Why there are many religions

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I would suggest the plurality of religions represent different human interpretive frameworks for understanding the Divine. Each interpretive framework represents a partial model, which is informed by time, place, culture, and history. All of the major world religions point in some way to the Divine; like the proverbial blind man and the elephant, each captures some element of a greater reality.

John Hick puts it this way in God Has Many Names:

We have a system for filtering out the infinite divine reality and reducing it to forms with which we can cope. This system is religion, which is our resistance (in a sense analogous to that used in electronics) to God. The function of the different religions is to enable us to be conscious of God, and yet only partially and selectively, in step with our own spiritual development, both communal and individually. (p. 112).
The world religions often emphasize specific, sometimes complementary aspects of an all-encompassing and infinite Transcendent reality; some, for example, might focus on the personal aspects of the Divine, while others emphasize the nonpersonal. Hick suggests that
...we have to accept that the infinite divine reality is only knowable by man insofar as it impinges upon finite human consciousnesses, with their variously limited and conditioned capacities for awareness and response. But once we accept this, then the very plurality and variety of the human experiences of God provide a wider basis for theology than can the experience of any one religious tradition taken by itself. For whereas we can learn from one tradition that God is personal, as the noumenal ground of theistic experience, and from another tradition that God is the nonpersonal Void, as the noumenal ground of its form of mystical experience, we learn from the two together that God is the ground and source of both types of experience and is in that sense both personal and nonpersonal. (p. 110)
In the proverb of the blind man and the elephant, one man senses the trunk, another the legs, another the tusk; all come up with some aspect of the Elephant-nature, and draw conclusions accordingly. But only by putting together all those parts of the elephant's body to you get a complete elephant, which, it turns out, is actually greater than the sum of all those individual parts.

10 comments:

Matthew said...

Each religious tradition uses different language and practices (rituals) to guide followers into connection (communion) with Reality.

I think most people would benefit by living (not simply studying) more than one tradition. Limiting one's heart to a particular tradition often results in judgmentalism, in lesser or greater ways, towards other traditions.

Matthew

David Stoker said...

Is the possibility that the blind man has not always been blind completely dismissed? I think it is a possible reading of the ancient texts and surviving expressions of world religions that there was some element of a common source. The whole elephant could therefore have been known and comprehended at one time but in subsequent generations the people became blind; picking their favorite parts of the elephant to embrace, doing their best with what was handed down to them but the original vision or message having been muddled or modified passing through the minds of men.

ken said...

Unfortunately, I've heard Christian apologists use the BMATE proverb to demonstrate that Christianity is the only true religion because all the blind men are wrong in their deductions. A pity because it works much better the way you interpret it here.

The function of the different religions is to enable us to be conscious of God, and yet only partially and selectively

Carl Jung said something to the effect that religion insulates us from direct contact with God (can't find the reference right now).

OneSmallStep said...

The interesting thing is, Orthodox Christianity contains its own contradictions. Jesus is both "A (God) and "not A (God)." THat is a logical contradiction.

So why can't that be taken further, and say that God reveals Himself in other religions, regardless of the contradictions? God may not be the author of confusion, but is there anything more confusing that the Trinity? It's the only time when three people do not actually equal three seperate essences.

OneSmallStep said...
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L said...

Funny, I was just expounding upon my thoughts on this about a week ago while responding to a comment on my blog post regarding the nature of God.

I tend to agree; if God is an infinite, eternal entity, then any understanding of Him is necessarily short of the mark. To understand Him, we'll have to break it down into brain-sized chunks, and different people may see/respond to different parts.

Great blog, btw...

Grace said...

But, One, Jesus is thought to be fully God, and fully man. I see this as paradox, and mystery, not contradiction. :) Contradiction would be to say that Jesus is fully God, and not fully God.

Or, maybe, that Jesus only appeared to be fully man, the heresy of doctietism. (spelling looks wrong) :(

JimII said...

I think it is a possible reading of the ancient texts and surviving expressions of world religions that there was some element of a common source.
I think the common source may be the need for human beings to make sense of their universe. And the reason I can believe that and not be an atheist is: I think there is a truth of a greater connectedness, a need for love, etc. that is God. I think that God is observable, but requires thoughtful reflection and the occassional leader like Jesus or Mohammed. But those guys are all pointing to the same greater truth.

OneSmallStep said...

**I see this as paradox, and mystery, not contradiction. :) Contradiction would be to say that Jesus is fully God, and not fully God.**

But that is a contradiction. When you say that someone is A, you are also saying that the person is not-A. If I say that a person is a man, or A, then by default I am saying that the person is not God, or not A. Same as if you say something is God. By default, the something cannot be a man. Nor can the something be both, because the words themselves don't allow for it.

It's also a contradiction to say that three people are also the same, such as the Trinity.

Mystical Seeker said...

I agree with you, One Small Step. When you ask yourself what are the attributes of a human being, they will include things like fallibility, finiteness, mortality, and so forth. For someone to be fully human that necessarily excludes the possibility that they are also fully divine.

As for the Trinity, I think that a lot of Christians pay lip service to it without really grasping it. It is one of those things that you are just supposed to believe, so people believe in it. When asked how they can believe in something so incomprehensible and impossible to conceive of and so apparently self-contradictory, the standard answer you get is that it is a "mystery".

Accepting a doctrine simply because that is what you are supposed to, and then washing you hands of any responsibility for the beliefs that you consequently espouse, is the ticket to a mindless spirituality.