Book Review: Can Only One Religion Be True? Paul Knitter and Harold Netland in Dialogue



Can Only One Religion Be True? Paul Knitter and Harold Netland in Dialogue by Robert B. Stewart, Fortress Press,  February 2013, 272 pp.

Anyone who has attempted to reach out to people of different religious backgrounds is probably well aware that many people of different faiths have strong commitments to their own belief systems. Over the years, I have had Mormons, Muslims, Orthodox Jewish people, and even atheists try to convert me to their religion or view of reality. I can say without hesitation that they are just as fervent and devoted  as any orthodox or evangelical Christian. That is why I took great interest in the book called “Can Only One Religion Be True? Paul Knitter and Harold Netland in Dialogue.” This book discusses points of agreement and disagreement on the subject of religious pluralism. Pluralism puts Christ on the same level as other founders of religious traditions (Zoroaster, Buddha, Muhammad etc) and rejects the exclusivist claims of Jesus. In other words, Jesus isn’t the only way to have a saving relationship with God. The dialogue partners in this volume are Paul F. Knitter, Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions, and Culture at Union Theological Seminary, and Harold A Netland, professor of Mission and Evangelism and director of Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Knitter is author of Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian and is an advocate of pluralism while Netland (who is author of Encountering Religious Pluralism. The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission), takes the opposite view.

The reader first gets to read the exchange between Knitter and Netland then gets to read various essays on religious pluralism by scholars/apologists. I will highlight some of important points from some of the chapters in the book that I consider to be important.

In the opening chapter (which can be read online) Netland says:

Let me clarify at the outset what is not included in the assertion that Christianity is the one true religion. Affirming Christian faith as the true religion does not mean that there is no truth or goodness or beauty in other religions. If the Christian faith is true, then any teachings from other religions which are incompatible with essential teachings of Christianity must be rejected. But this does not mean that there are no truths embraced by other religions. Indeed, I think that the Christian faith shares some significant common beliefs with other religions, with some more so than with others. And surely we can and must acknowledge that there is goodness and beauty in other religious traditions as well. Nor, in claiming that the Christian faith is true, am I suggesting that Christians are necessarily morally better people than, say, Muslims or Hindus or Sikhs. Nor am I defending everything that the institutional church has done or represented over the past two millennia. Sadly, there is much in the history of the Christian church that betrays the teachings of our Lord. Furthermore, in claiming that Christianity is the true religion, I am not saying that Christians should not cooperate with other religious communities in a variety of ways to further the common good. Given the very real religious tensions in our world, I think that leaders of the major religions need to be especially vigilant in working to reduce conflict between religious communities and to cooperate together in addressing our many global problems.” –pgs 17-18.

No Other Name: The Gospel and True Religions S. Mark Heim

I found this chapter to be relevant because the author does a fine job of clarifying terms. I think most Christians think in terms of whether a religion is the only ‘saving religion.’

Heim says:

I would like to focus on three aspects of the word true in the question “Is Christianity the only true religion?” In one sense, we use the word true to mean “the real thing.” This is true coffee, not an imitation. That person is exhibiting true integrity, not a semblance of it. What is true is authentic. For a religion to be true in this respect means that at its origins and in its ongoing life, it is not hypocritical (carried out for reasons other than the ostensible ones), and it is no mere epiphenomenon of some other causal factor (as, for instance, if all religion were explained purely as a psychological pathology). In another sense, we use the word to mean verified or verifiable by experience. Analytical philosophers in the twentieth century regarded a proposition as meaningful only if one could specify a set of circumstances that would count as verifying (or, in other formulations, falsifying) it. For a religion to be true in this sense means that, so far as we can judge, those who pursue it actually achieve the states or conditions it promises. The true is the realizable. In yet another sense, we take true to mean descriptively accurate, at the furthest reach of our epistemological horizon. In this sense, it is not true to say that electrons are in orbits around the nucleus of an atom, analogous to those of planets around the sun, since their behavior is described much more precisely in terms of quantum mechanics. For a religion to be true in this sense would mean that its account of the world within which truth of the first two types are at play is the most accurate and comprehensive one.

Keeping these three meanings in mind, I would say (1) that Christianity is not the only true (authentic) religion, nor is its authenticity necessarily of a different sort than others. (2) I do not believe that Christianity is the only true (realizable) religion. But I believe Christianity is the uniquely saving religion. My faith does not rest in generic qualities of Christianity as a religion, but in the decisive saving significance of Jesus Christ for all humanity. There is full communion with God only in communion with Christ. (3) I do believe that Christianity is the most fully true (descriptive) religion. I further believe that one mark of the truest religion (or religions) is the capacity to recognize and affirm distinctive elements of truth in others. The adequacy of one’s own tradition is correlative with the ability to make room for what is valid in others. My religion could not be true if it had no means to recognize that others are as well, in various facets of these three dimensions. We generally use a typology—exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism—in the area of religious pluralism. Exclusivism is the view that only one religion is true and all others are false, inclusivism the view that the benefits of the one truest religion can be accessed from within others which are at least partially true.

