Public Square & Theology 101

Why Religious Pluralism Makes Sharing the Gospel Difficult

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A recent Barna study reported, “Almost half of Millennials (47 percent) agree at least somewhat that it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.” In the same article, Barna president David Kinnaman suggests that what is driving the millennial response is the “cultural expectation against judging personal choices.” This percentage is much higher than in any of the older generations. Why the stark difference?

The answer might lie in the fact that millennials were the first generation to come of age at a time when the ideology of religious pluralism had become widely accepted, particularly on U.S. college campuses. What is religious pluralism and how is it affecting our ability to share the gospel?

The Ideology of Religious Pluralism

In his classic book, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, Lesslie Newbigin defines the ideology of religious pluralism as,

the belief that the differences between the religions are not a matter of truth and falsehood but of different perceptions of the one truth; that to speak of religious beliefs as true or false is inadmissible. Religious belief is a private matter. Each of us is entitled to have–as we say—a faith of our own.

In our current Western culture, many find the ideology of religious pluralism to be an accurate description of the way things should be. Many today would consider suggesting one religion is superior to others as arrogant, elitist, oppressive, or ignorant. Again, Newbigin writes,

…for those who have shared in the multifaith, multicultural, multiracial world of today, it seems preposterous to maintain that in all the infinite pluralities and relativity of human affairs there should be an absolute against which everything else is to be measured.

The ideology of religious pluralism has arisen to replace the traditional view about religion—that there is exclusive truth to be discerned and followed. As Peter Berger writes in his book, The Sacred Canopy, “secularization has resulted in a widespread collapse of the plausibility of traditional religious definitions of reality.”

With the collapse of an existing structure, a new one is adopted and the thinking and behavior of the culture changes. The new liberal doctrine of religious pluralism claims it is the only standard for the evaluation of individual religions.

We see this in play in our example of millennials, many of whom change their behavior when they feel the social pressure of religious pluralism. These millennials have been indoctrinated by stories like the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

As the story goes, a king has blind men brought to his palace who have never seen an elephant before. For the king’s amusement, each man must attempt to describe the elephant by touching a different part of it, and, of course, they all come up with different descriptions. This story is repeatedly told to neutralize the assertions of the great religions and to show that each one has only a small part of the whole truth. Yet, as Newbigin points out, this is not a valid argument.

But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth which all the world’s religions are only groping after. It embodies the claim to know the full reality which relativizes all the claims of the religions and philosophies.

In The Reason for God, Tim Keller sums up Newbigin’s argument,

How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?

Offering a More Compelling Story

The argument of religious pluralism is flawed at its very core, yet it is still believed by a growing number of Christians and non-Christians alike. It is not based on facts or sound reason. As Os Guinness writes in The Last Christian on Earth,

[We live in a world] in which flagrant nonsense or complete error can be believed, and incontrovertible truth, in turn, can be disbelieved—without the question of their being objectively true or false being raised at all. In short, we have created a climate in which a thing’s seeming to be true is often mistaken for its being true.

This is what makes it incredibly challenging to present truths about the way God has made the world and his desire for human flourishing.

James K. A. Smith in his book, How Not to Be Secular, makes a helpful recommendation here. He calls for Christians not to offer a scientific apologetic aimed at trying to dismantle error and find the truth but instead to offer an “alternative story,” one with a “more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith.” When Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich was asked about the most revolutionary way to change society, he answered:

Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future so that we can take the next step…If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.

So, the focus is not trying to destroy the current story, instead we try to replace it with a better one. In the gospel, Christians have such a story. We are called to live a life so transformed by this alternative story that others glimpse in it the possibility of their own transformation and the world’s.

Editor’s note: What is the alternative story? Learn more in All Things New: Rediscovering the Four-Chapter Gospel.

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