January 1, 2021

Theology 101: Are all religions simply different paths to the same God?

By Doug Culp

Theo101

In his work, “The World’s Religions,” author Huston Smith highlights a 19th-century Hindu saint, Ramakrishna, as an illustration of a conviction that the various major religions are alternate paths to the same goal. Ramakrishna, after experiencing each of the major religions, concluded that there existed an essential unity among them. He wrote, “God has made different religions to suit different aspirations, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God Himself.” A more contemporary version of this argument runs like this: All religions are like the spokes of a wheel that all end in the same center. Consequently, it does not matter which religion one belongs to in the end. The question, of course, is can this be right?

The need for humility

Whenever we approach questions about who God is, we would be wise to give heed to the words of St. Augustine, “Sic comprehendis non est Deus” (If you can understand it, it is not God). Keeping in mind God’s ultimate transcendence protects us from all forms of self-elevation and inflation that so easily derail the journey of faith and lead to the worship of false gods. At the same time, Pope Francis makes it clear that we can come to know God, although never with complete certainty, because “God is always first and makes the first move.” It is in this spirit that we now reflect on our question this month.

A return to ancient wisdom

Let us apply Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction, which states that opposite truth claims cannot all be true, to the claim that all religions are simply different paths to the same God. Now, every religion makes absolute truth claims about God. For example, Catholics and other Christians declare that God is a Trinitarian communion of Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Islam holds that God is simply one. Hinduism encompasses numerous concepts about God, while Buddhism seems to be without a specific belief in God, at least a personal God.

In terms of logic, we can certainly affirm the validity of this diversity of absolute truth claims about God from a subjective point of view. There is no reason to doubt the earnestness of the beliefs held by the faithful of each religion. However, the law of non-contradiction seems to rule out the possibility that each religion’s understanding of God is equally valid and true from an objective point of view.

This would seem to suggest that all religions do not ultimately lead to the same God since all religions do not believe in the same God. The exception to this might be if all religions are equally wrong about who God is. This, of course, would mean that all religions equally fall short of absolute truth, which ultimately undermines these religions since they rest precisely on their absolute truth claims.

What does the Church say?
Doug
On Oct. 28, 1965, Pope Paul VI issued the Vatican II document entitled the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate). It identifies the desire and search for God as one of the major factors that contributes to the unity of all peoples. It also acknowledges the ways other religions have understood God and humanity’s relationship to God.

Most significantly, Nostra Aetate states, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all.”

At the same time, the document makes it clear that the Church, “proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6), in whom [all] may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.”

We can see that the Catholic Church does not claim to have a monopoly on the truth. Quite the contrary, Catholics are called to affirm and celebrate the truth wherever it is encountered. At the same time, the Church holds to the absolute truth claim that the fullness of the truth resides in the Catholic faith, for the truth is a person, Jesus Christ, and the Church is his body.

In closing

It is true that all religions share some things in common: a wisdom tradition, some version of the Golden Rule and articles of faith. However, as Huston Smith notes in his final chapter, once one moves beyond such vague generalities, one discovers that religions differ greatly in what is considered essential. He looks to the schisms between Hinduism and Buddhism; between Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and within Christianity itself to underscore the point.

The argument that all religions are different paths to the same God appeals to our desire for unity and togetherness. However, the price for such a belief is twofold. First, one must ignore the real differences between religions on essential questions. This is a form of minimization and indifference that refuses to take religious beliefs seriously in the name of a false unity. Second, one must actually delegitimize religion altogether, albeit in the name of respecting all religions, by declaring all absolute truth claims of religion to be simply relative. With this, the arduous search for genuine truth is abandoned.

FOR FURTHER REFLECTION

Consider prayerfully reading the following Scripture passage:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also
in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where [I] am going you know the way.” Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (Jn 14:1-7)

Reflection Questions:

1. Reflect for a few moments on this passage. What is your reaction to it?
2. Can you reconcile this passage with the claim that all religions are paths to the same God? Why or why not?
3. How might this passage help you discuss the relationships between religions?

Who said the following?

It is neither a culture of confrontation nor a culture of conflict which builds harmony within and between peoples, but rather a culture of encounter and a culture of dialogue; this is the only way to peace.

a. Pope St. Paul VI
b. Pope St. John Paul II
c. Pope Francis
d. Pope Benedict XVI

Answer: c. Pope Francis

Doug Culp is the delegate for administration and the secretary for pastoral life for the Catholic Diocese of Lexington.