In this essay I will engage in a brief discussion of contemporary religious pluralism in light of the teaching of the Scriptures. I will do this by first looking at a passage in the Old Testament and then commenting briefly on the nature of plurality and various version of theistic belief. I will then look at our contemporary culture and a common pluralistic, universalistic view on offer. I will conclude by looking at the claims of Christ to see them as both inclusive and particularly important. To begin I wish to call our attention to an ancient passage from the Old Testament which get directly to the nature of monotheism and truth claims about God.
A World of Many gods
In Daniel chapter 2, the ancient Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar receives a dream. The exile Daniel explains it to him and gives its interpretation. Relieved to know the mystery that had troubled his psyche, Nebuchadnezzar then begins to give credit to Daniel and perhaps unexpectedly, credit to Daniel's God. In verse 47 he makes the remarkable statement:
47The king answered and said to Daniel, "Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery."
All religious traditions on the earth that are theistic in orientation have believed in a most high God. Whether it was Zeus of the Greeks, Odin of the Norse, Ra of the Egyptians, Baal of the Philistines, or the Great Spirit of indigenous peoples, the idea that there is a "God of gods" is quite common in the earth. The difference between these beliefs and that of Jews, Christians and Muslims is that they are all polytheistic, believing in a myriad of "gods." However, Daniel is monotheistic and the Babylonians were aware of the Jewish religion and its belief in one, true creator God. Nebuchadnezzar's exclamation is that Daniel's God is both the preeminent and sovereign deity. He is above the other gods and rules above earthly kings. This ancient reality of a plurality of “gods” has persisted in every age and I do not imagine this will ever really change.
John Calvin, during the Protestant reformation, declared that the human heart is like an "idol factory" always creating and fashioning gods for us to worship out of our own imaginations. Plurality of views and beliefs in religion is simply a fact of human experience. The truth of all these human crafted deities is another matter altogether. In light of the myriad of religions and beliefs, some modern thinkers have constructed various ideas to mute the claims of the competing world views. Several flavors of pluralism have been put forth for our consideration. Here I will focus mainly one I have found to be most common.
In our day we have moved beyond the belief in the simple fact of plurality in religious ideas. We are now asked to embrace of various forms of pluralism related to religious truth. Each faith tradition believes in various gods and no one is to question the veracity of their existence or related truth claims. If someone believes in pink bunny rabbits who rule the world, or little white mice, we should all just accept people’s sincere beliefs.
There are several flavors of pluralism today. The religious version of pluralism would say that all gods are equally valued expressions of the human attempt to reach a divine or ultimate reality. This, at first glance, is a friendly view and tends to see contradictory ideas about God as a fulfilling game of no real consequence to our lives. A very human pursuit, yes, but not dealing with matters of truth. The question of God to the religious pluralist is one that is unknowable or insoluble, with all religious talk as ways of groping towards an unknown, ineffable "real."
A classic illustration of this idea is expressed in a parable that has come to be known as the Blind Men and an Elephant. The story traces back to an ancient Indian folk tale where several blind men are examining an elephant when the King asks them what they think the elephant to be. One who is holding on to its tail, confidently exclaims "An elephant is like a rope!" Another blind man pushing on the body of the elephant proclaims with equal confidence "An elephant is like a wall!" Still another holding its trunk snottily weighs in "No, an elephant is like a wet hose!" The moral of the story is supposed to illustrate the reality of religious pluralism. It is not simply stating the fact that different religious ideas teach different things about the deity(s) or ultimate reality, but rather that they are all just talking about the same thing albeit in different ways. They have incomplete knowledge and are therefore talking past one another.
The religious pluralist in the West is typically a universalist in that he believes that all people, everywhere will ultimately end in heaven, paradise, or some salvation-liberation of their imagining. Let's call them optimistic. All will end up in a blessed state of heaven even if they don't believe in such places at all. Religious pluralists love to make statements on the behalf of all religious people. It is common to hear things today like "All religions teach the same things on the big issues, they just differ on the details." Of course, no Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Buddhist who understands her faith and philosophy would agree to this. After all, the phenomena are quite the opposite. We all agree on things like "be nice and good" but we disagree on God, heaven, hell, salvation, our problem as humans and even what nice and good ultimately mean.
