Catholicism and Christian Pluralism
By Tyler Blanski
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.”