I’m planning to start a new teaching series in my Sunday School class this week. The broad topic of my series will be “Why We Think the Way We Do and Why it Matters.” Specifically, I will be addressing some of the reasons why Christianity has been minimized in contemporary culture and how we can/must respond. One influential topic that has both biblical and contemporary significance is religious pluralism which is at the least illustrated by the coexist symbol. By way of introduction, if coexist means that we have the religious freedom to express a variety of viewpoints, then I can go along with it. I can also go along with it if it is simply the observation that contemporary society contains a variety of religious expressions. However, if coexist implies that there is truth in each of the above religious or philosophic expressions, then I must respectfully disagree.
Ironically, part of the problem with the previous paragraph of discussion is the variety of opinions and/or perspectives on the meaning of the coexist symbol. (I’ll address this specially in a future post). Who gets to say what it means? Maybe it’s the originator of the symbol? Or maybe it’s the one who sells it as a bumper sticker? Or maybe it’s the person who chooses to express it on their car? Or maybe you get to decide?
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to write and teach on the topics of Religious Pluralism and the Exclusive Gospel. We certainly do live in a culture that can be accurately described as pluralistic. The many faiths, opinions, and philosophies expressed in our free nation are a testimony to the freedoms of religion and free speech that highlight one of many great things about the United States. However, our nation is not unique in it’s pluralism of ideas. The ancient Greco-Roman world into which the first Christians lived and preached was intensely pluralistic. For example, see Paul in Acts 17 as he visited and preached in Athens (the centerpiece of Greek philosophy and seat of worship for a multitude of idols).
What I cannot accept (and what we as Christians must not accept) is the premise that saving truth and saving faith exists in different religions. What vexed the apostle Paul (Acts 17:16) was that the sincerely held rituals of religion and the passionate appeals to philosophy expressed in Athens would end up in the same place—a place of separation from the One true Creator, Savior, Lord of the Universe—the God of the Bible. I love the paradox of the apostle Paul in this passage. While he was “provoked” concerning the false religions and philosophies, he nevertheless was complimentary to his audience even though he would preach that Christ, and Christ alone is the Savior of men.
While we’ll address this topic in detail in the next post, allow me to conclude with this observation. Understanding the culture of pluralism that Paul faced in Athens helped him communicate the gospel effectively. I believe understanding the culture of pluralism facing us today will aid us in two important ways. First, by developing a framework for how our thinking (both consciously and unconsciously) has been shaped by the context of religious pluralism in our culture, we can better understand and defend our Christian faith. Second, through recognizing the context of religious pluralism around us, we can more clearly articulate the gospel effectively to those around us who are steeped in false religions and ideologies. After all, God is going to “judge the world in righteousness” through Jesus Christ (Acts 17:31). If we’re not willing to warn them about this judgment, who will?