The Elephant in the Room

Are you familiar with the idea of religious pluralism? Pluralists believe that all religions are essentially teaching the same things and directing their practitioners to the same goal. You may have seen the “Coexist” bumper stickers where the word is spelled with the various symbols of major religions. That’s a pluralist message. Pluralism is best illustrated by the parable of the elephant.

…an elephant is being examined by six blind men. Each man feels a different part of the elephant and thus reaches different conclusions about the object in front of him. One grabs a tusk and says, “This is a spear!” Another holds the trunk and says, “This is a snake!” The one hugging the leg claims, “This is a tree!” The blind man holding the tail thinks, “I have a rope!” The one feeling the ear believes, “This is a fan!” And the one leaning on the elephant’s side is certain, “This is a wall!” These blind man are said to represent world religions, because they each come to a different conclusion about what they are sensing. Like each blind man….no one religion has the truth. Religious truth is relative to the individual. It is subjective, not objective (Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, p. 48).

The pluralist movement in modern America can be traced back to a book written by Huston Smith and published in 1958 entitled The World’s Religions. Smith, a philosopher of religion, penned an illustration that will sound very familiar:

It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge. The base, in the foothills of theology, ritual, and organizational structure, the religions are distinct. Differences in culture, history, geography, and collective temperament all make for diverse starting points. . . .But beyond these differences, the same goal beckons (Prothero, God is not One, p. 1)

This is the heart of pluralism: Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, etc., are all climbing the same mountain from different starting points, traversing different paths, but we all want to reach the same peak.

What do you think of religious pluralism? Are all religions endeavoring to reach the same peak? How does one reconcile pluralism with the exclusive claims of Jesus such as John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by Me.”

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Wade Stanley Written by:


  1. July 25, 2014

    The assumption that all religions are the same is, quite frankly, ignorant. For instance, Huston Smith says, “To claim salvation as the monopoly of any one religion is like claiming that God can be found in this room and not in the next.” This sounds noble, but Smith overlooks that other religions do not teach or seek salvation. For example, Buddhists believe that suffering – not sin – is what is wrong with the world; their goal is nirvana which they achieve via the Noble Eightfold Path. I once asked a Buddhist if he thought most people were going to heaven; he waved his arms at me dismissively and walked away. Confucianism teaches that the problem in the world is chaos and the solution is social order with no end goal of eternal life. Sin and the need for salvation are Christian ideas: Romans 3:23-24, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” I bring these examples up because they illustrate how radically different these religions are from one another. Therefore, to suggest that we’re all climbing toward the same peak sounds great, but it is pure fantasy.

  2. Craig H
    July 25, 2014

    Well coexist has a website and they sell stuff – even coffee!!! The underlying premise seems to be good; a message of peace and tolerance which is a positive piece of most real religions. I think that it is interesting that the marketing side of the “Movement” is so well developed. I am, however, very suspicious of many that sport the bumper sticker and wear the shirt based on the other bumper stickers that I see along with the coexist tag. I’m not convinced that they desire to be tolerant to Christians. The “When Jesus said (fill in the blank), I pretty sure he meant (fill in the blank)” I doubt they desire to be truly tolerant.

  3. July 27, 2014

    @Craig H Tolerance means to permit others to hold opinions different from your own. Tolerance does not restrain opposing ideas. As a Christian, I’m called to do my best to live peaceably with all men. I consider another person’s rejection of Jesus an exercise of their God-given free will. Obviously I think they’re wrong, otherwise I would not have chosen to follow Christ. What troubles me, and I think what troubles you, is that I can’t tell them that the Bible says they’re wrong without being accused of intolerance (which is hypocritically intolerant).
    The tricky thing about this topic is we are wrestling with truth, not opinion. The elephant is deeply ironic because someone must have an objective point of view in order to discern what it claims is taking place in world religions. Pluralism, so they claim, is the objective point of view; it claims to be the truth. It’s the old “the only truth is there is no truth” which is self-refuting. However, if everybody’s right, nobody’s right because there is no right, there is no wrong.

  4. Theodore A. Jones
    August 18, 2014

    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. Rom. 2:13The elephant.

  5. Craig H
    August 22, 2014

    Wade :
    What troubles me, and I think what troubles you, is that I can’t tell them that the Bible says they’re wrong without being accused of intolerance (which is hypocritically intolerant).

