Religious Claims as Revelation
In many of my dialogues about religion, especially with those who are “spiritually non-religious,” there seems to be a disconnect in which we are regularly talking past each other, especially when we are talking about the diversity of religious beliefs. For many, the sheer existence of a multiplicity of religious ideologies precludes the possibility of a singular religion being able to be true in and of itself. This leads many to adopt the idea that all religions have some partial claim on truth or are able to apportion some understanding of the divine and our response should be to accept the plurality rather than press into the singularity. This acceptance of plurality manifests in both religious pluralism and religious pragmatism; religious pluralism being the idea that all religions are true, at least in part, and religious pragmatism being the methodology that seeks to compile religious truth claims into one’s own religious stew.
The heart of the issue with both pluralism and pragmatism is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of these different religious ideologies. The cornerstone of these religious ideologies is not that a group of individuals set out on a quest for truth and discovered what could be true about God. The cornerstone for the main religious ideologies is that God Himself has condescended to humanity and has revealed truths about Himself and His program. When we understand this presupposition as the proper cornerstone, we can see pretty quickly how both religious pluralism and religious pragmatism fail.
The fundamental presupposition to most, if not all, espousals of religious pluralism is that truths about God and the universe as it relates to Him are discovered, not received. In this presupposition, the various religious systems are merely manifestations of different groups of humans throughout history attempting to articulate an understanding of a transcendent reality. So long as religious propositions are relegated to this theoretical or hypothetical position, then religious pluralism would be the only logical conclusion considering the finitude of humans and their inability to comprehensively capture that which is transcendent.
Though people often seek to ascribe arrogance to someone who claims religious exclusivism, there is diversity in the propositional beliefs of these religions that can only allow for one to logically be true if we correctly understand that religious claims are a matter of revelation and not of discovery. Take for example Jesus Christ who serves as the dividing point of contention between the three different religions. Judaism maintains that Jesus was a false prophet and messiah pretender who was put to death by crucifixion for blasphemy and remains dead. They reject that Jesus was the revelation of God and they reject that He is the fulfillment of messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. Islamic revelation, depending on how it is interpreted, maintains that Jesus was only a prophet and either that He was not actually killed or crucified but instead ascended or that He survived the crucifixion or fell unconscious, and was later revived in the tomb. Christianity believes that Jesus was the Son of God and God incarnate who was crucified, died, buried, and raised again three days later and lives today. The variety in these propositional understandings of Jesus Christ makes religious pluralism a logical impossibility. All three of these can not be true. There is in fact only one representation of Jesus that can be correct if religious claims are understood as revelatory and the response to these claims should be adjudication, not acceptance.
Religious exclusivism is not an expression of arrogance but is instead an attempt to articular a singularity in reality. If God exists and if God has revealed Himself then that revelation will not be contradictory but instead will contain the fundamental truths of reality. This can only be understood if we understand the claims of religion as a matter of revelation, not as a matter of discovery. If religious claims are a matter of revelation, then religious pluralism must necessarily be false due to the contradictory elements contained in various revelatory claims.
The revelatory character of religious claims also disallows what I've seen as a "religious pragmatism," where an individual treats religion as a type of buffet line where they pick and choose what they want from each religion and they leave what they don't want behind. This pragmatic understanding of religion is problematic for two reasons.
The first reason that it is problematic is that it again neglects the revelatory character of religious claims. If God is to reveal something about the fundamental nature of reality, then necessarily that information that has been revealed is true. If it has been revealed by God, then I, again, acknowledging the fundamental finitude of humanity, do not have the capacity to say that the revelatory claim is false. It is by necessity true. You can argue whether or not God has revealed something about the fundamental nature of reality, but if you say that God has revealed something, then necessarily it is true.
This is a central issue with the current debates on LGBTQ and individuals following particular religious beliefs. If God has revealed that something is wrong, then it is necessarily wrong. I can not overrule God in the same way that if God had revealed that it was acceptable, then I could not overrule Him. God is by necessity, in virtue of His nature, the arbiter of truth across the breadth of reality. If God has revealed truth through Islam, then Islam is true. If God's revelation stops prior to the earthly life of Jesus, then Judaism is true. If God's revelation continues through Jesus Christ then Christianity is true. You can't take some parts of Christianity and some parts of Islam and build your own religion out of the parts you like because religion, being undergirded by claims of revelation, is a matter of truth, not a matter of preference. This leads me to my second reason religious pragmatism is problematic.
If I am too feast, as it were, on the diversity of religious claims then I stand alone as the sole arbiter of truth about the fundamental nature of reality. I am no longer a follower of truth, I am the maker and determiner of that which is true. Though many people find themselves right at home in this mindset, it is utterly unthinkable that I as an individual would have any capacity to capture a fundamental understanding of reality. I could certainly gather together a set of personal preferences and things that I would like to be true based on my basic intuitions, but I would have no capability to have any assurance that my collection of "truths" would in fact be true. For me to be able to articulate a comprehensive truth about reality, it would require an agent that stands in observable relation to the breadth of reality to reveal it to me. I am not that agent and I can barely understand some of the most basic truths about reality (i.e. the manifestation of consciousness), so it is inappropriate for me to stand in the position of arbiter of truth. It is in fact the incapacity of the one who believes that makes religious pragmatists unable to make any justifiable claims about the fundamental nature of reality.
We see here that the revelatory character of religious claims is the basis for the denial of both religious pluralism and religious pragmatism. Obviously, you can deny the revelatory character of religious claims and then you are welcome to be the arbiter of truth and you are welcome to pick and choose whatever you would like to be true from the many different religions. You can make the claim that all religions are true and you can cut and chop up each religion to make it fit together the way you would like. But at the end of the day, that's not religion. That is relativism dressed in religious garb. The ideological presupposition of most religions is the belief that that particular religion stands in some positive epistemic relation to a subset of revealed fundamental truths about reality and how one should respond to those truths. Religion is about revelation, it is not about discovery. There is a significant fallout that occurs in our dialogue about religion if we don't understand that distinction correctly.