Is there only one ‘true’ religion?

  • Question 160, from Huw, United Kingdom

    Is there only one ‘true’ religion?

    The points of view about whether Christianity is ‘true’ in comparison to ‘truth’ found in other religions can be thought of as a spectrum. This ranges from those who would insist that Christianity is exclusively true and all other religions are in error, through to those who would quite happily view other religions as having an equal and valid view of God, and to be a means to salvation for some. (This is often referred to as pluralism.)

    It should also be noted that at the extreme of the exclusivist end of the spectrum are Christians who not only believe their religion to be exclusively true, but their particular defining doctrines. Other Christians who are not of the same church are occasionally considered ‘as bad’ as those who belong to another religion entirely.

    Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, many people recognise that all religions are ultimately human constructions, in that they attempt to make sense of a divine revelation (or at least a ‘transcendent’ experience that is regarded as a divine revelation), and as such, every religion will contain flaws. In some sense, every religion has the potential to be untrue in parts. The commonality of most religions (recognition of a spiritual element to the universe; in most cases the existence of a deity and so on) implies that there is some truth to be found everywhere.

    A gradual move towards pluralism
    The other thing that is noticeable is ‘pluralist drift’. Historically, religions start off making exclusive claims. This can be seen in the Old Testament as Judaism sought to distance itself from Canaanite religion even to the point of forbidding inter-marriage with other tribes. There is some debate over how ‘monotheistic’ Judaism was originally as ‘other gods’ do seem to be considered as real in the earliest parts of the Old Testament. Later they are dismissed as lifeless idols, in comparison with the ‘true’ Living God.1

    Similarly, as Christianity sought to establish itself, the claims of exclusive truth were a necessary part of the process. Christianity had to define itself against both the Jewish faith that birthed it, and the Greek and Roman religion that dominated the world it grew into. Much of the New Testament addresses both these competitors, with, for example, the deliberate use of the word ‘ekklesia’ that was associated with Emperor Worship to describe the church. The subtext is that Christianity is true and worshipping Caesar is a mistake.

    Christianity’s adoption as the state religion in the Roman Empire in the fourth century AD confirmed its ‘exclusively true’ status. Several of Christianity’s darker moments (e.g. the Crusades, the persecution of Jews in Europe, the Inquisition, the conquest of America and extermination of the native peoples) have their roots in the ‘exclusivist’ mindset that justified, in the minds of the perpetrators, those acts.

    However, in the last few centuries, the general trend within Christianity has been towards accepting other religions as valid voices to listen to. The growth of pluralism tends to be linked with branches of theology that are labelled ‘Liberal’, but even within ‘Conservative’ Christianity there is a growing awareness that ‘truth’ may not be the exclusive preserve of Christians.

    The Bible can be used by both sides
    Interestingly both the exclusive and pluralist points of view often appeal to phrases found in the Gospel of John. The most relevant saying of Jesus that is usually quoted to assert Christianity’s exclusive truth claims is: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” (John chapter 14, verse 6).

    However, while it seems this is quite an exclusive claim, it has been suggested that this is referring to the change that has been wrought in God’s relationship with humanity as a result of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. From a pluralist perspective, this statement of Jesus does not demand any assent on the part of a human being. What he could be talking about is that now human beings can connect with God. It does not necessarily follow that they must become Christians first.

    Pluralists may then point to their own ‘Jesus quote’ where he tells his disciples that he has “other sheep, not of this sheepfold” and that he must gather them in (John chapter 10, verse 16). This may imply that there is a place for those in other ‘sheepfolds’, i.e. religions, to be saved.

    Or, given the context, it may just be a metaphor for the expansion of the early Christian church beyond its Jewish foundations into the Gentile world. Certainly, the concept of the people of Israel being God’s sheep was a common one. Jesus may have just been subverting that idea and widening it to include people who were not part of the ‘Chosen People’. The growth of the Church through the inclusion of Gentiles had happened when the Gospel was written and this statement may have been included to justify it to ultra-orthodox members of the church who may still feel that Christians should also be Jews first.

    In some senses the simple to this question is ‘no’ in that there may be no ‘true’ religions, as all religions bear the fingerprints of human creators. Christianity has a great number of beliefs that it claims are true, but so do many other religions. Where these conflict, it may be necessary to study them and pick one viewpoint. Where they converge, it can be seen that truth is a shared commodity. The challenge is addressing the differences in such a way that they do not prevent people from seeing the similarities.

    1 A good example of this latter attitude can be found in Isaiah chapter 44, verses 6-20.

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