This talk was given in Downing College Chapel on 12 March 2012 as the final part of the Theology for Beginners series.
Over the last six weeks, I’ve mostly been talking about Christianity, which is a huge subject in itself. But some of the Christian ideas about God I’ve mentioned, especially in the first week, are similar to ideas which would be found in other faiths. So it’s time now, in the final talk, to look beyond Christianity. To ask about the similarities and differences between the main religions of the world. And to explore the ways in which people of other faiths can seek to understand each other.
So first of all, I shall attempt to give a quick overview of the beliefs of the largest religions of the world, including giving a few historical details of their relationship with Christianity. And then I’ll look in more depth at the issue of how religions can relate to each other.
The Abrahamic religions
Christianity is the world’s largest religion, followed by Islam. And their memberships together comprise more than half of the world’s population. They’re often grouped together with Judaism, which is about 100 times smaller than either. And they are the three Abrahamic religions. All believe in one God who created the cosmos, and all claim a direct lineage of faith going back to the patriarch Abraham. There’s much which connects them, but their shared belief in the one God of the patriarchs is modified in different ways. Judaism believes that there’s one God and that Israel is his people. Christianity believes that there’s one God and that Jesus Christ is his Son. And Islam believes that there’s one God and that Muhammad is his prophet. In each case, the second aspect of the faith gives a distinctive angle on how God himself is understood.
It seems logical to begin with Judaism, even though the number of Jews is tiny compared with the membership of the other faiths I’ll be talking about today. Both the New Testament and the Qur’an refer extensively to the Hebrew scriptures, often mentioning figures such as Adam, Abraham and Moses. Both Christianity and Islam share and value much of the story of the people of Israel. Jewish people have made remarkable contributions to the history of western civilisation. But much of the world’s awareness of the content of Judaism comes through the eyes of those two other, much larger faiths.
It’s hard therefore for me, as a Christian theologian, to give any kind of fair account of how Jews understand their own faith. For I’m firmly in the habit of giving a Christian interpretation of what Christians call the Old Testament. But I’ll have a go.
In the Book of Genesis, God calls Abraham in his old age to leave his home and to go on a long journey to a new land. A land where he is to become the father of a great nation. And God says that through him all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Judaism is therefore the religion of a particular people, who trace their ancestry back to Abraham. It’s traditionally understood that anyone with a Jewish mother is thereby Jewish. The Book of Exodus tells how God rescues Abraham’s descendants from slavery in Egypt, led through the desert by Moses. God makes a covenant at Mount Sinai with the people, and eventually leads them to capture and settle in the promised land.
So Judaism is the religion of a people, descendants of Abraham’s son Isaac. And the religion of a Law, the Torah, revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai. And it became the religion of a place, the land of Israel, centred on Jerusalem. The holy city where a magnificent Temple was built, and where a complex system of animal sacrifices was conducted.
But the land of Israel at its greatest was still only about the size of Wales. And the story of the Jewish people was always one of being threatened from all sides by mighty empires from Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greek and the Romans. The Jewish history told in the Hebrew scriptures includes the period of slavery in Egypt and the exile in Babylon. It strongly emphasises that God is the one who delivered them from slavery in Egypt, the event which is still celebrated in the annual festival of the Passover.
In AD 70, a failed revolt against the Romans led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Just at the time when Christianity was becoming a religion separate from Judaism, so the Jewish faith itself underwent a great change. There were no more animal sacrifices, because there was no Temple. And the Jews came to live in scattered communities across Europe, without their traditional geographical focus. Without their shared traditional place of pilgrimage. But now with a religious life centred on synagogues and the reading of their scriptures, and on the life of households and families.
Jews spent most of the last twenty centuries living in Christian countries, facing varying degrees of persecution. The two faiths continued to develop side by side, with some degree of influence on each other. But Jews experienced much anti-Semitism from Christians. And Christians mostly assumed a belief that the Church had replaced the Jews as the new Israel, and that God’s previous covenants with the Jews no longer applied.
The 20th century brought the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust, in which six million of the Jews in Europe were systematically murdered by the Nazis. Astonishingly, this tragedy was followed by the foundation of the modern state of Israel. After 19 centuries, the Jews returned to the historic land of their faith. And so, after a long history in Europe, most Jewish people today live in Israel or in the United States. One of the most impressive aspects of their way of life is this ability to preserve a very strong sense of their identity through many centuries of persecution and exile.
The Holocaust caused Christians to re-examine the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Christians realised to their shame how much the Church’s many centuries of anti-Semitism had paved the way for Hitler’s genocide. After the Second World War, both Protestants and Catholics began to relate much more sympathetically to the Jewish people. Christians began to reemphasise the idea the Jews were the original people of God, and that God’s covenant with them remained valid. Jewish scholars have responded warmly to this change of heart, and have affirmed that Jews and Christians are worshipping the same God and have much in common.
