Can other religions be true?
There is a story told to explain how the various world religions all fit together. A group of blind people approaches an elephant. Without seeing the whole elephant, each blind person feels around their portion of the elephant and describes the beast.
The blind woman holding the trunk says that the elephant is long and muscular like a thick snake with a rough hide. A blind man holding an ear says that the elephant is thin and flat. Another man gropes around the elephant’s massive leg says that the elephant is thick and solid like a tree trunk. And so on as the group describes the elephant by the portion they feel. Each person adds a new perspective. Only together do they succeed in describing the elephant.
This parable is then explained saying that each religion has a portion of the truth about God. They each describe their knowledge and experience of God differently, and together they create a complete picture of God.
This parable is amenable to the current cultural climate in America. Americans today generally value pluralism and mistrust anyone who says they know the whole truth about anything. This story sounds like a reasonable explanation for the variety of religious traditions around the world. However, the parable is flawed.
The principle that underlies this parable is that every religion is essentially true. Can we know this for sure? For the parable to work, you must know what an elephant looks like. You must already know that the trunk is long and muscular, the ears are thin and flat, and the legs shaped like a tree trunk. Then the explanations the blind people offer make sense to form a whole picture.
This parable only works if someone knows all about God. An outside observer must first know all there is to know about God and then compare that knowledge of God to each of the world religions. Only then could we know if the parable is correct.
Though we have mostly been a Christian nation, America holds out the promise of religious freedom to all. Long ago, we, as a nation, decided that all religions will share equal protection under the law. This is a political judgment only. However, some people hold this political view of religions as a theological view. They assert that all religions are the same. Therefore, Buddhism’s Nirvana, Christianity’s Heaven, and Hinduism’s belief in reincarnation that brings you closer to perfection are all essentially describing the same reality.
The problem with believing that all religions are equally true is that they contradict each other. Is there one God, as the Christians, Jews of Muslims claim? Or is there a pantheon of Gods as the Hindus claim, or the ancient Romans and Greeks did? Perhaps everything is God as the pagans claim? On the other hand, maybe the Atheists have it right and there is no God. All of these are theological views that some people sincerely believe. They cannot all be equally true.
I would suggest that most religions are somewhat true. Each religion might have some truth to it. I do not know enough of the world’s religions to claim that all religions are true. I’m no expert on the Rastafarians of Jamaica or the Shintos of Japan, but there are biblical reasons to believe that many religions contain some truth.
In scripture, we are told that “the heavens reveal the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). We can come to know something about God through God’s creation. We also know that people are created in the image of God (Genesis 2:27). Built into each of us and in all of creation, there are hints as to the nature of God. Various religions point to God as revealed to all in creation.
Furthermore, the book of Ecclesiastes states that God “has planted eternity on the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). And God promised through the Prophet Jeremiah, “I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33).
Paul wrote to the Romans that, “Even the Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, instinctively follow what the law says, they show that in their hearts they know right from wrong. They demonstrate that God’s law is written within them, for their own consciences either accuse them or tell them they are doing what is right” (Romans 2:12-15).
As, the Bible teaches that God has written the law on the tablets of our hearts, then it should not be surprising that religions share some beliefs in common. For example, every major religion in the world contains an admonition similar to Jesus statement in Matthew’s Gospel, “Do for others what you would like them to do for you. This is a summary of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12-13). This “Golden Rule” is shared by people of faith all over the world and by people who hold no faith.
Leslie Newbigin was missionary in South India for forty years. Newbigin says that there is continuity, which converts to Christianity feel, “Even though this conversion involves radical discontinuity, yet there is often the strong conviction afterwards it was the living and true God who was dealing with them in the days of their pre-Christian wrestlings.”
In my own work with the Anglican Church of Tanzania, I heard this same idea echoed. People who held to a Traditional African Religion who converted to Christianity felt continuity with their previous faith. They felt that Christianity was a fuller, truer understanding of the faith the God they already knew.
As someone who believes that Jesus was and is God made man, I hold that we know God best through Jesus Christ. In reading of the life of Jesus following his example, we mold our lives in conformance to God better than we can through any other means. While other paths may lead to some knowledge of God, Christianity holds that Jesus is the way to know God best.
However, Christians have no cause to be arrogant around other people of faith. To do so would be to ignore the fact that they too are created in God’s image. Furthermore, none of us lives our lives so in line with Christian teaching that we are in a position to act holier than thou. There is no reason that we cannot learn from faithful Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists. If nothing else, faithful believers of other religions challenge us to greater faithfulness to our own beliefs.
Yet we do make the bold and somewhat offensive claim that Jesus is not a good teacher like the Buddha or a prophet like Muhammad. Jesus is God made flesh. When we really believe this claim to be true, then we also see that while other religions may hold some truth, Christianity offers The Truth about who God is and how God acts. We Christians should neither be embarrassed to claim that Jesus reveals the Truth of God nor should we become smug and self-righteous around people of other faiths.
(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526