OK. I admit it. I hate conflict. John Paine does not like it either, so I am glad I am not alone.
Cowboys or the Redskins? Duke or North Carolina? Red Sox or the Yankees? Me? I’ll just watch the ball game, thank you. Some love a feisty contest. But it is one thing to engage in competitive sports talk. Conversing about “God” in a pluralistic culture is a much more serious ball game.
There is much at stake when it comes to conflicting truth claims regarding religious belief … or “non-religious” belief … let us not forget atheism. The consequences are great. Eternal matters hang in the balance. Heaven and hell. Life and death.
Imagine you are at a water cooler somewhere in corporate America, and the topic of religion comes up. A disagreement emerges. You feel the tension in the hallway as the conversation heats up. Someone tries to resolve the tension in the conversation and says, “You know, I believe that all religions basically teach the same thing.”
The “conflict avoidance” part of me wonders….”What a powerful and attractive idea”…..
Let’s face it. We see enough conflict in the world just by watching the Evening News. Buddhists burning Rohingya Islamic mosques in Myanmar. Hindu riots in India. Churches being destroyed in the Sudan. Holocaust deniers. 911. Will the Protestant/Catholic conflict in Ireland flair up again? Would it not be great if some core truths that all religions teach could be embraced by everyone and unnecessary, and even violent, differences eliminated?
It really is a very appealing idea. But is it True?
In a previous blog posting, we considered how one can approach the challenges of religious pluralism as a prelude to doing apologetics. As Christians, we can affirm many things that different faith traditions hold in common as true and good. A theology of common grace helps us to do that. But what about the differences between different faiths? How do we deal with those differences? How significant are they and do they really matter?
This brief video from Ravi Zacharias distills the issue. Are religions fundamentally the same and superficially different? What do you think?
Religious Pluralism and Conflicting Truth Claims
Years ago, societies were much more homogenous than they are today. The information explosion through the Internet floods our minds with overwhelming amounts of complex data, including religious beliefs. I barely remember where I left my socks today…. much less am I able to keep track of the 40 million gods in the Hindu religious tradition. There are the major religious traditions like Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. But within each tradition are sub-movements. In Islam, there is Sufi, Sunni and Shiite…. and these are just the most well-known movements. In Buddhism, there is Zen, Pure-Land, Amida, etc., with each sub-tradition claiming to be the real, “true” Buddhism. One word: overwhelming! Life would be a lot simpler if human religiosity was less complicated.
Consider the impact we face socially within the culture, particularly for young people. When faced with increasing religious and cultural diversity, it is a whole lot easier to navigate our world by steering away from anything that appears extreme or different. Just focusing on what people hold in common is difficult enough, and it often changes as you move in different social contexts. For example, a lot of young people even in our churches find themselves acting one way with other Christians and church friends. However, then put them in with a different set of people, they might act or think a different way, just to fit in. Some may call this way of shifting attitudes and behaviors on-the-fly living like a chameleon. But for a lot of young people, it is a strategy for social survival.
This type of social coping strategy has a counterpart philosophically in the New Age Movement. The New Age Movement is not an organized religion. It is a collection of ideas that has become ever so popular as our global world continues to shrink. It takes bits and pieces from various religious traditions and mixes them altogether. Like going to a cafeteria, the New Age advocate simply takes whatever beliefs and practices best suit the situation, adopting the ones that are helpful and discarding the ones that are disagreeable. The chameleon nature of the “New Age” is appealing, but does it meet the target that it is aiming for?
The Elephant and the Blind Men
The classic analogy used to explain the philosophy supporting the New Age Movement is the story of the Elephant and the Blind Men, based on an ancient Asian Indian parable. Assume you have an elephant. A group of blind men approach the elephant. Each blind man touches a different part of the elephant. Then each blind man describes what they know about the elephant. One blind man says the elephant is like a rope, as he grabs onto the elephant’s tail. Another man says the elephant is like a tree trunk, as he hugs one leg of the elephant. Another man says the elephant is like a big hose, as he caresses the elephant’s trunk. The moral of the story is that all of the religions of the world describe only a part of “God”. No one religion has the perspective to describe the full reality of who “God” is. Christianity included.