Pluralism is the view that all major religions are independently valid. But these categories are nearly useless, given the uncertainty of what we mean by “true.” In a concrete and straightforward sense, every religion is the only true one. There is no way to live a Jewish life except the Jewish way. Every other way is false in that it is not truly Jewish. Exclusivism is just common sense. In one sense, inclusivism seems obvious, too. No religion is without its commonalities with others. If honoring your parents has value in Christianity, then it must have value when practiced in another tradition as well. There is truth in both. At one level, pluralism is plainly right. If the question is about religion’s ability to perform certain descriptive social functions, then the answer is clear: many religions have demonstrated their independent ability to animate advanced civilizations, maintain moral systems, and provide meaning for human life. They are all true. The typology originates in an agreement between the most liberal and most conservative theologies of religion that there is and can be only one religious end, one actual religious fulfillment.

The typology then chooses up sides on the means to that end: one way or many. The typology was originally formulated with an implicit focus on Christian salvation as its reference point, though not all religions share the concept or seek its realization. This specifically Christian term, referring to a concrete hope, has been thoroughly blurred into an all-inclusive positive possibility. And the blurring comes from both sides, from exclusivist Christians who assume all possible forms of good subsist in a salvation whose only alternative is utter evil or torment and from pluralist Christians who assume the aims of all religions are essentially identical. The pluralist knows that the particularities of all religions are finally insignificant. The exclusivist knows that the particularities of all religions but one are insignificant. Both are mistaken. We can illustrate the blurring tendency I am describing by taking a very simple example. In a colloquial way, some picture a resolution to issues of religious pluralism by envisioning an afterlife somewhat on the model of a parliament of world religions. “- pgs 79-89

Is Christianity the Only True Religion, or One among Others? by John Hick 

Hick, a religious pluralist, was greatly influenced by Immanuel Kant. Hick claims that knowledge of the Real (his generic term for Transcendent Reality) can only be known as it is being perceived. Hence, any truth claims about God are only claims about perceptions of God. For Hick, all knowledge is rooted in experience and knowledge of God and religious truth claims are culturally and historically influenced; and for that reason should not be considered absolute.

In response to Hick, the book allows for two essays. One is called John Hick’s Monotheistic Shadow by Paul Rhodes Eddy and “Why the World Is Not Religiously Ambiguous: A Critique of Religious Pluralism” Paul Copan offers a response to Hick:

I will offer a small snipet here. Copan says:

Here I would like to note how pluralists like Hick are unambiguous exclusivists at several levels. Knowledge (epistemology): We’ve already seen that Hick believes he has a virtue that traditional religionists don’t have: he “knows” that particularistic religions like Islam or Christianity are false in their literal claims about salvation or uniqueness. He “knows” that no religion is uniquely salvific. Final things (eschatology): Hick has claimed that in the end, his pluralistic view will be proven right (eschatological verification); so eventually, it will be decisively shown that many religious doctrines conflicting with pluralism are literally false. In other words, all others—we’re talking billions of people—are wrong except the pluralist! Despite Hick’s “cosmic optimism” about how everything will turn out,[49] why think that such will be the case? Is the Real going to ensure this happens? If so, does this not suggest that the Real is personal rather than impersonal? And why the optimism? Why not argue for an ultimate personal obliteration for all individuals, as some Eastern religions maintain? Or why not the eventual extinction of the human race—end of story? Why is optimism, rather than pessimism, warranted? Ultimate reality (metaphysics): Hick claims that the Real doesn’t have any characteristics or properties we can truly describe. Even when challenged to affirm that at least “the Real is not a tricycle,”Hick asserted, “I do indeed hold that the Real cannot properly be said to be either a tricycle or a non-tricycle.”Yet Hick seems to have access to the Real by asserting this. Hick’s approach, of course, resembles that of Kant; we cannot know things in themselves (noumena), but only things as they appear to us (phenomena).

One common criticism of Kant is this: How does Kant know that there is a noumenal realm behind the phenomena, and how does he know that the noumenal realm is unknowable? The same applies to Hick: How does Hick know so much about the unknowable Real and that there is a Real at all behind the various religious personae or impersonae? And how one can know that this Ultimate Reality is unknowable? Could we not at least say we know this following about the Real: that it cannot be truly known by humans? Someone, it seems, has been whispering metaphysical secrets into Hick’s ear. It seems that Hick’s metaphysical confidence parallels that of the Christian, who maintains that the self-existent triune God has broken into our world and uniquely and savingly revealed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, we can genuinely know God and that he is love, as is evidenced by the sacrifice of Jesus (1 John 3:16; 4:8-9, 16). Getting back to Hick’s metaphysic, we could ask: Why not say that religion is a completely human idea or projection—that it has nothing to do with the Ultimate Reality? Why not be a religious skeptic instead of a pluralist? After all, lots of people seem to come to understand the Real in times of war, oppression, and desperation. Why think that the Real has anything to do with religion itself? Why think that any Ultimate Reality exists—unless Hick has decent reason or evidence to the contrary? If he does offer any such reasons, then he would be at odds with the various religious conceptions of the Real, which means the traditional religionist is wrong.”- pgs 139-159

Has Normative Religious Pluralism a Rationale? Keith E. Yandell.

