This is the seventh post in a series. Click here for part 1.
Do we all worship the same God? Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, a Hindu teacher and author, addresses this question in an article for the Huffington post. He suggests that while there are certainly many differences between the various religious traditions of humankind, there are also many similarities. He says:
I’m not suggesting we close our eyes to the differences that exist in our traditions, but am proposing that we maintain a balanced perspective by looking at both with an open and positive mind.
He goes on to make an interesting point, and one that has stuck with me:
It’s not just religion that is practiced differently by people of the Earth. We have different languages and ways in which distinctive cultures communicate. Does it make any sense to make the claim that one language is better than another?
It has been said that every analogy breaks down at some point, and I am sure that with time we could find holes in this one, but the idea of religion as a spiritual language is certainly an interesting one. Pandit also mentions the variety of food and cultural expressions that are often intimately connected with language. Is it possible that the many religions of humankind are attempting to describe the same things with different spiritual languages?
To visit the original question for a moment, are we all worshipping the same God? If several people were selected at random to have dinner with the President, it is possible that each of these people would have a different impression of this same person. This would be affected by each individual and their own life experiences. Was this the Presidential candidate they voted for? Do they agree with his policies? Are they socially awkward? Perhaps they enjoy social interaction and feel very comfortable. Based on this scenario it is possible that each individual would come away from this encounter describing the same person in very different ways. We are here reminded of the parable of the three blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time. One takes the trunk and proclaims “it is like a snake.” The next disagrees, grabbing the legs he says “it is like a large tree.” Finally the last grabs the tale and says “it must be a very small creature.” The moral of the parable is that based on our limited perception, we can each have a very different view of the same things. In ancient times people thought the world was carried on the back of a large elephant. Then they revised this view to describe the world as a sort of dinner plate floating in a large, perhaps infinite, ocean. This gave way to the idea that the Earth was a sphere and that the sun, moon and stars orbited it. Finally we have the heliocentric model. Are each of these models describing a different universe? Or are they describing the same universe in different ways? Perhaps some descriptions are better than others. Perhaps some are coming from a different perspective and would be like comparing apples and oranges.
We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Mishael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious. So that even they who lived before Christ, and lived without reason, were wicked and hostile to Christ, and slew those who lived reasonably.
St. Justin tells us here that the seeds of the Logos, Divine Wisdom, were planted in every race and in every people. He even says that those who lived in accordance to Wisdom were indeed Christians, even though they were perhaps thought of as atheists. This is an interesting perspective indeed. St. Paul seems to agree with this assertion:
Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. Rom 1:19,20
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. Rom 2:14,15
If it is true that there is one Ultimate Reality, Ultimate Source … one True God, and this has been revealed to all mankind through creation and the seeds of Divine Wisdom, then perhaps the various religions are trying to describe the same thing. If we affirm, as does the Divine Liturgy that “you are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same … ” then perhaps we need to distinguish the spiritual language of culture and ritual from the ideas they are trying to convey. This sort of understanding is certainly important when trying to communicate across religious traditions. I think it is also important when we attempt to understand our own approach to God. Our religion and tradition is a language through which we communicate with God, and more importantly, through which God communicates with us. We will discuss this more in the next post…