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7 Why the World Is Not Religiously Ambiguous: A Critique of Religious Pluralism Paul Copan The Enlightenment’s disdain for special revelation and religious particularism is reflected in the story of Nathan the Wise, penned by biblical critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781). In this story, a father “in a far Eastern clime” possesses a priceless magic ring. Yet he rather unwisely promises the ring to each of his three sons. Though not a mathematician, he realizes the authentic ring can be given to only one of his three sons. How can he save face and fulfill the promise made to all the sons? It dawns on him that he can have two replicas made for the other two, and no one will be the wiser. So just before he dies, he separately calls his sons to his side and presents each one with a ring, accompanied by a blessing. Each son leaves his father’s presence thinking that he—not the others—has the magic ring; the others have the imitations. The moral of Lessing’s story? Vainly they search, strive, argue. The true ring was not proved or provable— Almost as hard to prove as to us now What the true creed is.1 Using this precious-metal imagery, Peter Byrne believes that underneath the varying religious perspectives and expressions stands one reality. This can be compared to gold. Though its atomic number is necessarily 79, it comes in solid, molten, or ore form. Ultimately, human attempts to express these religious perspectives theologically or philosophically will be metaphorical: “Each set of doctrinal statements is to be understood in metaphorical fashion. They are the 139 workings out of divergent but mutually apt models for understanding a reality which is for the most part beyond all literal, positive statement.”2 (Presumably, Byrne’s statement about the nature of religion is intended to be taken literally and not metaphorically.) The Enlightenment has, of course, opened the floodgates for a diversitysensitive , multiple-narrative, “post-metaphysical” religious context.3 This “post-axial” understanding of the world’s religions affirms, as the late philosopher of religion John Hick (d. 2012) put it, “different ways of experiencing, conceiving, and living in relation to the ultimate divine Reality which transcends all our varied versions of it.”4 According to Hick, the universe is religiously ambiguous. That is, it can be experienced and interpreted either religiously or naturalistically (using Lessing’s ring analogy, we could say magically or mundanely).5 In Hick’s words, [The universe] is capable from our present point of view within it of being consistently thought and experienced in both religious and naturalistic ways. Each aspect of the universe that prima facie supports a religious understanding of it (for example, the fact of moral goodness) can also be incorporated into a naturalistic worldview, and each aspect that prima facie supports a naturalistic understanding (such as the reality of evil) can also be incorporated into a religious worldview. And there is no objective sense of probability in which it can be shown that one of these interpretations is more probable than the other.6 In our post-Enlightenment world, humans are apparently coming to realize that the world can evoke religious or nonreligious responses. Philosopher Terence Penelhum adds that religious ambiguity moves beyond the more parochial Western debates between theists and atheists. Things seem to get even more ambiguous as we look at the bewildering array of religious outlooks throughout the world.7 When we say “religiously ambiguous,” do we mean that the probability of God’s existence dangles at around 0.5? What if we find that God is a better explanation for a certain phenomenon? Hick responds, “A best-available explanation may or may not be the true explanation,” and he gives the example of the once commonly held belief that the sun revolves around the earth, but this explanation proved false.8 Furthermore, Hick calls for a Copernican revolution of theology that decenters the seemingly arrogant, parochial assertion of religious exclusivism (a 140 | Can Only One Religion Be True? Ptolemaic view);9 rather, the Real is at the heart of the religious universe. The religious “planets” of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism are simply culturally conditioned attempts to get at, or approximate, the “sun” of Ultimate Reality. All of the world’s great religions, though culturally conditioned, are equally capable of bringing salvation or liberation—which is evident in the moral fruits of their respective adherents. This Ultimate Reality can be...


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