Thinking about religious diversity

All over the globe there are sincere, well-meaning people who are seeking God. They are taking a variety of paths as they seek God and they have different understandings of what the word “God” means. Data from http://www.adherents.com (which generally agrees with data from the Encyclopedia Britannica, where comparisons can be made) suggests that religious diversity across the planet looks something like this:

Judaism 14 million
Islam 1.3 billion
Buddhism 376 million
Hinduism 900 million
Christianity 2.1 billion

Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: 1.1 billion
Chinese traditional religion: 394 million
Primal-indigenous: 300 million
African Traditional & Diasporic: 100 million
Sikhism: 23 million
Juche: 19 million
Spiritism: 15 million
Baha’i: 7 million
Jainism: 4.2 million
Shinto: 4 million
Cao Dai: 4 million
Zoroastrianism: 2.6 million
Tenrikyo: 2 million
Neo-Paganism: 1 million
Unitarian-Universalism: 800 thousand
Rastafarianism: 600 thousand
Scientology: 500 thousand

We plan to discus the first five of these groups over the next several weeks.

Different people have different opinions about the various paths that people are taking on their journeys to come to God. Along a continuum of opinion, we might think about a few specific cases to develop a typology of understanding. We can picture the situation as follows:

There are many paths that are being taken as people seek God and many different understandings of exactly what the word “God” actually means. Some would say that only one path is correct and provides a route to salvation, while the other paths are simply wrong, as follows:

Those arguing such a position from Scripture might start from “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me”(John 14:6). In this context, though, it may be important to filter these words through the understanding that Judaism always held in tension the covenants with Noah (a universal covenant) and with Moses (a covenant with a specific people), and never saw salvation as restricted solely to the Jews. Jesus, of course, was a Jew.

Another opinion holds that while there is one true religion, other religions contain elements of truth. There are many paths, yet one norm. In this position, God is at work in all traditions, which are genuine responses to God and true paths of salvation for adherents, despite their limitations. Those seeking to argue this from Scripture might start with Acts 17:22-28 where the Apostle Paul is speaking to the Athenians in front of the Areopagus and identifies for them the nature of the “unknown god” whom they have been worshiping.

One might argue that religions are expressions of culture. All religions involve “prayer, praise and preaching” and each culture expresses its sense of religion differently. There is no neutral ground on which to stand in order to compare one with another, as follows:

The fruitlessness of comparisons in such a situation brings to mind Ecclesiastes 1:2 “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

Yet another position might be pictured as follows:

Here, the suggestion is that religions express the needs of humankind through projection of an imaginary god. Ludwig Feuerbach saw God as a projection of the human mind and therefore an illusion. Sigmund Freud, an admirer of Feuerbach, believed humankind would outgrow a need for religion and claimed that, “God is psychologically nothing other than an exalted father.”

Finally, there is a position that might be illustrated as follows:

This position asserts that all religions are fundamentally the same but expressed in differing cultural forms. Religions share attributes that are expressed through the cultures in which they are imbedded and hence all paths are equally valid. An alternative understanding of such an image is that God’s grace extends far enough to credit as righteous all sincere attempts to enter into relationship, even when such attempts may in fact be struggles along a path that goes nowhere. Such a view holds grace in high regard but might be thought of as one that does not honor God’s justice or judgment.

The people among whom we live hold these varied understandings and others intermediate between these positions. Understanding these positions is one step towards answering the question posed to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

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