Nevertheless, there are many differences between the two faiths. The Christian doctrines of the Trinity and of the divinity of Christ appear baffling or idolatrous to Jews, who emphasise the unity of the one God. Christianity’s emphasis on individual salvation leading to eternal life is also not a dominant theme within Judaism. The resurrection of the dead is only briefly mentioned in the last of the Hebrew scriptures, the books of the Christian Old Testament. Jews do not primarily see the Torah as something to obey in order to get to heaven, even though Christians have often assumed that they did. Jews see their Law as the authentic expression of their identity as God’s people. They are Jewish, and therefore this is how they live.
Over the centuries, Jews have developed very detailed descriptions of how to keep the Torah. These include rules about kosher food and about keeping the Sabbath holy. But there are many different kinds of Jews who have histories in different parts of Europe. And today’s Jews include both the Orthodox Jews and Reform Jews. Orthodox Jews try to preserve a very traditional understanding of Judaism. Reform Judaism, which has developed over the last two centuries, believes that Jewish traditions can be adapted to fit the context and the intellectual challenges of the modern world.
And next on to Islam. Mohammad lived from 570 to 632, and is considered by Muslims to be the last and greatest of the prophets, the restorer of the true monotheistic faith of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Muslims believe that God had previously revealed himself in the Law of Moses, in the Psalms of David and in the Gospel of Jesus. But they believe that the texts owned today by Jews and Christians are corrupted versions of the original revelations. Only the Qur’an, in Arabic, is the true word of God, dictated to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel over a period of 23 years.
It’s a strange experience reading a translation of the Qur’an as a Christian. It reads as a set of prophetic messages which repeatedly refer to people, events and themes which are very familiar from the Old and New Testaments. The Qur’an often mentions Jews and Christians, sometimes called People of the Book. But the events described in the Qur’an are not told in a systematic order, and they are sometimes confusingly different from the Bible.
The Qur’an says that Jesus’ mother Mary was a virgin, and had received the news of her miraculous pregnancy from the angel Gabriel. But the Qur’an vigorously rejects any belief in his divinity or in the doctrine of the Trinity. Jesus brings the Gospel, but is not crucified. However, he does ascend into heaven.
From a Jewish or Christian perspective, it appears that Mohammad had heard various Jewish and Christian ideas from people living near him, and that he used them in the writing of the Qur’an. From a Jewish or a Christian perspective, the Qur’an seems to reuse rather inaccurately a number of themes from the Jewish and Christian scriptures. From a Muslim perspective, the Qur’an corrects the mistakes made by the Jews and the Christians. From a Jewish and Christian perspective, Islam contains significant errors; but it is still closer to the truth than the mixture of worship of different gods and idols which it replaced among the tribes of Arabia. From a Muslim perspective, the message of the Qur’an restores for everyone the true understanding of God as he had been worshipped by Adam, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus.
I mentioned that Judaism tends to emphasise judgement and eternal life less than Christianity. But Islam is in the other direction. The Qur’an repeatedly issues fierce warnings about the impending day of judgement. And it offers a very clear vision of the horrors of everlasting punishment and the delights of eternal paradise. Judgement is very thorough in Islam with the promise of a detailed divine enquiry into all a person’s deeds. But God is described both as merciful and as just. And the Qur’an says that paradise is open to all who believe in God and in the last day and who do good, including Jews and Christians.
- Islamic belief can be summarised as having five pillars, which are as follows:
- The belief that there is only one God and that Mohammad is his prophet.
- The five sets of daily prayer, facing towards Mecca
- The practice of charitable giving
- Fasting, especially during Ramadan
- And the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Islam means submission to God. It’s a practical faith which emphasises obedience to God, following the commandments revealed in the Qur’an.
I described two weeks ago how most of the divisions between Christian denominations involve disagreements about how the Church should be governed, because the New Testament doesn’t clearly settle the matter. And there’s a rather similar pattern in Islam. Muslims have disagreed about the extent to which Mohammad can be seen to have authoritative successors. The largest group, the Sunnis, emphasise the handing on of traditions and the seeking of consensus. But the smaller group, the Shias, also emphasise a series of authoritative imams from the centuries following Mohammad.
Islam was a political and military movement from the beginning. Mohammad led armies and united tribes under his leadership. The expansion of Islam as a religious and political force has sometimes brought it into conflict with the Christian Church and with those nations where Christianity was established by the state. Islam came to dominate the areas of north Africa which had previously been Christian. And long and bitter conflicts were fought during the Middle Ages in Spain and in the Holy Land between Muslims and Christians, including the Crusaders. Yet Christianity and Islam have often been able to coexist peacefully, as is mostly the case today.
