Finding Truth in Our Pluralistic Age by Chad Meister
(Originally printed in the July/August 1996 Issue of the MCOI Journal)
“Finding God is like finding your way to the top of a mountain. There are many ways to get there.”
In one form or another, this is the view many in our culture have about religions. There are many of them, but they are all attempting to do the same thing—find God. They are all true but different ways of reaching the Divine. But can this be true? Can all paths lead to God?
The Fact of Religious Pluralism
It is true that we live in an age of religious pluralism. “Pluralism” simply means the condition of having more than one, and it is a fact that we have more than one religion. Whether we’re referring to the condition in America in 1996 A.D., or Israel in 30 A.D., religions have been, and are, plentiful. As a matter of fact, not since the days of Jesus have so many religions flourished together. Here in America, for example, there are currently over one-and-a-half million Hindus, four-million Muslims, five-million Buddhists and ten-million Jews.1 Besides these major religions, there are over thirty-million who subscribe to some form of the New Age Movement,2 and many who hold to Mormonism, Spiritism, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a host of other sects. To deny religious pluralism in our day is to deny reality. This reality can be called the “fact of religious pluralism'”
However, many people have unwittingly bought into a certain philosophical interpretation which has been offered about this fact. Since there are so many different religions and so many sincere devotees in each of them, it is argued, they must all be “true” to those who believe them. For the sincere Christian, Christianity is true. For the sincere Muslim, Islam is true. For the sincere Mormon, the Mormon religion is true. As the saying goes. “You have your truth and I have my truth.” This interpretation can be called “religious relativism,” and it simply means that all religions are true—true to the person—for all religions ultimately lead one to God.
This view runs contrary to the Christian Scriptures which declare that there is “only one way to salvation” (John 14:6: Acts 4:12) But such an exclusive claim, it is maintained, sounds dogmatic, narrow-minded, and intolerant.3 Maybe Christianity was the only way of salvation for followers of Christ in 30 AD., but we have had many prophets since him in many different cultures and time periods. Surely God would not just pick one culture in which to manifest Himself—God is big enough to work through any culture As one Hindu put it:
“Religion is like a large elephant surrounded by several blind men. One man touches his tail and thinks it’s a rope. Another touches his trunk and thinks it’s a snake. Another touches his leg and thinks it’s a tree. Yet another touches his side and thinks it’s a wall. They are all experiencing the same elephant: but are experiencing him in very different ways. The same goes for God and the various religions.”
But, while this interpretation may sound nice in our pluralistic, tolerant age, is it possible? Can all religions be true?
The Fiction of Religious Pluralism
Religious relativism is based on a relative view of truth. In order to determine whether or not all religions can be true, then, an understanding of the nature of truth is essential. First, truth can be understood as either relative or absolute, and this in two ways.4 It can be understood as relative to time and place and/or persons, or as absolute to time and place and/or persons. Consider the following example. Suppose that someone, call her Joyce, makes the following statement: “I feel sick.” Now if Joyce is really sick and she says that she is sick, then it is true for her that she is sick. So the statement, “I feel sick.” is true for her. But suppose Joyce’s friend Brenda is not sick. Is the statement. “I feel sick,” true for Brenda? No. Thus, it is maintained, truth is relative lo persons. The same statement can be true for one person and not true for another person.
Consider another example. Suppose that someone makes the following statement: “The president is from Arkansas.” Is this statement true? Yes, if by “president” one is referring to the president of the United States in the years 1992-1996. But that same statement made about the president of Brazil, say, is false. Or that statement made about the president of the United States in 1990 would also be false. Thus, it is maintained, truth is relative to time and relative to place.
Since truth is relative, argue religious relativists, one person can have her religion and another can have his religion, and both of them can have the truth. However, if this is the case, a profound problem emerges
The arguments given above for religious relativism are based on a relative view of truth. However, truth cannot be relative, either regarding persons or time and place, and a careful analysis of the above examples will demonstrate this.5
It was argued above that a particular statement, such as “I feel sick,” is relative to persons, and the statement. “The president is from Arkansas.” is relative to time and place. However, while the statements are relative to persons, and to time and place, truth itself is not relative. The distinction is difficult to grasp at first, but grasping it is extremely important. In order to grasp it, though, a basic understanding of truth and logic is essential.
