The Elephant Problem
I was reading an article by Dr. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York. In the article, Dr. Keller explains why Christians need to be clear that Christianity is not one option among many. Pluralism is the belief that there is more than one way of looking at something. This can also be made more specific within a religious context, hence – Religious Pluralism. Religious Pluralism is a loosely defined expression concerning acceptance of different religions. The problem with this idea is that it assumes that all religions and points of view are equally valid even if they contradict one another. This simply cannot be the case.
The point that Dr. Keller highlights is that people resort to pluralism for the sake of tolerance and inclusion. This leads to weak critical thinking about the real differences that all religions have with other religions. Dr. Keller gives an analogy that is commonly used to undermine the unique claims of Christianity.
A common analogy is cited—the blind men trying to describe an elephant. One feels the tail and reports that an elephant is thin and flexible. Another feels a leg and claims the animal is thick as a tree. Another touches its side and reports the elephant is like a wall. This is supposed to represent how the various religions only understand part of God, while no one can truly see the whole picture. To claim full knowledge of God, pluralists contend, is arrogance.
I occasionally tell this parable, and I can almost see the people nodding their heads in agreement. But then I remind them, “The only way this parable makes any sense, however, is if you’ve seen a whole elephant. Therefore, the minute you say, ‘All religions only see part of the truth,’ you are claiming the very knowledge you say no one else has. And you are demonstrating the same spiritual arrogance you accuse Christians of.” [emphasis added]
One of the reasons that this analogy “makes sense” is because it appeals to our own ignorance. We don’t know everything, so how can any religion claim to have an exclusive claim on religious truth. But the problem with this is that when we start with humans we will always get flawed results. It is when we start with God that truth and freedom come [John 8:32].
The heart of pluralism and the analogy of the elephant hinges on the idea that it is more intellectually honest and social generous to give room for all points of view. This, in the end, can only lead to chaos. Pluralism claims in an absolute way that all points of view are valid, but it is itself an outright rejection of any absolute standard of truth. So pluralism has to accept as a valid point the rejection of pluralism as a standard of evaluating truth claims. What happens is that the caveat of tolerance is attached to keep people who believe in absolute truth from defending that position.
The Christian Response to Pluralism
So how does Christianity answer the claims of Pluralism? The Doctrine of the Incarnation is the challenge that the God of the Bible levies against every religion. When we talk about Jesus of Nazareth we have to recognize that we are talking about God in the flesh. We are talking about God who was, and is, and is to come; that God has come down out of His holy heaven and chosen to live among us. John 1:14 says that the Word “dwelt” among us. That word literally means that God has pitched His tent with us.
God, for the first time in God’s existence, understood the human experience. That is why the writer of Hebrews does not say that God empathizes with us, as someone looking in, but that in Jesus God sympathizes with us, as someone looking out [Hebrews 4:15]. Look at Paul’s inclusion of an early hymn of the church to the believers at Philippi to help future believers understand what Jesus did in coming to Earth:
5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. [Philippians 2:5-8 ESV, emphasis added]
Then in Colossi Paul makes this remarkable statement about what God was doing in the person of Jesus.
9For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. [Colossians 2:9-10 ESV, emphasis added]
In the Doctrine of the Incarnation Jesus Christ, the God-man is fulfilling the law which God gave the world [Matthew 5:17]. Peter also contributes to the discussion of the ministry that Christ achieved in the Incarnation.
21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds, you have been healed. [1 Peter 2:21-24 ESV, emphasis added]
Every Religion has Points of Exclusion
So how do we counter the challenge that is brought against Jesus and the exclusive claims of Christianity? The difficulty with pluralistic thinking, as it relates to religion, is that it lends itself to the assumption that all religions are trying to achieve the same goal. The religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam do, in a sense, strive for a paradise of some kind. This they share. But Buddhism, does not. Buddhism is a means of escaping from this world through enlightenment. And that is just one example. This and similar eastern religions seek to escape this world of toil not for a paradise, but into nothingness; to be absorbed into the ultimate.
What we, as Christians, must contend with is that every religion has a point of exclusion. That is, there is a point at which the ultimate purpose of the religion deviates from all others. Every philosophy, ideology, and system of thought have these points of exclusion. This is the point where two systems collide and are irreconcilable. It is at these points, and not at those where some commonality is shared that religions must be evaluated.
When compared to other religions Christianity is the only one that does not seek to make man into a divine being. Will man be transformed to reflect Jesus Christ? Yes, but we will not become of the same essence as God. In Christ, we find that God has condescended from heaven and entered into the human drama. In doing so, the unthinkable has happened. God has become one of us. Because of this exclusive assertion, Christianity stands alone. Also, the implicit absurdity of the Incarnation lends itself to legitimacy because it requires the very faith that the Scriptures expects as the means to eternal life.
3This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. [1Timothy 2:3-6 ESV, emphasis added]
The Problem with Pluralism is that it seeks to undermine the truth of God’s word. The solution will be found only in the person and work of Jesus the Christ.