expanding insights into myself and the world around me. But don't all people think their own religion is true? How could I know that Christianity is really any different? How could a person even learn enough about all the other world religions to even make an intelligent comparison?
|Worldviews... are not infinite in number. In a pluralistic society they seem to exist in profusion, but the basic issues and options are actually rather small. JAMES W. SIRE4|
The thought of trying to investigate the truth claims of all world religions is intimidating, to say the least. However, I was surprised to find that when I began exploring world religions, there were many fewer options than I had imagined. This is not to say that much diversity of belief doesn't exist even within each religious tradition. But despite the important differences each religion possesses, I found it is possible to categorize world religions into a handful of basic options regarding their
fundamental approaches to God.
Have you attempted to investigate other religions? If so, in what ways, and what has been the result?
Can these religions point to well-attested examples of fulfilled prophecy equivalent to those of the Bible?
Can we see in history and throughout the world today that these religions powerfully change people's lives for the better?
Does archaeology support the historical claims of these religions?
Can these religions point to well-documented confirming miracles in the same way Christianity can point to the resurrection?
Do these religions give the most consistent, comprehensive and satisfying explanation of humanity and the world?
Polytheists believe in the existence of numerous finite gods. Some polytheists believe these gods arose from nature, while others maintain they were humans who turned into gods. Although the names and characteristics of gods differ among various polytheistic systems, adherents generally view their gods as beings possessing superhuman power but not necessarily superior morality or wisdom. Polytheistic gods are often portrayed as very humanlike in their actions and motives, often fighting among themselves, holding grudges, exacting revenge and deceiving both gods and humans.
|God himself once was as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! ... And you have got to learn how to be gods yourselves... the same as all gods have done before you. JOSEPH SMITH (founder of Mormonism)5|
There are many examples of polytheistic religions from ancient times for example, the mythologies of Greece, Rome and Norway. A renewed interest in polytheism has recently arisen in the Western world through what is sometimes called "the new paganism." The beliefs of the Mormon Church are also polytheistic in that Mormonism teaches that many gods exist and that the God Mormons worship was previously a man.
Comments on Polytheism
Most polytheistic systems do not contain any explanation for the beginning of the universe. Their teaching that the gods either were birthed from nature or were once humans leaves unanswered the question of who created nature and the first humans.
Polytheism usually is dualistic in its approach to morality, which leaves no basis for belief in a true "right" and "wrong." Dualism teaches that two groups of independent gods exist, one preferring cruelty and hatred and the other preferring love and mercy. But since neither group created the other or has any claim to supremacy, what is the basis for calling the one group "good" and the other "evil"?
I haven't found any polytheistic religion that can compare with Christianity in the areas of archaeology, fulfilled prophecy, confirming miracles or transformation of lives.
A Face of Polytheism
Ruthann is a social work student at an American university who dabbles in the new paganism. Her religious practices involve magic, nighttime festivals and the worship of numerous gods who possess different personalities and strengths. She explains that the creed of her Wiccan group is "As long as you harm no one, do what you will."
Do you agree with these comments about polytheism? If not, which ones do you disagree with and why?
If you were to believe in polytheism, what reasons would you have? How do these compare with the reasons for belief in Christianity?
Pantheists believe that God is everything that exists and everything that exists is God. The universe and God are considered to be one and the same thing. God is the absolute reality that unites all things. This reality is impersonal, eternal, unchanging and infinite. Because of this, pantheists believe that God is in all humanity, and individuals can receive power and insight by realizing their divinity and connecting with the divine power everywhere present.
