Written By Jose Philip, Singapore
Jose is an Evangelist and Apologist. He also lectures on Apologetics, Christian Ethics, and Gospel & Culture at Singapore Bible College, Baptist Theological Seminary and Bible College Malaysia.
The idea that truth is exclusive does not sit well with many people today, does it?
In fact, it is deeply upsetting to some. We cherish the liberty to decide for ourselves what is true and what is not; at the same time, we demand that others be truthful to us. Now that presents us with a conundrum. How could we expect anyone to be truthful when, as my 12-year-old—who has quite the imagination—recently declared, “making things up” is so much more interesting!
Making things up or assuming them to be true is not what only children do. We tend to place more value on how we feel, or whether something works for us, than on whether it is actually true. Truth is relative, we are told, and this is an idea that those who hold strongly to their religious convictions will struggle with.
As an itinerant preacher, teacher, and Christian apologist, I am frequently asked to speak on a variety of topics to a wide variety of audiences. Once, I was asked to explore the question, “Do all paths lead to the same God?” As part of my preparation, I decided to do a quick survey. I wanted to know two things: Did people actually believe that all religions were the same? And, why?
So, every time I was sitting in a public area like a coffee shop or a library, I typed the words, “Why would anyone believe that all religions lead to the same God?”, in a font big enough for the person next to me to see.
It was a fascinating experiment, and I had some very interesting conversations. It showed that, contrary to what many might think, talking about religion is not a conversation stopper. Often, it did not take long before someone would see my words and ask, “Why not?”
It also confirmed my suspicion that many people, whether religious or not, believe that all religions are the same—even when they weren’t familiar with the claims or teaching of those religions. What also struck me was that most of the people I discussed the question with believed that they were entitled to their opinions. It showed me that for many, the right to be heard was more important than discovering the truth.
In a way, it wasn’t a surprise. Deciding for ourselves what is the truth is the logical next step following the belief that truth is relative. As a result, we find it rude—even arrogant—for someone to make exclusive claims about the truth. Now, if we pause long enough to think about this issue and ask, “Is this something new, or is this how humans have always thought?”, we might discover something very interesting.
Why Do We Believe What We Believe?
Having encountered several objections to exclusive truth claims about religion, I have found that they can be broadly grouped into three positions or “postures”: that of misplaced confidence, masked arrogance, and mistaken trust. The first two are effectively two sides of the same coin, so I will discuss them briefly before going on to focus on the third.
The three “postures” have to do with taking sides. When we maintain that truth is not exclusive, we are trying not to take one particular side against any other. However, we have different reasons for doing so.
1. Misplaced confidence
Many of the people who conclude that all religions lead to the same God appear to do so because they do not have exhaustive knowledge of every religion to conclude otherwise. It seems that those who adopt this posture tend to hold to the view that the great religions must surely be the same, for they all teach us to be good, to love, to serve others, to take care of the weak and vulnerable, not to harm, and to speak the truth. Therefore, they reason, none of these religions can be wrong, and all must surely be right.
This view, however, largely ignores the tenets and principles that are foundational to these religions. This is a posture of misplaced confidence.
2. Masked arrogance
Then there are those who get upset with anyone who claims exclusivity or who appeals to absolutes. They believe that it is wrong to claim that only one way is right. They feel that to claim that any one religion is right and the others are wrong is egocentric. Since we are mortal, they reason, who are we to say who is right and who is wrong?
However, when they profess that “all paths lead to the same ultimate truth”, are they not claiming to know more than all the founders of these diverse religions put together? Each of these founders, whether it is Buddha, Mohammed, or Jesus, has claimed one exclusive path to God. If we then say that all of their religions lead to the same God, are we not claiming that we know more than all these founders put together? Is that not a posture of masked arrogance?
3. Mistaken trust
Underlying the postures of misplaced confidence and masked arrogance is the posture of mistaken trust. Once, when I questioned a conversation partner’s belief that all religions are equally true, he became visibly distraught. “How could you, an Indian, even raise such a question?” he protested. “I am sure you are familiar with what Mahatma Gandhi said.”
(Gandhi, who led India to independence and is widely seen as the Father of India, made it plain that he believed that all religions were essentially the same.)
The man’s response appeared to be typical of how the vast majority of people are informed about the truth—through the voice of the popular. I could not help but wonder if it was because I am an Indian, that this obviously well-read gentleman appealed to the founding father of India to challenge my religious conclusions. Not wanting to second-guess him, I asked him if my nationality had prompted him to appeal to Gandhi’s name, to which he replied with a smile, “Yes”!
We are quick to denounce the “might is right” dictum because we know that sheer power is not a test for the truth. Why, then, do we not conclude the same when it comes to the “popular”? Why do we think that popularity makes something right? I am not suggesting that being a popular voice in and of itself is bad, or that Gandhi was being facetious. My question is simply this: “Does exemplary standing in one thing automatically grant someone infallibility in all things?”
Many of the people who believe that all religions lead to the same God are kind, intelligent, and sincere. But does that make it true? Sincerity, like popularity, is not a test for the truth; I can be sincere, but sincerely wrong.
It is true that Gandhi stood head and shoulders above the rest of his countrymen, and as an Indian, I owe my national freedom to his courage and selfless service. But does that mean that his belief in the equality of all religions is right?
It is no secret that the teachings of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount, had a profound impact on Gandhi. Yet he could not accept Christianity on its own terms. He picked and chose aspects of Christianity that appealed to him, and reinterpreted them from his perspective as a Hindu. He did the same with the teachings of Gautama Buddha, whom he saw as a great reformer of Hinduism. In Gandhi’s opinion, Buddha’s immense sacrifice and immaculate purity in life had left an indelible impression on Hinduism.
In essence, Gandhi’s approach was to consider the truth claims of different religions from the vantage point of the follower, and not its founders. In believing him, however, might we be taking a posture of misplaced trust?
Founder or Follower—Whose Decision Is It Anyway?
Our motivations to believe all religions are the same may be noble—peace and harmony, for example. This, however, does not license followers to amalgamate world religions into an amorphous mix. It is not up to us to promise indiscriminately for all what is exclusively offered by one religion. In as much as you cannot attain ‘Nirvana’ by upholding the authority of the Vedas or adhering to the caste system, you cannot have ‘Eternal Life’ without choosing to follow Jesus alone.
The truth claims of the different religions are exclusive, and we will do well to appreciate its distinctiveness. It is up to us to choose whether we will allow these differences to divide us or to live in peace no matter how deep the disagreements. It is not, however, up to us to redefine what different religions claim as ‘exclusive’ and offer as the ‘same thing’.
If all religions are fundamentally different and essentially exclusive, then it stands to reason that they all cannot be equally true. I believe acknowledging this will bring us to the door of enquiry. And, despite my Christian convictions, I find investigating Jesus’ truth claims to be a good place to begin. He not only claimed divinity, He also offered a tangible way to validate whether His claims are true—through His death and resurrection. As the apostle Paul wrote:
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:14)
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