1: Religion and Pluralism

1. Pluralism and Secularization

Many religious thinkers of very different persuasions, such as Huston Smith and Hans Kung, have noted that one of the greatest challenges for religious believers in the 20th and 21st cen­turies is coming to grips with the diver­sity of the world’s religions, whose presence in the global community can no longer be ignored or lightly dismissed. Smith, Kung and others also cite a second major modern challenge to religious belief, the growing “secularization” of life, an indiffer­ence to the sacred, brought on by the forces that characterize modern civilizations—s­cience, technology, commercialization, modern media, mass society, and others.[1]

These two challenges to religious belief—s­ecularization and the plurality of religions—a­re both challenges to what might be called the spiritual center. The distinguished historian of the religions, Mircea Eliade, has said that what religions provided for their believers through the ages was a spiritual center. Primitive peoples often identified a sacred mountain or some other place near their home as the center of the universe. The axis of the world went through that point and reached directly to the heavens. It was the spiritual center of their world and the place through which people found access to the divine.

One of the stories of modern civilization is a gradual undermining of this sense of spiritual center. When Copernicus said that the earth was not at the center of the universe, European civilization was shocked. It was shocked even more when Giordano Bruno suggested that there were perhaps many other worlds or galaxies. So shocked, indeed, that Bruno—a less cautious man than Copernicus—was burned at the stake for bringing such bad news. This reaction was crude, but not unnatural. For the spatial center of the universe and our nearness to it had always been an image of the spiritual center and our nearness to it; the loss of one seemed a loss of the other.

Yet the physical center of the universe was only an image of the spiritual center for ancient peoples, and perhaps it was too crude image. It was also possible to believe that, no matter where we were in the physical universe, we could find the spiritual center if we hold the right beliefs, those that are universally or objectively true, true for all persons at all times. Realizing this, primitive peoples also thought that their beliefs were the true ones and their gods the true gods, just as they thought that their mountain was the physical center of the universe.

Yet modern secularization and the plurality of religions conspire to erode this sense of spiritual centering as well. In a world of conflicting religious voices and texts each claiming to speak from the divine point of view, doubts may arise about which beliefs are the true ones; and the secularization of modern life may lead to doubts about religion in general. Like the woman in Perelandra, one may be led to question one’s own convictions in the presence of alternatives widely held by others. It’s that familiar problem of pluralism and uncertainty once again arising in yet another area of modern life and worth exploring.

2. Losing the Spiritual Center: Milosz and Singer

The concerns many people have about the effects of pluralism and secularization upon reli­gious belief are vividly expressed by Polish poet and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz. Like another Nobel Prize winning writer, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Milosz was in expatriate from the communist world who rejected communism, but who was also concerned about the loss of spiritual center in the Western world.

I should confess that I feel a special affinity for Milosz. As a young man in the 1950s I came upon a book of his in the library, translated into English from the Polish as The Captive Mind. It is one of the most powerful indictments of communism and totalitarianism ever written—comparable to other great 20th century works in this vein, like Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s 1984—and it had a profound influence on the youth that I was. The next time I heard Milosz’s name was more than 20 years later when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

Milosz’s actual words about the loss of spiritual center in the modern world are these:

In the West, there has been a constant race between disintegration and creativity….Free­dom allows the new to be borne at the expense of tradition and history. Somehow it happened that the West has been racing for a long time in this way—it gets the prize for creativity. But if you look from a certain perspective, like my compatriot Isaac Bashevis Singer, in his last book, The Penitent, there is also an indifference to basic values. The narrator of that novel looks at life in America as sordid and becomes a convert to Ortho­dox Judaism in the Hasidic quarter of Jerusalem. He returns as it were to a search for the sacred.[2]

It is interesting that Milosz should refer to his compatriot Isaac Bashevis Singer in this con­nection, another great writer and Nobel prize winning author, originally from Poland. Milosz has more than a little sympathy for Singer’s penitent, who is searching for the sacred. As Milosz says,

I feel a great affinity with Singer because we both come from religious backgrounds, I from Roman Catholicism and he from Judaism. Constantly, we deal with similar meta­physical problems….For me the religious dimension is extremely important….Reverence toward being which can be formulated in strictly religious terms or more general terms, this is the basic value. [3]

The recovery of memory that will support what Milosz here calls a “reverence toward being” is one of the main tasks of religion, as he sees it, and one way it “protects us against nihilism.”