Religious pluralists who seek to force some unity on religious truth claims seek to bring harmony to a world of obvious, long standing disagreement. They are profoundly mistaken about the nature of religious truth claims, and then seek to impose their beliefs about the nature of religious knowledge onto other devotees. Western pluralism of this sort is therefore imperialistic in that it insists it has the truth on religions while somewhat silencing the actual, devout beliefs of millions. Rather than a kind observer of many men touching an elephant, the western pluralist claims to be the only one in the picture that can see. He claims to be in the position of the King. As such, it seems that they are putting forth a new religion. We might call it Western Imperialistic Pluralistic Religion or WIPR.
In WIPR we all believe the same things because the WIPR priests say that we are all talking about the same things. Such WIPR devotees may not be so nice and respectful of other faiths after all. They seem to know quite a bit about religions while not seriously engaging with the actual beliefs and claims of religious devotees. In a desire to show tolerance, an arrogant, intolerant dismissal of treasured beliefs and traditions occurs. With a quick wave of a pluralist hand the substance of the major religious traditions is smeared away into a new belief altogether. Only WIPR is allowed to stand while the claims of the prophets, the claims of Christ or any other religious teacher are muted or, at best, called to submit. Let me illustrate by re-visiting the beloved blind men and the elephant one more time.
If we look at this story with a bit more reflection, there is a fatal problem with the whole story that emerges with the following question: How do we even know we are talking about an elephant? Obviously, someone in this story can see very well and not everyone is blind. Behind the reality of the groping men grasping trunk and tail is a King who can see. There is someone who knows what an elephant is and could tell all the blind men they are not touching rope, hose or a wall. What if the King, the one being spoken about, could tell us and show us who he really is? What if blind eyes can be opened and elephants could be seen? In simpler terms, what if God chose to speak to us? Furthermore, the problem of pluralism is that we are not all talking about elephants. Some religions believe God is one and others think there are millions of gods. As such, the human condition requires God to define himself for us and this is in fact what Jesus claims to have come to do. Jesus came to reveal to us our creator. He names the elephant for us.
Jesus' Teaching-Inclusive and Particular
The person of Jesus and his followers had something more interesting to say than the modern pluralist. He taught us something that was both inclusive of all human beings and calls us particularly to the creator God. The Christian message is clear that God made all things and placed people in time and history so that they might reconnect in relationship with God (see Genesis 1-3; Acts 17). Furthermore, God has kindly given all of us evidence that he exists and has certain attributes. Psalm 19 of the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament) teaches us that God is speaking to us through creation and that this witness is available to all peoples. Romans 1 teaches us that what can be known about God is clear to us from what has been created. We can see from looking at the stars, the vast oceans, high mountains, and the intricacies of RNA and DNA that there is indeed a powerful intelligence behind the universe. Acts 14 of the New Testament also teaches us that God kindly provides for creation. Jesus taught the same in declaring that he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). God gives to all people a universal display of his existence and common grace. The Christian message is inclusive in this way.
Yet at the same time people have rejected God, and desire to live without him both in their attitudes and actions on the earth (Read Romans 1-3). We want to do things our way and deny that we were created by God and for the purposes of God. We worship ourselves rather than the maker of all things. Scripture calls this sin and it is a universal condition. Nevertheless, God in his kindness reveals to us in Jesus Christ that he is "God of gods and Lord of Kings." All who come to him in repentance (turning from sin and self to God) and faith (trusting him fully) will not be turned away (John 6). The gospel is particular in this way. We must come to God as God, not make him up in our minds and then come to the alter of an imaginary deity.
God shows something to all of us by placing us in creation to see that there is a God to whom we will give an account. Inclusive. Even as humanity in sin will resist his kindness, he enters the world to save those who will believe. The Bible does not teach that every person from every nation will be rescued from sin, death, and hell. Nor does God favor any group of people in that all from only some nations will be saved. The Scriptures are clear that there will be some from every people, tribe, and language in the Kingdom of heaven (Revelation 7:9-12). In a unique way, Jesus' message was as open as can be imagined, yet only some respond. His open call is clear:
- All who are weary and heavy burdened...come to Jesus (Matthew 11:25-30)
- All who are thirsty...drink (Revelation 22:17)
- All who are in darkness...he is light (Matthew 4:12-17; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6)
- All who are hungry...come eat and be satisfied (John 6:35-40)
As such, his message is also a call, a summons, to those who have "ears to hear." All that have been given to Jesus he calls. Those who "hear him" do come to him. This is the mystery of grace; God saves, we respond. He calls to all, yet all do not respond. As followers of Jesus it is not our goal to prove everyone is wrong or dispute with each created deity. We are called to present the truth that there is one God and one mediator between God and people—the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5,6). This Jesus is no normal man nor simple prophet; he is God of gods and Lord of Kings, and his Kingdom will last forever.
