By Rev. Lance Filio
Religious talk in group discussion makes people nervous. I remember eating dinner with colleagues when a debate about religion ensued. Suddenly, it becomes a hot topic. It created tension and ended unpleasantly. Immediately, it goes from bad to worst. It will not surprise me if the verbal sword-fighting ends with a real fistfight. So easing the tension, someone in the group will share a universally accepted idiom, “Pareho-pareho naman ang lahat ng relihiyon. Magkakaiba man ang anyo pero sa iisang Dios din ang sinasamba.” Nobody dares challenge this presumption. Everybody politely agrees and move on to the next topic.
But is this true? Are all religions worship the same god? Judging from people’s reaction today, it seems true. And they train us to believe this way. Religion, no matter how much they differ, leads to the same god. However, is this what the Bible teaches? Many professing Christians abandoned the exclusive claims of Christianity. To appear less controversial, Christians embraced a more inclusive kind of religion. Are they justified to do so? Well, Christianity claims to know the true God (John 17:3), proclaims true salvation in Christ (Acts 2:21) and promises the true way to eternal life (John 3:16). It is an exclusive claim so how come Christians steer away from such a position?
We will end our “Know Why We Believe” series by knowing why we believe in Christianity alone. We will examine three challenges against the exclusivity of Christianity as a religion. They are relativism, religious plurality and plead for tolerance. These terms need definition. We will labor on each as we move on the topic one by one. But as a way of summary, let me assert that Christianity, as a religion, is a religious truth claim. And as a truth, they bound Christians to uphold this position at all cost. Religious controversies may pressure us to become a more inclusive religion. But doing so, we lose our integrity as Christians. Witnessing God’s truth is fundamental to Christian living. We defend the faith against all kinds of falsehood.
Relativism believes truth exists. Yet, it does not hold to any truth objectively. Judged subjectively, truth becomes relative to a person. For them, the truth lies inside. Each one determines their truth relatively. All religion leads to the same god. This is an idiomatic example of relativism. They call it religious pluralism. And, we will examine it in our next point. But going back, relativism, as defined, believes truth is subjective. Liberal Christians believe in a form of relativism. They believe the Bible contains in some measure truth. Yet, it only becomes true to the person when he or she believes in it. Viewed this way, the validity of a person’s belief does not lie in the Bible’s truth claims. Truth becomes truth only when the person believes in them.
However, Christianity is true whether or not you believe it. It is objectively true because as a fact of history it lies outside us. The validity of its claims is judged publicly by anyone who wishes to do so. They call individual Christians to accept it as true. But, the truthfulness of its claims does not depend on anyone except God’s inspired Word. It sounds proud. I know and some mistake it so. Others think it encourages a superiority mindset. But contrary to expectation, it is the humblest position.
Relativism, in reality, is the proud mindset. It claims truth is relative to man and not God. Man becomes the final arbiter of truth. As an expression of his rebellion against God, he autonomously lives according to his own rules. He determines for himself what is right and wrong. He is living inconsistently to his favor. He defies God and his laws. There are two ways he does so. First, he reacts against any form of judgment. He discourages anyone to speak right and to stand against wrong. He asserts we should allow no one to speak badly about others. In his mind, imposing the truth on anyone is wrong. He explains, “Whatever is true for you may not be true for others”. However, when examining his position, we realize an important flaw. He imposes his own views. His statements are judgments against judgments. Taken into isolation, he is the judgmental person in this scenario. He may not know it but he had a taste of his own medicine. Second, he hates jargons, abhors defining things, and dislikes putting any label on to anything. However, by refusing others the right to explain things and define their terms, he again puts himself in a tight spot. Every time he speaks, the words come from his mouth are terms, labels, and jargons. He labels everyone who labels as labelers. By doing so, he has become the person he hates.
A person who claims truth is relative lives inconsistently and do more harm than good. Even in the natural order things, every person judges things outside himself and live accordingly. You do not hit the gas pedal of your car when the traffic light goes red. It is foolish to assume Red means go while Green means stop. It is a pre-determined truth you’ve accepted and lived by. The same is true of Christianity. Christians receive the judgment and precept of God in Scripture because we believe God revealed to us everything we need to know to live under his rule. We objectively receive the reality it teaches because we know God speaks the truth about himself and us his creation. Christians also adopt ourselves with the terms, labels, and jargons of Scripture because as creatures created in the image of God, we follow God’s thoughts after him. There is no fact that God himself did not reveal. We hear God’s word and we live accordingly. Similar to what Jesus said in Matthew 4:4, “It is written: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Therefore, Christians are unlike the relativists. He objectively holds to the truth outside himself. He follows what God says and determines truth based on the Word of God. In reality, he has the humblest mindset because he does not make himself the final arbiter of truth. He is also far from being a tyrant because he allows God to speak for himself and lead others to acknowledge the facts God provides. He consistently lives under the rule of God.
