Buffet Religion

“Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you'” (Acts 17:22,23).
The great principle of modern religion and philosophy is “Pluralism”. This is the conviction that all religions and philosophies, along with most cultural practices and attitudes, have some validity. Individuals should choose from among them according to their own experience, circumstance and inclination. No single path is right absolutely, or right for everyone. This concept is obviously based on the idea of relativism, which contends that there is no such thing as absolute truth or exclusive interpretations.
On my first trek into the Nepali district of Dhading in the Himalayas, I visited a cluster of villages in an area collectively called Tipling. There I visited a medical clinic where there was a group of American doctors conducting a week’s clinic for the local villagers. I fell into a discussion with the Nepali government representative who was coordinating the doctor’s work about my purpose for being in that remote area. His response to my mission was “why do you trouble these illiterate villagers. They are religious. All religions preach to honor God and treat other people well. There is no difference among them. Let these people alone.”
Seldom have I heard religious pluralism expressed so briefly and clearly. All religions offer the same goals. Let each person choose the one he or she likes. Don’t judge between them.
A friend pointed out that pluralists like to offer only two choices. Everyone is either enlightened, pluralistic, and tolerant of others, or else they are bigoted, exclusivist and intolerant of any other view than their own. The person so bold as to think that one religion has special claim to truth is a fanatic, and furthermore is undoubtedly self-righteous and hypocritical along with it. Are those indeed the only options? Is there not a middle ground that honors the absoluteness of truth without carrying the baggage of bigotry and intolerance? I believe there is.
Let us compare the wide range of philosophies, world views and religions as an intellectual and spiritual “buffet”. In a literal buffet, many different foods are offered, with the customer free to choose whatever items are desired for his or her meal. There may be fresh salads, cooked vegetables, meats, fruits, and desserts. Meats may include baked poultry and fried red meat. Vegetables may range from broccoli to French Fries. It is the customers’ choice.
Does anyone contend that among these choices there is not a range of qualities? Are all of equal taste appeal? Are all of equal nutrition and health value? Obviously not. The heart patient is well advised to avoid French Fries. The diabetic should avoid desserts. But take it one step further. Are not fresh vegetables, baked poultry and fruits not generally accepted as “healthier” for everyone? Is there not a discernible standard of “truth” in this illustration; one set of foods being just plain “better” within the context of health and nutrition at least?
If a doctor complains about a patient’s diet, should the doctor be accused of bigotry, intolerance and fanaticism? Or rather is he or she not simply pointing out a view of “truth” that has potential benefit for the patient? Now, if a group of doctors lobbied to have all foods banned and their production ceased, except for a narrow list that meets their approval, one might legitimately complain. That might well meet the definition of fanaticism.
Are there religionists who are that fanatical in pursuit of their “one true faith”? Yes there are. The Muslim fundamentalists calling for “holy war” certainly seem to be such, and there are other examples. But does that mean that any believer who is committed to a particular faith is automatically “intolerant”? Does it mean that no one has the right to seek to persuade others to his or her faith? Absolutely not. Relativism is simply not true, and its intellectual descendant ? pluralism ? is a deceitful attack on true faith and commitment.
Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). That is pretty absolute. Yet Jesus proved his love and “tolerance” for all humans through his death on the cross, and through his willingness for the Father to forgive them. Those who follow Jesus must follow the same path. We exhort others to choose that which is wholesome, beneficial, and true. Yet we do this without hatred, contempt, or harsh judgment. Our faith in the one true God is balanced by our insistence that we “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Such a stance is neither pluralistic nor intolerant. It is simply “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

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Michael Brooks

Since 1988 Mike and his wife Brenda have been involved in foreign missions in South America, Africa, and South Asia. Beginning in 1999 they devoted full time to missions, primarily in Bangladesh and Nepal.

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