In our Sunday School class, we are getting ready to parallel a series that will be taught by our Pastors during the balance of the Summer. The series will focus on controversial issues within the Christian community. Among other things, we (and our pastors) will be talking about homosexuality, the death penalty, abortion, and immigration policy. Some folks at our church seem a little nervous, but I think it is a bold and positive move.
The first subject we will be tackling in our class will be the subject of religious pluralism. More specifically, we will be looking at the theological options that are available to Christians when reflecting on the relationship between our faith and other world faiths. This issue is becoming more and more important as the Christian community in America is increasingly finding itself working with people of other faiths, living near people of other faiths, and even marrying into families who practice other world faiths. The tension is accentuated by the fact that certain radical elements of Islam have directed terrorist attacks at American targets. When you know nothing about Islam, its a little unsettling to have a Muslim move in next door.
Yet, as we come into closer and closer contact with people of other faiths, the question becomes more and more glaring: these seem to be perfectly rational, and emotionally healthy people. They don't seem to be members of cults. How is it that we can view the nature of the cosmos in such dramatically different ways?
The traditional theological choices in this situation are, for me, unsatisfactory.
On the one hand, there are various forms of absolutism – or the belief that there is one and only one truth, and therefore one and only one true faith. Some absolutists insist that people in other religions are believing mostly false things (exclusivism). Sure, they say, there may be some truth to be found here and there in the teachings of Buddha or in the Koran, but for the most part, they just flat-out have it wrong.
Others, thinking themselves to be more generous, approach things differently. They claim that God is grace-filled and fair, and that God will therefore hold people accountable only for what they know. As such, all those Muslims and Hindu won't be treated harshly for buying into the false things. While this seems, at first, to be a more reasonable and progressive position, it doesn't fully avoid the problem: how is it that all of these perfectly rational, emotionally healthy people came to a different conclusion about the nature of the cosmos than me? Why should I know better than them?
In the end, then, both forms of absolutism (exclusivism and inclusivism) are problematic for me for the same reason. The only difference is that, instead of coming across as brash and arrogant, the inclusivist just comes across as patronizing and accommodating.
The polar opposite of absolutism is relativism. The relativist just says that there is no single, objective truth, that truth is all in our perceptions and stories, and that all stories are equally valid. That is all well and fine to a point, of course, but if you press it hard enough, it becomes intolerable as a philosophical position. "The killers and the victims of genocide both have their own stories," a relativist might say, " and each of them are equally valid." That just doesn't work for me.
So, over time, I have found myself in search of a third way to view the problem of pluralism: one that avoids the arrogance of absolutism, without abandoning the idea of "one truth" to the oblivion of epistemic and moral relativism.
Specifically, as I've been considering the problem during the last few days/weeks, my attention has focused on the question of degrees of certainty. That is, while I can only believe the things I believe about the cosmos, how sure can I be about them? As I have reflected on this, it has struck me that it is the claim that "I know the truth" that is more problematic than the claim that "there is a truth."
For lawyers, the idea of degrees of certainty is not a difficult concept. The amount of certainty one needs to search a suspect's vehicle is not the same amount that is needed to arrest the suspect. Even more certainty is needed to try, and even more to convict a person. It doesn't take much to justify the initial search, but it takes a mountain of evidence to convict someone. Still, even then, it takes less evidence to render a civil judgment against the same person for similar conduct.
Even in the case of a criminal conviction, however, the law recognizes that certain things can never be known for certain. We put people in prison if the evidence shows their guild beyond a reasonable doubt, not beyond any doubt. In civil cases, we render judgments against defendants based on a preponderance of the credible evidence. Credible evidence against a judgment can still exist, so long as it does not "outweigh" the credible evidence that supports it. At the end of the day, a judge or jury may well end up looking at a situation and saying the defendant's story "could be" – but that they just think the evidence supporting the plaintiff's case is "a little stronger."
When we are dealing with theological matters and other issues relating to huge, cosmic realities – issues that are immensely more difficult to investigate than a law case – I think we should end up in the same place: I happen to be at a place where I think the Christian worldview is (by far!) the most plausible and credible, but I can't be certain about it, so it is not very difficult to accept and engage in dialog with people who come to other conclusions.
One of my great influences – NT Wright – often puts it this way: "I know that some of the things I am saying are wrong, but I can't tell you which of them are wrong, because if I knew that, I wouldn't be saying them."
In short, it is not a belief in absolute truth that creates tension in a pluralistic society, it is rather the arrogance of certain individuals who assert that they – and only they – know it. Once we begin to accept that we don't "get" it all, we can assume a position of epistemic humility, or "humble knowing" that makes it possible to coexist and even love (!) those who hold to different beliefs. We are not abandoning our faith, but merely "holding" that faith in a position of humility, rather than arrogance.
So…in the end, it turns out that I am an absolutist: I think there is one and only one truth to the universe. However, I also think it would be foolish to say that I am certain that I fully understand it. This uncertainty, in turn, can become a form of hospitality. By holding out our faiths to one another from a position of humility, we can create a space where everyone can feel welcome and (possibly even) grow in their understanding.