Pluralism, Moral Similarities, and Norman Geisler
by Justin Wishart
I recently bought Norman Geisler’s massive Systematic Theology: In One Volume, and I’m attempting to read through its more than 1500 densely-packed pages. It is somewhat tortuous, but I’ve explained elsewhere why I put myself through tasks such as this.
I really like how Geisler starts out his systematic theology with a number of “preconditions” that must be true for theology to be possible. Geisler presents eleven preconditions and succinctly, yet persuasively, argues for their superiority over other, competing preconditions. In this article, I’ll summarize some of his arguments in the chapter entitled Exclusivism: the Oppositional Precondition.
In this chapter, Geisler compares four competing thoughts, pluralism, relativism, inclusivism and exclusivism. We’ll only be focusing on some of his arguments against pluralism and a common argument pluralists make in its defence. I’ve encountered this argument on numerous occasions, and it seems to be their main argument for holding the view. The argument is simple. The moral codes found within each major religion share many striking commonalities. This is presented as powerful evidence for religious pluralism.
Pluralism is the idea that, at the root, all religious expressions are fundamentally the same. All roads will eventually lead to God so there is no real point in saying that your religion is better or right. As mentioned, proponents of this view will often point out the similarities within the moral codes (e.g. the Golden Rule) of all religions to support their claim that they are all fundamentally the same. Geisler quotes John Hick:
“I have not found that the people of the other world religions are, in general, on a different moral and spiritual level from Christians… the basic ideal of love and concern for others and of treating them as you would wish them to treat you is, in fact, taught by all the great religious traditions.”
Geisler responds to this view with five important points:
1. “… it is debatable whether “the fruits of the Spirit”… can be found in non-Christian religions. While no one denies there are good people in other religions, this is not to say they are manifesting the widely recognized highest moral standard, agape love.”
Although he says this point is “debatable”, he points to the classic work, Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, as providing a good argument for his point. Unfortunately, Geisler does not expand much on this argument, but gives only anecdotal evidence, stating that he has seen the truth of it in his decades of ministry. This certainly isn’t a knock-out blow to pluralism, but it does force pluralists to think much more diligently about the claim, and it shows that they have the burden of proof in further justifying their contention.
2. “… even if one could demonstrate a kind of moral equality of practice among most adherents of the great religions, this would not in itself prove there were no moral superiority in the teachings of Christianity over the other religions.”
Geisler here makes a distinction between the practice of the followers of a particular religion and the actual teachings of the religion itself. The practice of its followers does not make the pluralist’s case. For one thing, it could be the case that a person is perfectly adhering to an inferior religious system and another person is imperfectly adhering to a superior religious system, thus their actions appear relatively equal. It could also be the case that Christianity has positively influenced another religion, elevating its moral code. Geisler points to the moral improvements within Hinduism after interacting with Christianity, as a possible example. Lastly, Geisler wisely shows that, if this were true, it would merely confirm Christian theology. The Christian view is that basic morality is written on all men’s hearts (Romans 2:12-15). While this is again not a knock-out argument against pluralism, it does demonstrate that pointing out moral practitioners of varying religions as evidence for pluralism does not make a successful case.
3. The pluralist “begs the question, for only by assuming that the moral common denominator of all religions is the standard by which they should all be judged does he [John Hick, or the pluralist] arrive at the not too surprising conclusion that they are all equal.”
The central claim of religious pluralism is that all religions are essentially the same, yet in order to arrive at this conclusion one must deny differing aspects of every religion. For example, a fundamental Christian belief is that Salvation only comes through belief in Jesus, yet pluralists must deny this proposition. If they deny it, are they really still talking about Christianity? It seems that Christianity is redefined to fit into the pluralists’ paradigm. Why should we accept this method of comparing religious teachings? The system used to make their case assumes the truth of the conclusion first, and as such reasons in a circle. This is a serious problem for pluralism, and it shows that the whole line of reasoning is logically fallacious.
4. “… the moral manifestation of a belief does not settle the truth question.”
Geisler uses the example of a very moral Mormon who could be more morally upright than even most Christians. This clearly does not make the case that Mormonism, or Joseph Smith, is equally as correct as Christianity, or Jesus. The pluralist wants to maintain that all religions are equal in truth; however, the moral conduct of the adherents of a religion simply cannot make this case. This also provides another serious critique against pluralists’ appeal to morality because it turns out to be a non-sequitur.Their desired conclusion does not follow from the provided argument.
5. “… in the final analysis, the moral superiority of Christianity does not rest on our imperfection as Christians but on Christ’s unique perfection.”
This is what Geisler says really sets Christianity apart from other religions, and the pluralist agenda. It is the final counter in that it shows that pluralists have completely the wrong focus. While they want to focus on individual people, this doesn’t even take Christianity into account. It may be fair to focus on individuals when assessing religions where salvation (assuming the word salvation has the same meaning for all religions in question) is linked to self-righteousness, but this is fundamentally not the case with Christianity. To focus on morality as the basis of all religion is improper if Christianity is thought to be a religion as well, which it clearly is. The fact that most religions focus on the righteousness of the practitioner, where Christianity focuses on the righteousness of Christ, is itself insuperable difficulty for any who wish to make all religions equal at the moral level. This also makes Christianity morally superior to other religions by virtue of the fact that Christians rely on Jesus’ moral perfection and not their own. Pluralists simply do not account for Christianity in their methodology.
It becomes obvious that what may be the most powerful argument for pluralism, or at least one that has gained much traction in our culture, suffers from many significant flaws. Geisler provides five distinct arguments against this position which, when taken together, provide a solid rebuttal. Pluralists must look to other arguments if they want to rationally maintain their position.
Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume, Bethany House, 2011, Pg. 93-94
Geisler mentions how Gandhi’s study of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, influenced him and increased his compassion.
Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume, Bethany House, 2011, Pg. 94
Their system seems to be to remove any contradictory elements between religions and focus only on the similarities.
Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume, Bethany House, 2011, Pg. 95