Religious truth


I believe that the quest for religious "truth" is at the same time both a worthy and a vain endeavor. I think it is worthy to the extent that we re-evaluate our God-images and our traditions in the light of newer understandings. Old paradigms may not work for us any more, and in that sense we can adjust our understanding of what is true about God. At the same time, we will never really know the absolute truth about God. We are like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, finite creatures who will never fully understand the absolute truth about an infinite God.

Here is a quote from Alan Jones's book Reimagining Christianity:

Our ignorance is at its most brilliant when it comes to religion. Everyone thinks he knows about God. We don't know a whole lot, and we don't know that we don't know. So what do we know? St. John of the Cross put it simply: "In the end, we shall be examined in love." That's all we need to know--but the trouble is that we have to go through a long process of initiation into the school of love before we find out.
The New Testament epistle 1 John says that "God is love". If God is indeed truly another name for love, then a loving God could hardly judge us finite creatures, we with our limited imaginations, for having the "wrong" set of beliefs about the nature of God, or even for not believing in God at all. If God loves us universally and unconditionally, then it shouldn't matter either to God or to us whether we have the "wrong" beliefs about God. That means it shouldn't matter if we are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Mormon, Gnostic, mystic, Buddhist, Hindu, Baha'i, or atheist. What matters is that we love.

The Gospel of Matthew has a passage concerning the judgment day. I do not believe in hell or in a final judgment day; I consider this passage therefore mythological, but in its mythology there is a deeper message that gets ignored by many orthodox Christians. What I find interesting about this passage is what is says that God will judge people on--not on their beliefs, but on their actions. Here is what the passage says:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Although the image of hellfire and damnation in the above passage comes across as rather primitive, I still find it moving in a certain way. For this passage tells us that what we do to the weakest and most vulnerable people, we also do to God, and whatever we do to others we are, in effect, also doing to God. Here we see the synthesis of the two commandments that Jesus gave his disciples: to love God with our our hearts, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I do not choose to judge people of other faiths. I cannot know what goes on between other people and God. That is not for me to say. If others sincerely seek the sacred mysteries through other paths than my own, who am I to judge? If their religion translates into a loving life, who am I to judge their faith? I can reveal to others the truth about God as I know it, but others can also teach me about the truth about of God as they know it. No one has a monopoly on truth, and no religion, no creed, no dogma, can possibly capture all the truth about God. It is better, I believe, that people of faith try to get along with one another and appreciate the multiplicity of paths to God.


Chris said...

Can you say how the "image of hellfire" is "primitive"? And, more importantly, given the connotation of "primitive" can you explain how this is not some sort of judgement on your behalf of the religious expression of another person?


Catherine + said...

I have always considered the very real possibility that God/Christ has revealed Himself to other cultures but in ways that make sense to that culture. For all we know, Buddha could be Christ made manifest in the culture he lived in so as to reach that particular group of people. I also believe that there are other paths to God, through a Christ we do not recognize as the one we are familiar with.