I was in my Islam class the other night, and my professor, heavily influenced by postmodern ideals of “tolerance”, multiculturalism, and even religious pluralism, was attempting to show that Islam promotes tolerance and pluralism. Whether her defense of Islam was adequate or not, she was trying to defend a particular religion with the underlying assumption that religious pluralism is good. This theory has pervaded society as people, generally secular, point fingers at religions, generally Christianity, and exclaim, “They think they have the only way to heaven! How dare they be so arrogant!” Religious exclusivity is seen as this evil created by religious institutions to claim superiority over the plebeians. I’m not so sure that this is an inherent part of religious exclusivity. After all, each religion makes truth claims about the ultimate nature of reality. These truth claims are analogous to the type of claims we make all the time. For instance, “Great Aunt Dorothy is wearing a blue blouse.” This means that we are claiming that the blouse is exclusively blue, because it is blue, it is therefore not red or green or maroon. Hindu’s claim, in truth, that all things are a manifestation of Brahman. It necessarily follows that, if Hinduism is true, there is not a deity substantially separated from physical reality (as most monotheistic faiths claim). Religiously exclusive? Yes. Wrong? No. “Exclusivity” is just a necessary byproduct of such a truth claim.
Let’s critique religious pluralism a little more. Religious pluralism essentially arose from the idea of multiculturalism; we should look at different cultures, without the assumption that our own is true, gleaning ideas from other kinds of peoples that we may want to incorporate into our own worldviews. In theory, multiculturalism fosters an open outlook on the lives of humans across the world. In practice, however, multiculturalism leads to cultural and moral relativism (which is a whole other can o’ worms). When this concept is applied to religious study, I think it can offer a healthy way to examine religious traditions for their own sake. Unfortunately, this also has lead to people to believe that all, or at least multiple, religions can be simultaneously true.
Any logician will tell you that two opposing claims cannot be simultaneously true. This violates the Law of Non-contradiction, which is one of the foundations of logic. Take the statements, “Man A is a bachelor” and “Man A is married”. The qualifiers “bachelor” and “married” are opposing. Therefore, according to the Law of Non-contradiction, Man A cannot be both a bachelor, and married. A “married bachelor” is a logical impossibility. I would argue that the same can be said for religions who have opposing claims. They both cannot be right. Either one is wrong, or both are wrong, but it can never be that both are right in making opposing truth claims.
Returning to the main point, Christians do claim that Jesus is the only way to heaven. And if Christianity is true, then Jesus is the only way to heaven. Likewise, if Islam is true, then Jesus is not a way to heaven, but rather submitting to God and His Law is the way to heaven. Both truth claims cannot be simultaneously true. One truth claim or the other can be true, or both truth claims are wrong. Perhaps the atheist is right and there is no heaven.
A small aside on atheism. Many atheists like to quip, “All people are atheists about every other god but theirs. We just go one god further.” This is a flawed way of looking at theism. No theist is an “atheist” about any other gods. By making the claim, “God is the transcendent, omniscient, incomprehensibly powerful divine being who inspired the Bible and sent Jesus Christ, who died and was resurrected, as the savior of the world,” the Christian is not making a denial statement about the Muslim God, or the gods of Classical Greece. Instead, the Christian makes a positive claim that automatically and necessarily excludes the existence of any god that does not match such a description.
Returning to the original, original point, I don’t think religions should sacrifice their “exclusivity” to make themselves look better in the eyes of secular society. Showing the truth and love of God ought to be enough.
So, now that I’ve explained Christian “exclusivity”, I think it’s appropriate to speak of Christian “inclusivity”, that is, the message that Paul espoused. In Galatians, he claims to be the apostle of the Gentiles, which, in the original Greek, means “nations”, or everyone who is not a Jew. Paul explained that Christ came to redeem everyone, not just a particular group of people. Romans 10:9,13 states, “if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved…For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” It’s verses like these that make me question those who point fingers at Christian “exclusivity”. Because, as we know, the word “everyone” is the epitome of exclusive.