Have you ever overheard people discussing how world religions are basically the same, and only superficially different? “We have different opinions about the small stuff,” someone says, “but when it comes down to the essential beliefs, every religion is the same.”
This has been described as the “God on the Mountain” perspective. God (or whatever you call god) is at the top of a mountain. We are all at the bottom of the mountain. You may take one path up the mountain, I may take another, and in the end we all end up at the same place. To think that one religion could possibly be the sole and exclusive source of truth is to be arrogant and close-minded. To be humble and open-minded, we must admit that, when all is said and done, different religions are really just different forms of the same thing: a path up the mountain to God.
The popular idea that all religions are foundationally the same and only superficially different has rightly been called religious pluralism, and it has found an unexpected friend in some Christian communities. When speaking about Christian pluralism I have found it best to begin by speaking from personal experience.
Before I was received into the Catholic Church, I thought that as an Anglican I was “more Catholic than the Catholics.” In part, this was because my “Catholicism” cast a very wide net. For example, I remember being proud that my parish offered Infant Baptism as an option for the “more catholic Anglicans” and Baby Dedications for the “more evangelical Anglicans,” and both grape juice and wine were consecrated in order to satisfy parishioners’ disparate views. Later, I was part of an Anglican church plant whose leadership thought women could be priests; since the local bishop did not think women could be ordained to the priesthood, we searched for a diocese that would accommodate our convictions. I had reduced the faith to a short list of a few basic essentials. Doctrines, liturgy, the sacraments, the saints, bishops—these were add-ons to what I called “the Gospel.” But in the end, I believed, they were not absolutely necessary.
An old Anglican friend of mine summed up Christian pluralism perfectly: “We’re first Christian, then Anglican.” In other words, Anglicanism is just one of the many optional paths up the mountain we call Christianity. Speaking of the Sacrament of Confession, an Anglican priest used to say, “All may, some should, none must.” This tidy synthesis of Christian pluralism allowed us to have Confession—not as a necessary means of grace, but as an option for those who liked the idea. At the Anglican seminary I attended, the whole campus said the Angelus three times a day—in silence. Why? Because while some found Mary’s special role in the economy of grace to be beautiful and true, others found it to be repugnant and idolatrous, and an inaudible Angelus allowed for a plurality of beliefs. There is no living voice of authority in Anglicanism, and so when it came to the Blessed Virgin we were literally reduced to silence.
This silence, together with calls for more dialogue, was held up as a kind of modus operandi for being “more Catholic than the Catholics.” But I came to experience it as a form of fundamentalism that is in fact Christian pluralism. It allowed me to embrace a wide variety of self-contradictory practices and dogmas as long as I held to a really basic short list of essentials: Just believe in Jesus. Everything else is footnotes.
Christian pluralism (or Christian agnosticism) is the conviction that all churches are foundationally the same and only superficially different. They are not different religions: they are different expressions, pieties, spiritualities, or forms of the same religion. The visible disunity, the disagreement over the means of grace, the contradictions of how the faith is to be lived, the clashing of church orders, the disparity of stories—all of this, Christian pluralism suggests, is exactly what Jesus intended when he intended his Church. “Just believe in Jesus, or whatever you call Jesus. He’s up there on the mountain. How you get to him is your own business.”
And yet, there is a dark side to such a nice-sounding message; Christian pluralism is not the message of grace it is pretending to be. Open-armed and compassionate on the outside, divisive and damning on the inside, Christian pluralism works its way into one’s life, wreaking havoc in every conceivable way. Held up as “mere Christianity,” it is in fact a major contributor to moral plasticity and doctrinal confusion. It’s “God on the mountain Christianity.” Jesus, or whatever you call Jesus, is at the top of a mountain. Christians are all at the bottom of the mountain. Baptists may take one path up the mountain, Catholics may take another, Lutherans still another, and in the end we all end up at the same place. But is “God on the mountain Christianity” what Jesus had in mind when he established what he called “my Church” (Matt. 16:18)?
God on the Mountain Christianity
My experience has been that while I refused to be in communion with the Catholic Church, I would tend toward one of three alternatives:
- Fundamentalism, “Real Christianity is simple, and it’s [fill in the blank].”
- Agnosticism, “We can’t really know that.”
- Indifference, “Don’t think too hard about this stuff!”
I either held to a few “essentials” as being “the real thing” or became a practical agnostic by putting God on the mountain, thereby leaving the practice and doctrine of the faith up for perennial debate: “I’ll take one path, you take another, in the end it’s all the same.”