In the writing of Nobelists like Milosz and Singer we can discern one of the central features of religion and one of its connections to the spiritual center—its relation to the search for roots, for an historically defined sense of belonging in the cosmos. The idea of roots is built into the very meaning of the term “religion” in English, which comes from the Latin “re-ligio” and literally means a “linking backwards” to one’s origins.

There is a connection here to the fact that the religious quest is concerned with the “meaning of life.” As linguists and etymologists remind us, the mean­ing of words and language (like the meaning of life itself) has a historical dimension; it cannot be understood apart from a past and projected future. When the penitent of Singer’s novel returns to the Hasidic quarter of Jerusa­lem, he returns to his roots, which are related in his mind to finding meaning in his life. Such a relation is evident in Milosz’ thinking about religion as well, though his roots are different from Singer’s protagonist.

3. Fundamentalist Retrenchment and Humanist Scepticism

Yet the connection between religion and roots—this “linking backwards” to the past—is the source of a great problem about religious belief, a problem connected to a paradox about the spiritual center. If finding the spiritual center means both finding one’s roots and finding the true view about the nature of things, then there is a tension built into the very idea of a spiritual center which religion seeks. For our roots are always particular and local, since we are finite beings whose points of view are limited, whereas religion seeks what is true and right for all times and points of view.

In the past, this tension was eliminated in religion by claiming that one’s own roots represented the absolute truth: “Our beliefs are the right ones, our gods the true gods.” To find one’s roots was therefore to find the absolute truth. But the situation is not so simple in a modern world in which we are aware of the diversity of religious roots and the uncertainty of proof in religion. (Pluralism and uncertainty once again.)

Singer’s penitent returns to Hasidic quarter of Jerusalem and to the ways of his ancesters in order to find the sacred. Milosz speaks nostalgically of his Polish Catholic roots which played such an important role in freeing his homeland from communist domination. Each has distinc­tive rituals and beliefs in mind. And the diversity multiplies if we look at the Muslim in Isla­mabad laying a blanket on the ground and praying towards Mecca, the Buddhist monk sitting cross-legged in his temple, Hindus sacrificing to Shiva, evangelical Christians singing hymns, Sikhs worshiping in the temple of the Granth. Where is the spiritual center here? They are in conflict about the most fundamental beliefs. And if one is right and the others wrong, what avails the others to return to their roots?

The most common reaction of deeply religious people to this modern predicament is retrench­ment to an older view. This is the orthodox or fundamentalist reaction, and we know how strong it is throughout the world today. “Stick fast to your own beliefs and your own sacred texts,” it says, “Brook no deviation from them. Claim they are the truth and that you know they are the truth. Try to convince others of this, but do not expect they will agree. Their minds may be clouded by false doctrines and perverted by sinfulness.” To such persons, this is the only way to reclaim the spiritual center.[4]

We can understand this as a traditional reaction to the loss of a spiritual center and we know how pervasive is this reaction throughout the modern world. But we also recognize its dangers.

In a pluralist world, some group’s “sole truth” is not that of another, and if each holds to its own view as the absolute truth, viewing the minds of those who disagree as clouded by prejudice or perverted by evil, the world is ripe for every kind of sectarian strife and fanaticism. And this strife and fanaticism, can often erupt, as we see throughout the world today, into violence and terrorism.

The opposite reaction to such religious retrenchment in the face of pluralism and uncertainty is a humanist skepticism, or “secular humanism,” that rejects religion altogether. Since the Age of Enlightenment, humanist sceptics have argued (in the words of Leszek Kola­kowski) that we “have already suffered enough from struggles between various religions and doctrines whose adherents, on all sides, were deeply convinced of being the only privileged carriers of the abso­lute truth.” This sceptical and secular response to fanaticism, authoritarianism and secta­rian strife is to reject religion altogether.

