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How to be Tolerant of Other Religions

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
—John 14:6, NRSV

For many Christians, this is open and shut. For them it means that Christianity is true, and that all other religions are false.

Other Christians do have a problem with this passage, because they observe that there are a lot of people who say they are Christians, but act like vile sinners, harm the cause of Christ, and give us all a bad name. There are also people who act like Christian saints without claiming to be Christians, and people who have never heard of Christianity but live in a way that is indistinguishable from the way a true Christian should live. How can a loving God let people go to hell on a technicality?

If those who are truly saved invariably obey, then maybe those who invariably obey are truly saved. And in fact, that appears to be the case in Matthew 25:31-46. Perhaps in John 14:6 Jesus meant that anyone who wants to come to the Father can only come through Him, and anyone who comes to the Father, has come through Him, whether they know it or not.

Whichever way we interpret those verses, and even if we don’t mind nice people going to hell, we still have a practical problem in our everyday life: how to tolerant of other religions.

Tolerance by Subjectivism

One way to be tolerant of other religions is to say, “what’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me.” But think about visiting France. We all have different ideas about what France is like, but when we get there, there is only one France. Even if you believe with all your heart that the Eiffel tower is in Marseilles, it’s still in Paris. Even if you think there is a king of France, there isn’t one. If each of us goes to our own idea of heaven, then no two people will go to the same one. We will all spend our afterlife in eternal solitary confinement, which sounds more like hell than heaven to me. Subjectivism is not a solution. If all religions are only subjectively true, then none of them are objectively true.

Saying that religion is subjective is a way of being intolerant of all religions, including your own.

Tolerance by Syncretism

Another way to be tolerant of other religions is syncretism. “Syncretism” means taking beliefs and practices from other religions and pasting them into yours. How do you mix Hinduism, which says there are many gods, with Judaism, which says there is only one? Some Hindus say there is only one god with many manifestations, but to Jews, that is still polytheism—all those idols aren’t helpful. How do you affirm the Buddhist belief that we eventually lose our personal identity when we become part of the universal mind with the Christian belief that we remain individuals in the afterlife?

Syncretism is a way to be intolerant of all religions, including your own.

Tolerance by Finding Common Ground

Still another way to be tolerant of all religions is to reduce them to their basic principles; that is, to find common ground. Unfortunately, if you do that, all you end up with is “live a good life.” Even that doesn’t work, because they all have different ideas about what constitutes a good life, and you have denied the other beliefs that they regard as essential.

Reducing religions to a common denominator is is a way to be intolerant of all religions, including your own.

The Limits of Human Knowledge

The only way to be tolerant of other religions is to live and let live; to practice and believe your own religion without preventing other people from practicing and believing theirs, and to avoid weaponizing your own religion to impair other people’s ability to live their lives.

No one, not even you, knows with absolute certainty that their personal understanding of even their own religion is right. You walk by faith, not by sight2 Corinthians 5:7, your knowledge is incomplete until the perfect comes1 Corinthians 13:9-10. There are religious leaders who believe they know everything, and they feel pressed to come up with a definitive answer for every question—but in reality, such all-encompassing knowledge is impossible for a human being. Only GodJob 40:7-41:34 has all knowledge and absolute certainty. There is a limit to how much information you can cram into a human skull. Imagine that each fact you learn goes into a separate small compartment in your brain. (It doesn’t actually work that way, but for this purpose, it comes out to be the same.) Not even the smartest theoretical physicist has a brain with as many compartments as there are facts about the universe. To paraphrase Shakespeare. “There are more things in heaven and on earth than you can possibly include in your theology.”

How to Be Tolerant

Believe and practice your own religion with all your heart, let your neighbors believe and practice theirs, and leave the judging and punishing up to God.

The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil
—Ecclesiastes 12:11-14, NRSV