Part of a lecture given by CLIVE EVERY-CLAYTON on 16th
October 2018 under the title: ‘Is Christianity the only truth about
God? What about other religions’ contrary views?’
It is a controversial statement these days to affirm that there is such a thing as truth in religion. We live in an age of ‘post-truth’ where people’s ideas about existential issues are fashioned more by feeling than by facts. We also hear a lot about ‘fake news’. Isn’t there also ‘fake religious news’? Some people believe that all religious ‘truth’ is fake. Can we ever find truth about religion and about God at all? How can false and erroneous ideas be exposed if truth cannot be found?
There are essentially two approaches that can be followed in an effort to find truth in matters of religion: the first, which this article will deal with, is human reflection; the second is divine revelation.
Many people these days think Christians are arrogant and intolerant to hold that Christianity is the only truth about God. The underlying reason for their criticism is that they see religious ‘truth’ as merely man’s ideas, the fruit of human reflection. If religion is merely the fruit of man’s supposed bright thinking, how can he claim absolute truth for his personal views?
A striking example of religion originating from human reflection is the experience of Buddha. Seeing the suffering of mankind, he spent years wandering around and wondering about what might be the cause and the answer to such a problem. Then one day his philosophic answer dawned on him. The religion that came out of that insight was essentially the result of
human reflection. Many other religious gurus have invented their religion by a similar process, some more sophisticated than others.
This phenomenon of religion arising from human reflection fits in with the biblical teaching of Romans 1:18-25. Man discerns from contemplating nature and the universe that there must be a God behind it all. The apostle teaches that there is a general revelation of God given in his creation, which provides glimpses of truth that man can reflect upon. Though this is not a saving revelation, it does furnish elements allowing thinkers to know that God exists, and from there to imagine what God might be like and what he must demand. This is the way that all the religions of the world have come into being, with the sole exception of the Judeo-Christian revelation. Behind every religion is some prophet proposing a concept of God, and
because they start out from God’s general revelation in nature, such invented religions may include some valid insights.
Two words that link in with this approach are pluralism and relativism.
The fact of immigration of peoples of different religions into our country has alerted us to the existence of a number of faiths that were previously known only at a distance. This cultural plurality has encouraged philosophical pluralism – the idea that all religions are somehow valid, each seemingly as good as the next. Popular pluralism says that all religions are the same. Christianity stood out in the pluralism of the Roman Empire, where, according to Edward Gibbon, ‘The various modes of worship…were all considered by the people to be equally true, by the philosophers to be equally false and by the magistrates to be equally useful.’ In the context of pluralism, no one religion could seriously claim to be the only true one.
When people say to us ‘Your religion is good for you,’ implying it is not good or true for them, they are being relativists. They think that there is no absolute truth in religion, because we are all limited to our human ideas – and everyone’s ideas are relative to their own upbringing or preferences. Since no one has the absolute truth about God, everyone’s ideas should be tolerated –except the claim to possess absolute truth!
The key issue is this: pluralism and relativism arise within the framework of understanding religious truth as coming only from human reflection. Indeed, if ideas about God are merely that – human concepts invented by religious thinkers – then there is no absolute truth in religion. Everything is simply human speculation and there can be no guarantee that there is a god who corresponds to one’s projected ideas.
The logical conclusion of this is SCEPTICISM: no truth can ever be found about God and religion at all. Just as human reason has been unable to discover an absolutely true philosophic system, so neither has human reflection been able to invent an absolutely true religion. This is the climate that characterises our postmodern culture today.
In this agnostic and hopeless context, our Christian claim to bring the truth of God comes across as bizarre to our contemporaries. Why? Because our message is perceived as only our human view (whereas we know it is truth given by divine revelation). So our ‘opinion’ is condemned as intolerant and arrogant.
How do we respond to this?
First, we need to be clear that all religions are intolerant: Ravi Zacharias, specialist in the field, insists: ‘All religions do not say that all religions are the same. At the heart of every religion is an uncompromising commitment to a particular way of defining who God is or is not…. Every religion at its core is exclusive.’1Jews and Christians disagree about whether Jesus was the Messiah; Christians and Muslims disagree about whether Jesus died and rose from the dead. Hindus believe in 300,000,000 gods, while Muslims believe in only one. The fact is that truth by its very nature is intolerant of that which is false. In game quizzes on TV, if the contestant gives a wrong answer, he doesn’t get the prize money.
Christians are convinced that God has revealed truth about himself through Jesus, who calls himself ‘a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God’ (John 8:40). ‘The Father who has sent me has given me a commandment—about what to say and what to speak,’ he asserts. ‘What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me’ (John 12:49-50). He tells us that God, his Father, is ‘the only true God’ whose ‘word is truth’ (John 17:3, 17). Having believed that, we have a criterion by which to tell which religious ideas are false. ‘God alone, ultimately, can speak correctly about God’, as Blaise Pascal said2. People’s human ideas must be corrected by the truth that God himself has spoken in his revealed word.
We should gently explain to the relativist that his own position is untenable: when he affirms, ‘All truth about religion is relative,’ he is actually claiming to give absolute truth about religious truth. His statement contradicts itself. It also betrays an intolerant attitude.
It is indeed arrogant if we insist that our human ideas about God are the only right ones. But that is not what Christians actually say. We don’t claim that our ideas are right: we have been convinced that God’s revelation speaks true truth about God, and having trusted in Christ, we have experienced the truth of his promises. So we feel free to share what we have discovered. We are not putting forward the ideas that come from our brilliant human reflection; we are simply transmitting what God the Lord has spoken through his prophets and through the sending of his Son into the world. We seek to do this with humility, recognising that our grasp of this revealed truth is not perfect – our knowledge is not absolute. But the source of our religion, God’s inspired revelation, is absolutely true; it has persuaded us of its real truth, and we desire humbly to share that with our contemporaries. We want to proclaim Gospel truth and urge others, with respect, to believe it as the truth of God. We dare to call on people to repent of their false ideas and to trust in the Son of God, with that spiritual authority that comes from our own submission to the God of truth.
[This article was first published in the December 2018 edition of The Record]