It’s not fashionable to talk about “the truth” in matters of religion. A popular objection to religious tradition goes, “I don’t believe that any single religious tradition can claim to have figured out the truth. Look at how many different religions there are. Look at their different cultural backgrounds, their different basic assumptions. How could anyone rationally adjudicate between all their contesting claims about ultimate reality? And if no rational decision can be made between them, then it’s sheer arrogance for any religion to make an absolute and exclusive claim to the truth.”
The problem with this popular sentiment—what I call “the pluralistic objection”—is that it leaves itself with nowhere to stand. For we are all in the business of making exclusive truth-claims, even though we all stand within some particular perspective or tradition. I think that these two facts are not incompatible, and that it still makes sense to talk about “the truth,” even in this pluralistic age.
I see three positions that the pluralist objector might adopt.
The first is a kind of strong atheism: the “I think all religions are false” view. The problem with this view is that it is inconsistent with the original objection. Declaring that a religion is false is itself an absolute truth-claim. So strong atheism is not an option for the pluralist objector.
The second possibility is to say, “I think all religions are equally true.” This is the view that all religions are really saying the same thing. They are different paths up the same mountain. Their truth-claims are not exclusive but complementary.
The natural response to this view is to ask (politely) whether the objector has truly listened to what all the different religions are actually saying. Religions disagree with each other about the nature of ultimate reality. Christians say that the man Yeshua of Nazareth was in fact the same person who created time and space. Muslims and Jews say he wasn’t. They do not believe that they are talking about or responding to the same ultimate reality in different ways.
One might reply that, deep down, all religions are expressing the same ultimate reality, and they just don’t realize it. But to say “they just don’t realize it” is an absolute truth-claim at least as sweeping and audacious as any religious truth-claim. So this view is not an option for the pluralist objector, either.
The third view rightly rejects the claim that all the paths are headed up the same mountain, but is still incredulous that any one religion could have the whole truth. The solution, under this view, is to recognize the salvageable bits of each religion: “I think all religions get some things right and other things wrong. I believe what Jesus taught about mercy and forgiveness, but not the final judgment. I believe the Taoist doctrine that true power comes from stillness, but not the doctrine of yin and yang.” And so on.
The problem is, if the objector ever intends to say which bits of any religion are right and which bits are wrong, she must replace those religious truth-claims with her own equally absolute truth-claims. The objector must become their own private religious authority. And this too seems incompatible with the pluralistic objection.
The pluralistic objection is no defeater for the exclusive truth-claims of religious tradition. It is perfectly possible to respect other religions, to practice tolerance and open-mindedness, whilst also defending the claim that “there is truth and I think I’ve found it.” That is not necessarily arrogance. As G. K. Chesterton said, “The purpose of an open mind, like an open mouth, is to close on something solid.”
So where does this leave us? How does one adjudicate between religious traditions? I can only begin to sketch an answer here, and it begins with trying to view the world through the lenses of each religion. And that means participating in religious community. As Markus Bockmuehl has remarked, there’s only so much you can say about stained glass windows of a chapel from the outside.
I remember when I first got glasses. “Tell me which is clearer. One… or two… one… or two,” said the optometrist. I remember my astonishment when I put on the finished glasses and my world (I had never realized how foggy it was) suddenly became clear as crystal. I remember thinking, “People aren’t supposed to be able to see this far.”
Eventually I came to accept that my vision, in its natural state, was not in fact optimal or normative, and that this new, bright, sharp-edged world was truly what people were “supposed to be able to see.” It made the old world more intelligible.
Stephen G. Mackereth ’15 is a joint mathematics and philosophy concentrator living in Mather House. He is editor-in-chief of the Harvard Ichthus.