Theories of Truth
There are basically three theories of truth: the Pragmatic Theory, the Coherence Theory, and the Correspondence Theory.6 The Pragmatic Theory of truth is the view that “truth” is what is expedient or useful; truth is that which works. For example, if it has helped one’s family to be members of the Mormon religion, then Mormonism is true for them. Many Mormons argue in just this way. However, it is not only Mormons who hold to a pragmatic view of truth. Many Americans today, especially those of college age, hold to some form of the pragmatic view.7
The Coherence Theory of truth is another view held by many today. This is the view that something is true if it coheres with one’s belief system. In other words, if a particular belief is consistent with other beliefs which one has, then that particular belief is true. For example, if one believes that the Bible is the Word of God, then if asked whether it is true that all believers will rise from the dead, the answer would be yes. It is “true” for the person who believes that the Bible is the Word of God that believers will rise from the dead. But it is not true for those who believe that the Bible is myth that believers will rise from the dead. Thus, the same statement “believers will rise from the dead,” is true for one person and not true for another.
The third view is the Correspondence Theory. This has been the standard view of truth throughout most of history. Simply put, it is the view that a statement is true if it corresponds to reality. For example, if one says that it is true that all believers will rise from the dead, this means more than that it is useful for one to believe it. It also means more than that it coheres with the rest of one’s beliefs. It means that someday believers really will rise from the dead, whether anyone believes the Bible is God’s Word or not!
A little reflection at this point is necessary. First, it should be noted that the Pragmatic Theory and the Coherence Theory both include a relative view of truth. Regarding the pragmatic view, Mormonism may work for one person, and Islam for another. But if truth is what works, then Mormonism is true for the one and Islam is true for the other. So the Pragmatic Theory includes a relative view of truth.
Second, regarding the Coherence Theory, one person may have a set of beliefs that, while internally consistent, contradicts another person’s internally consistent set of beliefs. A Jehovah’s Witness may believe that Jesus is the archangel Michael, and this view may be internally consistent with the rest of his beliefs. And a Oneness Pentecostal may believe that Jesus is the Father, and that may cohere with the rest of his beliefs. If truth is understood as that which coheres with one’s set of beliefs, then both the JW and the Oneness Pentecostal have the truth. So the Coherence Theory also includes a relative view of truth.
Now. the problem with both the Pragmatic Theory and the Coherence Theory, and any relative theory of truth for that matter, is that they deny one of the central laws of logic — the Law of Noncontradiction — and to deny this law is to commit intellectual suicide.
The Law of Noncontradiction
One of the central laws of logic is the Law of Noncontradiction. Simply put, this is the notion that A cannot equal non-A. For example, the Capitol Building cannot both exist and not exist in the same way at the same time. Either it exists or it does not. If one tries to deny this law, one has to use the law in the process of denying it. Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias has demonstrated this point best in a dialogue he had with a professor of philosophy of religion.8
In his dialogue, Ravi noted this point that one cannot deny the law without using it. The professor stated that Ravi was thinking from a Western perspective, and needed to open up his mind and see how those in the East think. Instead of thinking in terms of either/or. Easterners think in terms of both/and. Thus, for the Easterner, the Law of Noncontradiction is not true.
However, the professor used the law in his attempt to deny it. This is how he did it. If one denies the Law of Noncontradiction, one is saying that the law is not true. However, by saying that it is not true, one is saying that it is “not A.” “A” now being the Law of Noncontradiction. The professor was arguing that one should believe the “both/and” view rather than the “either/or” view. But this is equivalent to saying that of EITHER the “both/and” OR the “either/or” views, the “both/and” view is true. The professor used the “either/or” view in his attempt to deny the “either/or” view. In philosophy this is called a self-stultifying or self-refuting proposition. It’s like saying in English, “I cannot speak a word of English.”9 It is impossible to deny the Law of Noncontradiction without using the Law of Noncontradiction.
What has this proven? Well, if truth is relative, then it denies the Law of Noncontradiction. For example, if truth is what works (the Pragmatic Theory), and what works for one person is contrary to what works for another person, then two contradictory views are both true. Also, if truth is what coheres to a set of beliefs (the Coherence Theory), and what coheres for one person is contrary to what coheres for another person, then again two contradictory views are both true. But this is impossible for it denies the Law of Noncontradiction. If two views are contrary, either one is true or both of them are false; they cannot both be true. Thus, both the Pragmatic Theory and the Coherence Theory are ultimately self-refuting. This leaves only the Correspondence Theory. But what has all of this to do with whether or not all religions lead to God?
