“These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own.”
– G.K. Chesterton:
As I talk with young people about matters of faith, a common posture is one of confusion: “There are so many different beliefs; who’s to say that any ONE is right?” Within such an environment of uncertainty, how are we as Christians to equip our kids to deal with the relentless tide of competing and often contradictory ideas fed to them by our culture? As a parent I find that I have only two options: shield my children or teach them to think. In truth, we must do both.
In their younger formative years (i.e. up to around grade 3), children do not possess the critical thinking skills needed to distinguish truth from error. Their minds are purely devoted to absorbing information, most of which they accept on authority. Knowing this it is our job to as much as possible shield our young children from false ideas, while actively filling their minds with the truth of God’s Word. (Deut. 6:6-7)
As my children get older however, I find shielding more and more difficult and impractical. (But I still do it where I can). I realize also that I need to start training them to think so that they can one day live in the world on their own. The development of my children’s minds therefore is my number one priority. I cannot leave this to the state or even the church. Just as I am responsible to nourish their physical and emotional development, I am equally responsible before God to nourish their minds, in particular training them to know truth. And here is the challenge we face living as we do in a pluralistic society such as Canada’s.
In this article therefore we want to provide you with a short guide to understanding the religious pluralism that characterizes our culture and how to equip our children to respond.
Pluralism: What does it mean?
The most basic meaning of the word ‘pluralism’ is ‘the quality or state of being plural or many’. In this sense pluralism is just a description. Canada is a ‘pluralistic’ society because it is made up of many different people of various cultures or ethnic backgrounds. This is hardly controversial and simply states things as they are.
But Canada has taken intentional steps to become pluralistic because in a second sense pluralism is understood as a value, whereby it moves beyond just saying “there is more than one” to saying “it is good that there are more than one”. Here is where the rubber begins meeting the road as we train our children’s minds. Our challenge lies in helping them see where plurality is ‘good’ and where it is ‘not good’. Plurality might be good when choosing a restaurant, but not when deciding about things like God or morality.
This leads us to the third sense of pluralism that is wreaking havoc on our society. John Stackhouse refers to this as ‘pluralism as relativism’. Pluralism as relativism wants to affirm not just that there are many, or even that it is good that there are many, but that among the many no one option may claim superiority over the others.
Religious Pluralism as ‘Relativism’:
When it comes to religion in Canada, pluralism is taken in this third sense of ‘pluralism as relativism.’ Hence all religious beliefs are considered to be equally valid paths to truth and therefore should not be critically compared, but rather equally appreciated. Such is the approach being promoted in public schools across Ontario by teaching ‘tolerance’ in religious diversity. Many public schools now hold Peace Tree celebrations in order to help children “embrace the beauty of every culture and faith to create peace in our world.” This version of pluralism as relativism wants to affirm that all religious faiths are equally valuable since they all possess common elements of true ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’. Therefore, true ‘tolerance’ and ‘acceptance’ demands that we jettison comparisons between religious beliefs (i.e. truth vs. error) and simply celebrate the ‘good’ that every faith holds in common. This of course raises the question: “Who determines what the ‘good’ is?”
The answer in Canada has become, ‘the State’ as the government is empowered more and more to order society. Looking across our nation there is no shortage of disagreement on how this is to be done. (The current debate in Quebec over the proposed Secular Charter is one such example.) The Christian then is left to feel more and more out of step with the culture as we cling to the gospel of Christ that proclaims a seemingly ‘intolerant’ message that goodness and truth can only be found in the life and teachings of Jesus. It is little surprise then that our children are feeling the tension between our culture’s values of ‘tolerance’ and ‘acceptance’ vs. their Christian belief that Jesus is the only way. (cf. John 14:6).
The danger comes when that tension pressures them to accommodate the values of the culture into their own worldview. Who, after all, wants to be identified as an “intolerant hate speaker”? Not surprisingly then we are now hearing the cultural sentiments of religious pluralism as relativism reflected in the values of Christian youth: “Who are we to impose our beliefs on others?” “What gives us the right to think we have the only truth?” “God can be different things to different people.” Sentiments like these are common among Christian Mosaics (those aged 15-29) and left unchecked will be more so in the generation that follows. As this happens Christian distinctiveness will evaporate and the truth of the gospel will be undermined and destroyed.
As Christian families and churches face the God given task of shaping children’s minds, how can we help to guard them against such “hollow and deceptive philosophies” (cf. Col. 2:8) that threaten to take them captive? Well, since God’s Word really is truth, we have an objective standard by which to help our children think critically and identify that which is false. But, we need to actively engage their minds to do it.
