Last week I spoke at Massey Presbyterian Church on the topic “Is it arrogant to claim Jesus is the only way?” The following is an abridged version of the talk I gave.
I was recently on a panel at Auckland University where an audience member raised the issue during the Q&A of religious pluralism. The issue is commonly raised as a rhetorical challenge, “isn’t it arrogant to believe Jesus is the only way?” In a world where there exists widespread religious pluralism, where there are people who are just as intelligent, educated, and ostensibly as sincere as we are who hold to and pratice a different religion to Christianity or no religion at all, how can a Christain maintain that she is right and everyone else is wrong. Isn’t believing that Jesus is the only way simply arrogant?
In addressing this question I will first make three preliminary comments to identify what the issues are. Then, I will sketch three lines of response.
First some prelimaries. As a matter of logic, if you affirm some proposition then you must reject the negation or denial of that proposition. Contradictory claims cannot both be true. It follows from this that in so far as one accepts the teachings of a religion like Christianity are true, as opposed to accepting the teachings for purely pragmatic reasons, one is rationally commited to rejecting claims that contradict this teaching. If one accepts God exists then it follows that one will believe that atheism, the denial of God’s existence, is false. If God created the world then the claim the world is not created is false. If Jesus died by crucifixition then the claim he did not exist or he died some other way is false.If there will be a final ressurection from the dead where people are judged for their actions then the claim there is no afterlife is false. So, if one accepts Christianity is true then one has to believe that other religions and perspectives that contradict Christianity are false; failure to believe this would be irrational.
Second, accepting Christianity is true does not commit one to holding that there is no truth or value or good in other religions but it does commit one to the claim that these religions are mistaken where their teachings contradict the teachings of Christianity. This is signifcant as there are many issues on which different religions agree with Christianity, which makes them compatible with Christian teaching.
Consider, for example Islam. Muslims believe there is only one God whom they call Allah. Allah is the Arabic word for God and was used by Christians to refer to God before the time of Mohamed. Muslims also believe that God is the creator and sustainer of the world. They believe God is all powerful, all knowing and has certain traits such as being just and merciful. Muslims believe God will judge all people and there will be a general ressurection of the dead. In all these things, Christians agree with them.
Similarly, there are issues where Islam teaches about the way we should live that are perfectly compatible with Christian teachings, and which are arguably admirable given the standard Christian teachings on the same things. Muslims believe that one should give a third of one’s income to the poor, that one should pray five times a day.
On the other hand, Islamic theology teaches things that are incompatible with central Christian doctrines. Muslim’s deny the Trinity, deny that Jesus was the son of God, deny that Jesus was crucified and that he rose from the dead. They affirm that Mohamaded is the final and ultimate prophet of Allah. Accepting Christianity commits one to denying these claims but not the former ones.
What this shows is that Christians can accept that other religions and beliefs, and philosophers and theologians from within those traditions, can gain and appropriate genuine insight into the nature of God and his will for human kind. In fact, the Christian scriptures affirm this. In the first chapter of Romans the Apostle Paul states that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Paul goes on to observe that this knowledge has been corrupted by Greco-Roman society but the point is that even behind such distortions is geniune insight of which the Pagans are aware. In his sermon on Mars Hill in Athens, Paul states:
“God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.”
Paul here quotes two Ancient Greek, Pagan writers. The first is Epimenides, a famous Cretan poet known for writing a hym to Zeus. The second is a Stoic philosopher, Aratus, who wrote that all people are indepted to Zeus because we are Zeus’ offspring. Paul’s point here is that what these pagan writers say about their God, on these occasions, is correct. The Ancient Greeks aquired valid insights about God, which Paul’s audience should respond to.
So we see that accepting Christianity as true does not commit one to rejecting all other religions as worthless and devoid of insight. Also that, simply as a matter of logic, if Christianity is true then any religion or philosophy must be false in so far as it contradicts the teachings of Christianity. Accepting Christianity as true requires one to reject as false a whole plurality of alternative views both religous and non-religious. It was this that the questioner at the panel I spoke at objected to. He is not alone in objecting to this. As I said at the outset, this is a common objections that comes up often.
So what exactly is the problem? The basic idea is that it is arrogant, dogmatic, irrational, bigoted, arbitrary, and so on, to claim that Christianity is true in the face of pervasive religious pluralism. The fact of religious pluralism tells us that there are numerous people in the world equally as intelligent as you and I, often just as ostensibly sincere as we are, and that these people are not obviously more or less virtous than we are and they reject the fundamental teachings of Christianity. The fact that affirming Christianity involves adopting an epistemic stance that contradicts stances taken by so many other people is seen as arrogant.