In this chapter, Yandell also offers a critique of the pluralist position.

 Yandell says:

A religion I suggest, offers a diagnosis of some deep spiritual disease that plagues us all and proposes a cure for that disease. Religions can be differentiated by reference to what pairing of disease and cure their adherents embrace. The diagnoses and cures assume, or are offered from the perspective of, a set of metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical claims—with ethical being broadly construed as “concerning values.” Thus, each religion, at least implicitly, accepts some view in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. These claims are either true or false, and typically adherents of a religion suppose that those accepted as normative in their religion are true. While there have been challenges to this general account of things, I believe that—with sufficient fine-turning that cannot be done here—this account is true. A religion, we have suggested, gives a diagnosis of a deep spiritual disease that plagues us all and proposes a cure for it. Devotees of a particular religion are those who accept that diagnosis and seek that cure, and that are serious about doing so. For any religion R, there will be people who participate in R’s institutions, rite(s), practices, and ceremonies who do so from social, familial, political, cultural, or economic reasons or simply from habit. These are not devotees, but they belong to Rdom (e.g., Christendom), Rism (e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism), or the like. Our focus will be on that to which the devotees are devoted—that to which the adherents adhere. Since the diagnoses and cures differ, and the status of something as cure depends on its providing healing from the disease, religions differ in ways that are significant to their adherents.Conversion to another religion, or abandoning a religion for some secularism, is a major change. It is like switching to a different treatment for a different illness or stopping going to doctors altogether when one’s major prior focus had been on the success of the treatment—only more so.”

If we are going to have religious people working together to promote justice and reduce suffering, we will need people who know perfectly well that they disagree about the deepest things in life, do not intend to change their views, and nonetheless respect each other enough to cooperate—all without becoming pluralists. It this can be based on religious or moral agreement about some things, so much the better, but Religious Pluralism would rob each religion of what is distinctive of it, and thus no common metaphysical view or literally understood religious doctrine could serve as even potential common ground. My conclusion is that religious pluralism lacks a justifying rationale. This is not a comment on the motives or intentions of anyone. Appeal to motives or intentions for being a religious pluralist will neither refute nor justify it. My claim is that the elements of pluralism are themselves unjustified and indeed are mistaken. They form an unhappy system that requires their truth and thus is debilitated by their falsehood.”

 The core idea here is that those who engage in pluralist dialogue must be prepared to find that the others in the dialogue may in fact be correct about what our disease is and what serves as the cure. They must actually be prepared to convert or at least admit that converting would be as rational, justified, and proper a thing to do as not to convert. (Does this apply to the Religious Pluralist as well—that she must be prepared to reject her pluralism and join one of the religious traditions that the descriptive religious pluralist notes are logically incompatible?) This just isn’t going to happen. If we are going to have religious people working together to promote justice and reduce suffering, we will need people who know perfectly well that they disagree about the deepest things in life, do not intend to change their views, and nonetheless respect each other enough to cooperate—all without becoming pluralists. It this can be based on religious or moral agreement about some things, so much the better, but Religious Pluralism would rob each religion of what is distinctive of it, and thus no common metaphysical view or literally understood religious doctrine could serve as even potential common ground. My conclusion is that religious pluralism lacks a justifying rationale. This is not a comment on the motives or intentions of anyone. Appeal to motives or intentions for being a religious pluralist will neither refute nor justify it. My claim is that the elements of pluralism are themselves unjustified and indeed are mistaken. They form an unhappy system that requires their truth and thus is debilitated by their falsehood.”-pgs 163-179.