I thought it was more loving to “agree to disagree.” After all, isn’t Jesus all about grace? It never occurred to me that if Jesus is “all about grace” he would not reveal inconclusive and even contradicting means of grace. The Anglican convert to Catholicism, Msgr Robert Hugh Benson, puts it this way:
It is only a dead religion to which written records are sufficient … the Teaching Church must know her own mind with regard to the treasure committed to her care, and supremely on those points on which the salvation of her children depends. She may be undecided and permit divergent views on purely speculative points … but in things that directly and practically affect souls—with regard to the fact of grace, its channels, the things necessary for salvation, and the rest—she must not only know her mind, but must be constantly declaring it, and no less constantly silencing those who would obscure or misinterpret it.
The Church may permit divergent views on purely speculative points, but when it comes to the means of grace, the things necessary for salvation, “the way,” she must be certain.
I have experienced first hand that to “agree to disagree” is colossally bad advice, especially when it comes to the means of grace and the hope of glory. Agreeing to disagree is not even a means to Christian unity, at least not the kind of unity “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) where “all the believers were one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32). The High Priestly prayer in John 17 is clear: Christ’s vision of a unified Church included an agreement on the truth. He said the Holy Spirit would lead his Church into all truth, not just a few really basic essentials (John 16:13). And doesn’t even the most cursory reading of the Gospels throw the “God on the mountain” theory into the sea? “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven,” says Jesus, “but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). How can we do the will of the Father if we do not know what his will is?
God Came Down the Mountain
A Christian pluralist does not necessarily disagree with Catholic dogma, he simply disagrees with the fact that it is dogma at all. For him, truth should not be so exclusive. Why give an answer to what could remain a never-ending question? The powerful play goes on, and everyone should get to add a verse!
But God the Father did not wait for us to find our own personal way to God. Rather, he sent his Son down to us. The God at the top of the mountain came down to us in the person of Jesus Christ. There is only one path up the mountain to the Father and that is, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the incarnate Son—Christ and his Church, the Head and the Body. Totus Christus caput et corpus est.
This path, what the early Church called “the way” (Acts 9:2; cf. John 14:6), is not meant to be many paths or many ways—alternative ethical stances, optional moral imperatives, contradicting dogmas, uncertain means of grace, division and contradiction and schism. Jesus did not come to earth to make the means of grace uncertain, but to make known the means of grace so that we could have the hope of glory. He left his Catholic Church behind, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to ensure that the means of grace would be known.
We do not climb to God on our own terms. God has come to us. And the Son of God did not become obedient unto death in order to reveal uncertain means of grace. The God of Israel does not reveal contradictory truths. God came down the mountain so that we could truly know “the way.” Jesus himself says it is not a plurality of ways, “the wide way,” but a “difficult way,” a way with a “narrow gate” (Matt. 7:14).
What if the Catholic Church is not the story-sapping, life-sucking, fearfully authoritarian, curmudgeonly institution she is so often made out to be? What if she is not a museum of saints, but a hospital of sinners, the place where sin-sick people can get the right prescriptions so that they can be healed (sózó, “saved”)? What if the Catholic Church is the family of God commissioned to proclaim nothing less than the truth of God and his Kingdom? As Cardinal John Henry Newman observed, what is the alternative if not Christian pluralism?
Truth and the Kingship of Christ
Before Pilate dismissively shrugged, “What is truth?” he asked Jesus if he was a king. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (John 18:37).
Let’s linger over this passage for just a moment. Jesus links our being “of the truth” with a lived recognition of his Kingship. Christ is more than a concept: Jesus is King! To be “of the truth,” then, is not merely intellectual assent to propositions. Rather, in the path of obedience and love, “to be of the truth” is to be a covenant participant in the family of God, the holy Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church has a job to do. Christ commanded her to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). Like her King, the Church is called “to bear witness to the truth” so that “every one who is of the truth hears [Christ’s] voice” (John 18:37). The apostolic Church is meant to be a light along the way: “You [the Church] are the light of the world … let your [the Church’s] light shine before others, that they may see your [the Church’s] good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16).
In the name of love, Christian pluralism obfuscates the truth and thereby fails to truly love. God is not hiding up on a mountain. He came down the mountain. The eternal Son of God became incarnate of the Virgin Mary so that we could know the means of grace. As the social continuity of the Incarnation, the Catholic Church is the living voice of Christ. Ubi Christus, ibi Ecclesia. There are not many heads and many bodies. As there is one Head, there is one Body, one voice, one “way.” Christ and his Church are as one flesh; and what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.