Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Finding God in All Religions?

I've been thinking lately about a comment that a friend of mine made fairly recently, essentially to this effect: "Why do we have to choose just one religious tradition to be in? I find God in all of them! God isn't different in any of the religions, just the way in which we relate to God. I find beautiful ways of really relating to God in all of them. But I don't accept any religious tenets that claim an exclusive place for any one religious tradition." I was indeed surprised by some of my other professing Christian friends who wholeheartedly supported her sentiment.

Now, the first question I had about her initial statement was.... which god? Are we talking about Thor, the hammer-wielding Norse god of thunder? Are we perhaps talking about Poseidon, the Greek god of the seas? Or the Sumerian deity Enki, lord of mischief, waters, and creation? And what then of the Assyrian patron god Ashur, and the Aztec sun god Huitzilopochtli, and the Moabite god Chemosh, and the lion-headed Meroitic god Apedemak, and the Canaanite orchard goddess Nikkal-wa-Ib, and the Nabatean god Al-Qaum? Is it any of these gods that my friend finds at the heart of Islam and Confucianism and Kemetic Revivalism (Egyptian Reconstructionist Paganism) and Christianity? That doesn't seem especially likely. I rather doubt that, for instance, the "God" she finds in "all religions" is any of those; I doubt she has any of them specifically in mind. Unfortunately, my friend simply ignored my question.

But seriously, which god? Which god is the one my friend can find in all religions? Now, perhaps someone would charge me with being a bit tendentious here. After all, perhaps my friend really meant "all major religions". But isn't that rather provincialist? After all, there may be just a handful of prominent world religions today, but it's a matter of pure chronological contingency that she happens to live in a world in which a significant portion of the population adheres to Abrahamic monotheism, and none of those ancient polytheistic faiths are still around as statistically influential options. But surely my friend doesn't mean to discriminate against Reconstructionist Pagans, does she? That certainly doesn't sound like her. She prides herself on being a beacon of tolerance and love, not one of those bigoted exclusivist dullards like, well, virtually everyone who's ever lived.

So perhaps the god she has in mind is the God of Abraham. Let's explore that option for a moment. Is the God of Abraham - the one who created heaven and earth from nothing with a simple divine edict, and who has an exclusive and absolute claim on the ultimate loyalty of all humanity, who acts in history, and who is a just judge of the sins of the nations - the deity that she finds in, say, Asatru (Norse Reconstructionist Paganism)? It's hard to see where. Which of those gods is he? Which of them created heaven and earth from nothing with just a command? Which of them claims the right of exclusive worship? Which of them is a judge of the actions of people in distant lands? Well... none of them. So how, exactly, does my friend find the God of Abraham in Norse Reconstructionist Paganism, or in its ancient Norse precursor? But perhaps we should try another religion - say, Confucianism. Is the God of Abraham the deity she finds in Confucianism? Where exactly does she find a deity in Confucianism anyway? The same goes for, say, Theraveda Buddhism, which also doesn't focus on any god. Does my friend find the God of Abraham in Theraveda Buddhism? If she does, where does she find him? How does Theraveda Buddhism offer a means of relating to the God of Abraham when Theraveda Buddhism doesn't put the focus on any gods at all? Or how does Asatru offer a means of relating to the God of Abraham when it explicitly offers you many gods, but one of the defining characteristics of the God of Abraham is that he refuses to share his servants with other putative deities? And even supposing that you could find the God of Abraham hidden somewhere in Theraveda Buddhism and in Confucianism and in Asatru; what on earth would make anyone think that those religious traditions offer means of relating to the God of Abraham that are every bit as good and valid and useful as those offered by religious traditions that are explicitly devoted to the God of Abraham?

What about, say, Brahman, the impersonal sole reality that constitutes all things in many of the philosophical traditions of Hinduism? Is that the 'god' that my friend finds in all religions? The first thing I should add in response to that notion is that I have to wholeheartedly agree with contemporary philosopher Peter Van Inwagen when he argues that words like brahman that refer to impersonal abstractions like this are just plain wrongly translated if they're rendered as 'God'. As he remarks about those who hold that, in Eastern religious traditions, God is an 'impersonal first principle': "I think it would be plausible to maintain that the person who said this was translating some Hindi or Pali or Sanskrit word into English as 'God' when he ought to be translating it in some other way. (And why not say this, if the history of the word he is translating as 'God' has no connection with the history of the English word or with the history of Deus or theos or elohim?)" (Peter Van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil, p. 156 n. 1). Even setting that problem aside, does my friend find Brahman in Islam and in Aztec religion alike? Where? I mean, I suppose that if you believe in Brahman, you could believe that Allah is a manifestation of Brahman, and that so is Huitzilopochtli. But that wouldn't be bridging different religions at all. It would be standing quite firmly within a Hindu tradition. And it would involve saying, for instance, that neither Muslims nor Aztecs really understand what they worship, and that they have most of their religion all wrong (though it works anyway)... but we, the knowers of Brahman, understand Allah better than Muslims do and Huitzilopochtli better than the Mexica did. And while that may not be a soteriologically exclusivist claim, it's certainly exclusivist in some sense that might make my friend a bit queasy.

