I am teaching Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, in my Advanced Placement English class.
As an evangelical Christian working in a public school, I want to evoke discussion about pluralism as we read. The book does discuss Christianity (through the Catholic tradition), Hinduism, and Islam. The main character in the book explores all three and converts to Islam and Christianity while still a Hindu.
I think this is the "ultimate pluralist" created by Martel. :-)
Keep in mind that my students are freshmen, and my definition of religious pluralism would need to be somewhat simple.
Whatever I teach focuses on whomever I teach. How can I, as a Christian teacher, probe their minds and hearts to think about deeper issues?
Thanks for writing. It's great that you want to help your students think about pluralism. It's probably safe to say that many teachers are quite happy with pluralism and wouldn't think to challenge the notion.
Since you can’t promote Christianity, I can think of two ways to approach the subject: making clear the differences between the major religions, and talking about the nature of truth.
First, a lot of people say all religions are the same without knowing what they teach. It would be instructive to put up a chart or make a list of the beliefs of the different religions. For example, regarding God or ultimate reality:
• Hindus are pantheists or polytheists.
• Buddhists are atheists or pantheists.
• Muslims are theists and unitarian.
• Christians are theists but trinitarian.
There’s a pamphlet called “The Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Error” which you might find at a Christian bookstore that lists a lot of differences.
The point is that they teach contradictory ideas. How can they all be true?
If the students respond with the “it’s true for them” line, ask why they think so? The only ways that could be so would be if 1) there really is no god; religion is just something people make up, or 2) there is a god, but no one can really know anything about him. Whichever of these they might believe, you can ask why they think so.
You may even want to back up a little and talk about truth itself. Talk about its exclusive nature. If it's true that I'm typing on a keyboard, for example, it has to be false that I'm typing on a tree or an elephant. Logic reflects the way the world is. A thing (like a keyboard) can't be another thing (at the same time and in the same sense). And, a thing can't both exist in reality and not exist. You can extend this to moral issues as well. Ask if it's okay for one set of parents to beat their child blue with rods when they don't get their homework done (or use another example they'll find horrendous). If they say it's wrong, say something like, "But it's true for them, then it's good."
You can also talk about whether it’s important to make distinctions between true and false. This and the above are more preparatory kinds of things that make it possible for people to believe one religion can be true and others false. You have to relate these questions to real life. Talk about other things in their lives that have to be either true or false (including moral issues, if not religious ones). The main point is to get the students thinking about the nature of truth, using things in their world where they know true and false in the classical sense apply. That can raise in their minds a conflict. They're used to the "true for me" thinking, but in their lives they don't and can't live that way. You can then relate this to the matter of religion.
Finally, they may talk more about social matters, about the need to respect all people. To this you can pose this problem. Ask what, say, a Muslim might think if you tell him you respect his religious beliefs even though no one can really know what God (or Allah) is like, or if you say that there really is no God, but that religion is something that people make up to meet their needs. Would a Muslim feel gratified and respected by this "inclusive" attitude? I know as a Christian it doesn't make me feel more respected when someone claims that Jesus really isn't the only way to God, because that is central to my beliefs. Students need to know that people can disagree about ideas without hating each other. Unfortunately, that idea (that disagreement equals hatred) is so often fostered today. To think someone is wrong means you hate them and will do harm to them. That's all part of the tolerance nonsense being taught today.
If all this is clear as mud, write back and we'll talk some more.
© 2009 Probe Ministries
About the Author
Rick Wade served as a Probe research associate for 17 years. He holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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