4. A Broader Question: Meaning and Worth of Life

Many other people today are not in either of these two opposing camps, religion’s fundamen­talist retrenchers or its cultural despisers. It is not religion of any kind they fear, but rather fana­ticism, not faith of any kind they reject, but faiths which claim to be “privileged carriers of the absolute truth” with the right to impose it on others, or to persecute others in its name, or worse, to commit acts of terrorism or violence against innocent persons in its name.

Many of these people who are neither retrenchers nor despisers of religion are sympa­the­tic to religious aspi­rations, but questioning and often deeply troubled by the modern predi­cament. For them the question is different. They would like to retain a religious faith in some form and pass it on to their children. It is a matter of retaining the spiritual center—o­f human dignity, rootedness and giving meaning to their lives. But they wonder how they can retain the intensity of genuine religious conviction held by believers of the past in a modern secular world of diverse and conflicting beliefs.

The problem here is broader even than the term “religion” conveys. It concerns the deeply in­grained human aspiration to find meaning in life in the sense of a broader purpose than a self enclosed existence can afford. Such an aspiration manifests itself, among other ways, in the desire for recognition of the objective worth of our accomplishments, in the desire to be objec­tively worthy of another’s love, or in the desire to be part of grand projects and quests for the good of humankind (to bring peace or relieve suffering or save the environment).

Milosz speaks of such desires as manifesting a “reverence toward being which can be formu­lated in strictly religious terms or more general terms” and calls it “the basic value that protects us against nihilism.” Many other people today manifest a similar attitude when in answer to poll questions they say they are “spiritual” but not religious. They may be disenchanted with traditional religious beliefs and practices and so cannot align themselves with any particular religion. But they haven’t given up the idea that there is a broader meaning and spiritual depth to the universe, and perhaps higher powers, that transcend their own self-enclosed existence and they aspire to find meaning in life by living in accord with this recognition.

Thus, the first question to be asked about the reasonableness of religious belief is broader than religion. What, if anything, can justify this general attitude of “reverence for being,” which in­spires belief in and aspiration toward an objective meaning and worth to life that transcend our own personal existence? The drift of modern secular cultures seems to point to a clear answer to this question. The message of secularization is this: “There is no objective reality in which objective meaning and worth could be grounded, no God’s-eye point of view because there is no God, no absolute point of view because no absolutes, no point of view of the universe be­cause, as science tells us, the universe is nothing more than a vast physical mechanism with a beginning and perhaps an end.” It may be true, the message continues, that we often aspire to some higher meaning in life, but this aspiration simply cannot be satisfied. Max Weber aptly described the development of this secular world view as the “disenchant­ment of the world.” [5]

Is reason on the side of this secularized world view? Does seculariza­tion undermine the reaso­na­bleness of an attitude of “reverence for being,” which inspires belief in, and aspiration to­ward, an objective meaning and worth that transcend our own personal existence? The honest answer, I believe, is that “reason” is not clearly on either side of this debate. It is often said that modern experimental science clearly comes down on the secular side—a­nd science has become definitive in the modern period of what reason and experience allow us to believe.

Is reason on the side of this secularized world view? Does seculariza­tion undermine the reaso­na­bleness of an attitude of “reverence for being,” which inspires belief in, and aspiration to­ward, an objective meaning and worth that transcend our own personal existence? The honest answer, I believe, is that “reason” is not clearly on either side of this debate. It is often said that modern experimental science clearly comes down on the secular side—a­nd science has bec

But we must distinguish in that message the specific and well confirmed results of research from the meaning given to the whole. A decent respect for the canons of human reasoning, and an understanding of how science actually works, should convince us that the results of patient scientific experimenta­tion cannot be ignored by those who want to know what is objectively real. But the specifics of the scientific message are one thing, the meaning of the whole quite another. That meaning can be spelled out in a secular way, as in the above paragraphs, but it need not be, as many great scien­tists have realized. Albert Einstein eloquently expressed another view:

The most beautiful thing that we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand, wrapped in awe, is as good as dead; his mind and his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend…this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense I belong in the ranks of the devoutly religious men.[6]

This statement is surely on the side of Milosz’ “reverence for being,” and Einstein makes clear in other writings that he views such reverence as the source of the scientific drive to understand the objective nature of things, much as we earlier used the scientists search for the final truth as an example of “searches in realm of aspiration.”

