Globalization and migration have brought religious pluralism—something that Asians have lived with for millennia—to the West. In this month's installment of the Global Conversation, Singaporean theologian Mark Chan mines his experience as an Asian believer to help Christians everywhere evangelize those who have been blinded by the fallacies of relativism.
Due to globalization and the migration of peoples across national boundaries, religious pluralism has become more pronounced in the so-called Christian West. A shrinking world has brought religions and their adherents closer to each other.
We meet people of other races. We learn about their cultures and beliefs through television and the Internet. The growing presence of mosques and temples—not to mention ethnic (i.e., non-Western) restaurants—reflects the increasingly multiethnic and multireligious nature of Western societies.
This pluralism may be relatively new in the West, but it has always been the order of the day in the lands of Asia. Virtually all the major world religions have their roots in Asian history, and they continue to command the allegiance of billions.
The majority of Christians today live alongside people of other faiths. In this, they are not unlike the earliest Christians, who proclaimed Jesus as Savior and Lord in the face of the many gods and lords of Greco-Roman society.
Like them, we are called to embrace, embody, and declare the truth that God has revealed himself definitively and finally in Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection, sinners find forgiveness of sin and are reconciled to God. How then shall we proclaim the finality of Christ, given the fact of religious pluralism and the relativizing of absolute truth claims that often comes with it?
Living in a racially and religiously diverse society, Singapore's Christians have had to learn not only how to live with adherents of other religions, but also how to work with them for the common good. And they are to do this without compromising their faith. Some argue that social harmony can only be achieved and maintained if religionists desist from making exclusive truth claims. The church's challenge is to demonstrate the fallacy of this way of thinking.
From Pluralism to Relativism
Some Christian thinkers have jettisoned the uniqueness of Christ and embraced pluralism. They maintain that all religions are equally valid paths to God or an ultimate divine reality, and that no single religion can claim to have the final word on truth.
They move beyond a descriptive and social pluralism, which allows for a diversity of religious expressions, to a metaphysical pluralism. Such pluralistic ideas (in both the West and Asia) unwittingly sound like Vedanta Hinduism, which teaches that, just as all rivers flow into the same ocean, so all religions lead to the same ultimate reality. Jesus is but one among many ways to that reality.
Some professing Christians in Asia regard Christ as but one avatar among many possible manifestations of the divine. Their relativizing of the truth of Christ owes much to the monistic assumptions of their culture. To be sure, followers of Christ in Asia need to embody the truth within their cultural contexts, but never at the expense of God's truth.
To pluralists, religions are historically contingent expressions of an underlying ultimate spiritual reality. They argue that one should look beyond creedal distinctions to the life transformation that comes from an experiential encounter with that basic reality that all religions point to and mediate.