Saturday, February 01, 2014

Book Review: Can Only One Religion Be True?

There’s nothing like a good debate. But while Robert B. Stewart’s volume Can Only One Religion be True? is subtitled “Paul Knitter & Harold Netland in Dialogue,” their lively discussion only occupies the first of this book’s ten chapters. Meanwhile, starting at about chapter five, it is tempting to see John Hick’s brand of pluralism as the book’s focus, rather than the Knitter-Netland Dialogue. But I suppose this can be excused, as there is no doubt that Hick has been the most influential figure in recent discussions of pluralism. Even the editor observes, “ reading a book on pluralism without John Hick is like playing chess without the queen.”[1] Altogether, this volume proves to be an interesting exploration of the contemporary debate about religious pluralism.

There are actually at least two questions at the heart of this book: “Can only one religion be true?” and, “will the adherents of only one religion be saved?” At times these two questions are carefully distinguished. For example, in the introduction, Stewart explains, “Evangelicals like me insist that the truly important question is not simply one of truth but one of salvation.”[2] And in the first chapter Netland says “In speaking of the truth of Christianity, we must also distinguish the issue of truth from the question of salvation.”[3] But there are other times when these two questions seem to be confused, such as on page 3 where we read “Is Christianity the only true religion, i.e. the only religion in which one can be saved?”[4] Similarly, Knitter comments that “…It seems to me that the belief in a God of universal love is incompatible with the belief that Christianity is the only true religion.” But it becomes clear from the qualifying statement in the next line that the real incompatibility that Knitter has in mind arises out of the salvation issue. So this distinction is sometimes blurred, but fortunately it does not go altogether unrecognized.

The dialogue between Knitter and Netland raises a number of interesting points. One of the major differences between them is their respective views of the propositional content of religious utterances. While Netland favors straightforward interpretations of doctrinal claims, and argues that, so interpreted, the various world religions are irreconcilable, Knitter proposes that religious statements should be understood symbolically, leaving more room for the possibility that, in some sense, more than one religion can be true. Another interesting point of contention between the discussants is the relationship of religion and violence. While Knitter argues that exclusivist positions foster violence, Netland objects that he “simply [doesn’t] see the evidence for that claim,”[5] pointing out that religious violence is a “complicated phenomenon.”

In the course of his argument, Netland raises the distinction between contradictory alternatives—where, given a set of two alternatives, both cannot be true, but one of them must be—and contrary alternatives—where two contrary alternatives cannot both be true, but one or both could be false. Religions that make contradictory and contrary claims cannot all be true, Netland argues. Knitter disagrees, apparently proposing that two contrary alternatives can both be true, even though contradictory alternatives cannot:

“You [Netland] speak of contrarieties. I prefer that word to “contradictions.” If the differences between religions are contrary, they allow for complimentarity. If they are contradictory, then we simply have to agree to disagree. This reminds me of the well-known Zen Buddhist image and reminder: We may need fingers to point to the moon. But the finger can never be the moon. So yes, our very different religious truth claims are different fingers pointing to the moon….But even when the differences between these fingers seem to contradict each other, because they can never be identified with the moon, it’s possible that they may be pointing to the same moon! I have found that most, certainly not all, of the contraries—the different fingers—that I have discovered in my exploration of other religions, and especially of Buddhism, have proven to be much more complementary than contradictory.[6]

It appears that Knitter has either misunderstood what Netland has in mind, or that he is choosing to use the term “contraries” in a different way than Netland introduced it. For if the claims “ultimate reality is sunyata” and “ultimate reality is Allah” are contraries, then they are inconsistent with each other, and the affirmation of them both will entail contradictions, e.g. “Ultimate reality is and is not Allah.” Contraries are thus no more compatible than contradictions are. Knitter seems to think that conflicting religious claims are to be seen as alternative symbols or interpretations of some more fundamental reality, and thus they are not truly inconsistent. But even if that were so, contradictory and contrary claims (in Netland’s sense) are still on a par.

Following the dialogue is a series of essays by other contributors. Terrance Tilley lays out four “commandments” inspired by the Catholic tradition that must be adhered to by any successful theology of religions. They are 1) Thou shalt not deny God’s universal salvific will, 2) thou shalt not deny the sufficiency of God’s salvation in and through Jesus Christ, 3) thou shalt not deny the necessity of the church for salvation, and 4) thou shalt affirm the dignity of each and all human persons. Tilley then goes on to evaluate the views of Knitter and Netland with these criteria.

