Dallas M. Roark,Ph.D

Critics of Christianity from the outside have always rejected the claims about the ”absoluteness" of Christianity. At best they concede that Christianity is one of the religions of the world and they grant it a place of equality. In recent years, a number of people within Christianity have claimed that Christianity must give up its claim of absoluteness, or its claim of being the only true religion.

These critics have a variety of motives. Toynbee rejected the exclusive position of Christianity in the name of tolerance, forbearance, and respect.1   Religious bigotry is a serious problem  and he argued that the claim of Christianity supports such divisiveness of the human race.

While Toynbee is hardly the epitome of the orthodox there are those who come from more sure claims orthodoxy who have moved in Toynbee’s direction. Some these find a home in the Catholic tradition: Paul Knitter, professor at Xavier University; Aloysius Pieris, a Jesuit from Sri Lanka. Others include Rosemary R. Reuther at Claremont School; Marjorie H. Suchocki, dean of the Wesley  Theological Seminary; and Gordon D. Kaufman, an ordained minister of the Mennonite Church.

The general thesis of these thinkers is that Christianity is for Christians, Hinduism good for Hindus, Islam for the Muslims, and Buddhism for the Buddhist. The implication is that there are many religions that are salvific. Jesus is not the only savior. There are other saviors. The Mystery of Being is so great that no conceptual system can capture it. To claim such is idolatry. Some of the writers maintain that the claim of absoluteness for Christianity is idolatry. John Hick wrote,

 For once it is granted that salvation is in fact taking place not only within the Christian but also within other great traditions, it seems arbitrary and unrealistic to go on insisting that the Christ-event is the sole and exclusive source of human salvation?2

Even Vatican ll with its “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” grants that "authentic ‘religious experience' takes place in and through the religions."3

All of these have a great appeal to people in the face of unwarranted bigotry, and whatever other attitudes one may have. But there are some serious problems with this general big-hearted approach. There are three issues that must be considered in the very beginning of a discussion such as this and l have not found anyone considering them.

First, in this discussion of world religions, it must be observed that religions change with time. More particularly, I would like to argue that they degenerate, or evolve negatively. This could be considered a value judgment on my part, but when one views the history of the world religions they have certainly changed from the simple beginnings of the founders.

Let us look at Buddhism as an example. If Buddha is the real founder of the religion, and is normative for the religion, can radical change be justified in the centuries that follow which negate all that Buddha believed and taught? D. J. Kalupahana, a Buddhist, gives a detailed replay of the changes that brought Buddha from being a teacher to the Transcendent Being of the  Mahayanists.  It seems evident that Buddha rejected the place of prayer, the gods, the Vedas, and taught that man is his own deliverer.  With the Mayayanist, prayer returns, scripture returns, gods return and the ideal of the Buddha is made obsolete and wrong.  Was Buddha right or not?

Closer to home, we must raise the questions among Christians. When one reads the Gospels it is hard to square this with a greatly developed sacramental and political Catholicism of the thirteenth century, not to mention the twentieth century. What about the contrast between the New Testament and later developments in Christianity? Can it evolve away from its founder and still be called Christian?

Second, there is the matter of the fraudulent in religion. The idea that one should dismiss non-Christian religions as frauds has been rejected by some contemporary writers in the interest of world peace. But we have some classic examples of people creating religions for political purposes. Taoism may be cited as an example. Noss describes the "most amazing incidents of all religion-making when the Emperor Chen Tsung, of the Sung dynasty, effected by fraud the final step in the transformation of Taoism into a complete theism."4 This took place in A.D. 1005.

Perhaps the word fraudulent is too strong for some of these contradictory developments. If we have a religion in which there are no gods and the founder has no interest in such, what conclusion must be reached if someone later incorporates a pantheon of gods, and develops a system in violation of the original insight? If we are to believe the  Hinayanists, then Buddha had no claims on being divine. If we are to understand the beginning of Taoism, are we justified in seeing a polytheistic structure develop? If later folk developed the religion into some form of polytheism they perhaps saw the inadequacy of the original leader. If we can point to deliberate corruptions of ethical treatises into religious movements for popularity sake, for political gain, or for whatever, one should be cautious about taking a simple benign View about religion and argue that all are salvific, all have saviours and are equally beneficial.

This kind of issue has little relationship perhaps to the charge that all other religions manifest the activity of the deception of an evil force like Satan. But if so many people can be misled by religious movements that are not true expressions of the founders, is this an argument that should  be simply ignored?

We must not ignore the distinction between the truth of a religion and the psychological value one may have in pursuing even the false. This distinction does not seem to have any impact upon the new advocates of equality in world religions.   If one grants that all religions fill some need in human psychology, one need not argue that all religions are equal revelations of God. There is psychological value and gain even though the religion may not make sense to us.

