Christianity and Pluralism

The Roman Empire is perhaps the most famous empire in human history. It was not nearly the most massive (its two million square miles doesn’t even stand up to America’s four million), nor could it boast the greatest wealth, or military prowess, or population. Yet to historians, Rome dominates the stage because she lasted. Over a thousand years she lasted. Her method for taking the world by force was not to boast the largest borders only to loose them the next generation like so many empires before her did. Instead, it was the sheer pragmatism and cunning of her leaders who set up systems of government, laws, roads, aqueducts, etc. that kept people in the empire not only because they couldn’t leave, but because they didn’t want to. And one of their genius plans that kept the disparate peoples from leaving? Religious pluralism.

Rome had her gods. But so did the Egyptians, the Persians, the Germanic tribes of the north, and the Jews. All of these people at one point had to bend the knee to Rome, but how could Rome sustain the conglomeration of cultures and religions under one banner? By permitting the worship to continue so long as the authority of the state was maintained. This was signified by swearing fealty to the emperor, or later, pinching incense on the altar to the Roman Emperor. The emperor became a stand in for Rome itself. It was as if to say, you can worship whatever god you want in whatever way you like, but Rome stands supreme. Break her laws, and the worldview you have, the ethics your gods demand, matter little. For the most part, this worked. Many were happy to welcome the benefits of Roman culture and could better assimilate if they didn’t have to give up their old religious ideas.

Yet why do we hear the stories of the Christians being fed to the lions? Why not the Jews? The Egyptians? The Barbarians? Though we could get into the complicated reasons, the simple answer is this: Christians could not abide religious pluralism. No, they didn’t go around forcing others into their religion or killing pagans. But they refused the basic tenant of Roman religious pluralism; they claimed Christ is above all. Christians could not, as other pagans could, acknowledge Rome or its Caesar as lord above the Lord of lords. They could not pinch the incense. They would live peaceably, but Rome understood the power of such an ideology. Religious pluralism and the exclusivity found in Christianity don’t mix.

Today we face a similar problem, though guised in different forms. Religious pluralism rules the day in the West, the descendant cultures of that once great empire. Religion is treated similarly to a genre of music or a style of fashion: pick the one that you like best, or you think works well. It doesn’t matter if you are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, etc. So long as you respect of the laws of toleration, pluralism, and liberalism, you’ll be just fine. Yet Christianity is not tolerant: though it be peaceful in its outlook generally, its God says “thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” It is not pluralistic: Christ said that “no one comes to the Father except by Me.” And it is not liberal: Paul made no excuses for sin but condemned the wickedness of the Roman culture around him which praised aberrant sexuality. Christianity is inclusive in this fact: it calls all men everywhere to repent of their sin and turn unto the Lord Jesus Christ, Who stands willing and ready to save. Yet it is exclusive in that it acknowledges no other lord.

Do we take such a claim seriously? Are we comfortable saying that Jesus is the only way to salvation? Even in the public square when people of all religions are listening? Do we call out other Christians for claiming differently? Our Lord calls us to speak the truth in love. To do so, we must surely come to the conclusion that the most loving thing to do to a mob running off a cliff is to yell at them to stop and turn around. That is the evangelistic call of the Christian, to lovingly call men to repent so that they might be saved. For after all, such were we at one point in our lives but for the grace of God Who saved us from our sins. Let us never be afraid to stand up to our culture’s new obsession with pluralism but understand that we are not so different from the Christians of Ancient Rome. No they are not yet throwing us to the lions, but America still balks at our claims that Christ is the Lord of lords, and that He does not share His throne.