Chapter 12: Does It Matter What You Believe?

What’s the Difference? A Comparison of the Faiths Men Live By
by Louis Cassels

Chapter 12: Does It Matter What You Believe?

We’ve been attempting up to now to understand how one religion differs from another. Implicit in all that has been said is the assumption that religious differences are real and important.

But is this thesis valid? Does it really matter in the long run whether you’re a Christian, a Jew, a Moslem, or a Buddhist?

Millions of people today, including many nominal members of Christian churches, are inclined to answer in the negative. They believe that all religions are basically the same, and that "one pathway to Truth is as good as another."

This sounds like a wonderfully broad-minded attitude, and people who hold it usually think they are being quite modern in their approach to religion.

In fact, they are simply subscribing to a very old type of religion called syncretism.

We encounter syncretism repeatedly in the Old Testament of the Bible. When the prophets proclaimed that there is no other God than Jehovah, they were resisting

the syncretism of the Babylonian civilization that surrounded Israel. Then, as now, syncretism presented itself as an extremely tolerant and reasonable kind of faith. Babylon was perfectly willing to add Jehovah to its idol-cluttered altars, if the Jews would abandon their claim that He was the only god. Had the Jews not been — in the eyes of their Babylonian neighbors — narrow-minded and fanatical in rejecting these terms, the religion of Judaism would have been simply swallowed up without a trace five thousand years ago.

Christianity also encountered the temptation of syncretism in its infancy. The Roman civilization into which the Church was born was proud of its open-minded attitude toward all religions. As the historian Edward Gibbon has put it, "The various modi of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people equally useful." The Romans felt, in other words, that it didn’t matter what a man believed so long as he believed something that would comfort him in battle and keep him reasonably honest. When Christianity first reached Rome, it was accorded a warm reception. The emperor Alexander Severus added a statue of Jesus to his private chapel, which already contained figures of numerous pagan gods.

Rome began to persecute the Christian Church only when it fought off the smothering embrace of syncretism, and stubbornly insisted that "there is no other name under heaven than Jesus Christ whereby men may be saved."

Such a claim is always anathema to syncretists, because it is a cardinal article of their faith that God would never condescend to reveal Himself in a particular way, at a particular time and place, and to a particular people. Syncretism holds that there is no unique revelation in history, no single instance of divine self-communication that may be regarded as complete and trustworthy. Indeed, except in the sense that all of nature is a revelation of God, syncretists do not expect to find God taking the initiative in making Himself known to men. They look upon religion as an essentially human enterprise — an attempt by men to fathom mysteries that by their very nature are too deep to be comprehended in any one viewpoint. The corollary is that all religions may be partially true, but none is completely true. Thus, the syncretist believes, the only intelligent solution is to harmonize the various religious experiences and insights insofar as possible, and create one universal religion for mankind.

Syncretism has had many eloquent exponents through the centuries. They include the Roman emperor Julian, who first embraced Christianity and then turned bitterly against it when the Church refused to go along with his pet scheme for fitting Jesus into a side pocket of a "universal faith"; the French philosopher Rousseau, who held that there is a "natural religion" that men can discover simply by "listening to what God says in their hearts"; the German poet Goethe; the Austrian psychiatrist Carl Jung; and the English historian Arnold Toynbee.

In the East, syncretism has received a powerful boost during the past century from such Indian leaders as the great Hindu mystic Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekenanda, Mahatma Gandhi, and the philosopher-statesman Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. It is not surprising to find Hindu sages in this role, for, as we noted in the previous chapter, Hinduism has always been an eclectic religion. Of all the world’s major faiths, Hinduism has least to lose by lumping everyone’s convictions together in one vast amalgam, since it has already made room for every conceivable viewpoint, from the cool agnosticism of a Nehru to the fervid polytheism of a Nepalese villager.

Modern Syncretism

The Moslem world also has made a contribution to modern syncretism. It is the religion known as Bahai, which was founded in Iran during the nineteenth century by a government official named Mirza Husayn Mi. He took the title Baha’u’llah ("Glory of God") and proclaimed himself a prophet possessed of the same divine guidance as Moses, Christ, and Mohammed. Baha’u’llah offered his followers a "world faith" which, he said, harmonized and fulfilled the valid insights of all the major religions. The Bahai movement now has an international headquarters in Haifa, Israel, and claims followers in 250 countries. There are a few thousand Bahais in the United States, and some of them must be quite wealthy, to judge from the magnificence of the Bahai Temple in Wilmette, Illinois, on Chicago’s north shore.

For every American who formally embraces syncretism by joining Bahai or the Vedanta Society, there are thousands of others who maintain their affiliations with Presbyterian or Methodist or Episcopal churches while espousing syncretistic views. They are attracted to syncretism for several reasons. Its open-mindedness appeals to those who remember how much suffering has been inflicted on the human race by intolerant religious zealots who were certain that they alone possessed the true faith. Its denial that God has revealed Himself through specific acts in history appeals to those who think it unscientific to believe in any kind of miracle. Its promise of a "universal" faith appeals to those who feel a desperate sense of urgency about forging bonds of human unity in a shrinking world threatened by atomic annihilation.