While there is much to commend in this story regarding the limits of human perception, there is a major flaw in the analogy: How do you know that you are dealing with an elephant? The narrator of the story assumes that it is an elephant under observation. But how does the narrator know this? The narrator can only know this if the narrator is the only person who is not blind. Why does the narrator think he can see the elephant fully but the others can not? Why an elephant? Why not a giraffe? A bear? A lion?
The problem with the Elephant and the Blind Men analogy is that it assumes that the narrator, our New Age story teller, is superior to everyone else in the ability to perceive the essential, basic teachings that are true of all religions. But the fact is that there is no reason why the narrator isn’t just as blind as everyone else. We are still left with deep differences among people with conflicting world views . The “New Age”, far from being anything really “new”, is just the same-old, same-old. Isn’t it just another religious opinion among all of the other religious opinions out there?
Do Differences Matter?
Are the differences between religions merely superficial? Or are there just different ways to consider the same “elephant”? Unfortunately, many people who find themselves drawn to New Age type thinking have never done the hard work of comparative religious study. When I was in college, I spent a summer as a missionary in Northern India. Aside from the United States, there probably isn’t a more diverse place on earth when it comes to religion than India. When I met people who had such incredibly different views, I was forced to take the time and energy to learn something about what they really believed instead of just depending on the latest sound-bite from the popular New Age “gurus” typically found pandering their message across the United States.
For example, in my studies I learned that Hinduism and Buddhism share a belief in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. The life you live now is a result of the law of “karma” at work, where you pay for the mistakes you made and/or reap the benefits of good works performed in a previous life. So for a Christian to tell a Hindu or Buddhist that you can be “born again” without much of an explanation is not very good news. The goal of salvation in a Hindu or Buddhist context is to be free from the cycle of rebirth over and over again. Ironically, the thought of being “born again” merely perpetuates the human problem for the orthodox Hindu or Buddhist. In contrast, the New Testament make it clear that we have but one life to live, and after that life, we are to face judgment (Hebrews 9:27). There is no reincarnation. But for those who are in Christ, there is rebirth to eternal life, which is true freedom. Logically speaking, saying that escape from the cycle of rebirth leads to freedom and saying that rebirth itself leads to freedom are conflicting truth claims. Superficial difference? Hardly.
We do no favors to the Hindu or Buddhist traditions by claiming that the doctrine of the transmigration of souls is something that it is not. Neither do we genuinely respect the claims of the Christian by misrepresenting what the Bible actually teaches. In order for fruitful, honest inter-religious dialogue to occur, we must respect the differences that emerge in our study of other faiths and in our conversations with their adherents.
Here is another example. Christians and Jews believe that the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures, respectively, are God’s Word, preserving to us His Truth (1 Timothy 3:16-17). But many Muslims believe that the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures have been hopelessly corrupted and are incapable of leading someone to the true message of the Koran. The message of the Koran as the corrective Word of God is central to Islamic thought. Likewise, the messages of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures are lost if they have been really corrupted.
Consider these texts: In the Koran at Surah 61:6, Jesus is said to have prophesied the coming of a messenger, who is the Prophet Muhammed. However, in the New Testament at John 14:16, Jesus is said to have prophesied the coming of a “helper”, who is the Holy Spirit. Muslims claim the New Testament is corrupted at this point and should have identified the coming “helper” as Muhammed. Both religious traditions agree that Muhammed and the Holy Spirit are not the same. So who is it? Muhammed or the Holy Spirit? The preservation of Truth and the corruption of Truth are not logically consistent ideas.
Even between non-Christian faiths, significant differences remain. One of the greatest tragedies for cultural historians happened in March, 2001 in Afghanistan. Muslims with the Taliban destroyed a pair of ancient monumental statues of standing buddhas, the “Buddhas of Bamiyan“. These statues were built in the 6th century A.D., but the Taliban dynamited them claiming that they were idols. Of course, it would be wrong to use acts of extremism to mischaracterize an entire religious tradition, but why this act of religious violence? Muslims are committed monotheists, believing in only one God. Buddhists, on the other hand, are generally considered to be atheists, even though syncretic elements have allowed a few various forms of theism and polytheism to enter into their religious views. Uncompromising monotheism vs. atheism or polytheism? Islam and Buddhism are superficially different? The evidence stands against such reasoning.