The point to be made is not that Einstein’s view is unassailable, but that the specific results of scientific research are consistent with two general attitudes: you can interpret them in a secular way, which is reductive and deflationary, or you can view them in Einstein’s way, as part of the quest for objective understanding of a reality which is worthy of awe and reverence. Scientific research does not tell us which side of this divide to stand on; eminent scientists have stood on both sides. This is what is meant by saying that “reason” is not clearly on one side or another in this debate. It is more a question of aspiration than knowledge—a fundamental choice about how we want to view the world or ourselves. We should not be seduced by the thought that on the one side—the secular—lies “science,” “reason,” cold, clear “logic,” and honest “realism” about the way things are, while on the other side—the aspirational—lies “speculation,” “emo­tion,” “wish­­ful thinking,” and woolly headed “idealism” about the way things ought to be. The fact is that, on a question of this depth, taking a position on either side is a mixture of science and speculation, reason and emotion, logic and desire, realism and idealism.

I once heard an eminent scientist talking about the question of whether there were intelligent beings on other planets scattered throughout the universe, or whether perhaps we humans on this earth were the only intelligent beings in the entire universe. His response was “It’s mind-boggling either way.” Indeed, it is. The thought that there are other thinking beings out there in the universe (perhaps millions of them) of unimaginably different species than our own fills us with wonder and awe. But it is no less difficult to believe that in this vast universe we are the only intelligent species, inhabiting one small planet orbiting an insignificant star in the spiral arm of an undistinguished galaxy in a universe of trillions of stars. It is mind-boggling either way.

5. What We Can Know And What We Should Aspire To

And so it is with the question of the ultimate meaning of life. Thanks to modern science and scho­larship, we have lost our intellectual innocence (as well as our moral innocence) and it is diffi­cult to believe that there is ultimate meaning in life, in religious or any other terms. And yet when we think for a moment about the alternative, we find it no less awesomely difficult to believe that this vast universe, with its many galaxies and stars, its long history and production of living things (at least on one part of it and maybe in others), who suffer and die, and some of whom think about their existence, and about the incomprehensible injustices that surround them—it is also awesomely difficult to believe that this is all some bizarre accident with no ultimate meaning whatsoever.

It is mind-boggling either way—a matter of wonder; and those who think otherwise have lost some of their capacity to wonder. Yet the choice is thrust upon us; we are forced to opt for such a reverence or against it. To avoid the issue is to choose in the negative. This is what William James called a “genuine option” in his famous essay “The Will to Believe.”[7]

Toward the end of his seminal book, the Critique of Pure Reason, Immanual Kant said there are three great questions humans can ask: “What can we know?” “How should we live?” and “What should we aspire to?” I’ve changed the wording of the last two questions a little to fit the earlier discussion in the sections on Ethics and Values. As I argued in those sections, the an­swer to the second question (the ethical question “How should we live?”) cannot be entirely based on an answer to the first (“What can we know?”) We do not know enough to base all the important answers about how to live on what we know. An adequate answer to the question about how to live also requires an answer to the third question about aspiration.

Now the secular response is that we cannot put much faith in aspira­tions for ultimate meaning and objective worth, because they can be explained away as products of an evolutionary pro­cess for survival. But the search for origins is only one way of understanding things. We can also look at our deepest aspirations as clues implanted in us about what we are and where we should be headed—a signal about our destiny.

Recall the root meaning of “aspiration,” men­tioned in earlier sections is a “going outward,” or “outflowing” of the spirit toward something greater than itself. The secular interpretation of aspiration looks backward to its origin in our evolutionary past. It may be a correct account of how such aspiration arose, so far as it goes, and yet not be the whole truth. We may also look upon the aspiration as telling us something about our future as well as our past, telling us something about the next stages of evolution yet to come. We might look upon at it as a clue about (and a “calling” toward) a spiritual journey that lies ahead of us.

