About a month ago, I was asked about my view on what will happen to people who don’t believe in Christianity. This question led to a discussion about whether there is really anything different about the world religions. Don’t all religions just lead to the same thing? What difference does it make what someone believes: it all leads to the same place, right? What really matters is how a person lives and how they treat others, and everything else is just personal preference.
At the time this discussion happened, I didn’t have a good answer to this question (much to the chagrin of my undergrad professors). This is not a conversation I’m unfamiliar with, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been asked to give answers about it. And this is a difficult conversation to have. Most people don’t want to be told that something very dear and important to them is potentially wrong. It’s also a really attractive position to hold. When we look around, it seems like most people are good people. Sure, we can all point to particular people whom we would love see burned at the stake or publicly humiliated or made to suffer. Easy, universal example are Hitler and Stalin. No one would be sad to learn that they were burning in Hell, since that’s where we want them to end up. But for almost everyone else, we want them to be with us in the afterlife. In fact, it’s typically when we encounter good people who have a vastly different worldview than us that we start to question our convictions. A Muslim who doesn’t want all Americans to die and is actually a very nice, generous, loving person? How could that person be going to Hell? Or we look at someone like Gandhi and think that there’s no way he couldn’t be in Heaven. Going further, on the surface it really does appear that most religions are essentially the same. Most religions focus on personal growth, good treatment of others, and being aware of the spiritual aspects of life. So it seems to make sense that all religions lead to the same place.
This viewpoint is often illustrated by a anecdote: the Blind Men and the Elephant. Suppose a group of blind men are presented with an elephant. They each start examining a different part of the elephant and make conclusion about it. “This is clearly a tree” says the blind man who is examining the leg. “Nonsense, this is clearly snake” says one who is examining the trunk. Still another who is examining the tail is convinced that this elephant is a rope. Each comes to their conclusions based on their limited experience of the elephant, but in reality, they are all talking about the same elephant even with their wildly divergent conclusions.
Of course, this illustration begs a question: how do you know it’s an elephant?
There are a couple problems with this viewpoint. I want to break down two big ones. There’s a lot more that could be said on this (and a number of theologians have), but for the sake of brevity, I’ll stick to these two. And the first problem is the question I just posed.
How do we know that the object is an elephant? This seems like a silly question. “Well, because we’ve been told it’s an elephant!” Yes, but how does the person who posed this question know that these blind men are looking at an elephant. The point of the story is that religious people can’t see that they’re all looking at the same thing. It’s a belief in something intangible. But that also means that the person telling the story is also blind. To assume that a person can be outside this story and know what the object is false. We are all in the same situation, and no one knows what that object is. A more accurate telling of this tale would be that the person on the outside would assume that there is no object at all. It would be an atheistic point of view. “I see no evidence of this object, don’t feel or have any experiences with the object, all I can trust is what these other blind men are supposedly experiencing.” The fallacy of this illustration is the assumption that anyone can see the object that these blind men are observing.
The illustration is actually born out of Enlightenment thinking. It’s founded on the idea that we, as humans, can find an objective viewpoint from which we can view the world. That objective viewpoint, for the Enlightenment thinkers, was reason. Through reason, anyone could objectively look at the state of the world and come to the same conclusions as their neighbors. Unfortunately, though many good ideas came out of the Enlightenment, this was not one of them. One of many examples: this line of thinking brought about horrible conclusions about the inferiority of certain races (Africans in particular). It even justified the actions and beliefs of the Third Reich in Germany, of Arianism and the torturing and killing of Jews.
As postmodern thinkers have shown us, we can only see the world through our own particular, subjective lenses. There is no objective peak from which to view the rest of the world. We are bound by the experiences and biases that we hold, and it is impossible for us to put those aside in our observations. This is the problem with universalist thinking. Like the elephant anecdote, universalists assume (intentionally or not) a special knowledge about what religions lead to and believe. In reality, they are just like another blind man examining another part of the elephant (or whatever the object happens to be).
