NEW ORLEANS (BP) --- A 2008 Pew Forum survey found that 65 percent of Americans believe many religions lead to eternal life -- and that 52 percent of American Christians believe salvation can be found in at least some non-Christian religions.
At a time when American belief is shifting toward religious pluralism -- the idea that all religions are equal in offering truth -- New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary's annual Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum addressed the question: "Is Christianity the one true religion?"
"The topic is very important given the politically correct, tolerance-laden culture we find ourselves living in today," said Robert Stewart, director of the Greer-Heard Forum and associate professor of philosophy and theology at NOBTS. "Ultimately we need to take a stand on the clear teaching of God's Word, which teaches us that Jesus is the only Savior of the world."
Evangelical Christians as a whole are not embracing pluralism, Stewart said, but some are drifting away from an exclusive view of salvation.
"Some Christians are probably more inclusivistic in their theology than pluralistic," he said. "The recent Pew Forum survey found that a majority of American Christians believe that some non-Christian faiths lead to eternal life and that 37 percent of those Christians were evangelical Christians."
The keynote speakers for the March 27-28 forum, Harold Netland of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Paul Knitter of Union Theological Seminary, presented divergent answers to the question of pluralism.
Citing the often-conflicting and contradictory views of various religions, Netland rejected pluralism as a viable option. He argued in favor of the evangelical position that Christianity is the one true religion. Knitter, who identifies himself as a Christian and disciple of Jesus Christ, argued that Jesus "is a way open to other ways."
Netland opened the forum by acknowledging, "The assertion that Christianity is the one true religion for all people strikes many as hopelessly out of touch with current realities." Such a claim, he said, "seems to display generous amounts of both intellectual naivety and arrogance."
"Nevertheless, with proper qualification, I do believe that the Christian faith as defined by the Christian scriptures is true and that this sets the Christian faith apart from other religious traditions," Netland said.
Affirming the truth of Christianity does not deem all aspects of other religions false; Netland said other religious traditions do contain beauty and goodness -- often in the area of moral and ethical teachings. However, beliefs that are incompatible with essential Christian teachings must be rejected, Netland said.
Netland said he rejects pluralism in part because the major world religions tend to make often-exclusive truth claims. Religious adherents from most traditions are expected to regard the claims of their religion as true, he said. These truth assertions are not meant to be taken as personal or mythological.
"Each religion regards its own assertions as correct or superior to those of its rivals," Netland said. "When we consider carefully what the religions have to say about the religious ultimate and the nature of, and conditions for salvation ..., there is significant disagreement."
Netland suggested focusing on the essential or defining beliefs of a religion in determining its truth; a religion is true only if these essential beliefs are true.
"For Christianity to be true, the defining beliefs of Christianity, namely certain affirmations about God, Jesus of Nazareth and salvation must be true," Netland said. "If they are true, Christianity is true."
Netland said that some argue for "epistemic parity" among religions. Epistemic parity holds that no religion can claim rational superiority over another religion because the data is insufficient to prove one claim over another. Netland, however, sees epistemic parity as an argument for agnosticism rather than pluralism.
"For if there are not good reasons for accepting any single religious tradition as true, why should we suppose that all of them collectively are equally true?" Netland said.
On the other hand, Knitter claimed that true Christianity would never make an exclusive claim to truth. He offered a case for pluralism based on four categories: history, ethics, theology and Scripture.
"If we look at our history, there has been a change in Christian beliefs about this question," Knitter said. "Although at one time, almost all the churches held firmly that Christianity is the only true religion, today many Christian churches do not."
Knitter cited the 2008 Pew Forum study as evidence that many Christians are moving away from a belief in Christianity as the one true religion.
"The fact that our question has already been answered by a broad group of Christians ... we have to take [this] into consideration," he said. "Our job as theologians is to work with what people are actually believing."
