After a long hiatus in which I traveled to Europe, the Middle East, and Nepal I wanted to inaugurate this new blog format with a blog from last year. In every country I visited I found that the classical forms of inter-religious dialogue, dialogue centered around the search to understand and respect the religious beliefs of others, was on the wain. As one Palestinian scholar told me: “I don’t need to have another Rabbi tell me he respects my religion, and he doesn’t need to hear that I respect his. We need to find a way to live together and flourish right now, and our conflict isn’t over theology.” In Austria I learned about efforts to diminish suspicion of Muslims and (even after all these decades) Jews, suspicions were based not on their beliefs, but on myths about their role in the evolution of Austrian society. In Nepal I met not one, but three, groups engaged in inter-religious cooperation – cooperation in transforming the lives of Nepalese. Religion, or more properly tradition associated with religion, was a hindrance to some necessary types of human flourishing. These groups hoped that inter-religious cooperation could become a solution here and now.
But to move forward we need to step back and recognize that there are real differences in religion, differences that cannot resolved by reducing religion to metaphysics and spirituality, or by assuming a common religious end.
One God, Many Paths?
In the end of the final novel of the Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the four heros of the story meet Aslan, Lewis’s representation of Christ, in the form of a Lamb. They have just left their companion, who has made his own heroic way into God’s land. Now they ask if they can go as well. He tells them that they must leave Narnia and return to their own world. When they ask if there is a way from their world to Aslan’s land he replies, “There is a way to my land from all worlds.”
In this short sentence Lewis captures nicely a fundamental teaching of Christian orthodoxy. There is a way to God’s Reign no matter where one starts. No society or culture, no world, is without a way to God.
But Christians need to note that this is quite different, if subtly so, from the pluralist assertion that all religious paths lead to God. The assertion that there is at least one path to God’s Reign from every possible social and cultural world is a claim about the nature of God’s Reign in relation to the whole of humanity. It is a claim that Christians can legitimately make as Christians based on the particular knowledge that Christians have. It does not oblige non-Christians to agree to a Christian characterization of God, God’s Reign, their religion, or the nature of reality as a whole. As a claim it says nothing about non-Christian religions.
However, the assertion that all religious paths lead to God isn’t just a claim about God and God’s Reign. It is a claim about the nature of those religions themselves, and the ultimate direction in which they are leading their human followers. And that is a claim that is inimical to real dialogue, since it assumes that the person making the claim knows more about other religions than they know themselves.
An example might make this clearer. Let us take the typical teaching of some forms of Hinduism that all religious paths lead to Brahman – the undifferentiated source of all being. This means, as is commonly asserted by Hindus, that Christianity leads to Brahman and that Christ may be indeed considered an avatar of Vishnu. But here a Christian would have to say at least two things: 1. Christianity doesn’t accept that God is Brahman and 2. That Christians do not necessarily intend to follow a path toward complete union with undifferentiated Being. The Reign of God, which is the ultimate goal of Christian religion, is not the same as Brahman, and indeed may well preclude the possibility that the concept of Brahman has any meaning whatsoever.
Every religion, due to the comprehensive nature of all religious claims, must account for the reality of religious pluralism. But for there to be fruitful dialogue the followers of each religion must realize that claims to inclusiveness, however well intended, may simply be patronizing. And pluralist claims are simply another form of religious imperialism, colonizing the beliefs and practices of others into a religious description of reality they may not know or accept. Neither unity nor harmony among religions can be assumed or asserted. They must be negotiated, and that takes dialogue.