Today’s Christian is bombarded with the existence of alternative faiths to his own through modern communications technology. While most adherents to the faith have little theological knowledge of the beliefs and practices of others, the relative closeness and openness with which they operate is strikingly new. From the foundation of the church up until the last century Christians, unlike Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, have operated, in the most part, in ignorance of the other faiths and their followers. It has been seen for centuries, by Christians, that the only way to salvation is through Christ and that those who practice amongst the other religions are in need of spiritual instruction to overcome their geographical deficiencies. However, the explosion of world-wide communications, especially through the Internet most recently, paired with the religious freedom movement experienced throughout much of the western world has opened the eyes of many Christian practitioners to the existence of other religions and to the idea that perhaps there are sufficient, quality alternatives to the Christian method.
While Christians have existed amongst other religious sects since foundation their encounters have, in a non-missionizing setting, been limited to the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. What interactions that did take place between the Abrahamic faiths were rarely theologically productive and more often than not could be classified a racist and even genocidal: one need only look as far as the anti-Semitism that persists throughout Europe to this day. It is not hard to see that for centuries the Eastern religions (that is Hinduism and Buddhism specifically) were looked at upon as mystical, polytheistic, and heretical to the Christian church. Today it is no longer sufficient to look upon the other religions as merely mistaken ways, or ignorant of the real truth of God, because these people can be found everywhere throughout the Western Christian world. Where true religious freedom reigns can be seen the full spectrum of human religious belief; Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Christians all coexist within each others’ reach.
The problem with this closeness can be easily seen in the understanding that the popular media portrays of non-Christian religion. Little is mentioned of the teachings of Muhammad or on the tenets of Islam, but we are all too well aware of the extremes: the terroristic tendencies of al-Qaeda and the politically charged Palestinian Liberation Organization with assistance of Hamas and Hezbollah. However, we all too easily seem to forget the extremists of our own faith. Of the many Christian extremist organizations and actions stand out two which we should be reminded of. The genocides that were perpetrated by the Catholic Church through the Crusades on hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Jews were encouraged and enacted by the most extreme members of the cloth. It will likely be a few more generations before the atrocities of World War II truly fall into forgottenness, however it has already fallen wayward the common acceptance that the millions of Jews murdered by the Nazis was done so in the name of God the Father. The closeness with which Christian exist today with the myriad other religions of the world has not done anything to improve the knowledge that the Christian public has of other religions, only that of the extremities.
The pluralists of today would have you believe that all the major religions of the world have a claim to correctness in as much as they all can lead to the divine, even by different methods. This belief stems from the geographical interpretation of divine revelation: that when these religions, or their precursors (i.e. Judaism to Christianity & Islam), were founded in the axial period around the first millennia B.C.E. there was no way for theological communication and cooperation to take place because of the vast space which separated the different bastions of civilization. Therefore, it is the religious pluralist whom believes that God, or a divinity, revealed the truth in different cultural contexts and in different places at different times. Further, it is the position of the contemporary theologian to resolve what differences do exist between the religions. However, we must not fall into the trap like that of the Baha’i faith and merely pick and choose those beliefs and practices which best mesh together. What must be done is find a way for the different faiths to coexist in harmony, to reach the same end goal, that is salvation in the Christian sense, without severely altering the beliefs and practices which have thousands of years of history to them. This can only be accomplished through dialogue between the faiths, not in missionization.
Additionally, there exists the problem of religious individuality. With the multitude of faiths at our disposal, especially in the West, it has become common practice either due to the feeling of being over encumbered by the vastness of options, the overbearing of the practices, or the superiority of the human intellect to create one’s own belief structure. While this system is not inherently flawed, in that human reason and rationale should be able to solve any problem, eventually, the lack of a central authority or structure creates a state of anarchy. If all people follow their own beliefs then no two people would share beliefs. Perhaps this state of true autonomy is something that humanity can reach eventually; however without first using our reason in reconciling the differences between the already existing faiths, how is it that we can believe our reason to be sufficient in creating our own faiths?
It is not the case that all Christians need to immediately begin attempt to resolve the problems of the plurality of religions, but it would be nothing save an improvement should they begin at least attempting to learn the worlds other religions. A child versed in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity stands a much better chance of understanding his fellow practitioners of faith and in conducting a dialogue between the faiths. It is only through religious education, and not merely religious tolerance, that true resolution and eventually excellence may be accomplished. Christians must throw down their feelings and belief of having the superiority of divinely appointed knowledge in order to fix the problem of religious pluralism. Pluralism is both a burden and a savior in this sense: it is a burden in that before the closeness that so pervades the religious world today there was a blissful ignorance of other non-Christians, but it is this closeness itself which will aid us in resolving the problem. Before the closeness we lacked both the availability of knowledge about other religions and the want to solve the problem, however today we have both and given the proper education of a sufficient number of the human population, we will be able to solve the discrepancies which permeate religious study in the world.
This article originally written December 18th, 2009 for OU RELS 3133 - Intro to Christianity.