Questions on Pluralism, Evangelization, and Relativism

I was speaking with a (non-Catholic) friend the other day and we got into a discussion on religious pluralism, specifically, reconciling the existence of several major world religions with the exclusive truth claims made by each religion (e.g. if Christianity is true, logically Islam cannot be true).

I’ve never been completely comfortable with this view. On the one hand, to claim a religion has a monopoly on truth seems to reduce God to something small enough to fit inside a human framework, which really is an astoundingly presumptuous claim when you think about it (not to mention that history also is replete with examples of the dangers of those who presume absolute moral or religious certainty. The 16th century wasn’t a very happy one). On the other hand, it does present a rather serious problem of logic, as well as make the whole Great Commission to evangelize rather problematic. My current, admittedly unsatisfactory position, is that God reveals himself to people in different ways, and we must respond to God as he reveals himself to us. This is not the same as saying that all religions are equally true or right. God revealed himself to me in the Catholic context, and thus it is within Catholicism that I most authentically may worship him, and so it would be inauthentic for me suddenly decide to attend Friday prayers at the mosque instead of Sunday mass at my parish. The reverse, logically, would also hold.

Before I get flamed with charges of relativism, I should point out that I don’t think accepting religious relativism (e.g. being Catholic is right for me and being Buddhist is right for you) is the same as moral relativism. In a sense, someone who accepts religious pluralism can’t accept moral relativism. Once you make the claim that moral precepts such as it’s wrong to murder are universal, that really does tie you into some concept of natural moral law, perhaps even more strongly than if you just write off other religions as false.

Many of the posts on this forum appear deeply skeptical of interfaith dialog, but this doesn’t really address the basic fact of the astounding amount of religious diversity in the world, or how to adequately respond to it. It’s a confusing and complicated issue, but what that is rather pressing in all sorts of ways (for instance, when people bemoan that America is no longer a Christian nation, what do they mean – no longer Anglican, no longer puritan/Calvinist, no longer deist? And what exactly does the call to evangelize mean in such a diverse democratic society as ours?). I’d be interested in how others have approached these issues and your thoughts on it.

Hi Philip,

I don’t know if this will help or not, but I read a book by Peter Kreeft last year called “Fundamentals of the Faith”. Maybe you are familiar with Kreeft, this is the only book of his I have read but I thought it was awesome.

Anyway, Kreeft believes that while the Catholic Church holds the fullness of Truth, traces of truth can also be found in many, many other religions. Kreeft argues that there is great value in comparitive religion study b/c it can teach us things- through other religions- that perhaps we have missed in the Catholic Church. Of course, this is not b/c the Church is lacking any part of the truth, but perhaps it hasn’t been fully devloped- or at a basic level maybe we just haven’t learned it yet during our study of the Church.

While I probably wouldn’t ever say “Catholicism is right for me, Buddhism is right for you”, I would probably think “It is great that you have found value in Buddhism, hopefully it is helping you live a more moral life… now let me tell you why Catholicism holds up in the real world as compared to Buddhism.” That’s why I think we still need missionaries… it isn’t enough that some people have found some truth, or even a lot of truth. After all, salvation isn’t based of head knowledge. Since Catholicism gives us the “resources” to fully know God and be closer to Him, this is the main advantage over other religions which may be “close” to the truth. And in my mind, this is why we evangelize.

About the appropriateness of the Great Commission if the visible Church is not the only way to salvation: a similar situation occurs in Buddhism. The Buddha told his followers to spread the teachings of the Buddha; at the same time, the Buddha did not claim that everyone would/should/had to become a Buddhist. You never knew which person would be open to the teaching, so the best thing to do would be to disseminate the teaching nonetheless.

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