So the attitude we take toward our human aspirations falls across the same divide as our atti­tude toward scientific results in general: We can interpret the aspirations toward objective meaning and worth in a secular way, which is reductive and deflationary, or we can view them in the manner of Einstein and Milosz, as part of the quest for an understanding of a reality not yet fully known. The mind-boggling choice confronts us once again: How we explain human aspirations for ultimate meaning and worth is part of the choice to go with them or against them. We have to read our inner selves and decide how important it is to believe in ultimate worth in order to give meaning to our lives. Kant said that the motto of the 18th century En­lightenment was “Sapere aude” “Dare to know.”[8] Had we to choose a similar motto for a potential new Axial period, it would be “Aspirare aude,” “Dare to aspire.”

6. A World of Many Religions

But even if we are prepared to cross this divide and go with Milosz’ and Einstein’s reverence for being, we are still some way from “religion,” are we not, at least in the traditional sense of that term? An aspiration toward ultimate meaning isn’t worth much unless we can put flesh on it in terms of what exactly to believe and how to live—which brings us to our second problem.

There are many religions out there, making specific and controver­sial claims that go beyond the aspirations we have been talking about, contradicting each other and yet all claiming to have the truth. When we try to give content to our aspirations for ultimate meaning in terms of what to believe, do we not come face to face with the critiques of specific religious doctrines and the conflicts between religions?

We thus confront the second challenge for religious believers in the 20th centu­ry—the plurality of religions. It would appear that the two modern challenges, secularization and pluralism, can­not be separated. The question of whether or not to believe is related to the question of what to believe. For most people who have crossed the aspirational divide, the ques­tion is not simply whether they should be “religious” in some general or abstract sense, but whether they should be (or continue to be) a Christian of a specific kind, or an orthodox or reformed Jew, or Mus­lim, or Buddhist, or whatever, and what specifically they should believe about the spiritual dimensions of the universe. As Gandhi once remarked, it is hard to be religious without being so in some way or another, religion being more than merely a set of beliefs; it is a way of life, most often within some community of worshipers.

We are back to the connection between religion and roots and to the paradox of the spiritual center. All religions, including the ones into which we may have been born, are particular and local, with specific beliefs and practices based on scriptural writings and revelations; whereas religion, if it expresses our aspiration to objective meaning and worth, seeks the universal or absolute. The question is how, if at all, we can make sense of these conflicting aspirations in a world of many religions.[9]

Are we to choose the fundamentalist view that if the claims of one religion are objectively or absolutely true, then the conflicting claims of other religions must be objectively or absolutely false? Or the relativist view that religions do not make truth claims from the point of view of the universe at all, but only from this or that point of view? Or perhaps the view that religious claims are merely mythical or symbolic, or statements of loyalty, galvanizing us to live better or binding us to communities of worship. For an older Axial Period, these may have appeared to be the only options; must they be the only ones for a new Axial period?

7. Paths or Ways of Life: Comparative Religion

I don’t think we can begin to answer such questions without returning to basic issues about the nature of religion. This is one of those places where answers seem to escape us be­cause we have come to the end of one line of inquiry and must start another. To make headway with the issue of objective truth in religion, we have to return to square one as far as understan­ding what religion itself is; and I think we can get our first clues by turning to the very pheno­menon which gives rise to the problem of objectivity in the first place—the plurality of the world’s religions. One of the trends of the times is a growing interest in comparative religions and in the mythologies of East and West, which have much to teach us about the nature of religion and life in general.

The first thing we learn from comparative studies of religion is that religions are not merely systems of belief or theories about the world. They are first and foremost “Ways” or “Paths of Life,” through which persons seek to overcome the evils of the world and attain some higher state. Buddhists, for example, hold that the religious goal is enlighten­ment (Nirvana) to be sought by way of what they call the “Noble Eightfold Path or Way” which consists of Right Belief, Right Desire, Right Speech, Right Behavior, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Medita­tion. Buddhism, like other religions, is thus an entire way of life, which includes a good deal more than “Right Belief” which is only the first step, though a necessary first step. Without the right beliefs, Buddhists hold, one could scarcely persist through the other steps of the Eightfold Way.[10]

This idea of religion as a Way or Path of life, involving true belief, but more than merely be­lief, is common to the major world religions. In a well-known Gospel passage, Christ says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,”[11] an interesting juxtaposition of terms. For it conjoins the elements emphasized here as characteristic of religion, the “Way” of “Life” with the “Truth,” without which the Way of Life would not have the significance it is supposed to have.

