Are All Religions the Same? Pressing beyond 'Niceness'

John Mark Reynolds | The Torrey Honors Institute | Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Are All Religions the Same? Pressing beyond 'Niceness'

Nobody has religion totally right, but some errors are more serious than others.

People are all similar. Reality does not change from person to person, but the interpretation of reality can be different. Nobody should be so "nice" they end up insulting other faiths by refusing to admit they make truth claims that cannot be sustained.

If one religion says that it is good for people to be poor and another that it is evil, then both cannot be right. The law of non-contradiction does not stop at the church door.

Just because a religion, or religious person, gets something wrong does not mean it gets everything wrong. Old and tested ideas, like all the great world religions, must get more right than wrong in order to have survived the hardest test of all: time.

Most great religions are mostly right, but "mostly" is not good enough. Making an error in physics, even a small one, can be fatal to the body. Making a metaphysical error, even a tiny one, can be fatal to the soul.

Christianity proves to be the best explanation for the world as it is: both the metaphysical and the physical. Some religions downplay the importance of nature and others downplay the importance of the spiritual reality. Both are too simple to explain a cosmos full of matter, energy, and personality. Mind does not come from matter and matter does not come from mind.

Christianity, with Judaism and Islam, gets this balance right, but Christianity also has an explanation for the life of Jesus. Jesus, so great nobody can ignore Him, stands at the center of history. His empty tomb demands explanation and His wisdom compels respect. Who is Jesus? Only Christianity adequately explains His marvelous life.

Christianity also built marvelous cultures. It can inspire Bach to his great Mass in B Minor and Newton to his science. It has built great churches in Ethiopia, hospitals in India, and colleges in Idaho. Every inquisitor inspired a Dostoevsky, bad bishop a Saint Francis, fundamentalist a Thomas Aquinas.

Christianity, though not always Christians, has been good, true, and beautiful. To the extent that any religion does not acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus it has gotten something dramatically wrong. It is not explaining all the data.

Or so it seems to me.

Metaphysical reality is, however, not different from person to person, so mature faiths tend to agree on many "big ideas." Love just is greater than hate. Libertine sexual values have never built a culture, but have destroyed many. Judaism and Islam particularly deserve our respect. Christianity owes its existence to Judaism and has learned much from Muslims. Both can sustain both science and high culture.

I have gained great insight into my life from other religions and from people who disagree with me. Even if Christianity is true, it does not contain all truths and many Christians have misunderstood the truths it contains. Any reasonable believer would also admit that he might be totally wrong and open-minded to other possibilities.

Studying the works of other Christian traditions or other faiths is never a waste of time. I have always learned something or enriched my own faith in the process. For example, I spent a profitable year studying the Book of Mormon. At the end, I did not think the Book of Mormon was the Word of God, but I did think it a work of literary genius. It was often compatible with my beliefs, it got much right, but the differences were important and real. The claims of traditional Christianity and Mormonism could not both be true. Reading it stretched me mentally and, even though I came to reject the truth of its unique religious claims, the sheer act of carefully reading Mormon apologists was good for me.

Faith is wonderful, because it allows you to wonder! You commit yourself to your faith and then you see.

There is only one group that does not deserve our respect: the extremist wrapped in certainty. From the jihadist to the Dawkensian atheist, a certain personality type is sure about the big questions. Their opposites are all fools or cads and they can dismiss every different religious point of view as wrong, obviously wrong.

These people lack faith, because all they have is certainty. Certainty leads to a loss of wonder, because there comes to be nothing to wonder about. Those atheists, theists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, or any other philosophical tradition that commit themselves, but are still wondering about things, deserve our respect and attention.

The journey to see the Good is long, but even if it lasted a thousand years I am convinced that if we are motivated by love and pursue it, then we will see Him at last clearly. Lord how I want to be in that number!

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This article originally appeared at the Washington Post's On Faith page. Click here to read the continuing conversation.
July 13, 2010

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.