Most people are not comfortable with atheism. They believe (know?) there is something greater than us, a cosmic Being or some Divine Truth. They intuitively know that the universe did not form itself out of nothing. But many people are also not comfortable with the exclusivity of religious propositions, especially in this post modern, pluralistic world.
In my opinion, the statement that all religions are equally true just doesn’t hold up. I say this having studied world religions in college and being a religious nerd for the last 40 years.
There are some similarities among religions at the surface, and there are some shared principles, but the ultimate, fundamental propositions of the various religions cannot be aligned with each other. Each of them has principals that are exclusive of other principals of other religions.
Most people who are realistic and honest (in my opinion) don’t attempt to say that all religions are true, in this ultimate sense, because it simply isn’t a tenable position, but that thought creates a dilemma. It makes us uncomfortable in the increasingly pluralistic world in which we live.
In our pluralistic society, people want to be accepting, tolerant and to get along. The exclusivity of religious propositions doesn’t sit comfortably with this sensibility. Still, all religious people, but for atheists, acknowledge that some transcendent reality exists. On this, all religions do agree.
Most agnostics would admit that some transcendent reality exists or may exist. That’s why they are agnostic rather than atheist.
Further, all rational people recognize that some things are true and some things are not. We all know intuitively that two mutually exclusive things cannot both be true at the same time. Black cannot be white, and white cannot be black.
Many people resolve this tension by taking the position that truth exists in all religions; all religions are attempting to get at some universal truth, and, therefore, some amalgam of all religions is true. They might further say that every religion has part of the truth, but no one religion has the full truth.
One illustration used for this notion is that of six blind men trying to figure out what an elephant is like. One feels the leg and thinks an elephant is thick and round like a tree. Another gets a hold of the trunk and thinks an elephant is long, whippy, and snake-like. One grabs the tusk and thinks an elephant is hard and woody. Another feels an ear and thinks an elephant is flat and thin. They are all right about what they feel, but they are all wrong about what an elephant is really like.
In the story, the different perspectives lead the blind men to argue about who is right and who is wrong. None of them can accept the descriptions the others give because each one felt the elephant for himself and is convinced that he knows what the elephant is like from his own, albeit limited, experience.
We know from the vantage point of the narrator that every one of them is right in the limited knowledge each one has, but every one of them is wrong about the elephant as a whole. This is offered as an illustration for the differences between the world religions.
People will say that religions are the same way. All religious experience is true, but no one religion has all of the truth. Everyone grasps part of the truth and thinks they know the whole truth, and that is why they argue and disagree. Everyone is right, and everyone is wrong.
If this is the way it is, then no one religion has an exclusive hold on truth. This story explains how an elephant can be hard and soft, thin and thick, at the same time (The full story of the blind men and the elephant with its complete ending is slightly different and suggests a different conclusion.)
This position seems plausible on its face. It accounts for the differences. It solves the hard questions about who is right and who is wrong. It fits the modern, pluralistic world view. It accommodates everyone, and it offends no one.
But does it make sense?
I, personally, think there is some truth to the illustration. What we see as contradictions may not be contradictory. If we could just see the whole, we could see how the parts fit harmoniously together.
If truth is universal, people should universally have some sense of the truth. People might see truth from different angles because they stand in different positions in relation to the truth, but all people should be able to gain some sense of the truth.
The weakness of the illustration, however, is the assumption that we know what the elephant looks like. How do we know that everyone is right? What things are right, and what things are wrong? The Baha’i faith is built on a platform of combined religious truths, but have they combined all the rights parts into the whole?
The most fundamental weakness of the proposition, though, is that it is self-defeating. The illustration is given usually to counter the proposition that religious truth is exclusive. When made for the purpose of claiming that no religious truths are exclusive, however, the illustration, itself, is an exclusive claim: It is a claim that the only right conclusion is that all religions have some truth and no religions have all the truth. .
We can’t claim all religions have some truth (whatever that is), and no religions have all the truth unless we have (or claim to have) superior knowledge that all those religions, in themselves, do not have. We cannot take this position unless we claim the kind of superior knowledge that we say no one has a right to claim – and that is the self-defeating nature of the position.
We can only say that all religious experience is true, and no religion is completely true, if we can see the whole elephant. There is no way we can hold this supposition to be true unless we know what the whole elephant looks like.
In the end, the position that all religions are true in part and no religion is completely true is no different than saying, “our religion is the one true religion.” Both presume to know something that the others do not know, both assume that our view is the right one; both propositions are ultimately exclusive of competing propositions.
Ironically, this all-religions-are-partly-true position, which is intended to be inclusive, is actually exclusive. When we say this, we are saying that we have a spiritual view of ultimate reality that is right, and all the religions of the world (that claim exclusive truth) are wrong,. This claim is, itself, is exclusive of all those religions.