In a similar vein, the central notion of Chinese religious traditions, both Confucianism and Tao­ism, is the notion of the “Tao” (pronounced “Dow”) which means literally the “Way.” The Tao in Chinese thought is the Way of the universe, but also the Way for people to live if they are to be brought into harmony with the Way of the universe.[12] It is represented by a Chinese character composed of two other characters, one on top of the other—the bottom one signi­fying “walking” or “going” and the top one “thinking.” The Way is a journey through life while thinking or reflecting about where one is going.

8. Theories of Value and Theories of Reality

A second major feature of religion that emerges from comparative study is a further develop­ment of the first. As Ways of Life seeking to overcome the evils of the world, religions are not merely views about reality, they are also views about value. They seek to tell us not only what is ultimately real, but also what is ultimately good, or worth striving for. This combining of a theory of reality (what the philosophers call a “metaphysics”) and a theory of value is, in fact, one of the distinctive features of religion.

And the idea that religions combine a theory of reality and a theory of value has an im­por­tant further implication. At the summits of their theories of reality, religions usually identify a “supreme reality,” variously called God, Allah, Brahman, Nirvana, Tao, which they understand in different ways. And in their theories of value, they also characteristically identify a summum bonum, or highest good, also understood in different ways. For Christians that highest good is Love; for Hindus it is a combination of three values, “Sat” (infinite being), “Chit” (infinite consciousness) and “Ananda” (infinite bliss or joy). For Taoists it is a disposition toward life variously described as actionless activity or creative quietude (wu wei in Chinese).[13]

But the remarkable thing is that, in the major religious traditions of the world, the supreme rea­lity and supreme value are usually viewed as convergent. In Hinduism, the highest values, Sat, Chit, Ananda are identified with the highest reality, Brahman. Brahman is said to be Sat-Chit-Ananda (infinite being, consciousness and bliss) which Hindus often elide together as the name of the supreme reality. In Christianity, the supreme reality is God, the supreme value, love; and we are familiar with the assertion that God is Love. In Taoism, the highest value of creative quietive (wu wei) is exempli­fied most fully in the supreme reality, Tao, so that for a person to exemplify creative quietude is for that person to be brought into harmony with the Tao, or the ultimate Way of the universe.

The convergence of supreme reality and supreme value takes different forms in the different world religions, but some variation of it is frequently there working behind the scenes. For some religions, supreme reality and supreme value are identical, for others, the supreme reality exemplifies the supreme value in the highest degree. But the underlying theme is always the same. You can find the one (supreme reality) by finding the other (supreme value). And this theme in turn can be directly related to the themes about religion previously mentioned: that religion is a Way or Path of Life, which includes belief but is more than merely belief, and that the goal of religion is transcendent and hidden from us, and so must be in matter of aspiration rather than certain knowledge.

Because the supreme reality is transcendent and hidden from us (the first theme), there is no direct intellectual path to it. The path must be indirect. But because the supreme reality and supreme value are somehow convergent (the second theme), there is an indirect path to the supreme reality: we can seek the supreme reality by way of the supreme value. To seek value of any kind, however, is to pursue a Way of Life whose object is the attainment of that value as its goal (the third theme). For this reason, religions insist that only those who live a certain kind of life find God (or the supreme reality); and more to the point, that you can find the supreme reality if you live the right kind of life.

9. A Clue: Objective Truth and Objective Worth

These themes provide us with our first clue about how objectivity can be sought in religion. Suppose that the supreme reality and supreme value are convergent, as religions claim, so that we can seek the supreme reality by pursuing a Way of Life whose aim is to realize the supreme value. Then, if the supreme reality we seek is to be objectively real (=real from all points of view), the supreme value through which we seek the supreme reality, and with which it con­verges, must be objectively valuable as well (=valuable from all points of view). But objective value in this sense is what we earlier called objective worth. It is that which takes us to the fourth dimension of value.

