Can all the Different Religions be True?

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The harmonious outlook of religious pluralism.

There is a wide diversity of religious claims and practices. Conceptions of the divine range from the God of Abraham to Hinduism’s impersonal Brahman.

This diversity exists between religions and within religions. Many of the different claims seem contradictory. Some people think this means only one religion can be true and everyone else is mistaken.

But religious pluralism sees the diversity of beliefs and practices as an unsurprising outcome of the subject matter of religion.

Religious claims encompass all areas of our lives. They span ethics, the nature of reality, the meaning of our lives, the object of worship and human salvation.

While conflicting claims about how to live can co-exist, religions also make factual claims. It’s these factual claims that create a problem for religious diversity. If religions make factual claims, what are those claims about and what do they claim as true?

We can classify the factual religious claims in three broad categories:

  • The nature of reality
  • The ultimate ends of human beings
  • The methods to achieve those ends.

The first of these, the nature of reality, is the central claim on which the others rest. The second and third depend on the answer to the first.

When it comes to the nature of reality most religions claim there is a transcendent ground. They say this material world of the senses is a superficial appearance and the true nature of reality is beyond the ability of our senses to detect.

Most religions also claim that beyond this temporary world there is a permanent and blissful state of existence, a heaven. Achieving unity with this transcendental ground is the goal of human life. Religion tells us the methods we should practice to attain that ground.

But while religions agree on the existence of this transcendent ground and what it means for humans, the details of their answers are diverse. They disagree on the ultimate nature of the ground and the methods to achieve it.

These answers seem to contradict each other. What are the options to explain these apparent contradictions?

The broad options for explanation

One obvious response is all the religions are wrong, there is no transcendent divine reality. If this is true, religious diversity isn’t a problem because there is no ultimate purpose to human life, and you can live it however you choose.

But if it’s true a divine reality exists, the fact of such a wide diversity of religious claims is a problem needing explanation. A common way to categorize the answers to diversity is exclusive, inclusive and pluralism.

The exclusive option says the conflict between religious claims is real and only one religion can be right, which means everyone else is wrong. This is a simple answer to diversity, but it creates bigger problems than it solves. Because we not only find diversity between religions, but also within religions.

This diversity within religions means only one sect within one religion is true. This is usually the exclusivist’s sect, a suspiciously happy coincidence. But even if we assume that is right, the problems remain.

The religions which tend toward an exclusive view also claim our salvation depends on accurate knowledge of the divine ground and the method to reach it. But if only one sect of one religion is right, most of humanity will fail to achieve salvation. Now we have the problem of explaining why this would be the case.

And if we also say God created this world with the desire that humanity be saved, it creates the mystery of why the majority will fail. Why would God allow the conditions where only a small minority of humans’ accept the one true religion if it’s necessary for salvation?

Appealing to free will seems inadequate when most people are sincere in wanting to find the truth and truth is so difficult to discover. The fact of religious diversity increases the already high difficulty level if only one sect of one religion is a valid path to truth and salvation.

To overcome this problem, we have the inclusive option. This option says the conflict is real and every religion has some things right and other things wrong. Each religion has a partial account of the truth. This goes some way to solving the problems of exclusivity, but it doesn’t give us a lasting solution, this option collapses into the exclusive option.

If the conflict is real, a central religious doctrine like Jesus is God or Mohammed is the seal of the prophets, is either true or not. The truth of these doctrines are seen as essential to our salvation.

Which means the inclusive option collapses into the exclusive option, ruling out any religion which contradicts that claim. We are back at the problem of wondering why God would allow so many sincere souls to be lost in the jungle of religious diversity.

The third option is pluralism. This option says all the religions are right and the conflict is only apparent. The contradictions are superficial and on a deeper understanding there is no conflict.

The transcendent ground

This deeper understanding requires us to consider the object of religious knowledge. Religion is an attempt to grasp the ultimate ground of reality. It goes beyond the objects we can perceive with our senses and tries to lay claim to the ground on which all existence rests.

And that ground is the absolute. The absolute isn’t fully comprehensible to the intellect or definable within the limits of language. The Real transcends description, it can only be described imperfectly in a limited way. Each religion tries to describe the indescribable, place limits on the infinite, define the indefinable.

This pluralist idea says each religion gives a limited perspective of the divine. These viewpoints aren’t incorrect, but they’re necessarily incomplete because of the type of thing they describe.

