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Articles > Finding Common Ground among Religions


Good morning!

Let me begin by thanking you for the privilege of being here with you this morning. In fact, as most of you know, I have taken advantage of your hospitality off and on with my students over the last five years or so, and we have always come away with a very positive feeling about the experience. Thus, I find it a double privilege now to be here and be permitted to address you for a few minutes.

My topic this morning is "Finding Common Ground among Religions," a topic about which much has been said and written over the last few decades, and I trust that I shall be able to add to the discussion in a helpful way.

As some of us have talked individually after some of the services we have attended, you have heard me say that I believe that dialogue between members of different religions demands first and foremost that we are honest about who we are and that we cannot find commonalties until we are clear about our distinctives. Discussions in which we pretend that we are closer than we really are by their very nature are insincere and cannot lead to fruitful results.

So, let me identify for you very briefly, where I come from. (As has been said,) I am a professor of philosophy and religion at Taylor University, and I am about to begin my twenty-fourth year of teaching there. Taylor is an interdenominational Christian college. I would identify myself as an evangelical Christian believer. Now, I realize that frequently evangelicals have been depicted as intolerant social activists, and I will leave that characterization to the side for now. More importantly, evangelical Christians share certain fundamental beliefs, of which two are crucial. First, I believe that the Bible is not just an inspired book in some vague way, but that it is the very Word of God Himself and without error in the form in which God gave it. Second, I believe that my relationship to God, viz. my salvation, is based solely on the death of Jesus Christ on the cross in which He took on the penalty for my sins that I should have rightfully suffered, and that this is God's provision for all people. These are two central beliefs of Christianity, and as I move on with my topic, it is only fair that you should be aware that these are my convictions.

So, how do we find common ground among religions? Come to think of it, should we even bother? I believe there is good reason to do so, and not in some kind of cheap ecumenism in which we simply sell out our beliefs to each other. We live in a world in which we are all neighbors to each other, and, in order to make a contemporary society work, we need to understand each other more than ever. Let us make no mistake about it: the pluralistic world of today is not a world in which different religions are at peace with each other, and, even though we ought not to expect a single religion to curtail its beliefs and practices (at least this side of human sacrifice), we must also recognize that we are not exactly suffering from a global glut of tolerance. As we speak, around the world, there are human beings killing each other under the pretext of some sort of religious mandate, and I suspect that very few religions in some form or other, are free of any kind of blood on their hands. We need to learn to coexist peacefully, and to do so we need to come to understand each other better, and that cannot occur fully unless we find what we have in common.

Now, before heading into what I hope will be some positive contributions, let me indicate a couple of dead ends. These are ways in which people have attempted to uncover common ground, but that are not going to work in the long run.

For one thing, it is all too easy to focus on trivial things. A number of years ago, I heard someone (I don't remember who) speaking on the radio about the need to find common ground between religions. The example she then cited concerned the color green. She mentioned that green is the color of Islam (which is true) and that in Christianity, particularly around Christmas time, green is supposed to be the color of hope (which is sometimes true). Personally, I could add to this observation that in Hinduism, as I'm sure you are well aware, green is often the color associated with the worship of Rama and his associate Hanuman—and I understand you're going to read the Ramayana in its entirety shortly—and that in some forms of Buddhism green is used to symbolize eternal bliss. I'm sure the list could go on.

But so what? With all due respect (and, of course, with apologies to Kermit the Frog) I sincerely doubt that we are going to reach global understanding among the human race because many of us cherish the color green. This kind of thing is way too far on the fringe of our religions, and we are not going to get very far by occupying ourselves with colors.

A second dead end lies in precisely the opposite direction, namely claiming too much as common ground so that differences between religions become either obscured or simply taken over imperialistically. Karl Rahner was a twentieth-century Catholic Christian theologian, and we need to give him credit for a sincere effort in attempting to bridge the gap between Christianity and other religions. However, the way in which he went about doing so has raised more than a few eyebrows. He advocated the notion that, whether they know it or not, all human beings who are sincerely devoted to God and humanity are actually Christians, and he expressed this idea with the term "anonymous Christians." According to this theory, all of you sitting here this morning, whether you think of yourself as Hindus or are perhaps not even sure exactly what you do believe, are actually Christians. I imagine that disclosure, if true, would come to you as quite a surprise, and, in fact, any number of people have expressed the sentiment that they find it downright offensive. They consider it demeaning to the integrity of their beliefs that supposedly, when you come right down to it, they are not really Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, or whatever, but are actually unbeknownstly Christians.

