Friday, February 27, 2009
My way or the highway...
I'm staring down the barrel of another Systematic Theology paper that's due next week, so today I'm contemplating the different lenses through which we view our religious beliefs and the beliefs of others.
We learned in class that theologians divide these lenses into three categories:
Exclusivism: My path is the only true and valid path.
Inclusivism: Other paths are valid because they contain similar truths to mine, but my path is still the only way to 'ultimate truth'.
Pluralism: All paths are equally valid because they all lead to the same truth.
Pluralism seems to be the belief du jour among religious liberals these day. Even the Dali Lama has said it doesn't matter which path we travel as they all lead to the top of the mountain - but for him the top of that mountain contains only Buddhism. See, the problem is we're all looking for different things at the top of the mountain - communion with the one God, salvation through Jesus Christ, nirvana (the complete loss of self), oneness with the Brahman, etc.
These are not just different ways of merging with the 'one' - the Big Cheese that we envision running this dog and pony show - because for nontheistic faiths there is no big cheese to merge with. The goal of Christianity is relational - our self in relation to God. The goal of Buddhism is the release of the self, and as long as we're hung up on having a 'personal relationship with God' we've missed the point.
So what's on top of that mountain? A bunch of selves and non-selves arguing over who has the right to plant their flag on the top and claim THEIR summit as the ultimate truth? (in this analogy the selves would win, because the non-selves no longer exist ;-)
My Systematics professor, a well-known theologian who has written several books on this subject, is not satisfied with the definition of religious 'Pluralism.'
In his mind it still reeks of Exclusivism, because it assumes we're all headed towards the same ultimate truth, which we're not. He fully concurs that Christianity is the only true path to 'salvation', simply because it's the only faith that has 'salvation' as its goal. Do you want to walk the path of Jesus and be redeemed in the presence of the triune God? Then you better follow the path of Christianity because its the only road that leads there. In the same manner, if my goal is to completely detach from my sense of self and thus not be 'in relation' with any 'one,' then I need to follow the path of Buddhism, because I'm not going to get there by climbing the mountain that leads to a relational God.
What my professor proposes, and I concur, is that it doesn't make sense to be Exclusivist, Inclusivist, or Pluralistic, because all three assume that it's possible to know enough about other faiths to judge them as true or false.
There may be one 'ultimate truth' but it's impossible for us to know what it is because we lack 'ultimate knowledge.' It's impossible for us to fully experience any perspective other than our own (the story of the blind men feeling the elephant comes to mind).
Even my professor admits that his belief - that God relates to us in different ways according to culture, time etc. which accounts for range of differing religious beliefs - is tainted. Because it assumes that there is a single theistic 'being' running the show.
So, can the 'ultimate truth' be BOTH a single relational being, and 'nothingness' at the same time? Who knows...we certainly don't.
Which means it makes more sense to view religion as a whole series of mountains, each with their own path to the top. We have no way of knowing which peak is the highest, or closest to the 'truth,' - I suspect that they all fall way short of the mark.
I believe in a religion of 'revelation' - that we pick up on small snippets of the truth, filter that truth through our limited minds, and end up with a vague understanding of why we're here and where we're supposed to be going.
Christianity works for me because I believe that this 'revelation' comes from a single, relational 'Creator' God who came into this world in human form to show us 'the way' to the top.
We all agree that religion is about 'knowing' the truth, we just disagree on what that truth is and how we come to 'know' that truth.
What gets me is that after sitting through a 3-hour lecture on all of the above in class this week, some of my classmates still wear the badge of "Exclusivist' with pride. In their minds, Christianity is THE only way to the top of THE only mountain.
And not just any Christianity, but their form of 21st century, Protestant, North American, euro-centric, middle-class, literalist, Christianity.
The 'narrow way' indeed.
For me, this is like claiming to have the knowledge of God.
It's like arguing over who comes first and who gets to sit at the right hand of the Lord.
I believe I remember our 'personal savior' saying something about humility.
Then again, I could be wrong.
But isn't 'knowing' that we could be wrong the whole point of humility?
Go ahead, wrap your head around that one. ;-)