Chapter 4. Do All Religions Lead to God?
‘We accept all religions as true,’ Swami Vivekananda told members of the World Parliament of Religions, which was held in Chicago in 1893. In this he was echoing the teaching of his guru Sri Ramakrishna
As a student, the young Narenda, as Vivekananda was then known, asked his teachers at the Scottish Church College in Calcutta. ‘Sir, have you seen God?’ One of the teachers told him of a Hindu seer called Sri Ramakrishna, who might be able to answer ‘yes’ to his question. The extraordinary experiences of his first meetings with Sri Ramakrishna quickly convinced Narenda that here was someone with direct experience of the Divine rather than intellectual knowledge about God. In time, Vivekananda was to make Sri Ramakrishna known to the world.
Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86) was born in a village in Bengal. At the age of nineteen he became a priest at the Kali temple at Dakshineswar, near Calcutta, where the Sri Ramakrishna Mission has built a beautiful temple, which I once visited after an endless drive through the crowded streets of Calcutta. Ramakrishna, after a time of intense devotion, eventually realized the presence of the goddess Kali. His biographer wrote, ‘While he sat down to worship, a curtain of oblivion separated him from the outside world. . . While uttering the various mantras (or sacred verses) he could distinctly see those phenomena before him which the ordinary priest has merely to imagine.’ Ramakrishna then focused his attention on the god Rama. He put himself in the place of Hanuman, a devotee of Rama and began to imitate his actions. In due course he had a vision of Sita, Rama’s consort and of the child Rama.
Following other spiritual disciplines, he had visions of the god Krishna, the Eternal Lover. Later in life, he was instructed in Advaita Vedanta and we are told that on the very first day he attained the mystical experience of unity, which is the culmination of that discipline. After a time, he followed the devotional path of the Sufis or Muslim mystics and had a vision of the Prophet Muhammad. Ramakrishna, who had some knowledge of the Bible, then turned to Christianity and received a vision of Jesus.
Ramakrishna insisted that it was the One Divine Reality whom he had experienced in his various visions. The unity of religion was for him not a matter of argument but of experience. In a tribute to Sri Ramakrishna, the poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote:
‘Diverse courses of worship
From varied springs of fulfillment
Have mingled in your meditation.
The manifold revelation of joy of the Infinite
Has given form to a shrine of unity
In your life.’
Ramakrishna’s claims have occasioned wide discussion about the nature of mystical experience. They also provided a basis on which modern Hindus could resist the call to them of missionaries to convert to Christianity. Further, the testimony of Ramakrishna and other mystics may suggest that human beings are naturally religious and this, as I have already indicated, has influenced my attempt to relate Christian faith to moments of heightened awareness which are more common than is usually recognized. Sri Ramakrishna has had a profound influence on my thinking and writing.
Is Mystical Experience Essentially the Same?
Ramakrishna’s claim was that spiritual experience is one and that religious differences are caused by cultural and historical variations. This view has been adopted by a number of writers on Mysticism. Paul Elmer More, for example, wrote in his Christian Mysticism, which was published in 1932:
‘There is a ground of psychological experience, potential in all men, actually realized in a few, common to all mystics of all lands and times and accountable for the similarity of their reports. But upon that common basis we need not be surprised to see them also erecting various superstructures in accordance with their particular tenets of philosophy or religion. At bottom, their actual experiences, at the highest point at least, will be amazingly alike, but their theories in regard to what happened to them may be radically different.’
Walter Stace in his The Teachings of the Mystics, made the same claim: "The same mystical experience may be interpreted by a Christian in terms of Christian beliefs and by a Buddhist in terms of Buddhist beliefs." The Indian philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan also said, "The seers describe their experiences with an impressive unanimity. They are near to one another on mountains farthest apart."
This view, however, has been disputed. R. C. Zaehner, who was Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford, argued, in his Mysticism, Sacred and Profane, that there are different types of mystical experience. Zaehner distinguished three main categories. The first is ‘nature mysticism’, wherein the mystic is sensibly aware of the natural world, but feels no distinction between himself and the natural world. Wordsworth in some of his poems speaks of "the calm that Nature breathes among the hills and groves". "I felt", he wrote, "the sentiment of Being spread o’er all that moves and all that seemeth still." Zaehner’s second category is what is called a "monistic experience" where a person feels a total oneness with the Soul of the Universe. An example of this is the Hindu seer Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), who has been called, paradoxically, "an incarnation of pure Advaita." As a teenager Ramana Maharshi dramatized his own death and thereby realized that the self is untouched by death and that it is one with the Self. Thirdly there is theistic mystical experience in which "the soul feels itself to be united with God in love." The word communion, which may be applied to this experience, suggests that the soul and God are distinct entities, however close their relationship. St Teresa of Avila (1515-82) spoke of union with God as ‘spiritual marriage.’