So one thing we look for in testing the objective truth of religions is whether the Ways of Life they require have objective worth. This will not be the only test, but it will be a necessary one if supreme reality and supreme value converge: Objec­tive worth will be something without which a religion cannot claim objective truth from all points of view.

Not only is this a clue about how objectivity is sought in religion; I think it also provides uni­que insight into some of the characteristics of religion identified by historians and anthropolo­gists. Most importantly, it tells us why ethics is so closely associated with religion. It helps to account, for example, for the widespread appearance of the Golden Rule in the major religious traditions of mankind, as noted earlier. It also accounts for the common requirement in religion that only those who have gone through various ethical steps (as in the “Right Speech” and “Right Behavior” stages of the Eightfold Way), or have fulfilled various command­ments (like those of the Mosaic Law), not to kill, lie, steal, etc. are worthy of salvation or enlightenment. (“Only the good find God.”)

The Dalai Lama has recently said in this connection, “I maintain that every major religion of the world—B­uddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikh­ism, Tao­ism, Zaroastrianism—has similar ideals of love, the same goal of benefitting humanity through spiritual practice….All religions teach moral precepts….All teach us not to lie or steal or take others’ lives, and so on.”[14]

Something like this is what one would expect if religious lives were distinguished from secular undertakings by their quest for objectivity in the form of objective worth. To seek objectivity for one’s point of view, it is necessary to seek objective worth for one’s way of life. And “objec­tive” worth means worth from all points of view, not merely from one’s own point of view. The ethical aspect of religion would in this manner be an essential part of the religious quest for objectivity.

The point is not that all religions have sought objectivity in this way. They clearly have not. The normal way of seeking objectivity in religion, as we have seen, was to claim certainty and authority for one’s own religion, rejecting all others who disagreed, and basing one’s ethical views on that authority. But one of the achievements of the great thinkers and religions of the original Axial Period of human history was to begin (albeit tentatively) to move away from such ethnocentric views, to see religion in more universalistic terms (God is the God of all, not just of my people; Nirvana is available to all, not just the Brahmin caste), a tendency which is inevitable, I believe, insofar as religion seeks objectivity.

Once this idea takes hold, traditional religion itself is inevitably put to an ethical test. “If the gods do evil,” says the Greek trage­dian Euripides in the original Axial Period, “then they are not gods”; and similar demands were made by other Axial figures, like Socrates and Plato: If gods do evil they are not the (objectively) true gods; if a religion preaches evil it is not the (objectively) true religion.[15]

10. The Idea of the Sacred

The ethical dimension of religion thus becomes an essential aspect of the religious quest for objectivity by way of objective worth. But it is only one aspect of the connection between objectivity in religion and objective worth. Two other features of religion, commonly men­tioned by experts on comparative religion, point to the same connection.

One is the idea of the “sacred,” which is regarded by many historians of religion and anthropo­logists as the most significant and irreducible element in all religion.[16]The sacred is the realm set apart from the secular (which is the realm of everyday life) and from the profane (evil or forbidden things). Sacredness in religious contexts may attach to many things—to places, to words (the Lord’s Prayer or the Hindu word “Om”), to writings (the Bible or Quran), to objects (temples, icons, totems), to actions (prayer or sacrifice), to rites or rituals (baptism, ceremonial dance), to persons, times, events. But, in each case, the sacred has a special significance and special role in the economy of religious Ways of Life.

There is some truth in the influential view of sociologist Emile Durkheim that sacred places, objects, and rites play an essential role in the social life of religious communities, binding them together, rehearsing attitudes, and enforcing social obligations.[17] But there is also a dimension of the sacred in religion (not so often mentioned) which goes beyond the social and is related to our present theme—the religious quest for objectivity in the form of objective worth.

This is best illustrated by focusing on sacred rites or rituals. The tendency in religion is to mark the various stages of passage in human life (birth, coming of age, marriage, death) with rituals or ceremonies which set them apart from everyday life. Consider a description of the marriage ceremony of the Ngaju people of South Borneo by anthropologist Hans Scharer in his book Ngaju Religion.[18] Though very different from our modern religious ceremonies, there are many recognizable themes.