There are today many examples today of religious dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Many moderate Moslems and Christians have tried very hard to overcome the fears and divisions caused by the minority of Muslims who support terrorism. For example, a large group of Muslim leaders and scholars signed an open letter to their Christian counterparts in 2007 called ‘A Common Word between Us and You.’ The letter emphasises the beliefs which Christians and Muslims have in common, and calls for mutual respect, peace and the shared goal of loving God and loving our neighbours.
So Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three Abrahamic faiths, held by over half of the world’s population. They arise from the Middle East, and share a complex interconnected history.
Now I’ll move further east to talk briefly about Hinduism, the third largest religion in the world. Hinduism is extremely diverse and is impossible to summarise. It might be more accurate to talk about the religions of India, rather than to give the misleading impression that there is one clearly defined creed. Arguable, Hinduism only came to be seen as a united religion in itself in response to pressure from Muslims and then from Christians who were seeking to spread their own faiths.
The roots of the religious texts of Hinduism go back three or more thousand years. But there’s no central figure and no single founder, and there are a variety of significant texts. There’s no hierarchy which can define doctrine or excommunicate heretics. Beliefs can vary hugely from one village to the next throughout India. Different varieties of Hindu theology can seem to suggest the existence of a great multitude of gods, or of one God who is manifested in many different ways. Or there may be a sense that the whole world is divine, and that the soul of any individual human is identical to the divine soul of the world. Hinduism can be very philosophical, or can simply be a spirituality which is woven into the daily habits of a rural population. Hinduism has a rich variety of rituals, covering daily life and special festivals, again varying greatly.
But there does tend to be a shared belief in reincarnation and karma. Hindus believe that the consequences of our actions are experienced in future lives on earth. Eventually, after many incarnations, the soul may progress to the point where it has no more worldly desires and is released from the cycle of birth and death.
Because Hinduism is so diverse, Hindus and Christians tend to perceive each other at first in very different ways. Hindus don’t find it difficult to accept Jesus Christ as a holy man or as one of a great many divine figures. For example, Mahatma Gandhi had great respect for the teachings of Jesus, which provided much of the inspiration for his non-violent resistance of oppression. It’s easy for Hindus to find a space for other faiths within their own diversity. However, Christians, along with Muslims, often take one look at the bewildering variety of forms of worship practiced by Hindus and conclude quickly that it is all idolatry gone mad.
Nevertheless, an increasing number of Christians over the last century have engaged in dialogue with Hindus and have found that the spirituality and values of Christians and Hindus can have much in common.
The fourth largest religion in the United Kingdom is Sikhism, which derives from the Punjab region on the border of today’s Pakistan and India in the 15th century. Its founder was Guru Nanak Dev. He formed a separate religious identity for the people of the region, distinct from the Islamic and Hindu beliefs of the surrounding people. Like Muslims, Sikhs believe that there is only one God. Like Hindus, Sikhs believe in reincarnation and believe that God can be known through meditation. Sikhs believe that God is known by people of other faiths, but they believe that people have often got distracted by proud arguments about ceremonies and doctrines.
A few words now about Buddhism, the fourth largest religion in the world. It was founded in India by the Buddha in the fifth or sixth century BC. It continues the Hindu beliefs in reincarnation and karma, and seeks to bring an end to this cycle of rebirth through attaining enlightenment. Buddhism has attracted many western enthusiasts in recent times. To western eyes, it seems have at its heart a philosophy which is practical and logical, which doesn’t require a belief in any god or gods, and which doesn’t rely on superstitious-looking rituals. However, Buddhism as practiced today in various countries in the east usually involves lavish temples, complex ceremonies and a devotion to various divine figures and highly venerated teachers.
At its heart, Buddhism notes that suffering is part of normal human experience, due to craving for situations that do not exist. Buddhists believe in an enlightenment which brings an end to suffering, advocating moral and balanced way of life in which people are no longer enslaved by their desires.
It’s possible to see Buddhism as something which reflects honestly on human experience within a profound tradition of meditation and self-awareness. Many Christians are wary of the way that this seems to suggest an alternative to salvation which is gained through one’s own efforts. Other Christians, however, suggest that there is a profound understanding of the human condition in Buddhism which can complement a belief in God rather than contradicting it. And those who have engaged in dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism report that they find fascinating similarities between Buddhism and the teachings of Jesus.
Finally, let me just briefly mention the religions of China. Buddhism has been popular there, often mixing with other religious traditions. Also widespread are the moral philosophy of Confucius, the mystical religion of Taoism, and various traditions for venerating ancestors and worshipping local deities. Like Buddhism, Taoism has also attracted a lot of interest in the west in recent decades. ‘Tao’ means ‘way’, and Taoists believe in seeking a way of living in harmony with reality, a way of life which reflects the true nature of the universe.
Where does the truth lie?
So I’ve given a rapid tour through the largest religions of the world. Each of them is very diverse within itself. And there are a vast number of other beliefs held by smaller numbers of people in particular parts of the world. Human beings in most places for most of our history have been in some way religious. People seem normally to have a strong instinct to worship one or more gods, or to try to bring balance and meaning to our lives by connecting ourselves with some reality, principle or experience which is bigger than ourselves.
Religious people of all kinds do seem to be suggesting that there’s a right way to live which connects with something greater than the selfish desires of any individual human being. Religious people tend to have an awareness that we need to depart from our default way of life. And religious people often therefore suggest that human nature involves some kind of predicament or immaturity, and that there’s a solution which we need to embrace. But there’s a huge variety in views about the nature of reality and about what’s actually going on in the universe. Are there many gods, one God, or no gods? Or is there some kind of spiritual reality within nature or beyond nature which we can connect with? Are we souls who have become trapped in physical bodies, who are doomed to be reincarnated thousands of times until we finally lose our selfish identity and merge with the divine consciousness of the cosmos? Or are we physical creatures, loved by God, who will die once and then be resurrected to face judgement?
That diversity leads to some very serious questions. We are today more aware than ever before of the huge variety of different religious beliefs and practices in the world. Our own society is increasingly multicultural. And television and the internet can show us news of the vast range of ways in which people around the world are religious.
Is there enough in common between these various views in order for us to seek some kind of intelligible unity? Or would the seeking of such a unity be an act of arrogance or unfounded optimism? Does the diversity of religious belief point anywhere meaningful, or is it just a kind of superstitious craziness which we need to grow out of?
So I want to look now at the question of how different faiths can relate to each other.
One of the most obvious responses would now simply be to abandon the religious dimension of human life and to label it as being plainly ridiculous and delusional. The failure of the world’s religions to converge on a shared theology looks suspicious to many people. And the tendency for religious differences to be associated with conflicts between different groups looks very worrying.
I don’t have time to engage in detail with that argument today, as it’s not really the theme of this talk. Have a look back at my first talk to see my arguments with Richard Dawkins. But I’d like to note that a huge amount of our humanity, our ideals, our values, our ways of relating to each other, our shared cultures and the structures of our civilisations is caught up in what we’d now label as religion. It’s not something which can be easily dismissed or abandoned. And those societies which have set out to be explicitly atheist have tended to be at least as troubled, violent and irrational as any previous religious societies. The vast majority of human beings who have ever lived have been in some sense religious, and have mostly lived settled, peaceful, meaningful lives. And they would say that their faith is at the heart of what has enabled their lives to be settled, peaceful and meaningful.
There is a human religious instinct, or set of instincts, which seems to be present throughout history and throughout the world. And it’s something which people widely perceive as being a central and a very positive aspect of their experience of life. People naturally seek to relate their lives to something bigger and more meaningful than their own individual desires and fears. They’re drawn to connect with some kind of divine power or powers which are responsible for their existence, or with some sense of a shared, deeper meaning. All this seems to me to be a large part of our identity as human beings. Religion, in all its diversity, seems to me to be pointing to something real and vitally important. Not surprisingly, I don’t think that trying to ignore, avoid or eradicate religion is the answer.
The other very simple and obvious approach to the world’s religious diversity is to pick one religion and insist that everyone else is wrong. This approach is called ‘exclusivism’. Exclusivists embrace one faith very passionately with a strong conviction of its absolute truth. And they then judge all the other beliefs of the world from that perspective.
Exclusivism is really the default form of religious faith. If you believe that one thing is true, then you naturally tend to assume that any other approach which contradicts it is false. So there’s an honesty, a clarity and a directness to exclusivism. But there are different ways in which this works out in practice.
For example, some exclusivist Christians would be quite happy to affirm a number of things about Islam because they agree with Christianity. Both religions say that there is one God who created the universe and who will one day judge all people. So some exclusivist Christians would be happy to say that Muslims have partly got it right. They would say that Islam is at least partly pointing in the right direction.
On the other hand, many exclusivist Christians tend be very cautious about the crucial question of who can be saved. Exclusivist Protestants insist that salvation only comes through faith in Jesus Christ. And therefore that anyone who does not believe the correct set of Christian doctrines about Jesus cannot be saved. In the past, Exclusivist Catholics have also insisted that there is one true Church, and that salvation requires being a member of it. These cautious approaches to salvation tend to lead those exclusivists to view other faiths in a very negative way. They will often regard other religions as misleading distractions, and as ways in which people are deceived and led astray.
So at its most negative, an exclusivist approach to a religion may see other faiths as being evil. As being the result of demonic spiritual powers. As involving the worship of false gods which are directly opposed to the true god or gods.
Exclusivism involves the determined and honest attempt to make sense of the world from one religious perspective. Its weakness is that it tends to refuse to consider with any sympathy that there might be other perspectives with any valid grasp of the truth.
Exclusivism has a bad reputation in this country today, where people have much more sympathy for pluralism and tolerance. Many people associate Christian exclusivism with a history of western imperialism which we’re now rather ashamed of. It seemed clear, for example, to British Protestants in the 18th and 19th centuries that British Protestantism was the greatest form of civilisation in the world and that they had a duty to enlarge its influence around the world. The history of Christian mission conducted by Europeans is tangled up with the history of the building of empires and the development of global commerce. It’s a very complex history, and there are plenty of examples of missionaries who acted very lovingly at great cost to themselves. But many people would today want to reject the whole history as being thoroughly tainted by imperialistic aggression.
And as people try to understand the world today, they often perceive that it’s the exclusivist members of different faiths around the world who are most likely to cause conflicts and set off explosions. Exclusivism is perceived as dangerous.
So it’s often thought that exclusivism leads to an inability to understand other people and a tendency to be in conflict with them. All of which stems from an insistence on the absolute truth of one particular religious viewpoint.
A lot of people are very attracted, therefore, to an approach to religion which leaves the controversial question of truth entirely on one side. That approach says: Never mind whether or not there is one God, lots of gods or no god. Never mind whether or not there will be a day of judgement or whether there is reincarnation. Let’s simply concentrate on trying to understand the various different religious cultures of the world as they are in themselves. Let’s simply try to find out what it is that people believe, what their values are, and how their religious customs celebrate and nurture those beliefs and values. We’ll leave aside the question of whether or not they actually reflect anything true about the nature and meaning of the cosmos.
This is the approach which leads to the academic enterprise called Religious Studies, which began in the 19th century and flourished in the 20th. It seeks to compare all the religions of the world as dimensions of human culture. And it seeks to understand them using the tools and methodologies of anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy and history.
Here in Cambridge, our Divinity faculty is unusual in that our undergraduate course is the Theological and Religious Studies Tripos. It includes papers which take a more traditional approach to Christian theology and papers which follow the religious studies approach. In other universities, there’s often either one approach or the other, or even two different faculties which are a bit embarrassed about each other.
A more anthropological approach to religious studies might make us think of the kind of researcher who’s trying very sensitively to become accepted into an unfamiliar culture. Living for years among people in a distant continent, for example. Learning their customs, their festivals, their values and their stories. And trying to find out how their approach to faith and life works from within.
This can be a very interesting and fruitful form of research. But there are some big questions about its methods. However sympathetic we are, is it actually possible to get inside another point of view when we don’t hold that point of view? A researcher who finds out about a remote tribe and its belief in the Spirits of the forest may write down lots of ways in which that belief seems to affect their lives. But he won’t fully understand it if he doesn’t believe it himself. And his own approach, which assumes that it doesn’t really matter whether or not we believe in tree spirits, is arguably something of a failure to take their faith seriously.
That issue is called the insider/outsider problem in religious studies, and there is a lot to be said on both sides. Can you truly understand a faith that you don’t believe in?
As a Christian theologians, I would simply observe that I’m rather fond of the description of theology given by St Anselm in the 11th century. He said that theology is faith seeking understanding. So that we believe in order that we may understand. It’s only when you’ve put your trust in a Christian view of reality that you can really see what it means. I think I could make a very good case to an atheist for saying that Christianity is rational. But it’s only when you actually come to put your faith in Jesus Christ that you can experience Christianity from the inside and come to fully understand what it’s really all about. And there are aspects of that experience which it would be impossible for me to explain to non-Christians. Just as I would struggle to give a complete account to anyone else of my experience of being married to my wife.
It seems to me that an anthropological approach to describing the religions of the world has a lot to offer and is a very worthwhile project. But you can’t fully understand religion if you try to leave aside the issues of truth and of personal commitment. Religious faith involves an individual being gripped by a sense of the truth of that faith, and making a commitment which shapes their whole outlook on life.
So onto another approach, which tries to find a way of saying that all religions have indeed got something of a grasp of the truth. This is often called pluralism. There’s an old story to illustrate it, about some blind men and an elephant. The story comes from India, where they are very accustomed to having a huge variety of beliefs coexisting side by side.
The story says that there were six blind men living in a village. And one day they heard that there was an elephant in the village that day. They had no idea what an elephant was, so they all went to go and find out by touching it.
One man got hold of a leg, and concluded that the elephant was a pillar. Another man touched its tail, and concluded that the elephant was a rope. The third man touched the trunk, and proclaimed that it was like a branch of a tree. The fourth touched the ear, and decided it was like some kind of fan. The fifth touched its side, and thought that it was a wall. And the sixth touched a tusk, concluding that it was a pipe.
And so they had a huge argument about what the elephant really was. Each of them had genuinely been in contact with the elephant, and each of them was relating something true about it. But their conclusions seemed contradictory at face value, because each was giving only a partial description.
I find that a very interesting and potentially helpful story. I do believe that the full truth about God is much greater than any of us human beings could ever fully understand. And the central point of the story seems to me to be entirely reasonable: there could be apparent contradictions between religious faiths which actually derive from people having different limited encounters with the reality of God.
If you’ve listened to my previous talks, you many have realised that I have an inherently pluralist vision of Christianity and its various traditions. I think that the Bible contains various different perspectives on the truth, such as having four Gospels. I think that Protestants and Catholics have focussed on different aspects of the Christian faith and have much to learn from each other, even when they appear to contradict each other. I think that Christian doctrine itself contains paradoxes, such as Jesus being fully human and fully divine, and God being both one and three. My pluralist vision of Christianity says that the full truth about Jesus Christ is complex and cannot be contained within any one perfect logical system of ideas. I think that God relates to us in a personal way which means that we may each perceive different things about him.
So I have a pluralist vision of the different traditions within Christianity. And I’m very open to having a pluralist vision of the faiths of the world. But I’d like to point out that the elephant story does have a dark side to it.
On the surface, it’s a story which is very warm, inclusive and tolerant. It suggests that we should all just be able to get along with each other without having to have nasty arguments. But there’s something very important to note. The story focusses on the blind men who can each only perceive a limited part of the elephant. But notice that the narrator is claiming to be able to see the whole animal and to understand exactly what it is. And the narrator is inviting the hearer of the story to share in that perspective. Somebody is still making quite an assertive truth claim, and suggesting that everyone else has a view of the truth which is highly deficient. Somebody is claiming to see, when everyone else is blind.
By its very nature, pluralism requires a belief that the pluralist has seen the whole picture in a better way than anyone else. My pluralist account of Christianity has involved praising some aspects of Catholicism, for example, and criticising some others. And celebrating some aspects of Protestantism, while pointing out limitations of some others. In doing so, I’ve been every bit as arrogant and judgemental as a conservative Catholic or conservative Protestant. My pluralist vision of Christianity is not quite as cuddly as it might sound
And similarly, someone who has a pluralist vision of the religions of the whole world might sound at first as if they are just being very nice, humble and tolerant. In fact, they’re saying something very confident about their own grasp of the whole picture. The other image that pluralists often use is to say that the great religions of the world are all paths up the same mountain. But that implies a claim to be able to see the whole mountain, as if the pluralist is hovering above it in a helicopter, watching everyone else picking their way slowly towards the top along different gullies.
And so pluralists are actually making a truth claim which is every bit as arrogant and potentially troublesome as any of the people who think that theirs is the one true faith. To claim to have understood all the religions of the world and how they relate to each other is a very ambitious claim indeed.
And it’s a very tricky claim to make. To come up with some kind of all-embracing multifaith theology is very difficult, especially if you’re trying to include those who believe in thousands of gods along with those who don’t believe in any.
One widespread pluralist view of religions is to say that religion is really all about learning to be good, learning to live a productive moral life alongside other people. And that each religion has its myths, stories and parables to illustrate a moral life, along with various threats and promises to motivate people to be moral. It sounds at first as if this pluralist view is very affirming of all the faiths of the world, and is being very friendly.
But someone who takes that stance is actually in danger of annoying almost everyone. Conservative protestants are likely to feel misunderstood rather than included. They’ll want to insist that salvation is all about faith in Jesus Christ, not about us trying to do good things on our own. And Muslims will probably feel misunderstood rather than included. They’ll want to insist on the central importance of obedience to Allah and the specific commandments revealed in the Qur’an. Not some generic humanist definition of goodness. And Buddhists may feel misunderstood rather than included. They may want to insist that there’s a lot more to enlightenment than just fitting in with the expectations of the society around you.
Worst of all, the religions can’t even agree on some basic ethical questions. Some religious people insist on being vegetarians or vegans, and would take great care to avoid stepping on an ant. Others carry out animal sacrifices as part of their religious ceremonies. So there isn’t even a shared religious vision of ethics. There are big problems with any approach to pluralism, including the approach which says that religion is all about being good.
Perhaps the most extensive ever attempt at pluralism is the Baha’i faith, which was founded by Bahá’u'lláh in 19th-century Persia. Baha’is emphasise the spiritual unity of all humankind. They believe that there is one God who has revealed different aspects of the truth through a series of messengers in different times and places, including Abraham, the Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad. That sounds very promising, inclusive and tolerant. But when you look a bit more closely, you start to see that the Baha’is have thereby acquired the ability to annoy and contradict all the other religions of the world. Bahá’u'lláh claimed to be the true successor of Mohammad, Moses, Jesus and the Buddha, which didn’t go down well with most of the people who believed in Mohammad, Moses, Jesus or the Buddha. He claimed to fulfil himself the things Jesus had said about his second coming and about the sending of the Holy Spirit. And Christians, on the whole, were not impressed.
As a result, Bahá’u'lláh failed to unite the religions of the world, and just ended up starting yet another one. The Bahá’í faith is one of the smaller ones, with about five million or so members.
Pluralism was also very popular for a time in academic circles, until its limitations became clear. One of its leading exponents was a man called John Hick, who was a lecturer in the Divinity Faculty in Cambridge in the 1960s and who died earlier this year. Hick got round the problem of one god or many gods or no gods by believing in something rather mysterious called the ‘Real’ (with a capital R), The Real is a transcendent reality which he said was partially glimpsed by people of many different religions. He felt very strongly that he was being humble by not insisting on the priority of his own Christian faith. And he believed that he could see how people of many different faiths were encountering the ‘Real’ in different ways.
However, Hick’s approach is an attempt to make the world of faiths fit into a tidy system invented by one western academic. It’s a good example of western academia at its most arrogant. It invents yet another religious picture of the world, and affirms only those aspects of the faiths of the world which agree with the system. Hick is now more usually presented as a good example of how not to conduct interfaith dialogue.
And so that’s the problem of pluralism. It sounds great to start with. But it effectively just invents yet another religious viewpoint, whether that’s a belief in the good, the Real, or a 19th century Persian prophet.
The final approach I’d like to discuss is often called ‘inclusivism’. Inclusivism is a bit like exclusivism in that it believes confidently in the truth of one faith. But it does so in a way which is very keen to acknowledge and to celebrate similarities between faiths wherever they can be found. And it can be very generous in its understanding of the scope of salvation, believing that people who have the wrong religious beliefs may still be saved.
Inclusivism is extremely significant in the religious landscape of today, because it was embraced in the 1960s by the world’s largest religious organisation, the Roman Catholic Church.
One of the key thinkers behind it was a 20th century Catholic theologian called Karl Rahner, who developed the concept of an ‘anonymous Christian’. Rahner was firmly of the opinion that Jesus Christ was the only way to God, the only true connection between humanity and divinity. But he believed that the experience of the grace of God, given to the whole human race through Jesus Christ, could be accessible even to those who did not yet believe in him. Rahner especially had in mind those people who had never heard a credible presentation of the Christian message, but who were genuinely responding to whatever glimpses of God, or goodness, or love they had experienced within their own beliefs.
This approach is not without its problems. It still has the capacity to annoy members of other faiths, who are often not sure quite how to respond to being labelled as ‘anonymous Christians’. Are they being affirmed or are they being patronised? Are they being taken seriously in terms of their own beliefs? But an inclusivist approach is very open to dialogue, and to the affirmation of truth and goodness wherever it can be found. So it has often led to very friendly and honest relationships between people of different faiths.
Rahner’s inclusivism involves the very confident Christian claim that God, as understood by Christians, is the source of all that is good and true in the world; that Jesus Christ is the light of the whole world and of all people, and that God’s grace through him is open to all. This inclusivism suggests that Christianity has the best understanding of the truth of God, but that the reality of God is out there in the world for all to experience. It sees the other faiths of the world as a variety of different responses to the widespread human experience of the presence of God.
The Second Vatican Council, held from 1962 to 65 brought a set of revolutionary changes in how the Roman Catholic Church understood its relationship to the rest of the world. It had previously held the very triumphant view that there was no salvation outside the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council brought the recognition that Protestants were genuinely Christian. And it affirmed that people of other faiths or none could themselves encounter God in a genuinely saving way.
Probably the most significant document in the discussion of how religions relate to each other is therefore a declaration produced by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. It’s called Nostra Aetate, the ‘Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions’. I’ll read a section of it:
Throughout history, to the present day, there is found among different peoples a certain awareness of a hidden power, which lies behind the course of nature and the events of human life. At times, there is present even a recognition of a supreme being, or still more of a Father. This awareness and recognition results in a way of life that is imbued with a deep religious sense. The religions which are found in more advanced civilizations endeavour by way of well-defined concepts and exact language to answer these questions. Thus, in Hinduism people explore the divine mystery and express it both in the limitless riches of myth and the accurately defined insights of philosophy. They seek release from the trials of the present life by ascetical practices, profound meditation and recourse to God in confidence and love. Buddhism in its various forms testifies to the essential inadequacy of this changing world. It proposes a way of life by which people can, with confidence and trust, attain a state of perfect liberation and reach supreme illumination either through their own efforts or with divine help. So, too, other religions which are found throughout the world attempt in different ways to overcome the restlessness of people’s hearts by outlining a program of life covering doctrine, moral precepts and sacred rites.
The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. It has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from its own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women. Yet it proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life (Jn.14:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (see 2 Cor 5:18-19), people find the fullness of their religious life.
The Church, therefore, urges its sons and daughters to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their social life and culture.
The declaration then goes on in more detail to explore the strong and obvious similarities between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It condemns anti-Semitism and declares that discrimination on religious grounds is ‘foreign to the mind of Christ’. That declaration has had a profound and positive impact on the ways in which different faiths relate to each other.
Protestant responses to inclusivism
Protestants don’t have church councils making declarations like the Catholics do. But it would seem that a great many Protestants have adopted a similar approach. In the Church of England, a report of the Doctrine Commission in 1995 reflected a diverse range of views, but overall affirmed an approach which was broadly similar to the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council.
However, more conservative Protestants can be very worried about inclusivism. They will often base their worries on Jesus in John 14 saying: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ But the context of that remark is not a discussion of other faiths. And Jesus does not say that no one comes to the Father except by being a Christian. Or that no one comes to the Father except by believing in Christian doctrine. He is presenting himself to those who saw him as the one true connection between people and God. But that leaves open for us the question of how people today experience Jesus Christ. If Jesus is the way to God, how and where is Jesus Christ found? Is he only present in the Church? Is he only encountered through believing in Christian doctrine, hearing Christian preaching or attending Christian worship? Or is there a wider experience of the presence of Christ in the world? Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he is the light of the world, the light who enlightens all people. That may leave open for us the question of where we can see his light shining. Is his light only found within a traditional approach to Christianity? Or is the light of Christ shining wherever there is goodness, love and truth in the world?
Conservative Protestants will also want to bring the question back to the central issue of who is saved. But, here again, the Bible is ambiguous. All mentions of final judgement in the Bible involve God looking at people’s actions, not setting them a theology exam. In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, he indicates that there will be those who will be amazed to discover that they were serving him through the ways that they have cared for those who were hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or in prison.
Many of Jesus’ teachings seem to be designed to destabilise any confident sense of a boundary between those who are in and those who are out. He said that the tax-collectors and the prostitutes were entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the religious leaders of his day. Inclusivism is a fairly recent development in the history of Christian theology, but it’s not difficult to make a strong case on the basis of the New Testament.
As a result of an inclusivist approach, there’s now a lot of very interesting work being done in Cambridge and around the world on dialogue between different religions. David Ford, our Regius Professor of Divinity, is one of the pioneers of a practice called Scriptural Reasoning. This involves Christians, Jews and Muslims reading our scriptures together, and exploring the ways in which we understand them. It’s a very honest form of dialogue, in which genuine similarities and differences can be explored. Each faith can stay true to its own beliefs, while being enriched and challenged by insights from others.
In conclusion, I would say that I support an inclusivist approach because no one has yet come up with a way of understanding all the religions of the world which in itself is an improvement on those religions themselves. No one has yet found a helpful version of pluralism which has been embraced in large numbers by members of multiple faiths.
A Muslim can take an inclusivist view of Christianity, seeing Christians as people of the book who are correct insofar as they seek to live a life of obedience to the one creator God. And similarly, I can take an inclusivist view of Islam, viewing Muslims as correct insofar as their view of God matches the one revealed by Jesus Christ. Which means that we can then honestly and frankly discuss our experiences of God and our approaches to life as friends.
Ultimately, it seems to me that there are potentially as many views of religion as there are human beings. There is much which human beings have in common, but we are also very different. And God knows us more deeply than we know ourselves, seeking to relate to each of us as we truly are. There is much for us to enjoy about the diversity of his creation. And much for us to enjoy as we learn to love him and to love one another.
That brings me to the end of this final talk. There will, of course, be time for questions and discussion. I’ve enjoyed these conversations immensely, and I’d like to thank all of you for listening and for taking part. I’m glad that this setting has provided a good way of enabling those conversations to happen. As well as your comments on tonight’s theme, I’d be very interested to hear from any of you who might like to suggest ways of continuing any of the discussions which have arisen from any of these seven talks.
The Chapel timetable will revert next term to its normal pattern of having a group which meets in my study at 6 pm on Mondays to eat pizza, look at a bible passage and have a very open discussion. Any members of the college would be very welcome to join that. And if there’s more you’d like to talk about, as individuals or as groups in that or any other context, do let me know.