In his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Zaehner argued that the whole purpose of the text was "to demonstrate that love of a personal God, so far from being only a convenient preparation for the grand unitary experience . . . was also the crown of this experience itself, which, without it, must remain imperfect."
My own feeling is that there are differences of mystical experience but, unlike Zaehner, I hesitate to assert that the theistic experience is higher than the monistic experience.
An Answer to Christian Missions
If varieties of belief and practice are caused by cultural and historical differences and all religions are essentially the same, what is the point of trying to persuade people to change their religion? The nineteenth century was the great age of Christian mission -- especially by Protestant churches -- in Asia and Africa. Christian triumphalism, with its claim to the unique and final revelation of God, was evident also amongst many participants at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Swami Vivekananda, however, provided an effective answer by basing his remarks on the experience and teaching of Sri Ramakrishna. Vivekananda argued that the same God is the inspirer of all religions. Appealing to the idea of evolution, which was much in people’s minds at the time, he spoke of the knowledge and idea of God evolving in each religion. ‘All religions from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism’ are, he said, so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realize the Infinite "as determined by the condition of birth and association". Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita regards even the humblest offering as a gift of love; "Be it leaf or flower or fruit that a zealous soul may offer Me with love’s devotion, that do I (willingly) accept, for it was love that made the offering" (9, 26).
In place of aggressive Christian evangelism, Vivekananda seized the moral high ground by implying that the missionaries’ call for conversions was irrelevant and narrow-minded. Instead Vivekananda appealed for universal tolerance. In his reply to the welcome, part of which was quoted at the beginning of this chapter, he declared, "I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth."
The importance of mutual respect between members of different religions is now widely recognized and the Christian denunciation of Hinduism as idolatrous, superstitious and polytheistic which was common in the nineteenth century is much rarer today. Yet the relation of religions to each other is still a subject of vigorous debate. At least at the level of their teachings and practices there are significant differences between religions. For example, some religions claim that human beings have only one life on earth, others suggest that the soul comes back again and again in different bodies. There is sharp disagreement on whether God has a Son. Religious rituals are very varied. Is there a common or unifying spiritual experience? Can we indeed speak of universal human experiences?
My own view is that there is one God who made and loves all people and seeks from them an answering love and obedience. The great religions of the world are channels of that divine love and human responses to it. Because they are human responses all are flawed. I do not think religions are all the same. Rather they are shaped by a creative experience of the Divine and by centuries of tradition and reflection. Each religion, as the American Catholic R E Whitson put it, is therefore "unique and universal: unique in that the core of each is a distinct central experience -- not to be found elsewhere -- and universal in that this core experience is of supreme significance for all men." Each religion has a particular message or "gospel" for the whole world. As we learn from each other, our understanding of the Divine Mystery will grow. There are in my view more and less adequate pictures of God and understandings of the divine purpose. For example, traditional Christian teaching about hell -- especially as a punishment for non-believers who never heard of Jesus -- cannot be squared with belief in a God who loves all human beings.
Three quotations from Fr. Bede Griffiths put very well the position I seek to advocate.
"This one Truth, which cannot be expressed, is present in all religion, making itself known, communicating itself by signs. The myths and rituals of primitive religion, the doctrines and sacraments of the more advanced, are all signs of this eternal Truth, reflected in the consciousness of man. Each religion manifests some aspect of this one Reality, creates a system of symbols by which this Truth may be known, this reality experienced."
"The Buddha, Krishna, Christ -- each is a unique revelation of God, of the divine Mystery, and each has to be understood in its historical context, in its own peculiar mode of thought . . . each revelation is therefore complementary to the other, and indeed in each religion we find a tendency to stress finest one aspect of the Godhead and then another, always seeking that equilibrium in which the ultimate truth will be found."
"The divine Mystery, the eternal Truth, has been revealing itself to all men from the beginning of history. Every people has received some insight into this divine mystery -- which is the mystery of human existence -- and every religion, from the most primitive to the most advanced, has its own unique insight into the one Truth. These insights, insofar as they reflect the one Reality, are in principle complementary. Each has its own defects both of faith and practice, and each has to learn from others, so they may grow together to that unity in Truth which is the goal of human existence."