When religions are evaluated on a functional basis then all have some psychological value. The Hindu who takes his god off of the godshelf daily, washes, bathes, and dries it off, offers food, prayer, and worship before it, and then replaces it to the godshelf, that person has a good feeling about what he is doing or he would not do it. There is psychological gain. But when one reasons about the experience, it does not seem reasonable to do many of these things. While one may argue that he does not worship the idol, it is only a representative. then perhaps there is poor symbolism using an inanimate, non-seeing, non-hearing, non-mobile object for the Great Being. At least one Great Being has said that this is prohibited and is idolatry.

Henrik Kraemer has made the psychological value issue important. When one compares Christianity with the non- Christian religions along the line of value and function one can acknowledge that:  

“the non-Christian religions can just as well as Christianity show up an impressive record of psychological, cultural and other values, and it is wholly dependent upon one‘s fundamental axioms of life whether one considers the non-Christian achievement of higher value for mankind than the Christian. The weakness of the value-argument in relation to the problem of ultimate and authoritative truth is still more patent if one remembers that from the standpoint of relative cultural value fictions and even lies have been extraordinarily valuable and successful?” 5

If the issues of fabrication of religion and the implications of degeneration in religion are important, then we have some means of making judgments on certain religious traditions. But we still struggle for some means of sorting things out.

Blaise Pascal has some comments that are suggestive of the issues we face in the matter of world religions. In the Pensées are mentioned certain ideas that relate to our discussion.6   Pascal’s approach has a feature that is common to all people. Each person can look, observe, and draw conclusions about one's own experience. These are issues that a reasonable person must deal with.

True Religion Must Teach of the One Creator God

Pascal said, "Every religion is false, which as to its faith does not worship one God of everything, and which as to its morality does not love one only God as the object of everything." There are four general alternatives that one must face in regard to the nature of God

First, there is atheism. Since for this paper we 'presume some Beings existence, we will not deal with this. Second, there is the alternative of some form of theism, whether it be the orthodox doctrine or some other. Third, there is a nebulous type of pantheism which speaks of a divine soul of the world. Fourth, there is some form of polytheism. Polytheism seems to be the easiest to deal with. Polytheism usually falls before the onslaught of education and reason. Emil Brunner has made the statement that once a person begins to think seriously, she can no longer be a polytheist. Critical reason drives her from the illogic thatthere would be two gods who are supreme or many more gods that are all supreme. More particularly, many gods seem so little and useless when education and reason comes. Many "gods of the gap” lose out in the advance of reason and education. This is one of the contributing factors to the rise of atheism among university students in Japan. When one can destroy the abode of many gods in trees, streams. and other natural places, the conclusion is reached that the gods are too small and irrelevant to life.

The second option to be considered is pantheism Paul Tillich declared that "pantheism does not mean, never has meant, and never should mean that everything that is, is God _ . _ Pantheism is the doctrine that God is the substance or essence of all things, not the meaningless assertion that God is the totality or things.”8

The chief example of this type of thinking  is Hinduism. There is a oneness of reality in the more sophisticated forms of Hinduism. Brahma-Atman is that one reality Man is a part  of it, Tat Tvam Asi, That art Thou. Pantheism is a contradiction of Pascal’s principle. There is no creation in Hinduism as Westerners View creation,  Some questions need answering.  1.  If people are part of the world soul, do they need any kind of delivering? They are at one with Brahma now. They may need deliverance from their lack of insight, but they must do this themselves. (2) Is the person free to make any decisions? Pantheism  has been judged to be a spiritual determinism perhaps worse than a material determinism (3) Is the person really an individual? Tat Tvam Asi, That art Thou means the individual is that one reality, not the sum total but of the same essence. (4) If the world soul is eternal, is matter also eternal? How will physics and astronomy and any form of the Big Bang theory relate to this? (5) What kind of God can we talk about if God is still in the process of evolution and being made as time passes? (6) ls there anything considered evil? While the problem of evil is a serious issue for all philosophies, one is forced to regard evil as an illusion in pantheism,  which  seems contrary to the individuals moral sense. (7) Can we conclude that we are all divine as everything else is.

While theism is not better off than pantheism in seeking to “see” the deity, it has a way of knowing in terms of self revelation, whereas there is no self-revelation in pantheism. Self-knowledge is God-knowledge. In another consideration of this principle of the oneness of God, as the Creator, there are some religions that began without any interest in the religious question of God’s existence. Confucius was not seriously interested in the religious question of God`s existence. He never professed a revelation from God nor did he claim to be a God, Later Confucians corrupted the teachings of their master and apotheosized him.