First, truth is absolute, both regarding time and place and regarding persons. Truth is what corresponds to reality. When Joyce is sick and she says, “I feel sick,” it is true for all persons at all time periods and at all places that she is sick. While the same statement can be used by others, when Joyce says “I am sick,” what is implicit in this statement is that Joyce herself, not someone else, is sick. Also what is implicit is that she is sick at the time she says it. The same goes for the statement that , “The president is from Arkansas.” Truth, then, is absolute and cannot be relative, for to be so would be to deny the most basic of all logical laws
Second, as noted earlier, there is a philosophical interpretation of religious pluralism, prominent in our culture, called religious relativism. It is the view that all religions are true. For the religious relativist, truth is understood in a relativistic way, either by holding to the Pragmatic Theory of truth or to the Coherence Theory of truth. However, since both of these theories include a relativistic view of truth, they both deny the Law of Noncontradiction. But, as just demonstrated, to deny this law is to refute oneself. Thus, to hold to religious relativism is to refute oneself and to commit intellectual suicide.
It has been argued that there is a fact of religious pluralism and a fiction of religious pluralism. The fact is that there simply are many coexisting religions. To deny this is to deny reality. The fiction is that they are all true—that they are all leading to God. Since they contradict each other, they cannot all be true, for truth is that which is absolute and corresponds to reality. If Mormonism is true, then there really are many gods overseeing other planets in our universe. But if that is true, then Islam cannot be true, for it holds that there is only one God, Allah. But if Islam is true, then Christianity cannot be true, for Christianity holds that Jesus rose from the dead and now reigns at the right hand of the Father. Islam denies this. All religions contradict each other. They cannot then all be true, for that would deny the law of Noncontradiction, which is impossible. Either one of them is true or all of them are false.
Which religion then is true? This is an important question, but in our pluralistic, relativistic age. understanding the nature of truth must come before understanding which religion is true.
Chad Meister is Director of Outreach Ministry at The Chapel in Grayslake, IL. He has an M.A. in Christian Thought/Philosophy of Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is currently finishing his Ph.D. in Philosophy at Marquette University. Chad is also on the Advisory Board of Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc.
1. For current statistics regarding many of the major religions, see The Universal Almanac for 1996 and the Information Please Almanac for 1996 2. Russell Chandler, Understanding the New Age Movement (Dallas: Word. 1986 p.20) 3. Christian philosopher of religion Harold Netland puts it this way, “Clearly! Christian exclusivism has fallen upon hard times. Not only is it being rejected by non-Christians as naive and arrogant, but it is increasingly being criticized from within the Christian community as well for alleged intolerance and for being a vestige of an immoral religious imperialism.” Dissonant Voices (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991, p.27.) 4. For a helpful analysis of truth in religion see Mortimer Adler. Truth in Religion The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth (New York Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990;. See also Netland, Dissonant Voices, especially, Chap.4.5 . For a concise argument against relativism which includes an exposition of several theories of truth, see Frederick F Schmitt Truth- A Primer (Oxford Westview Press, 1995). 6. For a very helpful overview of several theories of truth, see Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks. When Skeptics Ask (Wheaton, IL Victor Books. 1990 chap.12). For an advanced exposition and critique of the various theories of truth, see Richard L. Kirkham, Theories of Truth: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge MIT Press. 1992) 7. Regarding this pragmatic relative view of truth, professor Allan Bloom says the following: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative” See The Closing of the American Mind. (New York: Simon & Schuster. 1987 p.25.) 8. Ravi has communicated this story at numerous Veritas Forums 9. If a thinking relativist attempts to respond to this argument by saying that both the “either/or” and the “both/and” can be true, a similar response follows. For if both the “either/or” and the “both/and’ views are true, then this is contrary to just the “either/or” view being true. In other words, either both the “either/or” view and the “both/and” view or just the “either/or” view is true. Once again, the Law of Noncontradiction emerges. It is impossible to deny it without using it.