It was in my freshman composition class at the University of California, Irvine, that I first heard a professor say, “Well, you know, most of the differences in religion don’t matter. The main point is that God just wants all is just to love each other, right?” It’s a claim that’s become increasingly familiar to me ever since.
But is it true? Is God indifferent to religion? Does he care how he’s worshiped? In other words, is God a pluralist?
While it comes in myriad different forms, the kind of pluralism I’m talking about is a sort of relativism about religion, claiming either that all religions are equally salvific, or that outward forms don’t matter since all faiths share a common core, or that the divine is too grand and unknowable to be encompassed by some exclusive set of doctrines. Unless you adhere to a conservative religious confession—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and so forth—some kind of religious pluralism is the default mindset among the broader “spiritual but not religious” late-modern culture we live in. But why?
For one, it seems to reinforce political pluralism—the social accommodation of various religious beliefs. If there’s no big difference, then there’s not much to fight about. What’s more, and this is probably the most enticing reason to adopt it at the popular level, it seems more humble and open to other viewpoints. Everybody’s equally right (or equally wrong), so no one can claim religious superiority. It’s a more “tolerant” view since there’s no one correct religion against all the others, and thus the moral playing field is level.
At least, that’s how it appears at first.
While there are a number of problems with a strong philosophical pluralism (for example, it’s self-contradictory, it misconstrues the unique claims of each religion, and so on), one particular problem often goes unnoticed: it rests on the questionable assumption that God is indifferent to how he’s worshiped.
Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck does a marvelous job of bringing out this observation:
For if religion really contains a doctrine of God and of his service, it is self-evident that God alone has the right and ability to say who he is and how he wants to be served. . . . Religious indifferentism assumes that it is immaterial to God how he is served. It deprives him of the right to determine the manner of his service; in any case it postulates that God has not prescribed manner of his service. This indifferentism in the matter of religion can, of course, go to greater or lesser lengths. Syncretism considers the church creed to be indifferent; deism so considers all positive religion; modern philosophy so regards all objective religion; and the “moral independent” so views all that is religious. (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1: Prolegomena, 250-251)
To make the apparently humble and mediating claim that all ways of worshiping the divine are equally valid, you’re implicitly making the bold claim to know that God hasn’t spoken on these things and doesn’t care. Or maybe it’s that he’s spoken to you and declared that all the other religions who claim he does care (Christianity, Judaism, Islam and so on) are confused on that point. In claiming the matter to be indifferent, then, you’re tacitly claiming God is indifferent.
Tim Keller makes a similar point a number of times in The Reason for God. Sometimes people will say something like this: “My doubts are not based on a leap of faith. I have no beliefs about God one way or another. I simply feel no need for God and I am not interested in thinking about it.” Keller observes:
But hidden beneath this feeling is the very modern American belief that the existence of God is a matter of indifference unless it intersects with my emotional needs. The speaker is betting his or her life that no God exists who would hold you accountable for your beliefs and behavior if you didn’t feel the need for him. That may be true or it may not be true, but, again, it is quite a leap of faith. (xviii)
Or again, specifically related to pluralism, Keller recounts the story of a young man he encountered who insisted that the differences between the various religions didn’t matter since they all worshiped the same God:
But when I asked him who that God was, he described him as an all-loving Spirit in the universe. The problem with this position is its inconsistency. It insists that doctrine is unimportant, but at the same time assumes doctrinal beliefs about the nature of God that are at loggerheads with those of the all the major faiths. . . . Ironically, the insistence that doctrines do not matter is really a doctrine itself. It holds a specific view of God, which is touted as superior and more enlightened than the beliefs of most major religions. So the proponents of this view do the very thing they forbid in others. (5-6)
The Real Question
So the question when it comes to pluralism isn’t primarily what view keeps us more humble, since clearly to be a pluralist you have to make bold and “arrogant” claims, too. Nor again is it simply which view leads to greater peace. I’ve seen belligerent pluralists, and the history of the 20th century is littered with the violence of those claiming indifference in religious matters. What’s more, there’s a plausible case to be made that a religion like Christianity, which teaches its adherents to love their enemies, can do the job just as well when properly applied.
Taking our cue from Bavinck, it seems the question to ask is this: if there is a God, does he care about religion—the knowledge and service of God—the way most religions claim, or not? Is he indifferent to these things? Has he made his thoughts on the matter known via revelation of some sort? To my mind, it’s not unreasonable to think that if he does exist, and he is a moral being, he might do such a thing. For instance, God might find a way to speak to us, to make known that there is one of him, as opposed to many, or to clarify that he is Creator, not part of creation. He might also go on to reveal his will for the way we relate to him, ruling out things like child sacrifice and sexual exploitation and so forth as unacceptable ways of worshiping him. Indeed, it may be that he has strong opinions on these things. On the face of it, it’s at least as reasonable as the pluralist’s assumption.
Of course, I’m not supposing these things out of nowhere. In its core confession Christianity claims that God is not indifferent. At the heart of the gospel is a God so passionate about these things that he has personally gone out of his way to make them known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for us and for our salvation.
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