Friday, June 1, 2012

The Essential Question of Religious Pluralism

Today’s blog simply raises a question. Do you believe that Brahman, Dharmakaya, God, God-Beyond-God, Allah, and other religious formulations of ultimate reality represent the same referent? Stated in another way the question could be, Is there warrant for affirming that the same referent is represented by different religious concepts such as Brahman, Dharmakaya, God, God-Beyond-God, or Allah?

If you wish to respond to the question without having your thinking polluted by my thoughts, skip reading the rest of the blog and go straight to the comments section. Some of my thoughts on the question are below.

For readers with a background or interest in religious studies, I should point out that I recognize the conceptual difficulties with the question. I understand, for example, the philosophical and methodological differences between Aldus Huxley, Frithjof Schuon, and Huston Smith over-against George Lindbeck, Stephen Prothero, and Mark Heim. I am well aware of the dangers of seeking “similarity-in-difference” or “identity-in-difference” across the chasm separating “cultural-linguistic systems” (part of the David Tracy—George Lindbeck debate). I find value in opposing perspectives like Schuon’s Transcendent Unity of Religions contrasted with Prothero’s God is Not One.

Granted (consistent with Prothero) it is shallow, ill-informed, and sloppy to say that “all religions are really saying the same thing.”  Religions say vastly different things in many areas and exhibit very different ways of thinking about ultimate reality. I fully realize that the concept of Brahman is different from a theistic notion of a Triune God, both of which are different than the radically monotheistic conception of Allah, all of which are surely different from the nontheistic Dharmakaya. I know that Atman and Anatman raise crucial questions about all of these concepts.

Simultaneously, it seems that many who reject some version of the Perennial Philosophy are comparing apples and oranges when they jump from the very real conceptual and pragmatic differences among religions to such conclusions as (a) each religion is talking about a different god/referent or (b) there is no way of knowing if different religions are talking of the same reality because translation across cultural-linguistic systems is impossible or (c) any talk of “similarity-in-difference” or “identity-in-difference” is simply an ill-informed pluralism that collapses one religion into another. Although conclusions a, b, and c represent possibilities—anyone, holding any perspective on the subject, can engage in sloppy theological thinking—they are not the only plausible conclusions.  Huston Smith, for example, recognizes the very real differences among religions on the exoteric level while positing (admittedly a faith stance) that they point toward the same referent on an esoteric level. Could it be that these “fingers pointing at the moon” are actually pointing at the “same moon”? Wouldn’t one expect conceptual and linguistic differences when people of different cultural-linguistic systems seek to describe the ineffable? It is no surprise that there are differences among “effable” formulations, developed in different religions, of an ineffable reality. In other words, different ways of describing an ultimate reality encountered in an ineffable experience do not necessarily mean that the ultimate reality itself is different.

Once again, I recognize the philosophical and theological difficulties with the question and issues that I’ve raised. The difficulty is part of what allures me. What are your thoughts? 


  1. I like comparing religions, as though there are enough open minds to recognize the similarities. Here is a little bit of what I've been thinking over for a bit after reading your blog: "I find a pantheon mentality of God fighting over what happens here and there in the world, playing favorites with countries and people, and disguising themselves as humans from time to time to change turns of fate as being one of the more believable instances of 'religion.' I find that even in the pantheon myths of the creation of the gods, there is a beginning point, and what if this beginning could be connected to the origin of energy in the universe, and as such a master of all these powers, yet one that is hands off in fate (such as in deist philosophy and clock-making). So follow this train and see if I can lead you in a certain direction. One true power/god {origin] >> angels [Christian guides of destiny] / God/Goddess to pantheon [polytheistic arbitrators of fate] >> Humans [created from acts of Gods] . Thus to worship nature or the moon, which all attribute from the origin, is not any less divine that worshiping the origin itself, no? Does this not seem logical?

    My fight against Duality I guess is this: if you qualify with the fact that if the Christians would like to believe that we are created in the image of God, thus would God not be capable of such expanse of character and emotions as we are seen, maybe even more so to his divine state? "

  2. Doesn't this question really boil down to: "Do we as finite animals even posses the ability to comprehend the infinite reality of God(s)? Does our finite language or ability to image things have the ability to describe an infinite God(s)?" Suppose there is a fictitious animal named a quantelope. You ask ten people to paint a picture of a quantilope. You give them only a few rudimentary tools each, such as a sponge, or a hunk of charcoal, or a fat crayon or two. If they ask what a quantelope looks like, you give only vague descriptions and analogies. What do the ten pictures look like??? Do they bear any similarity to one another?