Christianity challenges relativism. Christians hold truth objectively and they understand it as matters lying outside themselves. They are the truth of God’s Word. As God’s truth, we acknowledge his authority over us. We live and act accordingly.
Versus Religious Pluralism
Religious pluralism sees every religion holding a piece of truth about God. It maintains men naturally perceive God in the world. In their own way, people understand God. Restrained by the limitation of their own creatureliness, every religion is man’s trying to get away back to God. No one has a monopoly of truth. We need each other to reach God.
Religious pluralism is best illustrated in this Buddhist parable. Three blind men describe an elephant in the forest. The first holds the leg and thought the elephant is like a tree. The second touches the trunk and imagined he was holding a snake. The third felt the big belly and concluded that he was touching a big flat wall. No one described the elephant adequately. No one can claim to know the truth about the elephant absolutely. While partially true, they were all right. In order to the whole picture, we need everyone’s contribution. Together, the parts make up the whole. The same mindset when applied in religion results in religious pluralism. This view maintains that while the various religions developed in the world, each contributes to a larger picture of God. All religion worships the same God. Islam calls him Allah, Hinduism calls her Vishna, Buddhism refers to god as enlightenment and Jews calls him Yahweh. All things being equal they point to the same God. But can Christianity relate to such a view of religion? Is it possible that all religions lead to the same God?
Reformed apologist calls our attention to the flawed presumption in the story. The storyteller assumes to see the whole elephant. He is a religious pluralist, his story show such belief and calls his hearers to follow him. His position appears to be tolerant. He shows to accommodate all religion but in reality, he’s also absolute in his claims. Dr. Tim Keller explains,
Therefore, the minute one says, ‘All religions only see part of the truth,’ you are claiming the very knowledge you say no one else has. And they are demonstrating the same spiritual arrogance they so often accuse Christians of. In other words, to say all is relative, is itself a truth statement but dangerous because it uses smoke and mirrors to make itself sound more tolerant than the rest. Most folks who hold this view think they are more enlightened than those who hold to absolutes when in fact they are really just as strong in their belief system as everyone else. I do not think most of these folks are purposefully using trickery or bad motives. This is because they seem to have even convinced themselves of the “truth” of their position, even though they claim “truth” does not exist or at least can’t be known. Ironic isn’t it? The position is intellectually inconsistent.
Every religion in the world, like Christianity, have their own truth claims. A close examination of each belief system will reveal that some of their claims contradict each other. Buddhism does not believe in a divine being. It believes every man can be a god. Like Buddha, they call us to meditate until we reach enlightenment. Hinduism believes in many gods. They are Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; Shiva, the Destroyer; Ganapati, the Remover of Obstacles; Avatars of Vishnu; Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning; and the list goes on. It would be absurd to conclude that Hinduism is comparable to a monotheist religion like Islam or Judaism. They fundamentally oppose each other. The former believes in many gods while the latter believe in one God. Many cannot collapse into one and one cannot be divided into many. And when further qualify the monotheist religions, Islam holds to a different God when compared to Judaism. Allah is revealed in the Koran while Yahweh is revealed in the Torah. Religion does not lead to the same God.
So if religious comes in various forms can we say they hold to some truth? The variety in religion points to a flawed view of reality. Christianity sees the variety of religious expressions as the result of our fallen sinful nature. It accounts for a much deeper spiritual problem. Only Christianity can validity explain this spiritual depravity because we know in Scripture why people worship false gods. Paul explains men exchanged the truth for a lie. They worshipped creatures instead of the Creator (Romans 1:23). Instead of being accountable to God, they prefer to live according to their own version of reality, a reality outside God. But nothing is farther from the truth. There is no reality outside God. “For in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28)” says Scripture. Therefore, man lives under the pretense of his deceived view of reality, a false reality. He rebels against God by taking things from him and calling them his own.