God of gods and Lord of Kings?
The most controversial figure in the New Testament is Jesus. Yes, sweet, nice Jesus. The fact of the matter is that he made such radical claims about himself that he has always been a fork in the road for many. Some would peddle him off as being a nice moral teacher, but this begs the question as to why he was unjustly murdered as a criminal. He did seem to anger people a bit no? Jesus was utterly compelling to some while utterly repelling to others. Part of the reason for this is that he claimed to be God incarnate (God become human). This is not what you hear people saying about themselves at Starbucks.
Followers of Jesus have been clear for centuries about the identity of Jesus. He was not "a god of gods" he is the God of gods and Lord of Kings. If you look at what some of his earliest followers said about him it becomes quite clear. This is necessarily a small sampling and I recommend further reading in this area for those who are interested.
- He claimed to forgive sin, only what God could do (Mark 2:1-12)
- He claimed to be the divine "Son of Man" (Daniel 7:13, 14; Mark 13:24-27)
- He claimed to exist before Abraham was born as the "I AM" - the unique name of God in the Old Testament (John 8:48-59)
- He claimed that he was "one" with the Father (John 10)
- He claimed that if you saw him, you saw the Father (John 14)
- He was called "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" superseding the grandeur and authority of all earthly kings and rulers (Philippians 2:9-11; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Revelation 9:11-16)
Scripture teaches us that God became a human being to reveal to us his nature and his ways. Furthermore, God then died the death that we deserved on the cross; it was a substitutionary death for sin. He then gives to us forgiveness, grace, and peace based upon his own merit. This person, Jesus of Nazareth, is the one who is called King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is the God of gods revealed to us in living flesh so that we might follow and worship him.
In this essay I began with looking at the simple fact of religious plurality by looking at an Old Testament text and making a brief statement regarding religious history. I then looked at modern pluralistic views of religious truth claims, and found this not only wanting, but a bit oppressive and imperialistic towards other views. I then looked at Jesus’ teaching as both inclusive and particular and a unique revelation as to who God actually is. In a world of many gods and many kings, the Christian should stand with confidence as she proclaims Jesus as the unique revelation of the Father and the truth about God in a person. As such, it is him we proclaim in our world rather than the inventive religions or religious philosophies. Amen.
 Huston Smith and Huston Smith, The World's Religions : Our Great Wisdom Traditions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 378.
 Hence we may infer, that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols. Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997), I, xi, 8.
John Hick, Dennis L. Okholm, and Timothy R. Phillips, More Than One Way? : Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1995), 47-51.
 The Blind Men and the Elephant is a very old Indian folk tale. John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) wrote a poem based on the story which you can read at John Godfrey Saxe, WordInfo, accessed 1/30/2018, 2018. http://www.wordinfo.info/Blind-Men-and-Elephant-crop.html
 One might even insert the word “Oppressive” to give the title “Western Oppressive Pluralistic Religion” to this view but calling a view a WOPR lacks a certain charitability that I wish to maintain.
 I first came across the phrase “Naming the elephant” in the title of James Sire’s book on worldview as a useful intellectual concept in our pluralistic times. Although I am using the term here more in light of the doctrine of revelation rather than Sire’s use in his work. James W. Sire, Naming the Elephant : Worldview as a Concept, Second edition. ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2015).
 See Robert M. Bowman and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place : The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007).
Bowman, Robert M. and J. Ed Komoszewski. Putting Jesus in His Place : The Case for the Deity of Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007.
Calvin, Jean. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997. Originally published as 1845-1846.
Hick, John, Dennis L. Okholm, and Timothy R. Phillips. More Than One Way? : Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1995.
Saxe, John Godfrey. WordInfo. Last modified Accessed 1/30/2018, 2018. http://www.wordinfo.info/Blind-Men-and-Elephant-crop.html
Sire, James W. Naming the Elephant : Worldview as a Concept. Second edition. ed. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2015.
Smith, Huston and Huston Smith. The World's Religions : Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.