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Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth

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Author Harold A. Netland

Review By Bruce H on June 6, 2001

After reading several different popular level works that deal with the relation of Christianity to other religions, I finally found a good book. This book gave substantive descriptions of different religions and their various claims avoiding charges of caricature.
To define the terms:
Christian exclusivism: exclusivism maintains that the central claims of Christianity are true, and that where the claims of Christianity conflict with those of other religions, the latter are to be rejected as false. (page 9)
Religious pluralism: God is said to be actively revealing himself in all religious traditions. (page 10) All religions are in their own way complex historically and culturally conditioned human responses to the same divine reality. (page 26)
This book discusses religious pluralism and if it is rational and so on. One of the book’s great strengths is the recognition that the religions of the world say basically different or contradictory things about three vital religious topics: the nature of the religious ultimate (e.g. Allah, The Holy Trinity, Krishna, Nirvana, Brahman etc..), the nature of the human predicament (e.g. rebellion against a holy and righteous God, ignorance, being locked into a continuous state of reincarnation).
To summarize Netland shows that regarding all religions as the same or saying the same thing requires significant distortion of or radical alternation of the defining beliefs (the beliefs which are essential to any religion being true). The other approach the pluralists use is to argue that these religions do not intend to make ontological claims (or claims about reality) but rather they are mythical, meaningful constructs. At best, this distorts what Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims and others believe.
Two chapters in particular were outstanding in the book:
(4) Religion and Truth
(5) Evaluation Religious Traditions
In (4), Netland looks at the views of liberal contemporary theologians and how they view religious truth. He summarizes the views of many theologians in these two propositions: (1) Personal truth can legitimately be applied to religion whereas propositional truth cannot. (2) Both personal truth and propositional truth can be applied to religion, but personal truth is somehow more basic and fundamental than propositional truth. (page 129)
Netland shows the inadequacy of both of these views. Further on in the same chapter, Netland shows the problems with the ineffable thesis, which asserts that the religious truth is inexpressible or put another way, “Beliefs and doctrines are just inadequate pointers toward what cannot be articulated.” (page 133). A modified version of the ineffable thesis is the via negativa which asserts that only negative statements can be made about God (e.g. God is not physical. God is not evil. God is not of limited intelligence. etc). However, to use this method implies that one has positive knowledge about God by which one knows that the negative statements are indeed true.
Then there is the “two-level” conception of truth. This asserts that there is one level of truth (e.g. scientific knowledge, mathematics and philosophical reasoning), which is subject to logic, and then there is the “higher” level of truth, which is not subject to logic. However, in making this assertion, logic is used. The statement, “Logic does not apply to religion,” necessarily implies that the contradiction of that statement, “Logic does apply to religion,” is false.
Chapter (5) offers 12 criteria by which one can evaluate the TRUTH of a given religious tradition. Netland prefaces this analysis that it is not comprehensive but that it serves as a significant starting point. I wish this chapter were available in small booklet; it is excellent.
The last chapter discusses the ideas of evangelism, dialogue and tolerance. Netland distinguishes between several different forms of dialogue; at a simple level, this simply means coming together to understand one another. However, there are forms of dialogue, which are unacceptable to evangelicals.
This book is one of the best out there. There are extensive footnotes whereby Netland refers the reader to explore topics (such as the objectivity of morality) that space prohibits extensive discussion of. For the person who asserts that all religions teach the same thing or that all religions lead to the same place, submit that belief to logic. This book shows how to do that. For Christians who affirm Christian exclusivism, this book will be of great benefit in defending one of the most hotly debated topics in society.

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