Christianity challenges religious plurality and opposes it to the core of its being. Christians deny any religious pluralist the right to establish their version of reality for everyone. We believe sin deceives everyone into thinking they know God apart from the reality revealed in Scripture. Sin is the blinding reality Scripture portrays yet often vehemently denied. To cure religious pluralism, we need to acknowledge sin and submit to the absolute nature of God’s authority in Scripture. We need to put an end to our rebellion against him by trusting in him and leaving our sinful ways.
Versus Plead for Tolerance
Hearing what we’ve heard so far, I imagine someone objects, “Is this intolerant?”. But, what kind of tolerance are we talking about? If we believe everything we’ve heard so far, we know the truth is not relative. Religion claims truth, therefore, we need to face the reality of our position. But tolerance, when viewed from the relativist’s position, differs from Christianity. It assumes no objective truth or revealed reality that lies outside himself. Religious pluralism results not because of the sinful reality of man’s rebellion against God, like what Christians rightly assert, but a result of man’s creatureliness. However, as you can see, it only selectively tolerates. It determines to tolerate its own view about religion and intolerant against the Bible, about God, man, and sin. We know this informal fallacy as special pleading. Special pleading means “applying standards, principles, and/or rules to other people or circumstances, while making oneself or certain circumstances exempt from the same critical criteria, without providing adequate justification”.
Know any position, including Christianity, reflects an attitude of intolerance. Any truth claims often lead to arrogance. I do not exempt Christianity. However, as Dr. Tim Keller explains,
The Christian is not better in any way than a pagan. There are probably many pagans who have lived more moral lives than the Christian. In fact the Christian believes Himself not morally fit for God – a person who’s so desperately broken that unless Jesus Christ dies under the wrath of God in my place, I can never be reconciled to God and have fellowship with Him.” There are lots of people wiser than us, lots of people who are more moral than we are, people who are more devoted to their religion than we are. If a person claims anything different, he is missing the gospel. It’s why we ought to be teachable. When we talk to friends who don’t know Christ, we ought to be learning, instead of just talking. As gospel people, Peter reminds us to “do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15)”. Keller rightly evaluates, “Now Christians have been known to be proud …. plenty of us. There are lots of arrogant Christians. But if you read the Bible, you see that Christians ought not to be arrogant. Arrogant Christians are betraying Christianity. And when we’re arrogant, we’re not believing the gospel”.
While there is no excuse for arrogance, they cannot alone charge us with intolerance. Keller right questions, “… ultimately, to hold a relativistic point of view, you have to turn the question back on yourself and doubt your own doubts and say, Why aren’t the relativists’ religious beliefs arrogant? Why isn’t it arrogant to say that you’re the one in the airplane? Why isn’t it arrogant to say you’re the king who’s not blind and can see the whole elephant?” Ultimately, if you judge your doubts the same way you judge other peoples’ religion, then you find yourself hoisted on your own petard. Right? Yes. It’s just as arrogant to claim relativism, as it is to claim religious truth.” By showing to any relativist, the same holds true with their own truth claim, we can now put forward the claims of Christianity. We believe in Christianity alone because in it, we receive a picture of reality that accounts of our own inconsistencies. It challenges our own arrogance and places knowledge under the rightful authority of God. Only Christianity provides an adequate view of reality that no other religion possess. It reveals to us a God who created and sustains the world. It tells us we are creatures made in the image of God. And it is only in Christianity, we can account for the broken of this world. Scripture exposes the historical reality of sin and death as the result of man’s rebellion against God. It promises redemption throughout history and fulfilled them in Christ, God’s only son. It declares to us the work of redemption in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only way to the Father. It calls us to put our trust in Him alone and to leave our sinful ways. It promises us that life eternal waits in new creation where God regenerates all things. And while we await Christ’s second coming, we live as pilgrims in this world. Living a life in gratitude to God and witnessing to the truth of this salvation work.
ZCRC (Imus), we believe in Christianity alone because all of its truth claims made a better sense of this world and the world to come. As Christians, we are called to defend the faith as truth and challenge relativism, religious pluralism and plead for tolerance. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). May the Lord continue to provide the wisdom and knowledge to defend the faith. Amen.
Rev. Lance Filio is a minister of the Word and Sacraments at Zion Cornerstone Reformed Church (Imus). He finished his Bachelor Degree in Electronics Engineering at Mapua Institute of Technology and He is currently taking his Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS) at MINTS. He lives in Taguig City, Philippines with his wife and three children.