One of the most valued beliefs among many Pagans, Universalists, and New Age thinkers is the belief that “all paths lead to God”, or “the Divine” when they don’t want to use the G-word.
When I was a Pagan this was one of the views that led me to see Christians as intolerant, narrow-minded, and it kept me from accepting Christianity as a valid path.
As a pagan I held the story of the blind men and the elephant as the truth about spirituality. If you’re not familiar it goes something like this:
Six blind men encounter an elephant. The first touches its trunk and says that an elephant is like a palm tree, another touches its side and says that an elephant is like a rough wall. Another feels its tail and says that an elephant is like a piece of rope. Each comes into contact with a different part of the elephant and is convinced that their own explanation is correct and that the others are wrong. None of them realizes that they are all experiencing just one part of the same elephant and that none of their explanations are complete.
Even shortly after I became a Christian I held on to the belief that while Christ was the right path for me it might not be the right path for everyone, and you can certainly see it in my earlier posts. But this belief, however nice and tolerant it superficially appears to be, is actually quite narrow-minded, intolerant, and illogical when examined at a deeper level.
Many people seem to have a corrupt version of what tolerance actually means. Tolerance is a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc, differ from one’s own. Tolerance says that even if I think you are wrong I will respect that you have those views, and will not interfere with your rights to hold those views. Tolerance does not say that I have to hold your views to be true, especially if our views contradict each other. Tolerance does not mean I cannot lovingly tell you why I think you are wrong (or you me). Tolerance simply says we agree to disagree.
The religious pluralist, that is the person who believes all paths lead to “God”, is often the first to react with a comment like “I feel sorry for your intolerance”, when you make any type of exclusive truth claim (i.e. Jesus is the only way). I have used this response myself, and recently had it used on me. The Pluralist, however, has no ground to stand on, for when you really investigate other faiths you will find that every one of these makes an exclusive truth claim, either on the reality of existence, the existence and nature of God, what happens after death, etc. And these all have components which contradict each other. This is true of all the major religions; Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, even most of the Neo-Pagan religions (Druidry, Wicca, Asatru), though they will often be the first to deny it, they all make exclusive truth claims.
In fact, not only is the Pluralist’s view that all paths lead to God an exclusive truth claim of its own, but they also hold the exclusive view that all religions who claim to know a truth different from their own are wrong. Going back to the elephant analogy; not only are the Pluralists, these legislators of tolerance, the ones stating that all the world’s religions are blind to the true nature of God, but they are also stating that they, as the story tellers, are the only ones who can clearly see the reality of God. Which by their very own definition of tolerance is intolerant! And since they are against the majority of the worlds religions and atheists (because the Pluralist asserts there is a “God”) makes them out to be the ones who are narrow-minded.
The real problem with religious pluralism is a simple logical fallacy. Truth by its very definition is excludes its opposite, so any real truth is exclusive. In classical logic this is known as the law of noncontradiction. Since most of the world’s religions contain truths that contradict other religions it would be illogical to believe that they can all be right. They can, however, all be wrong, and I think it is pretty clear that this is what the pluralist is actually stating, whether they realize it or not.
I have found (and this was true with me as well) that many Pluralists don’t seem to have a problem with any of the truth claims that Buddhists or Hindus make. Their main objection seems to be against Christian truth claims, which from reading many of their specific objections, comes from false information and misunderstanding of theology (not to mention the misbehavior of many Christians). This can also be true of why they don’t object to the claims of those other religions. I think it is partly due to ignorance and apathy; they don’t know and they don’t care. Asking questions and seeking truth takes too much time away from Facebook and Twitter. I feel that we occupy our time too much with meaningless distractions rather than seek important matters. Christian philosopher, Dr. William Lane Craig, in his essay Politically Incorrect Salvation, addresses the problem to the common misunderstanding of how an all-loving and all-powerful God seems incompatible with the claim that persons who do not hear and embrace the gospel of salvation through Christ will be damned. It underlines how little people (even many Christians) misunderstand Christian theology.
The Pluralist may offer evidences from comparative religion to support his case, and this is great for building unity, but it doesn’t promote the uniqueness of religions, it glosses over important historical foundations and theology, and it still doesn’t answer any questions. It offers a homogenized one-world religion, and that just brings them back to the monolithic religions so many of them reject.
I found this updated elephant story which I think is a better representation of the search for God.
Six blind men are in search of an elephant, to discover what it is like. So they visit a zoo and go their separate ways, exploring the animals with which they come into contact. One man goes up to the first animal that he encounters – a camel giving rides. He decides that it is an elephant. After a thorough investigation, he concludes that elephants are hairy, with two humps on their back, foul breath and long thin legs. The second blind man passes the elephant, ignoring the Braille sign next to it. Soon afterwards, he encounters an ostrich and concludes that this is an elephant, with feathers, two legs and a rather dangerous beak. The third and fourth men have equally unfruitful encounters with other animals. The fifth blind man ends up at the elephant enclosure and, oblivious to everything else around him due to the volume of his iPod, concludes that an elephant is like a castle, with four columns to support the armored walls and two spears jutting forward either side of a large hollow hose pipe, which must be used for washing away its enemies.
A little later, the final blind man also reaches the elephant enclosure, having consulted the Braille direction signs scattered around the zoo and having asked one of the many friendly zoo keepers in order to ensure that he really was in the right place for the elephant. Feeling his way around the elephant, this man mutters to himself, ‘I wonder what an elephant is really like.’ To his amazement, he hears the reply, ‘If you really want to know, I will show you.’ Immediately, his vision clears and he can see the whole elephant. He engages the elephant in earnest conversation until closing time, finding out just what the elephant thinks about the zoo, the visitors and the surroundings. At the same time, the man carefully takes note of all of the elephant’s characteristics.
On meeting up with his friends on the bus home, the sixth man finds that his friends have different and strange ideas about what an elephant is, but none of them have any idea what an elephant is truly like. The blind man explains to them his own encounter with the elephant – not just what it feels like, but that an encounter with this elephant can literally open their eyes and ears and reveal the inner nature of the elephant. Some believe him and return to the zoo to encounter the elephant for themselves. The others ignore him, continuing to listen to their iPods or dismissing him as crazy.
I do believe that we are limited by our physical bodies from understanding the fullness of God, but that doesn’t mean God hasn’t revealed Himself to the fullness of our understanding. I see no reason to say you believe all paths lead to God other than to avoid engaging people in personal, meaningful discussions. No growth is going to happen if we don’t build relationships with our fellow human beings and communicate on a personal level. Religion is man’s effort to reach God; but I believe Christianity is God reaching Man.
As Christians we are not just called to agree to disagree, to put up with you if you put up with me. The Christian is called to be better than tolerant. We are called to love you, to stand up for you and protect your rights even if we disagree with you or you hate us. We are called to tell you why we think we are right and you are wrong. But no effective conversation is one sided, we should encourage the other party to do the same.
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect -1 Peter 3:15 (emphasis added)
- The Intolerance of Tolerance (Amazon.com)
- Christian Particularism (reasonablefaith.org)
- Do All Religions Lead To God? (reasons.org)
- Pluralism & Christianity (str.typepad.com)