So I'm sitting at work bored, and I decide to look up a few of my favorite books on Amazon to see how others rated them. The best book I've ever read on religious pluralism from an evangelical perspective is Harold Netland's "Encountering Religious Pluralism." I read it almost three years ago for a seminary class, and it still affects how I approach the issues and problems that our pluralistic culture raises for someone coming from a traditional Christian perspective. Imagine my surprise to find out that no one had reviewed this fine work. Thus I took it upon myself to be the first.
Netland's strength lies in his ability to cover a broad range of topics concerning religious pluralism while remaining lucid and concise in his writing. For example, he not only gives a brief history of religious pluralism and how the church has reacted to it, but he also levels sophisticated critiques against it and even devotes a chapter to the most ardent modern day religious pluralist, the philosopher of religion John Hick. And he doesn't just give us Hick's views, he actually goes into detail into Hick's personal journey from being a conservative Christian to a radical pluralist.
Netland's critiques of Hick and other modern pluralist views are trenchant. Of course on the surface it seems very warm and fuzzy and modern to proclaim that all religions are really different manifestations of the same ultimate reality, but Netland points out the serious problems with this view. Take, for example, Hick's notion of "the Real." In Hick's view, all the religions of the world are nothing more than different cultural manifestations of human responses to "the Real." What matters is that we live a life that is not self-centered but Real-centered. But in order to avoid what would seem to criticize the differing (and often contradictory) moral claims of different religions, Hick excises all notions of morality from the Real.
Well, this is problematic. Is a Muslim view that Jews are equivalent to dogs and that there is nothing wrong with murdering them an appropriate response to the Real? What about other religious views that promote, for example, racism or violence or nationalism? Were the Aztecs appropriately responding to the Real by making human sacrifices? Netland points out the inherent contradiction here: in his efforts not to seem "judgmental" concerning a religious tradition (or to make value judgments concerning whether one religious tradition is superior to another), Hick has seemingly abandoned all rational moral judgment. According to Hick, the Real is essentially undefinable, which, in practice makes it essentially meaningless.
Furthermore, in promoting religious pluralism, one has to pass judgment on the various religions anyway, at least in regard to their exclusivist claims. It is very nice to tell me as an evangelical that my beliefs are simply one way of approaching God and that all other religions are equally valid ways. The problem, of course, is that in doing so the very core of my belief (the exclusivity of salvation through the atoning work of Jesus Christ) is thrown out. And the fact of the matter is that the world religions say fundamentally different things about ultimate reality which cannot be reconciled. The difference between a belief that ultimate reality exists as an impersonal cosmic force and a belief that ultimate reality is grounded in an infinite, personal God is equivalent to the difference between competing views as to whether the world is flat or whether it is round.
Since I read this book three years ago, I may be reading some of my own views back into Netland, but I doubt it. Whenever a Christian asks me the best book to read about religious pluralism and a proper Christian response to it, Netland is what I recommend.