Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Unity of All Religions

America is a notoriously religious country. It is also a religiously diverse country. One would think, therefore, that it would be a country of either pervasive religious strife or pervasive religious nominalism. But while there is much nominal religion in America, there is also a lot of religion that takes its own particular claims, traditions and practices very seriously. The role of religious liberty in maintaining both religious health and social peace simultaneously is a topic for another time. There are many who suggest, however, that syncretism or focusing on what is common to all religions is the remedy for human conflict that is traceable to religion. But that is no religion at all. It solves the tension between religion and peace by eliminating religion while only seeming to preserve it.

The Bahá'í Temple near Frankfurt, Germany
illustrates the unity of religions in symbolic symmetry
with its nine sides representing the nine major world religions.
source: www.bci.org

I saw an example of this in Albania when I was visiting that country this spring. On account of the country’s Ottoman history, it is largely Muslim. But on account of its Byzantine history before that, it has a significant Eastern Orthodox population, and also many Roman Catholics. Albania’s communist dictator for forty years, Enver Hoxha (pronounced hoja), not only smashed Islam in Albania, but also reduced all of Illyria’s religions to cowering co-religionists. As a result, Albanian religion is all quite nominal. In a New Life Institute seminar on the value of religion for democracy at which I spoke, a “Muslim” and a “Christian” in the audience gave separate accounts of the essential unity of all religions, at least the monotheistic ones, and held—as though it were a truism—that this is the basis on which we can all finally get along peacefully and have our religion too.

But what if what is most important in religion is not what they share in common, but what distinguishes them? What if what is most profoundly significant is what is unique in each one? That, after all, is how the religious themselves view their own religions, at least when they have religion chiefly in view. People who view it otherwise are those more concerned about peace among men than about peace with God.

Isn’t it always what is unique and distinguishing that is of greatest human importance? Whatever is common merely directs us to it. If we were to recognize only what is common to all human beings, friendship would be impossible. And it is only in friendship—that attachment of one’s own particular soul to another particular soul in all its particularity—that humanity is most profoundly understood and cherished. A tyrant, for example, has no concern for humanity. A tyrant has no friends.

A critic of my position would perhaps cite medicine as an important human practice and source of well being that is premised on an understanding of what is common to all human beings—the circulation of blood, the structure of the cell, the arrangement of organs. Yet if doctors did not recognize and take seriously the distinguishing characteristics of particular bodies, diagnosis and cure would be impossible. There would be no remedy for our very particular sufferings.

Returning to religion and the source of our greatest well being, consider that God became man to remedy sin. But in so doing, he became a particular man at a particular time to redeem particular men, women, and children. Abstraction has an essential role in understanding religion, as it does in understanding anything. But you can’t understand Christianity without appreciating its uniquely gracious character and the defining role of the necessarily particular savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


To revert to a now tiresome truism, God is indeed in the details. Christianity is striking in its particularity and historicity, characteristics one would expect to see in a truth claim about reality. that is a major distinction from the other religions, most of which have only gauzy cosmogonies and theogonies. One bit of sage advice in sorting out things of this kind, with the same Medieval Scholastic source as the God in the details bit, is this: "When in doubt, make a distinction." Trying to make all religions the same by dissolving the distinctions among them is to bring on a sort of metaphysical heat death--religious entropy, where there is no life.