"The plausible, rationally almost self-evident character of the syncretistic answer to the needs of the world makes it a far more dangerous challenge to the Christian Church than full-fledged atheism is ever likely to be," says Dr. W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, the great Dutch theologian and ecumenical pioneer who was the first General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.

In a splendid little hook entitled No Other Name (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia), Dr. Visser ‘t Hooft points out that a purely materialistic view of life is not often a serious temptation for those who are in any sense believing Christians. Syncretism, however, is a temptation, because it seems at first glance not to take anything away from Christianity, but only "to add a wider dimension to the faith of the Church."

That’s the way it seems at first glance. But on closer inspection, it should become obvious that Christianity cannot come to terms with syncretism today, any more than it could in the first century of the Christian Era. You can have Christianity or syncretism, but you cannot have both. It is necessary to make a choice between them, because they are fundamentally and forever incompatible.

The heart of the Christian faith is the assertion that God has revealed Himself in history in the person of Jesus Christ. The self-revelation that God accomplished in the Incarnation was unique, once-for-all, the crucial divine intervention in human affairs.

When Christians try to tell others the good news that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself," they are not laying claim to any superior religious insight, Dr. Visser ‘t Hooft says. They are simply delivering a message that has been entrusted to them — a message that was addressed from the start to all mankind.

Why Christians Can’t Compromise

Thus, Christianity professes to be precisely what the syncretist seeks — a universal faith. It does not assert that the religion of Christians is superior to the religion of Jews, Moslems, or Buddhists, but rather that Jesus Christ is "Lord of all men."

There is no way in which Christians can compromise on this assertion. Either it is the most important truth ever proclaimed — or it is a damnable falsehood which has led hundreds of millions of people astray. In neither case can it be fitted into a neat synthesis with other religions.

"We cannot participate in the search for a common denominator of all the religions," says Dr. Visser ‘t Hooft. "The claim which the Church makes for its Lord has its origin, not in any religious pride or cultural egocentricity, but in the message of the New Testament. For the whole New Testament speaks of the Saviour whom we have not chosen, but who has chosen us. It is possible to reject Him, but it is not seriously possible to think of Him as one of the many prophets or founders of religion."

The real tragedy of syncretism, Dr. Visser ‘t Hooft concludes, is that while it professes to be a bold advance beyond Christianity, "it leads in fact to a regression." For in denying that God has made a decisive self-disclosure in history, the syncretist is saying that man must rely on his own insights, speculations, and guesses for whatever clues he may have to the ultimate meaning of life.

He may put together bits and pieces of various historical religions, and call the result a "universal faith." But he can repose no more confidence in this faith than he has in the infallibility of his own judgment — for it will necessarily be his judgment that is the ultimate criterion of what is included in the synthesis, and what is left out.

Dr. Visser ‘t Hooft goes on to point out that syncretism is never, in practice, as all-embracing as it sounds in theory. It can include within its synthesis only those religious viewpoints that are consonant with its own fundamental denial of a definitive divine revelation. The usual formula for compounding a syncretism is to take a base of Hindu pantheism and season it with a few quotes from Moses, Christ, Buddha, and Mohammed to give it an appearance of inclusivism.

"The demand for a world faith is comprehensible," says Dr. Visser ‘t Hooft. "But it must not be answered in such a way that we destroy the very foundations of faith." Syncretism, with its pretensions to go beyond Christianity, is in fact a retreat into pre-Christian darkness. It confronts men with an "It," an impersonal power which they must try to figure out for themselves, rather than a "Thou," the living God who cared enough for His human creatures to take the initiative in revealing Himself to them in His Son, Jesus Christ.

If a person elects to bet his life on Christ, does it follow that he must despise and look down upon other religions? By no means. From the Apostle Paul to Pope Paul VI, leaders of the Church have taught just the opposite. The Christian has a particularly clear obligation to look with reverence and respect upon Judaism — the religion, which Jesus said he came "not to destroy but to fulfill." But, as Pope Paul said on his visit to India in 1964, Christians also have "the duty of knowing better" the hundreds of millions of fellow human beings who are Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, or followers of other faiths, "recognizing all the good they possess, not only in their history and civilization, but also in the heritage of moral and religious values which they possess and preserve.

The New Testament puts it quite succinctly: "God has not left Himself without witness at any time." In every age, in every nation and in every culture, the Christian should expect to find glimpses, find often much more than glimpses, of the Light which was focused so brilliantly in Jesus of Nazareth. But to say t:his is very far from saying that "all sources of Light are the same." There is a difference between a light bulb, even a very big light bulb, and the sun.