Next up, S. Mark Heim presents a “hypothesis of multiple religious ends,” which is a brand of inclusivism wherein, although Christianity is true (at least in Heim’s version of the hypothesis), people of other religions may still be able to achieve the ultimate “destiny” associated with that religion. Following Heim’s piece, Millard J. Erickson discusses the impact of postmodern thought on the concept of general revelation. Later in the book, Keith Yandell argues that religious pluralism lacks rational grounding, and Nancy Fuchs Kreimer discusses the sensitive issues surrounding the chosennes of the Jewish people.

But about midway through the volume, attention turns to John Hick. Hick has a short essay in chapter five that defends his pluralist interpretation of religion, and the following chapter by Paul R. Eddy—one of the best in the book—critiques Hick’s model, arguing that, despite efforts to the contrary, Hick’s model still has a lingering monotheistic backdrop.

One of the ideas that is important to Hick’s pluralism (and probably all pluralist hypotheses) is the religious ambiguity of the universe. Two contributors, Paul Copan and Doug Geivett, independently attack the epistemic parity thesis—that all the major religions are basically on equal footing in terms of plausibility—by presenting evidential cases for the Christian worldview. Copan, for example, makes a brief case for theism and for the religious uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, in a short chapter like those in this book, his case is really only a sketch of what form such an argument, fully-fleshed out, would take. But, as if this wasn’t ambitious enough for a single, short paper, in the second half of his chapter, Copan turns to a more direct critique of pluralism. He argues that Hick’s religious pluralism is really no less exclusive than the exclusivist alternatives that it replaces, and cites several elements of Hick’s model to support his claim. In terms of truth, Copan is correct; Hick’s proposal is no more or less exclusive than any other—accepting it rules out all of its alternatives. But in terms of salvation, it is undeniable that Hick’s pluralism is less exclusive than many exclusivist religious traditions.

Near the end of his discussion, Copan says:

Religious pluralism not only disguises its exclusivism; it also is unwittingly presumptuous and perhaps even condescending. It claims that billions of people are wrong about religion, and it waters down robust doctrines of the world’s religions to accommodate pluralism.[7]

Even if we grant Copan’s point about the exclusive nature of pluralism, his charge that the idea is “presumptuous” and “condescending” echoes the accusations of some pluralists that exclusivist religions like traditional Christianity are arrogant for thinking that they alone have the truth and that so many other intelligent people are wrong. Copan’s mistake is the same as theirs; Even if an arrogant or condescending person may be more prone to beliefs of this kind, it doesn’t seem right to suggest that any belief or point of view is inherently presumptuous, condescending, etc. This can be shown in the following way. It seems that for virtually any religious viewpoint p it is conceivable that the world could have been such that a person, not having given p much thought before, might suddenly stumble across compelling evidence for p, and, to their surprise, find themselves persuaded of it, quite independently of how they feel about the matter, or what attitudes they have. Of course, that would be an extreme case. But it reminds us that even in less extreme scenarios it is possible that someone is simply honestly convinced by the evidence available to him that some exclusivist perspective or other is true. This seems possible for beliefs like “Christianity is the one true religion, and the majority of the world who deny this truth are mistaken,” or for Hick’s pluralist hypothesis. Thus it is open to Hick to reply to Copan in something like the following way: “My view is not presumptuous or condescending, even if some people who support it might be. I, however, do not have a presumptuous or condescending attitude about the matter; it is simply that I am genuinely and honestly persuaded by the available evidence that my model is correct.”

This book is a fairly accessible exploration of religious pluralism and associated issues, and there is descent variety in the viewpoints represented and the issues addressed. The dialogue in chapter one was a bit disappointing in that it was kept very short, but overall the book is probably worth picking up if you want to hear some studied perspectives on the question “Can only one religion be true?”

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Justin Mooney is a graduate student from Michigan. He has a degree in art and design, and he is currently studying philosophy of religion. He plans to become a professor.

[1] Stewart, Robert B. Can Only One Religion Be True?: Paul Knitter and Harold Netland in Dialogue. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012 p. xviii
[2] Ibid. p. 3
[3] Ibid. p. 18
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid. p. 37
[6] Ibid. p. 40
[7] Ibid. p. 157


  1. MaryLou February 3, 2014

    Thanks for outlining the book so well, Justin.

    I have to say that this business of pointing fingers at the same moon strikes me as a truly silly analogy for all religious roads leading to God. The problem is that non-Christians are pointing fingers at "heavenly bodies" they only think are the moon.

  2. G. Kyle Essary February 3, 2014

    Good review Justin. It should also be noted that these come from the Greer-Heard Forum (, and that the audio of their original presentations and responses can be found through their website.