What follows are three strategies by which we can affirm God’s truth and by it identify the lies inherent to our culture’s counter claims.
By what authority? (“Says who?”)
Help children see that relativistic attempts to deny truth are self-refuting. For example, point out that statements like: “No one can claim that their belief is the only truth” is itself claiming to be the only truth on what we should believe about truth. As such it is self-contradictory.
Here’s a simple tool to give your kids so that they can see through the deceptiveness of such claims: Anytime someone makes a statement denying Christian belief as the “only” truth, simply reply: “Says who?” This instantly exposes the illusion of neutrality and ‘tolerance’ espoused by religious relativists. The fact is that they do not think all religious beliefs are equally valid, but only beliefs that correspond to their own. They are in effect imposing their own authoritative claim to truth as THE truth; the very thing they criticize Christians for. All truth claims flow from a base of authority, so ask your children: “who has authority to declare what is really true; God or man?” Then remind them how Jesus prayed for them: “Father…sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17)
Thinking Logically: The Law of Non-Contradiction
“God can be different things to different people!” Use a simple example to show your child the logical contradiction to such a notion. Ask them this: “Can a snake be a snake to one person and a toothbrush to another?” Ask them what would happen if indeed someone believed that a snake was a toothbrush. Not a pretty picture, but the point is that the meaning of a thing doesn’t depend upon my belief about it, rather upon what it actually is.
The fact is that all religions have concepts of God that are mutually exclusive; even Eastern religions like Hinduism that claim to be able to accommodate all concepts of God. Here is a representative sample to demonstrate this:
Biblical (Christian) View of God:
- Personal with perfect moral character.
- Creator of and completely separate from the finite material universe.
Hindu View of God:
- Impersonal without character attributes.
- Indistinguishable from the material universe which is really a part of God.
As you can see Christianity and Hinduism both offer contradictory answers to the question: “What is God like?” It would be absurd therefore to affirm both as equally true or meaningful.
Can we still love and ‘tolerate’ the Hindu? Of course, since the real meaning of tolerance is showing love and respect for others despite my disagreements with them, not denying that disagreements exist. Also, Jesus taught us to love people as he did, (cf. Matt 22:39) which means loving them in spite of what they may or may not believe.
What or “WHO” is the only foundation for goodness?
Finally, point out the false foundation of pluralism as relativism that seeks to affirm the common ‘good’ in all religious faiths. Point out that in order to do this, someone must be deciding what is ‘good’ in every faith and what isn’t. For example, relativists may agree that Jesus’ teaching:“love your neighbour as yourself” is good, but they would not say the same of his teaching about God’s final judgement against sin (cf. Matthew 25). But by what standard do they call one ‘good’ and the other not? The only answer is that they have made their own standard. But upon what basis should we accept that standard as THE standard for what is truly good? What makes their standard more legitimate than another? The answer is ‘nothing’, and this is where the error of relativism truly begins to show. If we become our own standard for determining what is ‘good’, then nothing could ever be called ‘evil’, because who’s to say that my standard for ‘good’ is better than your’s? Again our question: “Says who?”
As Christians however, we know that God alone is the only standard of goodness. (cf. Mark 10:18) We can know what is truly good because God has made himself known to us through Jesus and the Bible. ‘Goodness’ therefore is anchored to an objective and unchanging standard which is God’s own character and nature that the Christian can come to know through Christ. It is with good reason therefore that David wrote:
“Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”
There is a radical agenda in our present Canadian culture that seeks to eliminate all distinctions between competing beliefs and value systems. ‘Tolerance’, touted as the supreme social value in a “fair” and “equitable” society means eliminating from all public dialogue any notions of superior or exclusive claims to truth. Ironically, this new ‘tolerance’ necessitates a militant ‘intolerance’ of any perspective that makes such exclusive claims, and this is what places Christians in such a disadvantaged and criticized position, often intimidated into silence. How important therefore that the church continue to be the unified body of Christ in which the individual Christian finds daily support and validation in remaining faithful to THE truth. But how crucial also that Christian children be given tools both at church and more importantly at home to feel confident of the rational validity of Christian truth in the face of cultural objections and intimidation.
More and more public schools are holding Peace Tree observances, encouraging children to celebrate the many faith perspectives shared in our diverse population. The basis of the Peace Tree movement is the understanding that all religious faiths share a “common root”. To read more see ‘Every Religion Needs Its Symbol – Secularism Has Chosen the Peace Tree’.