Knitter said the shift away from an exclusive belief in Christianity has not diminished the commitment or discipleship of individual Christians. He argued that a further shift could be made -- a complete shift to religious pluralism.
Knitter noted that viewing Christianity as the one true religion carries the danger of hindering dialogue among the religions.
"The religions of the world have a moral obligation to engage each other in a peacemaking dialogue," Knitter said. "Dialogue is the mutual exchange to which all sides seek to help each other grow in the knowing and the doing of what is true and what is right."
Dialogue is impossible, however, if one side makes an exclusive claim to religious truth, Knitter argued, saying it is a grievous error to hinder dialogue.
If dialogue is "a moral imperative," he said, "what impedes a moral imperative looks to be immoral itself."
Exclusive claims to truth not only impede dialogue, but such claims can foster violence, Knitter said. While rarely the cause of violence, he said exclusive truth claims can rally followers to a leader's cause.
In his theological case for pluralism, Knitter appealed to God's love. He said that "the God of Jesus is a power of pure unbounded love" and that the New Testament's teachings show God's desire to see all people saved.
"As my teacher back in Germany, Karl Rahner, insisted, 'if God wants to save all people then God will act in a sure way as to make this a real possibility for all people,'" Knitter said. "Rahner went on to claim that the religions are among the most available and ready at hand ways in which God will make this offer of His saving grace. A God who loves all will offer that love to all."
For his scriptural argument, Knitter claimed that the exclusive language of the New Testament is confessional language, or love language that was intended to be superlative, not exclusive. Statements such as "no other name," "one mediator," and "no one comes to the Father except by me" are meant to communicate something positive about Jesus, not something negative about other religions, Knitter said.
"I must confess my faith that Jesus is indeed the way that is open to other ways and that in order to be a faithful follower of this Jesus I must recognize and engage the truth that the Spirit may be offering me in my Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Native American and Shinto brothers and sisters," Knitter said.
Knitter closed with the famous quote from Martin Luther: "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise."
During the response time, Netland sought clarification on a number of points from Knitter in areas such as application of Scripture, the meaning of truth in religion and the religious ultimate.
"How exactly is the New Testament ... normative for us today?" Netland asked. "How does Paul Knitter understand the concept of truth in religion?"
Netland also asked Knitter to explain his view of the religious ultimate (God).
Knitter did not directly address Netland's questions but was content to present a further argument on the nature of religious language. Appealing to the mystery of God, Knitter said all of human language about God is symbolic, poetic and metaphoric.
This religious language, Knitter said, calls people to action. For him, right practice should be emphasized over right belief.
"Orthopraxis has a certain primacy over orthodoxy. The two are essentially related and you can't have one without the other," Knitter said. "The truth of a symbol will be in its ability to affect our life. Religious truth is truth for me when it enables me to find a context in which I find meaning and purpose."
After the event, Greer-Heard director Robert Stewart said he hopes students learn to be "both properly charitable and properly critical in evaluating claims with which they disagree." While he disagrees with the position of Knitter and other pluralists, Stewart sees value in engaging their ideas. He hopes exposure to scholars such as Knitter will help NOBTS students better defend the truth of Christianity.
"As a philosopher I don't find the hermeneutical arguments that pluralists make on this point strong enough to overcome the case for the traditional reading of passages like John 14:6 and Acts 4:12," Stewart said. "The purpose of the Greer-Heard Forum, however, is that we are training Christians for ministry in today's world and must thus trust that we have given them what they need to interact critically with the wide range of opinions that they will encounter in real-world ministry."
Begun in 2005, the Greer-Heard Forum provides a platform for dialogue between a noted evangelical scholar and a non-evangelical academic on matters of faith and culture. The event is designed to teach students, ministers and laypeople how to interact with a person from an opposing view.
The 2010 Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum will focus on "The Message of Jesus." The keynote speakers will be Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, and John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University. Other presenters will include Amy-Jill Levine, Alan Segal, Darrell Bock and Craig Evans.