Religious Diversity and the Futility of Neutrality R. Douglas Geivet

Geivet discusses the importance of worldview questions and their relationship to a religion. He says: 

We have, then, an operational definition of religion captured in terms of salvific transcendence of one sort or another. This coincides with John Kekes’s description of five key characteristics of a worldview: (1) a metaphysics, or an account of the nature of reality, specifying what sorts of things (objects or persons) exist and how they are related to each other; (2) an anthropology, or a theory of human nature that delineates what it is to be a human person, individually and in community

with other persons; (3) a value system or ideal culture, with an inventory and orderly arrangement of all that constitutes or contributes to the good of human existence; (4) a diagnosis of the human condition, or detailed description of fundamental obstacles to human flourishing and an analysis of the causes of these obstacles; and, (5) a remedy—some policy or protocol according to which the obstacles to human flourishing are or may be overcome.[7] A worldview is multidimensional, its components integrally related to each other logically, conceptually, and pragmatically. The religious notion of the Transcendent maps onto elements (1) and (2) of this account of a worldview. Elements (4) and (5) parallel the broadly soteriological emphasis of religion. It is plausible to suppose that the concepts of religion and worldview are coterminous or overlapping, and therefore that religiosity really is a (nearly) universal phenomenon. Those who remain skeptical about the value of construing secular paradigms as religious may acquire some sympathy for the suggestion if they attempt to understand the fundamental nature of religion through close examination of paradigm cases of religion. They might then seek to identify those patterns and elements of each that may be described in very broad terms as shared among the religions and seem intuitively to be essential to the religious outlook of each. From this delineation of patterns and elements that indicate a family resemblance among paradigm cases of religion, they might then extrapolate to any other system of belief and practice that incorporates the same general patterns and elements to determine whether that system is religious or quasi-religious. Five good candidates for sorting out the nature of religion in this way include the three dominant forms of monotheism (viz., Judaism, Christianity,and Islam), and the great nontheistic Asian religions (viz., Hinduism and Buddhism) in all of their variant.

Geivet goes onto to say:

Evidence for the existence of a creator led to our expectation that some remedy for the human condition would turn up under this creator’s initiative. If this expectation is fulfilled, then that, too, is an independent form of confirmation of the existence of just such a creator. The hypothesis of a creator was already strongly confirmed by cosmological and design evidence. That evidence supported the expectation of a remedy for the human condition. This expectation translated into a novel hypothesis: that the creator would provide a much-needed remedy and thus be worthy of human loyalty, affection, and worship. The confirmation of this hypothesis would enrich our conception of the creator and at the same time increase the confirmation that had already emerged at earlier stages. The idea here is that the hypothesis of God’s existence is initially confirmed to a strong degree by cosmological and design evidence, that this hypothesis generated something tantamount to a prediction, and that the fulfillment of this prediction counts as new confirmation of the original hypothesis. Of course, the availability of a revelation claim—in this case, the Old and New Testaments—could very well enrich our knowledge of the creator’s nature and purposes. Such a revelation could thus be a source of evidence for theism.

Now, none of this would be any more than a pipe dream if there was not sufficient evidence that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. So whatever evidence there is must be collected and assessed. Such evidence consists especially in the fact that the early Christians came to believe with great conviction that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. They believed this to be so on the basis of evidence they had: Jesus’ tomb was found empty on the third day following his crucifixion, and he was seen alive again by numerous sane individuals who would have no difficulty recognizing Jesus. How strong must this evidence be? It should be strong enough by historical standards to justify the conviction that the alleged historical events did take place. This does not mean that the case for the resurrection stands or falls on the historical evidence alone. Again, the theism indicated by the evidence that brought us to this point plays a valuable role. First, the conclusion reached on the basis of cosmological and design evidence underwrites the possibility of miracles. But now our hypothesis makes it probable that a miracle would take place as the most decisive corroboration that God’s own remedy is truly his own and not a counterfeit. Under normal conditions, historians can ignore these sorts of background considerations. Much of their work (but certainly not all of it is reliable whether they are naturalists or not.

Metaphysical commitments make a difference to historical results. But I don’t need a theist to tell me when and where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. In the case of the resurrection, though, conditions are not “normal.” In this sort of case, one should not investigate the evidence within a metaphysical vacuum. A historian working from a position of metaphysical neutrality may get skewed results. A historian operating from a naturalistic commitment most certainly will. Nevertheless, the evidence for the resurrection depends on conditions—an empty tomb, Jesus sightings, and the remarkably uniform convictions of the earliest Christians—that can in principle be confirmed by historical investigation. Unfortunately, skeptical historians, theologians, and philosophers stipulate standards of evidence here that are not required for comparable events or physical states. That is, after all, what we are talking about in the case of the empty tomb of Jesus and his postresurrection appearances to others.”-pgs 181-202

The strengths of this book are that it does a wonderful job of defining terms and explaining what it means to say a religion is ‘true.’ Given several of the authors have strong philosophical backgrounds, this should be expected.

For many Christians, they tend to only think that Christianity is the only saving’ religion. But that leads to more questions. In other words, what is a ‘religion’ and what other issues need to be addressed when we say a religion is ‘true?’ What does it means to be an advocate of pluralism? These are complex topics. Anyone who has done mission or apologetic work to people of different faiths will benefit from this book. I should also say this book isn’t a textbook on world religions. Readers may also benefit from the book A Tapestry of Faiths: The Common Threads Between Christianity World Religions.


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