The divine isn’t an object we can grasp and imprison within our intellect. It’s the absolute totality of which we are a small part. In relation to matter we are the subject and matter is our object. But in relation to the divine absolute, we are the object, and the divine is the subject.

The claims of religion are signposts which point toward the Real. They are limited descriptions of the unlimited, which is the only type of description available to the finite perspective of a human being. The descriptions can’t capture the Real in its entirety.

With this pluralist understanding, religious diversity is not only expected, but celebrated. Each religion contributes a uniquely valuable insight. Their point of view enhances our understanding. It adds a further dimension to our view of the divine giving us a more complete picture.

This means all religions have an authentic but ultimately inadequate perception of divine reality, producing a partial understanding of the universal truth. Clearly all religious traditions aren’t the same, and we shouldn’t try to amalgamate them. Instead, we celebrate their diversity because each contributes to enhancing human knowledge of the divine.

Every religion is culturally embedded

Whatever stories we tell, whatever things we can know and understand, are limited to the framework of our cultural conditioning. We say things like think outside the box, but the structure of our thought is the box, we can’t get outside it.

Our cultural conditioning is the lens through which we view the world. It’s the interpretative framework we use to understand the world and unify all the disparate facts into a meaningful structure. Just as we can’t remove our eyes and still expect to see, we can’t remove our cultural conditioning and still expect to understand the world. It’s a mistake to impose some other cultural framework on foreign ideas. If we change the framework, we distort the meaning.

Religion tries to understand reality at its most foundational level, and its answers have implications for the meaning of our lives. Answers to who we are and why we’re here tell us what we should do and how we should live. These type of answers are always embedded in wider cultural frameworks. Just as different cultures have different languages, different religions are the unique languages we use to describe the divine.

The Real is infinite and personal

Religion says the ultimate ground of reality is not only incomprehensible in its entirety, but also personal in its character.

Imagine we are trying to discover what a person is like, but we’ve never met them and have no direct knowledge. We can only learn about them from descriptions. We end up with various images of the person which we need to meld into a coherent whole. Each picture adds to our understanding and gives us a more rounded and complete view of the person.

If the divine is both personal and absolute, we exist only in relation to it. Religious diversity shows us we’re free to choose how we relate to it. The aim of salvation is to achieve union with the divine. But if the divine is a person, that union isn’t the same for everyone. A union or relationship with a person varies according to the nature of both people involved. A relationship is dynamic, interactive and responsive.

Think of a familiar example of the many ways we can know an important person like the president of a country. The president is one person, but many different people stand in relation to her. On the outer sphere there are the citizens she serves. Most of the citizens don’t know her personally. They relate to her through her policies, the way she organizes the system of which they are a part.

Moving closer to the president reveals her personal relationships. The members of her staff and work colleagues interact with her directly. They call her Madam President and relate to her in her functional role as president, the function she performs in the world rather than who she is as a person.

Then moving closer in relationship, we reach her friends, who call her by her name, not her job description. They aren’t related to her by the function she performs, but her qualities as a person. They spend time together and enjoy each other’s company. Friends relate as equals since their outer function in the world isn’t the basis of their relationship.

And we can move to even closer relationships with the president’s family. They call her by names of affection. They relate to each other with a personal equality and increased familiarity and intimacy. Her children climb on her back and expect her to give them horsey rides.

These are all relationships with the same person, but each has a view of the president that is unique and different. Each call her by a name appropriate to the relationship and act according to the intimacy of that relationship.

These diverse views of the same person outwardly conflict. But we understand that none are right or wrong, but only chosen ways of relating to the same person.

Rather than being contradictory descriptions of the president, some understandings are more intimate than others and view her from a different perspective. They know the person more completely, in more dimensions of her existence.

Each relationship has its appropriate behavior and methods of approach. It’s inappropriate for the president’s staff or work colleagues to address her as honey-pie.

This idea of the various perspectives we can have in a relationship to a person also applies to the divine ground of reality. There are those who understand the divine as a person and those who view it as an impersonal field of consciousness.

The unlimited and absolute divine ground encompasses all those descriptions, they are all correct, but also incomplete. They are relative to a point of view and that viewpoint is necessarily a limited view of the unlimited.

But to think that only one view is right and the others wrong is a misunderstanding of the characteristics of the divine ground. Pluralism acknowledges there are many valid ways to seek divinity and meaning.

“There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again.” Rumi

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