There’s another problem with this viewpoint, and it piggybacks off the first. Westerners in contemporary culture are big fans of tolerance. We don’t like marginalizing people, we believe that everyone deserves an equal shot, we don’t believe that anyone should be excluded or called wrong for something that is a personal choice. We don’t believe people should be excluded for something that is outside their control either. And this universalist view – that all religions lead to the same place – is equally popular because it is tolerant. Or at least it appears to be.
The problem is that universalism is actually quite intolerant. By saying that all religions lead to the same place, universalists are saying “the differences between your religions are insignificant.” In fact, there are incredibly significant differences between religions. There are certainly similarities between religions, but the fact remains that religions have vastly different and often opposing belief systems.
Think, for example, of Buddhism and Christianity. Let’s get more specific. Think back to when Tiger Woods admitted to being unfaithful to his wife. If you watched his press conference carefully, you noticed that he made a very clear connection between his personal actions and the state of his personal and professional life. His suffering was a result of karma. He had not been living according to the right principles in his life and thus his life had fallen apart. His solution was that he needed to return to his Buddhist principles, and his life would return to correct balance. The goal was to eliminate suffering because all suffering is bad and caused by bad karma. By eliminating bad karma from his life, he would be able to have balance again in his life.
Contrast this with Christianity, where suffering is not only not bad but sometimes necessary. Suffering is never desired, but it is not a sign of a life lived poorly or retribution for past actions. The theme of wilderness in the Bible shows that suffering is a teacher. According to Paul, “to live is Christ and to die is gain,” which, in other words, means that sharing in Christ’s suffering is actually something to be treasured and welcomed (though not necessarily sought out). Peter, James, Stephen, and other early church leaders expressed similar assessments when experiencing suffering in their own lives. An entire form of Christianity in the first few centuries of its existence were based on the notion that sharing in Christ’s suffering would bring revelations about God. The Desert Fathers would spend their lives living in poverty and isolation to be faithful to God and open to God’s teaching. Nevermind the face that Buddhism is essentially an atheistic religion (though if I’m not mistaken, that’s not true of all sects of Buddhism).
That’s a significant difference. In either case, to take that belief out of each respective belief system would significant change the system itself so that it would not appear to be the same. This is obviously a single example, but the fact remains that there are incredibly distinct differences between different religions that cannot simply be glossed over. One cannot say “well, both of those systems believe in inner-self growth” and write them off as the same without overlooking some serious considerations. It would be inappropriate to do so. Yet this is what universalism does.
Another example was from The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah was doing a segment on religious belief and one of her audience members was speaking about her own belief in God. Her basic point was that she was agnostic, she was really sure if there was a God and what that God might look like. She did say that what was important to her was loving other people. Oprah then asks her, “well, love seems important to you, right.” The audience remember replied yes. Oprah’s response was “well, then Love is your God, that’s how you express God is through Love.” The audience member objected, but Oprah wouldn’t have it. “Your expression of God is Love, and that’s that.” Now, no one claims (that I know of) that Oprah is a great scholar of theology, but her assessment is an accurate if somewhat abrasive example of what is happening with universalism. It attempts to shoehorn belief systems into a nice, one-size-fits-all solution that can be applied to solve problems.
Difference in religions is part of the reason why the Middle East is in such disarray. There are significant religious differences between the Palestinians and the Israelis that reach down into their cultures. No one’s recommendation is to go in and say, “you both essentially believe in the same thing, so stop bickering over it.” It would be considered insensitive, reductionistic, and ill-advised. Again, this is the same thing that happens in universalism.
Obviously there is much more that could be said about this, but this is a good part of the conversation. This doesn’t address everything that universalism states either. Postmodernism has presented new points to consider. If everything is subjective, how can we be sure that anything is true? What is truth in a subjective world? Can we put any stock in systems that claim to have absolute truth? Those are questions left to answer for another day. For now, I will simply put this out there as food for thought.