The same parallel can be drawn for Gautama, the Buddha. As the founder of Buddhism, Gautama never discussed the question of God's existence.
The temporary and late origin of gods is expressed in the words of Kraemer:

“ The whole spirit of Chinese civilization is one of mankind’s classic achievements in humanism. As it is true in Buddhism, Confucianism, so it is true in Hinduism that the gods come into being. There are definite times when they were not and then they become definitely a god in a historical point of time. For Hinduism, it is not any shame at all to admit that the gods "are projections of our human will, desires, and thoughts.”9

True Religion Must Teach How Persons Can Know God

The true religion must teach how persons can know God who is hidden, or give the remedy for their alienation and misery. Pascal declared:
“The true religion, then, must teach us to worship Him only, and to love Him only. But we find ourselves unable to worship what we know not, and to love any other object but ourselves, the religion which instructs us in these duties must instruct us also of this inability, and teach us also the remedies for it.10

Pascal also said,

“We know God only by Jesus Christ. Without this mediator all communion with God is taken away; through Jesus Christ we know God…In Him, then and through Him, we know God. Apart from Him, and without the Scripture, without original sin, without a necessary mediator promised and come, we cannot absolutely prove God, nor teach right doctrine and right morality. Jesus Christ is then the true God of men. But we know at the same time our wretchedness; for this God is none other than the Savior of our wretchedness. So we can only know God well by knowing our iniquities. Therefore those who have known God, without knowing their wretchedness, have not glorified Him, but have glorified themselves.”11 

 Further, he wrote,

“All who seek God without Jesus Christ, and who rest in nature, either find no light to satisfy them, or come to form for themselves a means of knowing God and serving Him without a mediator. Thereby they fall either into atheism, or into deism, two things which the Christian religion abhors almost equally.”12

The conclusion reached by Pascal is that one can know God only by God revealing himself, and in the most important way, incarnation. If gods have been created by the human psyche, then they are not gods. Pantheism does not need a mediator, because everyone can be classed as divine. It needs only meditation, not revelation.

While this discussion has been related primarily to Eastern religions there are points in the Pensées related to Judaism and Islam. Pascal granted that Judaism is of divine origin in its authority, duration, morality and its doctrine.13   There are two kinds of Jews, those who were intent of their own prophetic religion, and those who were disobedient and rejected the Messiah, showing their own carnality.14  The story of the Old Testament is a story describing rebellions even before the Messiah.

Islam is another matter. Islam claims to build upon the foundation of Judaism and Christianity. It affirms the Torah and the Gospels to be true and Mohammed's followers are told in the Qur’an to read them. Even Mohammed thought that those Scriptures prophesied his coming. But later Muslim scholars learned to read the language of the Scripture and were shocked to learn that Mohammed was wrong and the Scriptures did not speak of him. In response, Muslim scholars circulated the view that the Jews and Christians conspired against Mohammed and removed all the texts said to prophesy of him. Such a theory cannot stand in light of the many texts that pre-date Mohammed’s time and for which there is absolutely no evidence of a conspiracy of that sort.

Even the texts claimed by Muslims to testify of Mohammed are based on a twisted use of exegesis and language. Pascal said that "any man can do what Mahomet has done; for he performed no miracles, he was not foretold. No man can do what Christ has done."15  The only thing new in Islam is that Mohammed claimed to be a prophet. In comparing all the known founders of religions in the world, Mohammed is unlike any of them. None of the founders of Eastern religions promoted violence. Jesus himself was a person of peace. While people have fought over him, and in his name, he is the person who taught the turning of the cheek, rather than plundering other nations. In the final analysis, the real issue is epistemic, not political, bigotry, or hardness of heart. How can I know a deity I cannot see? If we are to talk about the original versions, the issue of God’s existence is not important for some of them. The issue for them is not salvation, but ethics.

For Pascal, Christianity is the religion that talks about a being who really does exist, who is not a figment of humankind’s imagination, who has at many points revealed himself but in the greatest way in Jesus the Christ, true God and true man.
For Pascal, there is no other option. This leaves us with only two kinds of people "one can call reasonable; those who serve God with all their hearts because they know Him, and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know him."16

1lt is not Christianity that is an offense to many cultures. For  example, Chinese culture is so authority oriented in the rule of the by tradition that new ideas. whether technology, medicine, or religion are an affront to the 'rlghtness' of the father.
2John Hick "The Non Absoluteness of Christianity " in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, ed. John Hick and Paul Knitter  (Maryknoll,NY: Orbis Books,1987. P..22
3Paul Knitter,  No Other Name,  (London: SCM Press, Ltd, 1985, p. 124
4John B. Noss, Man’s Religions (New York: Macmillian Publishing CO., 1974), p.273.
5Henrik Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (London: James Clarke & Co., Ltd., 1956), 106-7.
6Blaise Pascal, Pensées (New York: Random House, 1941).
7Pensée 487.
 8Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. l, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 233-34.
9Kraemer, 162.
1OPensée 489.
11Pensée 546.
12Pensée 555.
13Pensée 602.
14Pensée 607.
15Pensée 599.
16 Pensée 194.

This article was published in The Theological Educator, Fall 1992