The position that all-religions-contain-some-truth, and none of them contain all truth, is a western, enlightenment, individualistic take on reality. It is a take on reality that is believed to be superior to the exclusivity of each religion. In the west, that take on reality is particularly posited as antithetical to Christianity (while ironically leaving room for tolerating the exclusivity of other religions).
The truth is that everyone who cares about truth understands the necessity of the exclusivity of trust because truth is exclusive. The Truth (capital T) is exclusive of what is untrue. That is the nature of Truth. There is no universal inclusivity when it comes to truth.
We can value the pluralism of a modern, civilized society, and we should, for the liberty and freedom it protects. But if any one of us is interested in truth, we need to understand that we can’t be so inclusive in our quest for truth. Differences do matter.
At the same time, we also need to be careful to realize that seeming contradictions may not be contradictions at all. Getting at the truth is hard business, and it requires uncompromising rigor.
We also need to realize that we are all finite beings with limited perspective, knowledge, and ability to grasp the universe of truth. We need to respect each other, listen to each other, and have humility.
The difference between the all-religions-are-partly-true view of spirituality and people who hold to particular religious beliefs is that people who hold to particular religious beliefs acknowledge they are being exclusive. Exclusive religious belief is, therefore, arguably more honest and has more integrity to that extent than a “pluralistic” view of truth. Not that all religions are equally viable. They can’t be for the very reason that truth is exclusive.
One question that is always relevant in all times is this: whose exclusive views make the most sense? If we value love and living in peace and harmony with others (as many assert), which religious precepts best urge us to love, to be humble and to serve those who oppose us. Which set of exclusive beliefs might best lead to love and peace on the earth?
In that endeavor we might be tempted to look at the examples of the people who hold the particular religious beliefs we want to “test”. We can always find examples of people of all faiths who are bad models of that faith, however. We can’t trust in the example of people because people are flawed. We need to examine the truth propositions themselves.
At the heart of the Christian truth proposition is a man who gave up his life, even for His enemies, a man loving people who do not love Him – who actually hated him. At the heart of the belief system for the person who claims to be a Christian is the truth that I am a sinner saved by grace – not by my own efforts.
For the Christian, I have nothing to boast about. I am no better than anyone else. At the heart of this worldview is a truth that values others on the same level as myself: we are all made in the image of God.
If I believe my exclusive truth propositions, rather than other exclusive truth propositions, I should want to serve others as Christ did, even to the point of being willing to give up my life for my enemies. If I take my belief seriously, I will turn the other cheek, pray for those who persecute me and love my enemies.
The reality that not all Christians live this way says more about the flaws of people than the propositions, themselves.
That people have not lived as if those things are true is often highlighted as a reason not to believe those things. That Christians throughout history have often been judgmental, hypocritical, even violent, is seen as reason not to believe the truth of Christianity. In actuality, however, the failures of Christians underscore the truth (that we are all sinners in need of grace).
People judge Christians by the very truths that Christianity upholds, thereby affirming the value of it.
Christians are not alone in their failure to love and serve others, but the tenets of Christianity require Christians to recognize that failure, to ask forgiveness for it and to yield to God for the purpose of being conformed to the example of Christ who demonstrated what that love and service looks like. If we fail to do that, it is to our own detriment and shame.
As Paul says in Romans, “let God be found true, though every man be found a liar.” (Rom. 3:4) In saying this, Paul is recognizing the propensity of people to be hypocritical.
Truth is not dependent on people. We did not create the world, set the stars in their places or establish the laws of nature like gravity. The universe, stars and laws of nature do not depend on us and do not even require our understanding to be true. The Truth simply is.
Likewise, God simply is. (Jesus said, he is “I am” – meaning that he simply is, like God.) God is is what God is. God is not what God is not. Nothing we say, do or believe in changes the character of truth or the character of God.
I am a Christian because I believe I have found the Truth, and the Truth has set me free in ways for which I am eternally grateful. This is my experience. I could be wrong, but I believe I am right. Therefore, I hold to this position humbly, but confidently.
I am not haughty about it because the Truth is that I am a sinner. I have failed, and my failure leaves me utterly dependent on the forgiveness and grace of God. That forgiveness and grace has changed me, and it has humbled me.
I am instructed by my belief to love God above all and to love others as myself, including my neighbors and even my enemies. Doing that isn’t easy. I often fail at it, but I am committed to it as a proposition of “truth”.
That this Truth is exclusive (as all Truth is by the very nature of Truth), leads me to desire to let other people know this Truth as well. That I believe I have found the Truth causes me to want to share it with those who do not have what I have found – not because I want to be right and prove them wrong, but because I want people to know the peace, love, forgiveness and confidence I have.