Contrary to the claims of the New Age Movement, the world’s religions are clearly not teaching “the same basic things”. As mentioned in the previous post, there are beliefs and practices that adherents of various religious traditions genuinely share together. Some of the commonalities can be very good. Nevertheless, there are still real differences, and the differences are significant.
Here is some insight into one of the “questions behind the question” regarding the exclusive claims of the Christian faith. When we are faced with conflicting truth claims, we must accept the uncomfortable fact that we live in a world with deep differences between people. Reluctance to engage in conflict overshadows a more penetrating question: How then do we live our lives on planet Earth with our deepest differences? Now that is a really good question.
A Plea: No More Ad Hominem
We need real inter-religious dialogue. We need to be able to talk with one another. We need to be civil towards one another with whom we disagree…. And I must add … We can do this without compromising what we know to be True.
May I make a suggestion, or two? First, perhaps we could all make some progress here if we simply apply one simple rule of logic: avoid all ad hominemtypes of arguments wherever possible. Ad hominem is from the Latin, “to the man”. It refers to a style of argument that is made personally against an opponent, instead of against the substance of an argument that a person is making. For example, in discussing the proposition that “all religions are basically the same”, it maybe very tempting for the Christian apologist to attack the person making the argument instead by saying that “your argument is wrong because you are just some wishy-washy spineless liberal!” There should be no place for that type of negative attack from someone who wishes to defend the cause of Jesus Christ. Rather, simply address the argument being made. Examine the evidence for and against. Make a persuasive case for the Gospel. Be an ambassador for Christ….. and let God do the rest!
In my experience, we often confuse attacks on an argument being presented with attacks on the credibility or character of a person based on our ignorance of the facts or our impatience. Not everyone has the time and energy to become experts in comparative religions, but it does help to take the time to learn something about what our conversation partner really believes before launching into a criticism of someone’s religious ideas.
Another Plea: Lighten Up on the Hyper-Sensitivity
On the other side of things, we should keep in mind that an attack on an argument does not mean we should take the argument personally. Os Guinness, a British evangelical philosopher and observer of American culture, gave a talk several years ago at the College of William and Mary. Guinness remarked that Americans in particular are often personally hyper-sensitive to rigorous debate. In the days leading up to and during World War 2, Winston Churchill was known for his fiery debates on the floor of British parliament. But he always made a point to invite his opponent after a testy debate to go down to the local pub to share a drink with him. Churchill was known for his uncompromising views, but he always valued the person with whom he was engaged as a fellow human being.
Guinness contrasted that with much of the style of debating in America where someone feels just deeply wounded and offended by nearly any negative criticism given. How did we get so touchy and easily hurt? Guinness challenged his listeners at William and Mary to learn something from Churchill: Let us make the best, most persuasive case we can, and may the person with the best argument win … and then let us find some way to turn down the heat, shake hands, and perhaps enjoy some friendship. Oh, that we as Christian apologists can have the fortitude and charity of a Winston Churchill!
An Elephant Who Speaks?
We do have deep differences among us, but that does not mean we have license to attack people instead of ideas, nor should we paper over our differences with warm-and-fuzzy platitudes without any substance. Consider how the Apostle Paul engaged his critical audience at Mars Hill (Acts 17). Paul spoke in a very challenging way, exposing their idolatrous ways of thinking, but he did so with a very civil and respectful demeanor. He did not win the approval of everyone with his arguments, but the fact that some wanted to hear him again demonstrates that he was able to positively put forth the message of the Gospel and do it in an non-shaming manner.
So if you have that conversation at the water cooler again, pray that the Lord will guide you to address the differences between the Great Religions of the world. A good place to start would be to ask your colleague at the water cooler what they know about various religious beliefs. Ask if those differences are significant or not. If there is some agreement that there exists a lot of important disagreements in the world that are not so easily overcome, then perhaps you have made some progress. Oh, and don’t forget this: After you talk about these weighty matters, consider asking your conversation partner this: Are you a Red Sox fan or Yankee fan? Cowboys or Redskins? Duke or North Carolina? Perhaps you will find that you have some more things in common.