I believe the same dead end comes about from other sides as well. As another example, let me mention the contemporary Protestant (not evangelical) Christian John Hick. He claims that actual differences between religions do not really matter, but that we are all about the same project of attempting to live in the light of the same greater Reality which is ultimately beyond all our thoughts and concepts. All specific differences beyond that are actually
irrelevant. But again, adherents of different religions should politely say, "no, thank you" to Hick's proposal. Simply asking all religions to give up their distinctives in order to cram them into some mushy conceptual scheme is simply too high a price to pay for achieving common ground.

Well, enough on the negative side. So, where can we actually go in order to uncover common ground? I'm going to suggest that, rather than looking at the actual content of what we believe or practice, the best place to start is by affirming the presuppositions which we bring to the task. I think, the easiest way to explain that statement is by plunging ahead.

First of all, religions can find common ground in the idea that they are committed to a fundamental concept of truth. In a world in which truth has become largely synonymous with "personal preference" or "individual beliefs," religions hold forth the thesis that there is such a thing as truth and that truth matters.

Not, of course, that we all hold the same things to be true—far from it. Nor even that we believe that truth is disclosed in the same way in each religion. Some religions believe that truth is revealed in written form; others insist that it is a matter of personal discovery. In fact, frequently each method is found in separate schools of the same religion. Nonetheless, they share the idea that whether one has found truth or not is a matter of great moment and
consequence.

In a time-honored definition of truth, truth is what corresponds to reality. In other words, a belief is true when whatever that belief actually expresses is a part of reality. My belief that my car is in the parking lot is true if, in fact, my car really is in the parking lot. Your belief that today is Sunday, August 13, according to our Western calendar, is true if it is the case in reality that this is today's date. Our belief that there is a God is true if there is a God, and so on. To whatever extent a belief expresses something that is the case, to that extent the belief is true.

Now, as I imagine we are all aware, truth often becomes a flexible thing in the hands of some people. My favorite example of this propensity comes from our very own state of Indiana. In 1896 the Hoosier legislature actually voted to change the value of pi, you know: 3.142, etc. Acting on the best of motivations—the idea that pi is too hard for children to work with—the Indiana lawmakers passed the motion to change the value of pi to an even 3.2. But guess what? The value of pi continued to be the same unwieldy number after the vote as before the vote. You cannot change truth just by saying it's different from the way it really is; truth is decided by reality, not by our preferences. I imagine Indian moms tell their children the same thing as my German one told me: Just because you say it's so, doesn't mean that it is so.

And it is religion that carries out an important mission in this respect. Regardless of the further content of any given religion, it says to humanity: there is a reality that extends beyond our everyday world, it is possible to speak either truth or falsehood concerning this reality, and it makes a difference whether one lives by the truth or not.

I might add as a corollary to this point that, consequently, it is incumbent on us to make sure that we do, in fact, have the truth. Comes a point in the life of an educated person, at least, that one needs to ask oneself, do I personally really believe what I was brought up with? Individuals who do not give themselves the freedom to live with a little bit of wrestling with the question of truth may never come to a full maturity in their faith.

Second, religions together witness to the spiritual dimension. Now, I need to be very careful how I phrase it in order to be faithful to the many diverse religions in the world, but, for most of us, we say essentially that we believe in God, keeping in mind that the definition of "God" can differ greatly between traditions. Why this is so important is that a case can be made that this takes us right back to the very origins of humanity.

In the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth, a theory of the evolution of religion entrenched itself right alongside the biological theory of evolution. According to this point of view, belief in God is only the culmination of a long slow process of development. Supposedly, human beings began their religious careers with a vague awareness of something spiritual, which eventually distilled itself into the practice of spirit veneration and magic, and only very late in human history did people recognize that there is only one God. The fact of the matter, as documented thoroughly early in the twentieth century, is exactly the reverse. As scholars studied some of the least developed cultures in the world, they realized that these people had a clear understanding of a single Creator God in heaven, and that the devotion to spirits and other such practices only came later. There is good reason to believe that humanity began with the awareness of God.

In Hinduism, this idea can even be demonstrated historically. Even though the Vedas, as I'm sure you know, invoke many deities, there is evidence that this is already a development away from the worship of a single God in the sky (Dyaus Pitar, and later possibly Varuna). And, of course, every time I have been here with a group of students, those of you who have shown us around have always made sure that we realize that (in this group at least), the names of the gods as well as the image of Rada and Krishna are only representations of the single God.

Now, my point is this: Even though there are incredible differences between religions, we share a common heritage of witnessing to a divine reality. The differences are real and should not be ignored, but neither should we downplay the truth of that underlying reality to which we testify. God is not just an addition to the fundamental world view, but His reality is actually a part of what makes us human. Neither Christians nor Hindus nor Muslims nor Jews nor Sikhs nor anyone else need to apologize for this basic conviction!