Pantheists maintain that if God is all, then the concept of evil must be an illusion. They believe that on the highest level of understanding, ultimate truth is found in contradiction. The Absolute One is beyond good and evil and at the same time contains them both. Although pantheists often emphasize good actions and self-sacrifices, they believe ultimately that once a person moves beyond the lower levels of spiritual attainment, that person no longer needs to be concerned with moral law. For the pantheist, the highest realization is that there is neither good nor evil.
|So he who understands [wisdom] by no deed whatsoever of his is his world injured, not by stealing, not by killing an embryo, not by the murder of his mother, not by the murder of his father. KAUSITAKI UPANISHAD 3.1 (Hindu scripture)6|
Pantheism generally sees "the Absolute One" as drastically different from anything we know, so we cannot use reason in religious matters. Pantheists practice meditation techniques in an attempt to empty the mind of all thought, contemplating reasonless questions such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" or mystical syllables such as "om." These are believed to open the mind to the understanding that everything, even in all its contradictions, is God.
Pantheism is most prevalent in Eastern religions. Many forms of Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism are pantheistic. And pantheism is becoming much more common in the Western world through the spread of Eastern religions, as well as through the teachings of Christian Science, Unity, Scientology and New Age philosophy. The Star Wars movies are good examples of popular pantheistic thought.
Comments on Pantheism
Even though a basic doctrine of pantheism is that reason can tell us
nothing about God, pantheism does selectively apply reason in its teachings. A belief system truly consistent with this premise would just be a conglomeration of unrelated statements with no life application possible. Humans cannot escape the use of reason. It is reason that tells pantheists that God is above reason, and it is reason that allows pantheists to apply this teaching in their lives.
If we are to wholeheartedly accept the pantheistic view, we must wholeheartedly accept the concept that there is no real distinction between good and evil. We must be willing to say it is ultimately just as "good" for me to pour scalding water on someone as it is for me to give my life for him or her. But this belief runs so contrary to our concept of reality that most of us cannot live consistently with it. Even pantheistic literature is filled with moral appeals, despite the fact that this belief system does not ultimately allow for true right and wrong.
Even though many pantheists believe the material world is an illusion, even the most enlightened person cannot disregard matter altogether. For example, even the most enlightened person must eat to live.
Because of pantheism's emphasis on the irrational, it does not easily lend itself to objective support such as prophecy, archaeology and confirming miracles.
Do you agree with these comments about pantheism? If not, which ones do you disagree with and why?
If you were to believe in pantheism, what reasons would you have? How do these compare with reasons for belief in Christianity?
Deists believe that God created the universe and established the natural laws but when withdrew to allow the universe to develop on its own. Most deists believe that God is personal, all-good, all-loving and all-powerful but that he never interferes with the natural order or intervenes in the lives of people. This view was particularly popular in Europe and North America in the eighteenth century, during what is referred to as the Age of Enlightenment. Many founders of the United States embraced this view, including Thomas
Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
The deist believes that the world is the only revelation we have to tell us of God. Evil is considered the byproduct of blind natural laws and the actions of human beings. Deists generally maintain that God has placed moral law in human hearts to direct our actions, but since they do not hold to any revelation beyond nature, deists often disagree widely about what this moral code forbids or endorses.
Comments on Deism
Deists give no sufficient reason for accepting the biggest miracles of all the miracle of creation but rejecting the possibility of smaller miracles.
Deism raises the monumental question of how an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God would abandon his creation to the kind of depravity and cruelty that exists in the world today.
Since deists reject the possibility of specific divine revelation or supernatural acts, they do not possess any positive evidences for their view such as fulfilled prophecy, confirming miracles or substantiating archaeological finds.
|A being who could bring the universe into existence from nothing could certainly perform lesser miracles if he chose to do so. A God who created water could part it or make it possible for a person to walk on it.... It seems self-defeating to admit a great miracle like creation and then to deny the possibility of lesser miracles. NORMAN L. GEISLER7|
Deism has shown itself to be an unstable worldview. Despite the widespread acceptance of this view a few hundred years ago, not many hold to it today. Deism seems to have been a middle step taken by those desiring to relieve humanity of the constraints of religion but not quite willing to give up the comfort of belief in God.
Do you agree with these comments about deism? If not, which ones do you disagree with and why?
If you were to believe in deism, what reasons would you have?