This is particularly so if one believes, as I do, that certain Christian beliefs are properly basic, that is, that one can rationally assert them independently of any proof of their veracity, and in the absence of some demonstration from premises all rational people accept regardless of their religious faith, to the conclusion that Christianity is true. The questioner might add, ‘doesn’t the fact that so many other people do not hold these beliefs, and often hold contrary beliefs, make faith of this sort some kind of arrogant bluster? Isn’t it arbitrary for you to assume that your particular faith is true and everyone else’s beliefs are incorrect?”
In a short piece I can’t get into all the ins and outs of the debate about pluralism, but I will make three quick points which I think are helpful in addressing this.
The first point I will make is that affirming a particular position is true in the face of widespread pluralism is not a problem limited to religion. People often raise the spectre of pluralism is a religious context, but if there is a problem here then it applies in numerous other contexts as well. Consider various moral beliefs people hold about how a just society should be ordered. There is widespread plurality of answers to this question, such as libertarianism, socialism, conservativism, liberalism or Marxism. Similarly, there is widespread pluralism about how best to understand morality; should we be utilitarians, deontologists, virtue ethicists, natural law theorists, should we believe in rights, or should we be nihlists or moral skeptics? Is abortion justified? Is capital punishment just? Should we be pacifists or just war theorists? What about affirmative action? What’s the best way to understand equality and liberty? On all these issues there is a widespread pluralism of positions held by people as intelligent, genuine and educated as we are. If it is arrogant to adopt a particular answer to a religious question, such as does God exist? in the face of widespread pluralism then it must be equally arrogant to adopt an answer to the questions I have just raised.
Some sceptics contend that all moral questions are ultimately unknowable or subjective and we should limit what we accept as true to the natural sciences where there is a solid consensus on many fundamental issues. The problem is the purported consensus here is not as solid as such sceptics suppose. While there is broad consensus on what is the best scientific theory in physics and biology, there is no consensus on what this tells us about reality.
In philosophy of science there is watershed disagreement between realists; there are those who believe that scientific theories offer accurate, or approximately accurate, descriptions of reality and there are anti-realists who argue scientific theories must provide empirical, adequate models that solve theoritical problems but do not accurately describe reality. Highly educated, scientifically informed, philosophically astute people can be found on both sides of these issues. So if one is going to claim a particular scientific theory is true they are doing so in the face of widespread pluralism.
Even if we (arbitrarily) limit ourselves to religious pluralism the same problem emerges. There are forms of Buddism which hold that no self exists and no enduring objects exist, there are forms of Hinduism that claim all apparent objects are really an illusion and everything is really one. So to simply believe in your own existence or in the existence of chairs and tables is to adopt a position contrary to some religious views that make up the pluralism of our world.
The history of philosophy has shown that if one starts from a presumption of scepticism towards these sorts of commitments it is very difficult to come up with sound non-circular arguments for the existence of the self or the existence of physical objects. Without making such assumptions the claim that contemporary scientific theories are true cannot be justified.
The objection based on religious pluralism proves too much. Accepting any philosophical position of any substance involves taking a stance in the face of widespread pluralism; few sceptics are willing or able to embrace the implications of this.
A second point I’d like to make is that the claim that it is arrogant to claim that Christianity is true in the face of pervasive religious pluralism appears to be self-refuting. This objection is based on the following assumption: it is arogant to believe a proposition in the absence of proof if other intelligent, educated people do not hold that proposition.
An immediate problem with this assumption is that the assumption itself is a a proposition that many intelligent, educated people do not hold – the literature on epistemological disagreement and religious pluralism shows there are many who reject this view; hence, if the assumption is true then it is arogant to believe the assumption without proof. Neither I nor the proponent of this assumption can therefore rationally accept it.
Finally there is an obvious incoherence in accepting this kind of objection. Suppose, for the sake of argument, I accepted that it is arbitrary to accept Christianity is true in the face of widespread pluralism. What then should I do? Presumably I should cease to believe Christainity is true. But if I do this, aren’t I adopting a position that is contrary to that held by many intelligent educated people? What about the many Christians, for example, who do not reject the Christian faith?
Perhaps instead of counselling me to reject Christianity as true the objector rather contends I should suspend judgement. But now I am taking up a stance of agnosticism. Agnosticism is a position rejected by many intelligent, educated people; consider all the intelligent, educated theists and athiests out there who reject agnosticism.
This objection can not be coherently accepted.
I think these points take much of the sting out of the charge of arrogance in the face of religious pluralism. To take a stance on any philosophical issue of any substance is to take up a stance that is contradicted by a pluralism of other views. Moreover, the objection appears to be based on a self-refuting assumption and it contains fundamental incoherences. Being humble means we should be aware of our fallibility and of the possibility we could be mistaken; we should avoid persecuting or treating with contempt all other religions or dismissing out of hand everything they teach as mistaken. However, once all this is said and done, if we are convinced that Christianity is true then logic dictates we have to reject those religious and philosophical claims contrary to Christianity as being false. There is nothing arrogant about this.