20. Living in a Pluralistic Society: Appreciating Rainbows

Skepticism concerning One Truth

Billy Joel (1993) wrote a popular song entitled Shades of Grey which illustrates a desperate skepticism stemming from exposure to the convictions and beliefs of others:

Some things were perfectly clear, seen with vision of youth
No doubts and nothing to fear, I claimed the corner on truth
These days it’s harder to say I know what I’m fighting for
My faith is falling away
I’m not that sure anymore

Shades of grey wherever I go
The more I find out the less that I know
Black and white is how it should be
But shades of grey are the colors I see

Once there were trenches and walls and one point of every view
Fight ’til the other man falls – kill him before he kills you
These days the edges are blurred, I’m old and tired of war
I hear the other man’s words
I’m not that sure anymore
Shades of grey are all that I find

When I come to the enemy line
Black and white was so easy for me
But shades of grey are the colors I see
Now with the wisdom of years, I try to reason things out
And the only people I fear are those who never have doubts
Save us all from arrogant men, and the causes they’re for
I won’t be righteous again
I’m not that sure anymore

Shades of grey wherever I go
The more I find out the less that I know
Ain’t no rainbows shining on me
Shades of grey are the colors I see.

This extreme skepticism concerning the existence of a reasonable faith resonates with people in our culture.  The exposure to a faith smorgasbord has caused many to deny the possibility of one universal true faith.  Another extreme perspective is the pluralism proposed by theologians such as John Hicks and Paul Knitter (1) who view all the world’s major faiths as true expressions of one reality.  Thus people can hold to a faith that is "true for them" while not denying others the possibility of their faith being a different expression of the same truth.  This expression of tolerance, inclusiveness and humility concerning the knowledge of truth is also very attractive within our society.

Responses to other Belief Systems

As Fellowship Baptist how are we to hold to our exclusivist faith in the midst of these conflicting perspectives?  How do we proclaim and live Christ as the only savior and lord in the midst of other religions with other lords, different concerns and unfamiliar practices?
One response is to dismiss all other belief systems as evil and false.  However the positive aspects of the major faiths cannot be easily ignored: Mohammad led his people from idolatry to the worship of the one God, the Jewish scriptures are also accepted as God’s word by Christians, Buddha had great compassion for human suffering, Confucius demonstrated rare insight into human nature.
Another response is to say, "Other religions have some truth, but we have all the answers."  As evangelical Christians we believe that the salvation found in Christ is both necessary and sufficient to enter into the kingdom of God.  But to claim exhaustive or absolute knowledge for ourselves is naive and requires that we ignore the "shades of grey." Instead we need to respond in the only truthful way that we have been given: "I can’t solve the mystery of the shades of grey.  But I have a relationship with someone who knows how to live in the middle of the grey.  Jesus said, ‘follow me,’ and as I do, I experience the reality that he promised."
Our exclusive faith in Christ does not require the rejection of all truth claims of other religions, it does not require the view that other religions are without value and it does not require the view that we cannot learn from other religions (cf. Netland 1991:35).  Although we do have a black and white faith and we are faced with shades of grey, we also need to appreciate the rainbow of other faiths we are confronted with.  This does not mean acceptance of other faiths, but respect for other faiths.  It does not mean condemnation of other faiths, but a contrast of other faiths with the reality of Jesus Christ.  We need have no fear of engaging other religions and letting their voice be heard, for that provides the platform for considering Christ – and the uniqueness of Christ cannot be hid.

Missions as Learning From Others

When I went to Pakistan, I was planning to learn about Islam, not from Islam. It was a shock to realize that I had things to learn from another religion, let alone what such an attitude revealed about a disturbing level of ignorance and arrogance on my part.  I discovered that a major part of missions is to discover truth that God has already put into the hearts of people (Rom 2:15), people who are created in the image of God and thus have a spiritual hunger and have been engaged in a spiritual search. Culture and belief systems are interrelated and part of our task is to discover where, within those systems, the Holy Spirit has been at work, even as Jesus promised he would be (Rom 1:19,20 cf. Jn 16:5-11).
We live in a pluralist world, and in Canada within a pluralistic (2) society.  Rather than reacting in fear to this cultural reality, we need an attitude that recognizes the advantages of a pluralist society.  This will be explored in the next article.


  • (1) Harold A. Netland critiques the theology of these scholars from an exclusivist position in his book Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).
  • (2) A pluralist society is one consisting of a variety of societal subgroupings, each with a distinct sub-culture and belief system.  A pluralistic society is a society that is intolerant of any one belief system having priority over the others.
  • References:
  • Joel B. 1993. Shades of Grey, Album: River of Dreams.
  • Netland, H.A. 1991. Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development