How do these compare with the reasons for belief in Christianity?
Monotheism is, of course, the category to which Christianity belongs. Monotheism asserts that there is one personal, transcendent God who has
always existed outside of time and space, has created both the universe and humanity and is still intimately involve with both. Two major monotheistic world religions exist besides Christianity: Judaism and Islam.
Judaism. Most of us are familiar with Judaism because it is the foundation for Christianity. The Jewish Scriptures are revered by Christians and are even included in the Christian Bible. The truth of Christianity partly rests on whether Judaism as taught in the Jewish Scriptures is true. However, Christianity goes a step further in teaching that Jesus was the fulfillment of Judaism.
Judaism is intrinsically linked with the Jewish ethnic group. Adherents to Judaism usually believe that the Jewish people possess a special relationship with God and that acceptance by God is based on being or becoming part of the Jewish community as well as living a righteous life. Although modern Judaism has much diversity and usually emphasizes a way of life rather than specific doctrinal beliefs, the key issue in deciding between Judaism and Christianity is whether you believe that Jesus is the promised Jewish Messiah.
If you were to reject Christianity, would you accept Judaism? Why or why not?
Islam. Islam is second only to Christianity in the number of followers it has in the world today. It was founded by an Arab man named Muhammad about six hundred years after the time of Christ. Those who follow the Islamic faith are called Muslims, which means "ones who submit."
Islam shares some things in common with Judaism and Christianity. Muslims believe in the existence of one transcendent God. They also believe that both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures represent divine revelations. But they believe that these revelations have been corrupted and that now only the Qur'an (Koran), the Islamic holy book, contains the unaltered and final revelation. Muslims believe in the Jewish prophets and patriarchs but emphasize Abraham's son Ishmael rather than Isaac. They believe Jesus was a miracle worker and a prophet but reject his divinity, his death on the cross and his resurrection.
Islam emphasizes the exaltation, supremacy and holiness of God above all else. The relationship between God and human beings is viewed as a relationship between master and slave more than parent and child. The Qur'an teaches that God doesn't love the wayward child or those who do wrong and that the duty of the Muslim is to obey God, not necessarily to know him.
|Had it been Our will, We could have given every soul its guidance. But My word shall be fulfilled: "I will surely fill Hell with jinn [angels] and humans all." SURA 32:138|
Central to Islamic tradition is the concept of strict predestination, meaning that all that happens, both good and bad, is directly willed by God, including all the actions of individual people. Islam teaches God is Absolute Will that we can describe his actions but not his essence. He has no characteristics that compel him to act in any specific way. Although considered most merciful and loving, he can be either loving or not as he chooses, and both are considered right.
Muslims believe individuals can earn the right to go to paradise by doing good deeds. However, only God can judge when a person has done enough good deeds, so salvation is never certain unless a person is killed in a holy war while defending or spreading Islam.
Comments on Islam
The Qur'an itself refers to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures as authentic (Suras 2:136; 5:45-48) and exhorts Jews and Christians to "observe the Torah and the Gospel and that which has been revealed to you from your Lord" (Sura 5:68). It also states that no one can change the words of God (Sura 6:115). This contradicts the Muslim belief that these scriptures have now been corrupted. And even the passages Muslims point to in the Qur'an to teach such corruption seem to actually speak of the misuse of these texts and attempts to add to them rather than their widespread alteration (Suras 2:75; 2:78-79).
No manuscript evidence exists that the Jewish and Christian Scriptures have been altered as the Muslims believe. In fact, abundant evidence exists to the contrary, especially in regard to the New Testament documents (see chapter six). If these Scriptures are still authentic and accurate and yet contradict teachings found in the Qur'an, this presents difficulties for the authenticity of the Qur'an.
Islam also teaches that God created humanity pure in nature and rejects the idea that this nature has been altered by Adam's sin. Islam thus lacks an explanation for the inclination toward selfishness and corruption we see in others and ourselves.
