Religion 101: Why All Faiths Are Not the Same
Within a week in mid-August I received several rather aggressive emails which made strong claims about God. For example, one warned against joining the conspiracy of Pope Benedict XVI to cover up the third secret of Fatima, which was the revelation that “Mary is God.” Another objected to the Catholic idea that some might be closer to God than others, because in reality “everyone is God.” These claims may seem absurd, but how do we know that one (or more) of our correspondents is not right?
Honest, I am Not Making This Up
When I was in graduate school I had a discussion with a student of comparative religion which I remember all too clearly. She was holding forth on the point that all religions are essentially alike, that there was really no significant way to differentiate one from another. My immediate response, of course, was to ask whether she might not begin by distinguishing between those religions which claim to be revealed and those which do not. She scornfully replied that all religions claim to be revealed.
But they don’t, you see. Across all of religious history, the claim of a clear and specific revelation from God is relatively rare, and the claim of a clear and specific public revelation has been made exactly twice, first by Jews and second by Christians. It is worthy of note that both were talking about the same God. This claim of Revelation is not only the most obvious differentiator among religions but by far the most important. It provides the only possible answer to the skeptic’s charge that every religion is simply a product of human imagination, dreamed up to satisfy a yearning for infinity.
In addition to being an important tool in evaluating serious religions, this argument from Revelation as understood by Jews and Christians enables us to dismiss without worry claims such as those with which I introduced this column. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, religion is not something to be invented. It is something received from higher authority. When questioned, a religious adherent ought to be able to identify the authority on which he believes and teaches what he does. If that authority isn’t ultimately God revealing Himself, then his religion is built on sand.
Where Do You Get This Stuff?
There are seven sources for the world’s religious ideas. First, there are traditional stories coming out of a culture’s distant past with no claim to a specific authorship. Such is the origin of all those religions which we call mythological. Second, some religions are founded by great teachers whose ideas strike a responsive chord and are carried on by organized groups of adherents, such as in Confucianism and Buddhism. These religions are, in large part, mere human philosophies. In the third place are those movements founded at specific points in time by charismatic individuals who claim to have had a private (and therefore unverifiable) revelation significant enough to constitute a new religion. This is the case, for example, with Islam and Mormonism.
Fourth are those religious practices more or less directly manipulated by the devil, as is clearly the case with the worship of demons or attempts to placate them, including human sacrifice. The practices of the ancient Carthaginians and Aztecs as well as aspects of African and American Indian tribal religions involving witch doctors are examples of this type. The fifth source of religious ideas is political expediency. Regimes which deify their systems or their leaders have sometimes manufactured religious or quasi-religious doctrines and practices to enhance political power. This was true of the Egyptian and Roman empires and has also been true, mutatis mutandis, of some modern totalitarian regimes.
The sixth source is syncretism, which arises when significant groups of people allow ideas from more than one religion to shape an amalgamated set of religious practices and customs. The ancient Israelites constantly fell into religious syncretism when they intermarried with surrounding peoples and added foreign religious practices to their own. Islam, which is theoretically based on a private revelation to Mohammed, is thought by many scholars to be a syncretism of Mohammed's personal ideas with ideas drawn from his own imperfect understanding of both Judaism and Christianity.
Finally, there remains the possibility of clear and public Revelation by God Himself. As time goes on, of course, even religions based on this seventh source may be corrupted by a weakening of the original message or the introduction of novel human elements. Still, it is clear that only those religions based on some claim to a public, verifiable revelation provide any reason for the impartial mind to take them seriously. If religion essentially involves the duties of all people to a god they cannot know by natural means, then the religions which claim to be revealed publicly are the only ones whose claims demand to be investigated.
A Grip on Reality
It is not my purpose here to make the argument for the veracity of the public revelation claimed by Jews and Christians, although a general outline of that argument was included in my recent three-part investigation of the proper understanding and use of Scripture. It is sufficient for the current purpose to demand simply that we stop discussing religion like empty-headed (and very fashionable) graduate students and take seriously the one absolute need for authentic religious experience—that God Himself must in some way be publicly, verifiably and unmistakably involved. At the risk of becoming obnoxious to relativists, I repeat that only two religions claim such Divine involvement to be central to their Faith.
In the face of such an astounding claim, presuppositions and prejudices must be banished in favor of inquiry. Even if one is disposed to deny that God exists or that He has revealed Himself in an intelligible manner, the truth-seeker must confront the possibility that his dispositions will lead him astray. Again, there is only one way to confront this possibility: Those concerned about truth have no choice but to examine thoroughly and dispassionately the claims of Judaism and Christianity.
Ultimately, truth is nothing more than the mind’s correspondence with reality. Truth cannot exist without reality, and it is up to us to grasp reality, not to invent it. For natural reality, this involves the painstakingly humble application of philosophy, empirical science and a host of other disciplines. Since we are able to perceive natural reality directly, we have only to be cautious in gathering our data and reasoning to our conclusions. By contrast, supernatural reality demands a different method precisely because we lack the ability to see for ourselves. Truth here, if it exists at all, consists in the mind’s conformity to reality by means of public revelation. And as it turns out, our only candidate for such revelation begins with Yahweh and ends with Christ.
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