To paraphrase the words of famous Roman historian Edward Gibbon, 'all religions were to the people equally true, to the philosophers equally false, and to the politicians equally useful'. Sarcasm and cynicism aside, Gibbon has identified something that is as popular today as the toga was to the Romans, and Otago students!
Prevalent in our Kiwi society is the belief that all religions are more or less the same. They all teach us to be kind, love people, help the poor, and honour the holy. Religious believers need to accept one another as fellow climbers up a mountain on the summit of which God dwells unseen. In our day and age it is socially and politically expedient to believe this: if we can all agree we believe largely the same thing then it will help us all get along. Or so the logic goes. This belief, known as religious pluralism, appears to make a strong case.
However, this view has been consistently rejected by many scholars of religion. For instance, Lesslie Newbigin said "Don't ask us to believe the dogma that all religions are really the same because they are not. It is only possible to insist that they are all the same by not looking at any of them: and that is what is usually done." If you examine the central teaching of any religion and then look to see whether other religions agree – mutual contradictions quickly become apparent.
For example, at the centre of Christian faith is the affirmation that God's only Son, Jesus, came to reveal what God is like once and for all. He did this through how He lived – preferring to rub shoulders with society's rejects than the religious leaders or the high and mighty. He revealed what God is like through teaching truth, through works of healing and compassion, and most of all in and through His death. On the cross Jesus showed the lengths to which God will go to demonstrate His love for humanity. God is not the angry and austere god many believe him to be – He is the 'God with us', the crucified God, the God who is for us and for all. And then, on the third day after Jesus was murdered, God the Father raised Him to life. Because of these events celebrated every Easter, Christians affirm, the world has changed.
It is not controversial to say that Judaism and Islam deny this affirmation. So too do Hinduism and Buddhism, which both reject the idea that specific historical events convey eternal significance. Consequently, the idea that all religions believe the same thing is a nice idea, but it is greatly inconvenienced by reality. This does not mean people from all religions cannot get along. Holding to identical beliefs is not a prerequisite for social harmony. Jesus' teaching gives Christians no choice but to love everyone – be it friend, stranger, or enemy. Anything less than loving people is sub-Christian, and arguably, sub-human. Religious pluralism is also a nice idea because it reflects a bottom-up viewpoint – that all people are seeking and grasping after transcendent truth. The Christian message does not deny that but affirms that as much as people want to know what God is like, God wants us to know what He is like far more. And so God came down, and became one of us. Revelation – God coming down and disclosing Himself, trumps speculation – human seeking after truth.
Nevertheless, speculation about the 'divine', 'transcendent', and 'spiritual' continues apace. And this is to be expected, when knowledge from revelation is absent. Some believe in an impersonal god, more like a force, or the force. Others prefer a more subjective and private concept of God. Reflecting on this contrast of religious speculation and divine revelation, C.S. Lewis said: "An 'impersonal God' – well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads – better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap – best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps, approaching an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband – that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion ('people's search for God!') suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?"
Human imagination is a precious gift but, when it comes to God, the reality is far better than we could ever have imagined. But don't just take my word for it – why not find out for yourself?
(This article, written by Adam Dodds, was published in the Otago Daily Times, Friday 2 November 2012)