Here's the thing. If you're finding 'God' in all religious traditions, then it isn't any of the gods they worship. There is no god worshipped in common in all religious traditions, especially since some of those traditions don't worship gods at all. There's not much overlap in the world's numerous pantheons. Furthermore, if you're finding 'God' in all of these traditions, then you're not standing in all of them at once; you're standing in something novel of your own making. You don't get to call yourself a Christian or a Muslim if you believe that you can please the God of heaven and earth by cutting out a victim's heart and lofting it up to Huitzilopochtli. That's just not what Christianity is, and that's just not what Islam is. For all its breadth, Christianity is a specific religious tradition; it has boundaries. The same goes for Islam. One cannot be a Christian and a Buddhist, for instance, without using at least one (and probably both) of those words in a way that is, quite frankly, dishonest. To be a Christian, a real Christian who stands in solidarity with the broad Christian tradition in all of its historic richness, involves believing that the created world is good and that we really do have selves and that our final state will be one of living in resurrected and glorified bodies in a community that worships one (and only one) personal God. To be a Buddhist, a real Buddhist who stands in solidarity with that tradition, involves believing that our existence in this world is suffering caused by desire, and that we have no permanent selves, and that our final state is to break the cycle of birth and death and new birth by achieving nirvana, which is likely not a state in which we can worship a single personal God. Those are two radically incompatible pictures of the world and humanity and God and our destiny. One cannot truly be a Christian and at the same time truly be a Buddhist. And that's simply one example.

So there's a very good reason why a person can't be part of all religious traditions, or even many of them. Most of them are, as defined by their essential beliefs, non-overlapping. (That isn't, of course, to say that some minor beliefs from other traditions can't be accepted, so long as the coherence of the whole system is kept in tact without violence done to the major essential beliefs and practices.) To attempt to be part of all of them is to be part of none of them - which, in many cases, is simply to create a new one, the religion of Kyle-ism or Lucinda-ism or some other novel -ism, tailor-made by its founder as a private religion exalted above all the many historic religious traditions. For my part, I may be an arrogant man, but I'm not arrogant enough to class myself as a peer to Jesus and Siddhartha Gautama and Muhammad and Moses and Baha'u'llah and Confucius and Lao Tzu and all the other principal religious figures in human history! But that is precisely what is done by those who try to break free from being part of just one religious tradition; they create their own novelty to put alongside the rest. And furthermore, even if their newly created religion is very soteriologically inclusive ("Oh it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done or what you believe or what you do, you can relate to God just fine. Please, Mr. Stalin, take your place next to Mr. Gandhi. I'm not yet sure what exactly it is that you'll both be doing when it's all said and done - do I believe in heaven and hell, or just heaven, or nirvana, or Valhalla, or...? - but I'm quite sure that you're both perfectly fine as you are. Now Mr. Stalin, I'd like to ask you not to order any more ethnic purges. But if you do, just remember that God and/or Brahman and/or Chemosh will love, accept, or tolerate you anyway. You just relate to God/Brahman/Chemosh/Whatever in a different, more ethnic-purging-type way than I do, and that's fine because what matters is that we all love each other. Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. LaVey, I didn't mean to offend you! It's fine if you relate to God/Brahman/Chemosh/Whatever by seeking vengeance on those who wrong you. Just so long as you aren't against gay marriage or a grown woman's rights to decide whether or not to kill her children before they exit the confines of her body, of course."), it still has to be 'exclusive' in some way by saying that someone (actually, a lot of someones) is just plain wrong.

Ultimately, I just don't think that my friend's pluralistic proposal can work. Not because it's impractical, but because it runs into far too many intellectual difficulties, to say nothing of the moral ramifications or the spiritual implications. For these and other reasons, I don't think any faithful Christian should accept this kind of pluralism; it is not only clearly wrong, but also incompatible with the historic Christian faith delivered once and for all to the holy church of God (Jude 3).

1 comment:

  1. From a Asatru perspective you are correct, we have two completely different ideas of what a god is. In a world where the Norse pantheon exists we simply have no room to cram in an omniscient omnipresent god of Abraham. The simple fact of the matter is the Christian god is just too large.
    When people say that to me it normally seems to be a poetic way of saying "I just don't want to talk about this/I do not care about it".