Vivekananda’s views are an even sharper challenge to Christians who believe that Jesus is the unique and only Son of God and Savior of the world. Is it essential to believe in the Lord Jesus for a person to go to heaven? In part this depends on the Christian understanding of the work of Christ, often known as the Atonement. A traditional belief is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for the sins of the whole world. If that is thought of as an objective event which altered humanity’s standing in relation to God, then the belief itself implies that it is significant for all people. Some Christians hold to this view, but believe that the death of Jesus can be effective for people who lead good lives, even though they do not know of Jesus -- people who are sometimes referred to as "anonymous Christians." An alternative understanding of the meaning of the death of Jesus is to think of it in more personal and subjective way. By his willingness to die on the cross, Jesus showed that there is no limit to God’s love for us. To believe this is to experience an inner change that frees us from our fears and by deepening our compassion makes us sorry for the lack of love and selfishness in our lives.
The story of Jesus’ death on the cross is the place where I have known most vividly the unlimited love and forgiveness of God which has helped to free me from self-doubt and fear and to grow in love for others. I am glad to witness to this divine mercy and long for others to experience such forgiveness and peace for themselves. It is not, however, for me to pass judgement on the spiritual journey of others and the hymns of the Tamil saints are rich in their testimony to the love and forgiveness of God. (Add)
The interfaith sharing for which I long -- of which there is still too little - is to speak to each other of our experience of the grace of God – ‘telling one another our beautiful names for God.’ As the blind man in St. John’s gospel says, ‘One thing I know, that whereas I was blind now I see’. If others can say the same, let us rejoice together and learn from each other’s story.
We should learn to see members of other faiths as fellow pilgrims. There are all too many people in our world who have little awareness of spiritual realities and religious communities have a responsibility to make known their teachings. I dislike, however, religious recruiting, although equally people should be free to change their religion if they feel this will help their spiritual growth. Donald Nichol in his book Holiness said that a sign of a faith community’s maturity is the way in which it treats those who leave it. By that standard most faith communities are fairly immature. Those who change their religion or who wish to marry a member of another faith often experience strong opposition and. rejection. There are many ways to God and each person should be encouraged to find the path which is most helpful to them, although they may need to be warned that others have found some paths to be dangerous or dead-ends. Perhaps we need to concentrate on making as much progress as possible on our chosen route rather than on criticizing the paths others are following. Certainly when St. Peter asked Jesus what would happen to St. John, he got short shrift. ‘What is that to you? You must follow me.’
Are Human Beings Naturally Religious?
Paul Elmer More, in a passage already quoted, suggested that the ground of psychological experience which finds its fullest expression in mysticism is potentially present in all people. He thereby challenged a widespread assumption, derived from the work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1938), the founder of psychoanalysis, that religion was a collective expression of neurosis and an attempt on the part of individuals to escape from the realities of a hostile and indifferent world. Karl Marx (1818-83), the founder of Communism, in a famous phrase, had also described religion as "the opium of the people."
More’s view has been supported by the work of Alister Hardy and the Religious Experience Research Center. Alister Hardy sought to show that the human being is naturally religious. Alister Hardy, who was a marine biologist built up an extensive archive of people’s first-hand accounts of religious transcendental experience. He argued from this that a ‘sense of Presence’ was far more common than was usually recognized.
This is why, in my preaching and ministry I have tried to relate the Christian faith to people’s sometimes inarticulate awareness of Divine reality, encouraging them to reflect on ‘moments of mystery. In this I am aware of following the example of the great theologian and preacher Fredrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who has been called the father of modern Protestant theology. Addressing the cultured despisers of religion of his generation, he urged them not to concentrate on doctrinal statements, which they mocked, but on a ‘sense and taste for the Infinite’ or, in a phrase that he often used on ‘a feeling of absolute dependence’. Religion, Schleiermacher said, ‘is the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite things in and through the Infinite, and of all temporal things in and through the Eternal.’
Sri Ramakrishna’s spiritual discoveries can still serve to encourage us to value our own and other people’s moments of heightened awareness. He can inspire us to hope that despite the enormous variety of religious belief and practice, we can discover our oneness in the presence of God. Long ago, A Sufi poet said, ‘On my way to the mosque, O Lord, I passed the Magian in front of his flame, deep in thought, and a little further I heard a rabbi reciting his holy book in the synagogue, and then I came upon the church where the hymns sung gently in my ears and finally I came into the mosque and pondered how many are the different ways to You -- the one God.’ More recently, the English writer on mysticism Evelyn Underhill said that religions meet where religions take their source -- in God. Ramakrishna suggests, from his own experience, that there all devotees, by whatever they call upon God, are met by one and the same Divine Reality.
If, then, there are many ways to the One God: is it only in Jesus that God is fully revealed and does the Bible have an authority greater than that of other scriptures? These are questions to which we shall return.