Are all religions fundamentally the same?
Do they all lead to God and offer salvation?
THE Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw has famously said that “There is only one religion though there are a hundred versions of it.”
This interpretation has become very appealing in our modern pluralistic context because it seems to address several concerns peculiar to our time. Firstly, such a view registers the relevance of religion in our increasingly secularised culture. It is appealing to religious people in general who wish to stop the march of atheism and secularism. Secondly, it is politically correct to hold such a view in a multi-religious and multi-cultural society. Pluralism implies tolerance, and tolerance is unconditionally upheld as a virtue in our modern world.
Perhaps the greatest advocate of this pluralist view of religions in the 20th century is the philosopher John Hick. Comparing his pluralistic theology of religions to Copernicus’ astronomical model, he argues that God, or Ultimate Reality, is the centre around which the religions evolve as planets.
He argues that all religious traditions are open to the same Divine Reality Christians call “God”. Their experience of that Reality, however, is fragmented and expressed through the various cultural embodiments of the respective religious traditions. Thus, for Hick, the Sanskrit term sat, the Islamic term al-Haqq, the Hebrew term Yahweh and the Christian term God are all expressions of the same Divine Reality. This has quite easily led him to conclude that the different religions are all ways to salvation.
The pluralistic view of religions, however, is fundamentally flawed. On the surface, it claims to take all the religious traditions seriously, but in reality it adopts a very cavalier attitude towards them. To take a religion seriously is to take the truth-claims it makes seriously. But once the truth-claims of a particular religion are understood as expressing the essence of that religion, the pluralistic view of religions collapses.
When truth-claims are taken seriously, sharp and irreconcilable contradictions become obvious. For example, Muslims claim that there is only one God, Allah, who created the world out of nothing. Hindus on the other hand, do not believe in a personal creator, but in Brahman, an impersonal reality which permeates all things. Muslims believe that there is only one God, while Hindus hold that there are millions of deities. The two belief-systems are antithetical to each other. They cannot refer to the same Divine Reality.
In addition, the different religions have different accounts of the fate of individuals at death. Muslims believe that each of us die once, and then face the judgment of Allah. Hindus, however, believe in reincarnation, and teach that the individual will live many lives on earth, although not necessarily in the same form. Thus, a human being may be reincarnated as an animal. These accounts are so different that different theologies of salvation necessarily result. The religious pluralist is hard put to reconcile these differences.
Finally, the different religious traditions have different accounts of the universal problem that plagues humanity. Hindus, for instance, maintain that the universal problem is samsara, which refers to the endless cycle of birth and rebirth in which every person is trapped. “Salvation” is therefore moksha, the release from this cycle.
But the Christian account of the universal problem of humankind, and therefore of salvation, is very different. Christians believe that salvation has to do with the liberation from the bondage of sin and death. This deliverance is made possible by the death and resurrection of Christ. It is obvious that both claims cannot be true at the same time.
The pluralist view of religions will only make sense if all these doctrinal matters are set aside and taken as peripheral issues. But such a view is surely offensive to the adherents of the world’s faiths because doctrines, or the understanding of reality they espouse, have to do with the essence of their religions. Religious truth-claims cannot be brushed aside as unimportant in favour of some hazy, nebulous notion of religious experience. In fact, it is impossible to speak of religious experience in a cultural or intellectual vacuum. Religious experiences are profoundly and inextricably tied to the belief-systems of the religions.
To insist, as Hick does, that the particularities of the various religious traditions be dissolved into his concept of “Ultimate Reality” is to fail to respect the distinctiveness and uniqueness of the various religious traditions.
Far from being a respectful and tolerant approach to the religions, the pluralistic view at its very core is in reality a form of disguised imperialism!
The traditional Christian view does not hold that all religions are the same. It recognises the different worldviews and belief-systems of the different religions.
Do all religions lead to God? The consensual teaching of the church, which can be traced all the way back to the patristic fathers of the first centuries of its history, is that God’s grace is to be found in every culture. God has not left Himself without a witness. The implications of this have been stated eloquently in the missionary document of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, Nostra Aetate: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.”
This does not yet mean that these religions are “vehicles” of salvation. They are, to use the term coined by the early Fathers of the Church, merely a “preparation for the Gospel”. In some sense the nuggets of truth found in these religions loosen the soil of the hearts of pagans and make them receptive to the Gospel. But salvation is found only in Jesus Christ, “for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
‘Far from being a respectful and tolerant approach to the religions, the pluralistic view at its very core is in reality a form of disguised imperialism!’
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.