As was discussed in chapter seven, much evidence exists supporting the fact that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God and was raised from the dead. If this is correct, it undermines Islam.
A Face of Islam
Erik had a good friend in college who was a Jordanian Muslim. Abdul was fiercely proud of his family and his Islamic heritage and believed without question that Islam was the most logical religion. It was impossible not to admire Abdul in his strict adherence to Muslim regulations despite being thousands of miles from his home and surrounded by all the temptations of American college life. He even refused to use toothpaste during the fast of Ramadan for fear he would swallow it. Abdul was a champion of Muslim law, defending it and explaining that although it may seem harsh, it is necessary.
Do you agree with these comments about Islam? If not, which ones do you disagree with and why?
If you were to believe in Islam, what reasons would you have? How do these compare with the reasons for believing in Christianity?
Criticism or Compassion
We were sitting on the floor surrounded by the remains of a delicious Indian meal when the conversation suddenly turned to religion. "I don't have problems with other faiths as long as they don't insist they are the only true one," Charmie, our Hindu hostess, commented. "Christianity doesn't insist it is the only true religion does it?"
I shifted awkwardly. "Actually," another Christian friend said, "Christianity does teach that Jesus is the only way to get to heaven, and so other religions that disagree with this can't be equally true."
Charmie looked incredulous and began asking questions, launching us into an in-depth discussion of the differences between Hinduism and Christianity.
As we left that evening, I hoped the discussion hadn't offended our hostess.
It was several weeks before I saw Charmie again. This time we were at a birthday party for a common friend, and she came running over to greet me before I was even out of the car. Her face was aglow and she gave me a big, unexpected hug. "There is something I have to tell you," she said. I am a Christian too! I have accepted Christ, and now we are sisters!" The joy in her eyes was unmistakable.
|Comparative religion is very comparative indeed. That is, it is so much a matter of degree and distance and difference that it is only comparatively successful when it tries to compare. When we come to look at it closely we find it comparing things that are really quite incomparable... In truth the Church is too unique to prove herself unique. For most popular and easy proof is by parallel; and here there is no parallel. G.K. CHESTERTON9|
My purpose in this chapter is not to criticize other people's religions. Yet if Christianity is true, the most compassionate thing we can do for others is help them discover this and point them to Christ just as if I am wrong about Christianity, the best thing someone can do is point out my error so I can find truth elsewhere.
I have been surprised at Christianity's uniqueness. In particular it is the only religion in which "salvation" is not in the least based on a person's good actions but is based solely on the kindness of God. And in the areas in which I did find Christianity similar to other religions, it is similar in ways that would be expected if Christianity were true for instance, in the repeated motif of the need for sacrifice for wrongdoing and in the unanimous acknowledgement of the moral imperfections of humanity even in religions that consider humanity in some way divine.
Of course it is impossible to cover all the aspects of the religions of the world in a chapter of this length, and each person must make his or her own decision. But I have discovered that looking into the claims of other faiths has actually strengthened my faith in the truth of Christianity.
Can you think of any religions that do not fit into one of the four categories listed in this chapter? If so, explain.
If you were to reject Christianity, what religion do you think you would choose and why?
How does the evidence for this religion compare with that for Christianity?
Do you believe it is possible that all religions are just different expressions of divine truth? Why or why not?
Do you believe Christianity possesses unique evidence to support its claim of truth? Why or why not?
Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions and Festivals by Elizabeth Breuilly, Joanne O'Brien and Martin Palmer (New York: Facts on File, 1997). A well-illustrated, straightforward overview of the beliefs and practices of world religions.
Handbook of Today's Religions by Josh McDowell and Don Stewart (San Bernardino, Calif.: Here's Life. 1989). This is a good resource if you are looking for a basic comparison of world religions from a Christian perspective.
Eerdmans Handbook to World Religions edited by Pat Alexander (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994). This resource presents a more in-depth summary of world religions, including ancient pagan religions, from a light-handed Christian perspective.
Chapter Fourteen || Table of Contents