Christianity and Religious Diversity (Part 2): Religion and all his friends

7 January 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

You probably recognize the above video as the song “Yahweh” by U2, from the album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

I love the song. I’ve seen it effectively used in the context of Christian worship. But note how the video’s context subtly changes the message of the song itself. You quickly notice that despite the use of the Hebrew name “Yahweh,” the video is a hodgepodge of symbols from other religious faiths.

Pluralism. We must acknowledge that we live in a diverse world. There may have been a time in our nation’s history, not even that long ago, when the people we came into regular contact with were not so different, religiously speaking. Religious differences were once only as broad as what denomination you belonged to, whether it be Catholic or one of a few dozen Protestant denominations.

Even today I occasionally meet people who struggle to articulate the question, posed to me, of “what ‘religion’ are you?” Usually this question focuses on denomination, and I always tell them that I’m kind of a mutt (if you must know, I’m currently attending an Evangelical Free Church, though missional Christianity has been more of an influence on me from a practical standpoint).

But to return to our subject, we have to admit, the world around us has changed drastically. Even Reverend Lovejoy, the reverend on The Simpsons irreverently observes the similarity in religious devotion, “whether they be Christian, Jew or…[pointing to Apu, the convenience store clerk]…miscellaneous.” Diversity is key. When I worked for the Government, we even had diversity training, which of course included religious diversity.

And so, it’s little wonder that Brit Hume would get a bad rap for saying his God was the best (for a great analysis of this, I’d encourage you to check out the post on Justin Taylor’s blog).

As I mentioned yesterday, our task is to sort through this hornet’s nest and hopefully be better equipped to dialogue with our diverse friends and neighbors.


Try and define religion and you’ll quickly find that it might be easier to nail jello to a wall.

Historically, religion was explained through an evolutionary approach – it was assumed that “primitive” religions evolved from “lower” forms of religion to the more developed monotheism (“mono” meaning “one, “theism” referring to god – monotheists believe in one god). My quotation marks reveal why this approach got ditched; whose to say what is “primitive” or “low” religion? Further, some technologically primitive tribes have been known to adopt monotheistic beliefs.

Some have taken a psychological approach, that religion is somehow basic to humanity. This has actually become a common approach by the new atheism, notably Richard Dawkins who calls religion a “misfiring” of the natural selection process. Others use science to establish a neurological basis for religious belief.

But a more well-balanced approach has been taken by Ninian Smart, who suggests a comparative approach, suggesting that religion is defined by its ability to address seven core dimensions, which include such things as ritual (baptism, holidays such as Ramadan, the use of incense), ethics, social structure and even the arts.

The key here is to understand that religion touches the many dimensions of our lives by providing us a means of access to the transcendent.

What is “the transcendent?” Well…that’s where things get tricky. “The transcendent” most broadly refers to an experience outside of ourselves. This might refer to god(s)/goddess(es), it might refer to the mysticism of certain eastern faiths, or it might refer in a much broader way to that strange, almost indefinable quality that points each of us to a “higher power,” what-/whomever he, she or it may be.

Winfried Corduan offers a cohesive definition, defining religion as “a system of beliefs and practices that provides values to give life meaning and coherence by directing a person toward transcendence”(Neighboring Faiths, p. 21).

In other words, religion exists for two broad (and directly related reasons):

  1. to give life meaning
  2. to offer a connection to the transcendent.

Not a one-size-fits all definition, but it will have to do for our purposes.


But this is not the only definition of religion. Philosopher John Hick argues that religions only differ in the way they perceive “the Real.” He defines religion as merely “different phenomenal experiences of the one divine noumenon; or in another language different experiential transformations of the same transcendent informational output.”

If that gives you a headache, let’s paraphrase a bit. What Hick is saying is this: there is only one “transcendent” experience (note his use of words like “one” and “same”). Religions simply differ in their descriptions of it.

You’ve heard this before, right? The story of the blind men examining the elephant. One holds its trunk and describes it as a snake, the other touches its legs and describes it as a tree, the other its tail and describes it as a rope. Who are we to arrogantly say that one description is superior to another? (we’ll come back to this in the next post or so)

But this is ultimately trickles down to the popular level. Madonna claims that “all paths lead to God.” With the multiplicity of faiths out there, could Hick be right? Do all rivers lead to one sea, or do some take you straight to the landfill?

We’ll pick up there tomorrow.

Stay informed. Keep subscribing.

7 January 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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