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.”