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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
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.”[1]

 

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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.[4] 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.”[5]

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[6] assumes the truth of the conclusion first, and as such reasons in a circle.[7] 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.[8]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.”[9]

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.

Conclusion

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.


[1]Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume, Bethany House, 2011, Pg. 93-94
[2]Ibid. 94
[3]Ibid. 94
[4]Geisler mentions how Gandhi’s study of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, influenced him and increased his compassion.
[5]Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume, Bethany House, 2011, Pg. 94
[6]Their system seems to be to remove any contradictory elements between religions and focus only on the similarities.
[7]For further study in circular reasoning, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circular_reasoning(accessed Oct. 16, 2013)
[8]For further study in the concept of non sequitur see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non_sequitur_%28logic%29(accessed Oct. 16, 2013)
[9]Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume, Bethany House, 2011, Pg. 95
  • Sorry I meant Justine, but it came out Shawn.

    Ron

  • Anonymous

    “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”

    Almost any religion could make the same claim by substituting their deity of choice in place of Jesus.

  • Anonymous: Thank you for the comment

    I will try my best to answer as Geisler would here.

    “For, he was certainly the highest example of one who wished to give everything, asking nothing in return, and not caring what creed might happen to be professed by the recipient.” Gandhi

    Regardless, I don’t know of any other religion which allows you to take on a sinless man’s perfection. Even if we were to grant that all other prophets/gurus were sinless, I couldn’t take on Muhammad’s righteousness, or Guru Nanak’s, or Moses’. It is at this point that Geisler is saying gives a moral advantage over other religions. So, it is not the case that any other religion could say the same thing.

    But, even if there isn’t really much difference between religions, or religious claims, this does not make the puralist right. That is the point of the article, it is not an argument for Christianity, but an argument against pluralism.

  • Anonymous

    I want to be careful not to give offense, as that’s not my intention at all. I understand that within the Christian perspective, Jesus is greater than any possible prophet/guru. Naturally, that would grant Christianity a moral superiority over other religions.

    However, my confusion with the argument stems from the assumption that everyone accepts Jesus as the son of god. Many religions do not consider Jesus to be the son of god, in fact, all non-christian religions do not consider Jesus to be the son of god. The godhood of Jesus is of vital importance to any argument of Christian moral superiority. Since that Godhood is an act of faith, it follows the moral superiority is also an act of faith.

    Faith becomes a tricky subject when comparing religions. As faithful as one believer may be, surely there is another believer with just as much faith that he/she is mistaken. Thus Jesus is only morally superior to other prophets/gurus if you are Christian, and not a follower of those other religions.

    My point is, from within any particular religion that particular religion will appear morally superior and all others inferior. Any claim to the contrary is an argument “for” that particular religion.

    – James

  • James

    There is no offense here and I am glad for the dialogue.

    What you seem to be describing is some form of moral Perspectivism. That morals vary from the perspective of a individual or group. Now the question here becomes whether morals themselves change (they are relative) or does only our understanding of them change. I would argue that only our understanding changes.

    However, this is not the real point. The point is that our ethical system does not rely on self-righteousness. Even if a Buddhist thinks Buddha is more moral (or on equal ground as Deepak argues) doesn’t really alter the argument. The point is that we put on Jesus’ righteousness and not our own.

    To counter this argument, you would have to argue that Jesus is immoral, not that someone is more moral.

  • Anonymous

    I think we both agree that morals are not relative. The article above seems to be making one of two possible claims: either morality can vary depending on your religion, or that Christianity is the one true religion, and Jesus is the perfect son of God. I think we both agree that it doesn’t make sense for morality to depend upon ones religion. I’m not attempting to make any claim about the validity of Christianity, only that there is a required leap of faith involved. My question would then be, if you are starting with an assumption based on faith, and not reason…then it follows that your conclusion is also based on faith, and not reason.

    I don’t have to make any claim whatsoever about the morality of Jesus, as his very existence in the context of this discussion relies on faith. As stated in the article above, if you deny the fundamental tenants of a religion are you really still talking about that religion? Many religions would deny that Jesus ever actually existed at all. How could someone who never existed be considered moral/immoral?

    It seems to me that basing a moral code upon a specific religion opens the door for moral relativism. It can’t be said with certainty which religion has “got it right”, or even which interpretation within a religion is the correct one. Wouldn’t the logical solution be to look for an objective system to determine morality that does not require faith?

    Pluralism tries, and I believe fails, to do this by combining the moral similarities from many religions into a general pursuit of God. The author above tries to counter this by asserting that one particular faith is superior. I countered by saying that any faith can make the same claim. Pluralism fails because it looks to religion for morality.

    James

  • Ahh, I think I know a bit better where you’re coming from.

    1. There is a question on the relationship between “faith’ and “reason”. There are three major views on this. That reason is the foundation for faith, that faith is the foundation of reason, or that faith and reason operate on different spheres. I hold to the second one myself (Justin). But, this is a long discussion on its own.

    2. This part of the argument is given from a Christian perspective, as you rightly pointed out. Geisler does provide somewhat an extra-biblical foundation for this which I didn’t provide due to space. However, even without this foundation, it is valid if Christianity is ontologically true. Your argument seems to be more based on epistemological considerations, so there seems to be a bit of a categorical confusion here.

    To address this though in a ‘reason being the foundation of faith’ sort of way, the argument would look like this.

    1. If Christianity is true, then Jesus was perfect.
    2. Christianity is true.
    3. Therefore, Jesus was perfect.

    Now, the possible controversial part here for the sceptic would be premise 2. Here one could offer the typical arguments (or atypical) for Christianity in support (as Geisler did in his book). There are two things to note here a) that now the arguments do not need to focus on morality very much at all to demonstrate the the truth that Jesus was perfect, and b) this would far exceed the limits for a blog post.

    • Anonymous

      You have articulated the points I was trying to make much better than I was able too, thank you.

      “1. If Christianity is true, then Jesus was perfect.
      2. Christianity is true.
      3. Therefore, Jesus was perfect.”

      A similar argument could be made for any religion. Premise 2 invalidates all other religions, and as per the article above, can you really compare different religions while denying their central claims? I suppose I will have to read the book to hear what Geisler says.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between faith and reason, but I agree we have exceeded the scope of the article. I appreciate you taking the time to thoroughly respond to each of my posts

      – James

  • I would love to write fully on my view of faith and reason. Maybe one day!

    Thank you as well for the thoughtful dialogue,

  • If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism in relation to the Trinity, please check out my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    For more details, please see: http://www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes