There’s an article by Stephen Prothero at BU on the topic of religious pluralism that’s been making the rounds. This really is an important topic that we need to wrestle with especially as it relates to how societies negotiate pluralism and how open-minded Episcopalians comprehend and enact evangelism. I doubt much that I write here is new. Lee and others far more read in the topic than I will, I suspect, be able to trace what I write here to certain figures in the modern debate. I have no doubt many have been filtered to me by various teachers and texts. In any case…
In the main, I agree with what Prothero writes and the perspective that he takes. One of my early mentors who encouraged my academic investigations of Buddhism and Asian religion impressed upon me that if all religions are simply a path to the same thing that there was no reason for us to talk. That is and remains a fundamental principle of mine and is an important core around which to form an understand of pluralism as it exists in modern America.
Where Prothero doesn’t go is into the specifics of how Christians understand salvation and I think the specific nature of Christian salvation is what’s key. To say more, I have to back up a few steps, though.
Glancing over the comments at the Cafe, I think George Clifford makes a useful distinction (but I, no doubt, take it in some different directions from where he does). That is, human brains seem to be wired to expect and experience something beyond empirical materialism. There is an ultimate reality. I believe that we are biologically wired to experience glimpses of it and even to participate in it, but I do not believe that we have sufficient capacities to comprehended it in the fullness of what it is. In an effort to move towards comprehension, though, human societies use social constructs called religion.
Every human society that I know of has religion which, if we get reductionistic about it, tends to join notions of transcendence and experiences of the holy—those glimpses of ultimate reality. Within this group, I see two rough categories, one of which ties transcendence and holiness into ethics or some form of personal behavior which aligns humanity with transcendence and holiness, and those that do not. (Do note that under this means of describing things, a “secular humanist” does indeed fall into the first category; I do see that as a faith system even if it is a non-theistic or athiestic one.)
Furthermore, of the major ethically-connected religions, it seems to me that many of them describe ethical paths with remarkably similar outcomes. That is, the major faiths teach messages of compassion and love and avoiding unnecessary violence and exploitation. Framed another way, they encourage virtue and seek to restraint of vice in individuals and society. Framed broadly, this works. When we start looking at specifics like, oh say, sexual behavior, there may be sharp disagreements between different systems about what constitutes vice and virtue.
Within most religions, though, the ethical outcomes are the ancillary or secondary principles that derive from the primary principles which relate to deities or ultimate human purposes. Thus in Christianity, morality flows out of who we believe the Trinity to be. In Buddhism, morality flows out of an understanding of the human condition. I’m not at all using secondary to mean unimportant; rather I’m using it to designate the fact that there are other first principles from which these notion flow.
What complicates things is the principle of revelation. Most faith systems (whether theistic, nontheistic or atheistic) root their primary principles in the belief that there is a substantive shape/form/direction in/of ultimate reality that the reality itself has communicated or mediated to humanity in some way. In a less qualified means of expressing myself, [God/the gods/the universe itself] communicate(s) with us; our primary principles are rooted in this communication.
Interreligious dialogue is entirely necessary and proper—as regards secondary principles. We should talk with others to learn about the attainment of virtue, paths and practices that move us personally and as societies towards compassion, non-violence, and human flourishing. But we must be honest to ourselves and to our faith systems. Interreligious dialogue is genuine when first principles are not compromised.
Moving specifically to what Prothero writes, he approaches the question from a slightly different direction than I do. That is, he starts from the premise that religions agree that things are screwed up and that religions try to answer the question of how people and societies move to/don’t participate in the state of screwed-upness:
What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: Something is wrong with the world.
I think he oversimplifies this (and that’s likely related to his venue and audience rather than full-blown imprecision on his part); I think he’d agree that what he’s saying is that the world’s religions agree that the quotidian human engagement with the world is wrong. (That is, some think that there’s nothing wrong with the world, just with how humans engage it and act within it…)
I come from a different angle. I do prefer to start from the finish line: how do we connect to and participate in ultimate reality?
Prothero and I agree that Christians have a unique answer to this drawn from our first principles. He writes:
It might seem to be an admirable act of empathy to assert that Confucians and Buddhists can be saved. But this statement is confused to the core, since salvation is not something that either Confucians or Buddhists seek. Salvation is a Christian goal, and when Christians speak of it, they are speaking of being saved from sin. But Confucians and Buddhists do not believe in sin, so it makes no sense for them to try to be saved from it. And while Muslims and Jews do speak of sin of a sort, neither Islam nor Judaism describes salvation from sin as its aim. When a jailer asks the apostle Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), he is asking not a generic human question but a specifically Christian one. So while it may seem to be an act of generosity to state that Confucians and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews can also be saved, this statement is actually an act of obfuscation.
The conventional expression of this is the belief that good people will “go to heaven” even if they’re not Christians.
The problem is that this conventional sense is a fundamental misconstrual of Christian salvation as taught by the Church. I’ve talked about this before in a Cafe article (one of my favorites, actually), a bit of which I’ll quote here:
Being a Christian isn’t about getting to heaven. Being a Christian is about participating in new life, in divine life, sharing in the very life of God. In baptism we have been—in my favorite phrase from Paul—“hid with Christ in God.”
This is both the point and the purpose of Christian salvation. It’s not about waiting around to go somewhere or existing in some state after we die; it’s about participating in the life of God both now and later. Life is the point. Opening our eyes to and taking hold of what God has done for us in creation, in incarnation, in the crucifixion and the resurrection—that’s the point. The purpose is no less clear. It’s to live that life and to share it, to help it expand to others.
It’s to live a life hid with God in Christ.
This post also attempts to encapsulate it in a concise statement. That’s how I understand how Christians comprehend ultimate reality: we are joined in the sacramental, mystical, and eschatological Body of Christ within which we participate in the life of God. When viewed from this perspective, is this something that a Buddhist desires? Or a Muslim? I can’t imagine they would…
Can I say without reservation that because of this Buddhists and Muslims cannot connect into ultimate reality? That’s harder. This is the classic: do all religions “go to the same place”/”shoot for the same goal” question, I suppose. My sense is that most religions do have a sense that we need to engage ultimate reality but we all do a have a different sense of what this is and how we do it. Ultimately, I think our answers to this relate to how we understand the human capacity to grasp and comprehend ultimate reality. Expecting it and experiencing it are not the same as comprehending it.
My Christian first principles tell me that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and that none come to the Father but through him. Or, to use the language that I’ve been using up to this point, Jesus Christ (and therefore incorporation into his sacramental, mystical, and eschatological Body) is the only means for participating within ultimate reality. I’m also told that my incorporation comes wholly through God’s grace and that the channel of this grace is normatively expressed in the sacrament of Baptism. The Tradition of the Church admits exceptions to this rule; Aquinas’s discussion on the issue shows some open doors and many Christian thinkers far better and wiser than I have wrestled with the fate of those to whom the Gospel has not been proclaimed.
One answer is that a Buddhist or Muslim may encounter ultimate reality and that the agency is Jesus Christ whether the unbeliever knows it or not, recognizes it or not. Personally, I think this leads to a road that cannot be traversed with certainty due to our human inability to comprehend the scope and nature of ultimate reality. Because here I think we run into the problem of dividing and separating that which is authentic divine revelation from what is not. Buddhists, Muslims, disagree with my grasp of first principles because of their conflict with the other believers own first principles. I think mine are right and that theirs may be a faulty human construction that miusconstrues the true nature and state of ultimate reality. Or, on the other hand, can those apparently alternate and contradictory notions be resolved a=on a plane for beyond my comprehension?
Where things become dicey, therefore, is when we start examining the line between revelation and human construction. What are the fundamental truths that [God/the gods/the universe itself] has bequeathed to us and what are human constructs built upon and around this revelation? Obviously the issue here isn’t just religions talking to one another. The proliferation of Christian denominations is intimately related to how this question is answered, into how and where we draw the lines between the divine and the human which is further blurred by the belief that God inspires humans and societies towards the fulfilling of his will and purposes.
In the clearest for-instance I can drag up, the Young Fogey and I absolutely agree that the distinction between our systems of belief rests in the principle of infallibility. The Young Fogey believes that the Church as a whole has been granted the capacity to rightly discern the fundamental divine teachings of revelation from the human constructs built upon them that may be altered. (I believe that’s a fair statement and I know he won’t hesitate to correct me if it’s inaccurate…) I have less faith in the Church as a whole. I believe that the Church as a whole is not able to infallible determine and discern the fundamental divine teachings from human constructs. I believe that the Church as a whole is on the right path and that in the great majority of things the Tradition of the Church has judged rightly, but I do not, cannot, and will not use the word infallible to speak of the human institution of the Church. As a Body of believers we still stumble from one age to the next, sometimes correcting misapprehensions from earlier ages, sometimes creating new ones as we go. The Spirit directs us and clarifies but always through the inspirations of humans whose wiring does not have the capacity for complete comprehension due to the dual issues of material limitation and sin.
To complicate matters even more, I think that our tradition presents clear warnings against a clear and easy distinction between what is divine and what is human. Consistent wrangling on the nature of Christ and the Trinity seems to always come back to the fact there there are two distinct natures—the divine and human—which subsist in their entirety within Jesus Christ. To my unsystematic mind, this means that we recognize that there are these two different states [imprecise word, I know] but that the act of trying to separate them out from one another is fundamentally problematic.
My solution a sa an admitted unsystematic kind of guy who believes in the humani inability to fully comprehend the divine is to throw up my hands and to retreat to ascetical theology. Thus, I say that I understand Christianity as the proper path to ultimate reality, the Triune God, as taught in the Scriptures, Tradition, and practice of the Christian faith. I really cannot say what happens to those who are not baptized, not being privy to the God’s deliberations and expressions of grace. I do know that I have been charged to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Jesus] has commanded [us]” and that part of being a Christian means doing this.
Another part means fussing around the dividing line of what is divine revelation and what is human construct, all the while knowing that I can never know if I’m really right but knowing that life in God and the formation of virtue are my truest guides through the mirk.
This is how I closed out the Cafe piece referenced above and, since it’s still where I come down on it, I’ll end this post that way too:
[The Christian purpose] to live a life hid with God in Christ.
And I’d tell you exactly what that phrase means, except that I’m not sure myself.
Oh, I have some ideas. One revolves around how much the New Testament uses the word “abide” as an activity that God does with Jesus and Jesus does with God and that we do with Jesus and therefore we can do with God and so on and so forth. Abide. Sometimes I think it means just lying in the presence of God in prayer and sometimes I think it means walking in love as Christ loved us and sometimes I think those are just two small parts of the fullness of what it really means. I’ll keep working on abiding…
Another idea has to do with our good ol’ Anglican worship. It’s how certain moments catch me and throw me—sometimes in church or sometimes days later—and give me a taste, a moment, that I can put my finger on and say, “Wow—that definitely connects to the life of God.” Worship doesn’t just fit us for the life of God but gives us moments and examples with which to see the slow yet steady spread of the lushness of God’s life and God’s will into our life that twines around the pillars of our hearts and with its soft, seeking roots cracks through calcified compassion.
In short, I’d tell you—but I think it’s got to be lived not told.
This Easter enjoy life, embrace life, share life, and live out a life hid with Christ in God.