Thirdly, religions bring with them a sense of moral duty. And again, it would be wrong to ignore the differences. But also, once again, we should not trivialize this very important fact. Only someone who has placed himself or herself into the perhaps enviable position of totally ignoring the world around them would be unaware of the reality that the world is in desperate moral straits. Surely this notion can be demonstrated globally, societally, and individually, and religions traditionally lead the way in providing moral norms to counter this decadence. Now, it is true that many religions attempt to provide some way out of the world altogether, as exemplified by, say moksha in Hinduism, salvation in Christianity, nirvana in Buddhism, and so forth. Nevertheless, even these religions insist that while within the world, human beings ought to live by certain basic prescripts. "Otherworldliness" is not usually an excuse for
immorality.

And here's the heart of this point. Religion can provide a bona fide source of moral obligation, and I'm at a loss to find another one that really works. I'm referring here to the question of, not what are our moral obligations, but why should we be moral to begin with? Sure, it is wrong to lie, but why should we do what is right and avoid what is wrong to begin with? One clear answer is to point to the fact that such obligations are imposed on us by God (however conceived), and what I'm getting at is that, if you're trying to look elsewhere, you may not find another workable explanation.

You see, a source for moral obligation has to tell us not just what people are doing, but what people should be doing; it has to not only describe what people do, but it must prescribe what people ought to do. To remind ourselves once again what mothers all over the world have no doubt told their children: Just because everybody is doing it, doesn't mean that it's right. And, if we look at something other than the authority of religion, such as at human evolution, social conventions, etc., we are only describing what human beings are doing, with no compelling reason to believe that this is what they should be doing. Whenever we make a moral judgment, we are implicitly affirming a God who has made such a moral value obligatory.

The implication of this point is pretty obvious. Insofar as they can, members of different religious groups need to acquaint themselves with whatever moral common ground they share and put it to work in behalf of society. There is no question that different religions have different moral conclusions on certain points. Many Americans like to talk about Judeo-Christian ethics, but when it comes to many details, there is no such thing. Not even Christians or Jews agree among themselves on all issues, and if we include two other increasingly important constituents of American society, Hindus and Muslims, the picture gets even more complicated. Nevertheless, when it comes to other broader issues, say the values of truth and life, we really need to think in terms of a Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Hindu tradition. As opposed to the muddled relativism of our society that does away with binding moral values altogether, we are all on the same side.

Fourthly and finally, I want to mention something that in a way encapsulates all three previous points and yet is very different in its way. I am speaking about the fact that religions bring with them a sense of conviction. This point is not easy to express, but I think it is crucial.

Aren't you tired of people who can feel strongly every possible way, depending on their mood, the weather, or what they think other people want to hear? I, for one, when I get to know a person, am always interested in where their actual convictions are. We all have little hobby horses, and we all have our particular little ways in which we want people to know us and relate to us. At the same time, hopefully we also have some deeply held convictions that make life meaningful and purposeful. Now, for this one, I'm not going to claim that only religious people can have convictions, but if religious people can't live on the basis of convictions, who can?

You know, the work that I do in studying religions is by and large extremely pleasant. My students sometimes worry about whether people will be offended when you ask them about their religion. That has been known to happen, of course; everybody gets into a grumpy mood from time to time, but mostly people are not only willing, but downright eager to talk about what they believe. After all, their religion is usually one of their most cherished possessions, and they're pleased to show it off.

In my first three points, I argued that religions come together with a fundamental commitment to truth, God, and morality. But is there really a genuine commitment? Any religion is premised on the claim that its truth is life-changing; if there is a God, surely that has to be the most important fact in the universe; objective moral obligations should make themselves felt in the world. Sadly, speaking from within my own religion, many Christians who supposedly affirm all three, live lives that seem to be pretty much those of indistinguishable from those of people without any faith.

Chuck Colson, once a functionary within the Nixon White House and now a profound Christian spokesman, has lamented that our culture seems to be characterized by the expression, "whatever." Nothing really seems to matter, when you come right down to it. But against this nihilism all religious people should thunder, It does matter! There is truth! There is a God! There are moral values! And we can get excited about all this!

Permit me, please, in the best "Sunday Sermon" tradition, to close this little talk with a personal appeal. When we consider these matters, it's apparent that for many people, convictions of truth are not something that they spend a lot of time on. Now, few of us are, of course, either philosophers or theologians, and, believe me, for this I am grateful. Nevertheless, I trust that for all of us, the faith that we practice is not just a faith of culture and habit, but a faith of the heart and mind as well. If it is not, I pray that you will not be afraid to seek the truth that will change your life.

Once again, let me thank you so much for allowing me to speak to you and for listening to me.

This article was presented  before a Hindu group in 2000.


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