    Yes, you have hit on the main issue. Is it intolerant to have the view that someone else’s religious faith is wrong? It is obvious that the answer is” of course not,” but many would argue that. An American Muslim that believed that he is right and I am wrong to be a Christian but understands my right to my faith is not being intolerant. Intolerance happens when a we believe that the other person does not have the right to their belief. I can reason with this man and explain my faith and maybe even study with him. I become intolerant when I take a position that his faith should not be able to build a worship hall in my town or that he should be jailed or punished for his faith.

    There are many intolerant christians out there and I hope that I never fall into that category. But some of the most intolerant Americans are those that are atheist and believe that my Christianity is only acceptable as long as I keep my mouth shut about it and hide it from others. I’m not OK with that at all but it is a disturbing trend and I do wonder about the tie between this intolerance and the coexist movement.

  6. August 23, 2014

    I really appreciate the comments. All of this discussion about pluralism and religious tolerance brings us to an essential question: why choose the Christian faith? Why claim that Christianity holds an exclusive right to the truth? Truth can be simply defined as a description of reality. What separates the Biblical Christianity from all other religions is that it accurately describes the world in which we exist. The Bible that we hold in our hands records God interacting with His creation in actual human history. When approached with a genuine desire to know the truth, the Bible can be independently verified through archaeology, through history, and through science. It contains within its pages prophecies that were revealed centuries in advance of their fulfillment. The Bible answers all of the questions that have concerned and disturbed mankind for centuries: Where do we come from? Who are we? What is the meaning of life? How do we act? Where do we go after death? But above all else the Bible diagnoses man’s greatest illness – sin – and offers a remedy that infinitely exceeds the illness. It is for these reasons — and for many others – that I believe the Bible is the word of God and contains mankind’s most essential truths.

  7. August 28, 2014

    “Tolerance grows only when faith loses certainty; certainty is murderous.”― Will Durant

    “Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.”
    ― Will Durant

    These two quotes seem to apply well in our society today.

  8. September 6, 2014

    @Chris Yes, I agree. One thought that struck me this week was how ecumenism is the handmaiden of pluralism. Those with an ecumenical spirit argue that since all who wear the name of Christ serve the same God and endeavor to reach the same goal (heaven), we should cooperate with one another. While I’m not a big fan of denomination bashing, it is disconcerting to me that many well-intentioned Christians embrace such an idea. I have found that many denominations have very different views of God, doctrines that directly contradict one another, radically different teachings on salvation, etc. I think the Christian needs to be wary of the spirit of this age. We may read from the same religious book, but we are not the same.

  9. Craig H
    September 9, 2014

    @Wade I think that this is a very interesting topic and one that can be very confusing to believers since unity is so clearly desired in the scriptures. Here are my thoughts:
    I’m not sure that I 100% agree that ecumenism is directly related to pluralism but this may be an issue of definition. Ecumenism is the idea that there should be cooperation between different Christian denominations. The philosophy is often that there is one church there for all denominations should work together as one with little to no focus on the doctrinal differences. The basis of unity is allowing differences but keeping the various denominations and their governmental framework. While there are several competing problems with this; one main problem is that the Bible doesn’t endorse a denominational framework.

    The idea of pluralism is a bit different and, to me, its legitimacy it depends on how it is defined. If it is defined as respect between differing religions and denominations to co-exist then it may not be all bad. Gal :10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. However, I think in many cases the idea of pluralism gets watered down to the idea that God accepts everyone that believe in him no matter how they interpret his Word. This second definition is wrong on several levels and can be backed up with Scriptures one of which is: Matt. 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

    Yet, God still desires unity. He desires the strong to help the weak. He desires all to come to repentance. The list goes on. God does desire unity and it can be very tempting to translate that into something to that sounds like this: “There is only one church, there is only one way. We study the Bible and the congregation that I attend is a faithful group. Therefore, anything different that what I believe and practice is wrong, or sinful or false teaching.” These ideas can be dangerous.

    My basic point is that ecumenism and pluralism can be problems in our desire to serve God. But so can isolationism and ultra legalism. These are opposites in many ways. In my life, where I have seen people go the wrong the most is seeing a trend, like ecumenism and its false nature and then responding by taking the opposite opposing idea without searching God’s Word closely enough to determine if that opposite opposing view is correct.

    Like I say, a confusing topic. And you are 100% correct that we Christians should be very careful of the spirit of this age.

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