So what about our Elephant and the Blind Men? Is there any way to resolve the dilemma exposed by the fallacy in the story? How do we know if we are dealing with an elephant or something else? What if? What if the elephant could speak? What if the elephant could tell us, as the “Blind Men”, who he really is? What if the elephant can take the blinders off so that we can see the elephant for real? The central claim of the Christian faith is based on the idea that God has actually spoken and revealed Himself and His Truth in history. That will be the next topic in our series.
When dealing with “conflict avoidance” with respect to religious pluralism, we have touched on a number of topics. Here are some additional resources.
New Age Movement:
The New Age Movement is rather complex. It is probably more of a cultural mood than anything else. Nevertheless, there are some key historical and philosophical developments that can help us to understand where the New Age is coming from. Unfortunately, I find that a lot of online popular material on the New Age Movement either borders on the sensational or looks at specific practices without addressing the fundamental theological and philosophical issues closely enough. Thankfully, the Roman Catholic Vatican has released an in-depth provisional paper about the “New Age” here from the late 1990s that is still relevant today and covers the significant concerns better than most. Even for those of you who have serious doubts about the Roman Catholic orientation given, I think that you will find some very perceptive, critical analysis of New Age thought with which an evangelical Christian can concur. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.
Religious Tolerance and Civil Society:
Os Guinness spoke at the College of William and Mary in April, 2007, during the year of the infamous(??) Wren Chapel Cross controversy. Os Guinness served as the Executive Director of the Williamsburg Charter Foundation, marking the 200th anniversary on the First Amendment regarding freedom of religion in the American Constitution. As a Brit, Guinness has a great perspective on how civil discourse regarding matters of religion can be discussed, particularly within American society. Though not directly addressing the question of religious pluralism specifically, Guinness has given this talk on “A World Safe for Diversity” elsewhere. Guinness is an Anglican, and the great-grandson of Arthur Guinness, the famous brewer.
The study of comparative religion is a vast, yet fascinating and often rewarding topic. In general, if you do not have a lot time and energy to do the research, you are much better off just sticking with your Bible and just grounding yourself in the knowledge of God’s Word, and then you can rely on learning how to ask good questions when relating to someone of another faith. However, if you find yourself in need of doing some homework, there are resources available that can help.
So, how does a Christian sort things out with all of the information on different religions out there? On Veracity, we have briefly looked at the worldview of the Great Eastern Religions through the lens of the Dalai Lama’s visit to the College of William and Mary in October, 2012.
On a smaller scale, is Mormonism simply another “Christian” movement? Linked previously, John Paine directs us to a brief primer on Mormon doctrine. Have you investigated some of the history of Mormonism? Consider this expanded analysis on Veracity.
Probably the most standard, comprehensive introductory text to comparative religion is Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man (retitled, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions). Smith’s text has been used in introductory religion classes in universities all over the world for fifty years. As it is increasingly evident in his later books, Smith is in sympathy with the philosophy of the New Age Movement, though he has a more scholarly, critical approach. Smith is important as his way of integrating the religious data represents a view that rejects the spiritual-void of modern secularism in favor of a sophisticated, mystical theology that uses Christian terminology while redefining biblical content. My view is that you will see more of this tendency to want to redefine Christianity as religious pluralism proliferates more and more in Western cultures. It is an effort to revolt against a sterile secularism that sees the practice of science as a be-all and end-all of human existence, in the vein of someone like Richard Dawkins. In other words, the New Age is “fundamentally” about rejecting all forms of fundamentalism, whether it be Christian or atheistic. So if you want to grab a hold of this theological trend properly while doing comparative religious study, go to someone like Huston Smith who has at least done his homework. Just have your Bible close at hand when he writes about Christianity.
And finally, here is my best recommendation for an introduction to comparative religion: Winfried Corduan’s Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions. It is a little easier to get into than Smith’s text, and now it is in its second edition. Corduan, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Taylor University now on disability due to Parkinson’s Disease, is an evangelical Christian scholar who makes a cogent analysis of what different traditions believe, what to expect when you meet someone who practices a different faith, and some practical guidelines on how to effectively communicate the Gospel with an adherent of that faith. Corduan is great because he shows you how to do comparative religious study without muddling around theologically like Huston Smith. If you want to get a helpful reference work for understanding the world’s major religious traditions from a biblical worldview, go with Corduan. OK, Corduan looks a little scary in ponytail (dude, your web graphics and YouTube videos need some help), but he is really a brilliant guy and loves Jesus.