Saturday, July 02, 2005

Christianity and Other Religions Part 5

Question 6: Do all religions lead to God? Aren’t all religions just saying the same thing?

In the past two hundred years, there has been a lot of speculation on how all religions might lead to the one true God. Some speak of religion as being a great mountain. We all climb up different sides of the mountain to reach God on top. Others say all religions are like husks—these husks all look different and are composed of our own traditions and variables, but all of these different husks have the same kernel inside. Jalalu’l-Din Rumi describes it this way: “the lamps are different, but the Light is the same.”[1] The general term for this understanding of all religions leading to God is called pluralism.

People with this understanding of religions say that at the core, all religions are saying the same thing. At the core, we all recognize a greater force and strive to do good for the sake of humanity. At the lowest common denominator, we are all saying the same thing.
At first glance, this is a very comforting thought. With further reflection, however, this understanding is vague at best and offensive at worst.

To speak of all religions as have a lowest common denominator is like saying that apples and cardinals are red. Yes, both apples and cardinals are red, but this does not get us anywhere. To be content with the lowest common denominator of religions is not to engage in fruitful, exciting dialogue.

Will Willimon from Duke University explains it this way:

If you keep your attributes of God abstract enough—God is omnipotent, God is
omniscient, loving, just—all three “Abrahamic” faiths appear to be on the same
page, or talking about the same God, because to be Muslims, Christians and Jews
all believe that God is omnipotent, loving and just. Trouble is, this sort
of abstract reasoning is about as revealing as saying that ‘Mary Jones is a
Caucasian, female android.’ You haven’t said much. And who wants to
talk to someone who is just like us?[2]

Two years ago I was at Home Depot and was approached by a Hindu woman who wanted my opinion on paint—this led into a deeper conversation. After hearing that I was a seminary student, her eyes lit up. “I have been wanting to talk to a Christian about theology. I want to know what you believe.” This woman was not interested where our faith intersected. She did not want to know what we both believed on the lowest common denominator. She wanted to know what made Christian faith Christian. (By the way, she painted Raj’s room a lovely shade of blue).

We can partake in truly exhilarating, life-changing conversations if we are willing to speak from our own point of reference without betraying our own identity. When I speak clearly from my Christian perspective, I am able to have a true conversation where I explore the nuances of my faith. By speaking from a Christian perspective to a friend from a Muslim perspective, I can better understand what makes Christianity unique. This takes courage. It feels much safer to speak on lowest common denominator levels. Nevertheless, when we are able to articulate a Christian understanding of salvation, we enter into true dialogue.

When we assert that all religions are saying the same thing, not only are we entering into a vague conversation, we are also entering into a potentially offensive conversation. To say all religions are the same is to not respect other religions. To tell a Muslim that actually, deep down she believes the same thing as her Hindu friend is not doing justice to either religion. It does not show respect for the particulars of convictions.

Some people do not go quite as far as to say that all religions lead to God. Theologian Karl Rahner makes a different suggestion: all religions find their fulfillment in Christ. Rahner suggests that whenever people surrender themselves to a higher being and dedicate themselves to the well being of humanity though peace and justice, they have implicitly accepted Christ without know it. Rahner calls these people “anonymous Christians.” They unknowingly possess the spirit of Christ.[3] The term for this idea is inclusivism, because all religions are “included” into Christianity.

However, this concept of anonymous Christians can also be offensive. A devout Buddhist will probably not enjoy being told that even though he thinks he is a Buddhist, in actuality he is an under-cover Christian.

Simply put: the reason why there are so many different religions is because religions are different. And this is what makes talking with people of different faiths worthwhile. It is an exercise in mutual learning about others and ourselves.[4]

Another common thought is that what I believe is true for me, but is not necessarily true for you. Therefore I can believe what I believe to be true without having to disagree with what you are saying. However, this logic breaks down. Faith cannot be personal. Faith must be public. This idea is held by Lesslie Newbigin and is explained by Veli-Matti Karkkainen:

When a Christian says, “I believe,” he or she is not merely describing an
emotion or even a value statement but affirming what he or she believes to be
true—and ‘therefore what is true for everyone.’ In other words, since faith is
more than personal, it has an objective reference point; it is necessary to
bring it out to the public arena. This is what Christian witnessing is all
about. [5]
Logically speaking, there is no such thing as a personal belief. If I believe I am breathing oxygen, I also believe that you are breathing oxygen. If I say that I believe that I am breathing oxygen but that you may be breathing some other substance, than I have not expressed a belief, but a mere opinion. I believe what I believe is true.

Belief cannot be merely a personal decision. If it is true belief, than according to Newbigin: ”I am bound to publish it, to commend it to others, and to seek to show in the practice of life today that is it the rational tradition which is capable of divine greater coherence and intelligibility to all experience than any other tradition.”[6]

If I have decided to speak courageously from my Christian context as best I understand, then I must allow other religions to make their truth claims as well. My goal is not to overwhelm others with my beliefs, but to enter into dialogue. In dialoguing with people other faiths we are able to test our faith in public, thereby understanding both our similarities and differences better. We can be open to learning things about God from people of other faiths. Other religions can have revelations of God without being a path of salvation.

When we enter into an authentic, particular conversation with someone from another faith tradition, we are given the opportunity to gain greater insight into our faith and what makes the God of Christianity unique.

[1] Miroslav Volf, “Be Particular,” Christian Century. 120:2 (2003) 33. From hereon referred to as “Volf.”
[2] William Willimon, “Arguing with Muslims.” Christian Century.121:21 (2004) 35.
[3] Veli-Matti Karkkainen. An Introduction to the Theology of Religions. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003) 196. From hereon referred to as “Karkkainen.”
[4] Volf 33.
[5] Karkkainen 252-253.
[6] Lesslie Newbigin. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1989) 88.


Brandon & Jennifer said...

You've definately taken blogging to greater depths with these recent posts - way to go!

Keep it comin'.


millinerd said...

of related interest...

The Cubicle Reverend said...

Here is a little challenge for us all, you can post it either on your sight and I'll attatch it to mine.

Kari said...

to say simplifying reduces meaning doesn't fly with me.

we when say to each other in the world that "although you are from a rich family in france or an orpan home in cambodia, you are still at your core human and you are of value because we share that bond," we are simplifying our differences in order to find a common bond, a way to love each other and share with each other in life. we still value the fact that the cambodians life is vastly different than our own, and we can still be enriched by that difference - simplifying doesn't cange that. simplifying enriches the relationship so we can see our common ground and then go from there.

this seems very different than saying an apple and a cardinal are red. =)

just a you...kari

Amanda said...

Hi Kar,

Thanks for pushing back! I agree with that you recognizing the lowest common denominator amongst humans is profound and can do great good in our relationships. But I want something more.

You ended your comment with the words: "see our common ground and then go from there." Just out of curiousity, what does "there" look like?

Personally, I think "going from there" means going beyond the horizontal relationships we have with one another and looking to see what the vertical relationships look like.

Not only am I interested in what the Cambodian's view of God is (an upward relationship), I am more interested in what God reveals to the Cambodian (downward relationship). Does that make sense?

I want to know the common ground I share with the Cambodian, and I also want to respect the Cambodian's religion by encountering it in its un-watered down form.

Thanks for chatting, Kar. I enjoy talking with you...just wish we could do it more in person. :)

johnldrury said...

This conversation brings up a possible distinction: "common humanity" vs. "common religion." Is it possible to affirm the former (which I do for myriad of reasons), but question the adequacy of the latter? I suppose that depends on your definition of religion (e.g., if it is just a sublime subset of human culture, then you must affirm both). But is that true religion?