Posted by: gcarkner | June 7, 2014

Religious Discernment 101

It doesn’t matter what you believe; all religions are basically the same?

This is certainly a common sentiment, promoting tolerance and respect for difference. This is often the discussion in the clever TV show Little Mosque on the Prairie. One also notices such an exploratory sentiment in the movie Life of Pi. The trouble is, it’s a naive statement that lacks gravity and plausibility. It trivializes some of the most important discussions of our time. What a person believes about the ultimate meaning of life matters infinitely, especially to them. It also trivializes the Big Life Questions of purpose and meaning. Believers at least recognize the differences and their significance for how life is lived. They often risk torture and death for their beliefs, especially if they refuse to bow to an oppressive political regime which may not favour their religion. They quite literally stake their lives on these beliefs; that’s not trivial at all.

But are these believers mistaken? Does it really not make any difference what you believe? Are all religions at bottom the same? Is John Hick and other religious relativists correct after all, i.e. that plurality of cultures and religions within our globalized world means that pluralism (the ideology) is true? Has our late modern world trivialized truth too much for us to discern these issues?

Undoubtedly, there is much common ground between religions. Many accept a Creator and have some story of origins, plus a notable figurehead, a great or wise person with unusual insight, someone who can gather a significant following. All have a sense of good and evil, and a quest for peace.They want to solve an existential human problem.  There is often a search for enlightenment or truth about oneself and the world–the meaning question. They try to answer why we suffer at some level. Most foster worship and teach an ethic for living well, being responsible for one’s family and respecting one’s neighbour’s interests, concern for the poor. There are indeed many similarities; few would question that claim. There is also much that is good in most religions [We say this while knowing that there exists also bad religion which deceives, exploits and oppresses the individual, steals her freedom or livelihood, splits up families, takes advantage of the naive].

But the similarities are by no means complete. In fact, the differences are quite staggering upon further investigation. Take conceptions of the divine, for example. While Buddhism prefers the emptiness of Nirvana to any positive or definite idea of God, tribal religions are polytheistic, believing in many gods, like the ancient Greeks and Romans. And in between, we have everything from the impersonal Brahman of Hinduism to the intimate personal Lord of Christianity. And of course we have the fundamentalist Neo-Atheists (Dawkins, Dennet, Harris et al) who claim that God and religion is irrelevant and probably even harmful, a promoter of violence; science is all we need and all we can trust. There are also different analyses of what is lacking in the world (the brokenness within the human condition) and how this can be redeemed, repaired, or addressed effectively. There is a common quest, but different solutions, to fix us humans, a sense that we still have a long way to go, both in our character and identity development.

A further example is the Christian idea of the incarnation. That God bent on revealing himself to us entered history as a human being is a claim unique to the Christian faith, but it is absolutely essential to the integrity of that faith. Other religions might claim temporary manifestations of deity as an avatar or angel from time to time. Christianity alone rests on the assumption that God literally became man for our human identification, affirmation of the human journey, and salvation from self-harm or harm by others. If supernatural aid for our current problems is available, that is significant indeed; it ought to capture our attention and stimulate our imagination.

Are these beliefs all the same? One could hardly say that. They are at variance with each other: they are even contradictory on many points. They might conceivably all be wrong, but we fear that they cannot all be right on all points. The common thing is the spiritual quest for all humans. But here is the basis for dialogue: to understand and appreciate each other on campus. We are here at university from all round the world and from a grand diversity of religious atheist ideology backgrounds; we ought not settle for stereotypes but ask our friends what they actually believe and why. Learn from and respect your laboratory and research neighbour. Listen hard to what motivates and empowers them ideologically, religiously. Perhaps even take a comparative religions course.

We conclude that it does matter very much what you believe. Otherwise, let’s face it, we are shallow and anti-intellectual, unwilling to learn from someone different from ourself . All religions make strong exclusive claims; if one drills below the surface, each one believes they have the truth on many matters and the purpose of our existence. We need to examine these claims to determine which are true, which are most plausible. This can be a fun and enlightening exercise, stimulating you to understand your belief better and more critically. Considering that the majority of our world’s population espouses some faith, this is not trivial at all. Let’s keep the conversation going!

~Gord Carkner, PhD Philosophical Theology

Reference: Eerdmans Handbook on the World’s Religions; JND Anderson, The World’s Religions. See also the post called Dialogue on Worldviews, and the series on Moral Relativism. David Bentley Hart has some brilliant quotes on the natural and supernatural as well.

The religious relativist, while claiming to take every religion seriously, does not take any religion seriously. He does not appreciate what is at stake in religious disagreements.                                                                                                                                                                                          –Dr. Jay Newman,  Philosopher University of Waterloo

See also Jens Zimmermann, Hermeneutics: a very short history. (OUP 2015)

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