The marriage ceremony, which, with all its rites, lasts a fairly long time, is conducted by the elders and they tell the couple from time to time what they have to do. The bride has to grasp the Tree of Life with her right hand and raised index finger. Then the bride­groom…encloses the finger of his bride and the tree of life with his right hand….

What does the wedding really signify….It is clear that it has a deeper meaning and is somehow connected with the conception of God and creation. It is not simply a social occasion…of pairing together, but one of the most important religious affairs. To be married means to enter a new stage of sacred life…it is death and life, passing away and coming into being….The couple…return to the Tree of Life….To clasp it means to be in the Tree of Life, to form a unity with it.[19]

The message is that the wedding is not merely a secular contract between two people. Turning it into a sacred bond means that the union of the man and woman has a significance that goes beyond themselves, linking them to the wider community and indeed the whole of creation (the “Tree of Life”).

The role of the sacred, here as elsewhere, is what is sometimes called the “hallowing” of life, which means that everyday undertakings (in this case a marriage) are given a significance that goes beyond the parties immediate­ly involved (which would only give them relative worth). Unlike merely secular undertakings, sacred undertakings must have worth from “the point of view of the whole of creation,” that is, from “the absolute point of view”; they must have objective worth. And this means that they cannot be lived for personal happiness alone, but must serve the wider communities of which the persons are a part, and indeed all creation.

This role of the sacred in religion—of raising lives above a finite, selfish point of view and giving them objective worth—pervades other important aspects of life from a religious point of view. Just as marriages are not to be perceived religiously merely as contracts between indivi­duals for mutual satisfaction, so work and careers are not to be perceived simply as ways of earning a living, but as “vocations” or “callings” with a higher purpose.

A woman may look upon a career in medicine as a means of making money or gaining fame, status or prestige. So far these are secular goals. But if she sees it also and preeminently as a means of bringing some good into the world, of healing the sick and reducing needless suffe­ring, she sees it as a calling or vocation. It becomes a sacred undertaking. But note that this is just what is required to give her work objective worth, to make it worthy of recognition and praise from points of view other than her own and those close to her.

Hindus speak of social actions, like healing the sick, relieving suffering, and protecting the environment as “the main­tenance of the world,” and regard them as essentially sacred under­takings.[20]This wonder­ful phrase (“the maintenance of the world”) is a way of saying that such actions have worth from the point of view of the universe—o­bjective worth.

It should not surprise us then that persons who complain about the loss of spiritual center in modern societies, also complain about the loss of a sense of “vocation” or “calling” in people’s lives, and the tendency to see work as merely a means of attaining external goods like money or status. What we have added here is the connection of this theme to the search for objective worth by way of the sacred dimensions of life. By attacking the sacred, secularization under­mines religion by undermining belief in objective worth itself.

11. Saints and Heros: Campbell

A third way in which religion seeks objectivity by way of objective worth is through what might be called sainthood or heroism. Religions gener­ally define certain ideal ways of life, or describe persons who play a special role in (or provide models for) the religious quest. In different traditions, they are called saints or heros, prophets or gurus, holy persons, monks, shamans, yogis, apostles, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, sages, mystics, and so on.

The saintly or heroic aspect of the religious quest is a search for greatness of achievement in the religious life that may serve as an inspira­tion for others or have more specific benefits to the wider world. As such, it is a search for objective worth under another of its aspects, excel­lence of achievement deserv­ing clear recognition with praise. But for the religious life, the search for objective worth through excellence takes on a special cast. It is characterized by humility and associated with “sacrifice” of the self to some higher goal. The words of the Christian gospels express this nicely: “The greatest among you is the servant of all.”[21]

Excellence is sought in the religious life (who can doubt this if one thinks of the saints), but in order to serve some higher ideal, as in the case of the Confucian ideal of Chun-Tze, the ruler who strives to be great in order to serve the people rather than for self gratification, or in the Buddhist ideal of the Bodhisattvas, beings who will not allowed themselves to realize the fruits of enlightenment until every other creature and “every blade of grass” is enlightened.

In his classic study, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell has shown how perva­sive is this saintly and heroic dimension in the myths of mankind.[22] The heros of the world’s myths wear many masks. They may be Indian maidens called to save their tribes or families, African shamans with special gifts, knights or warriors seeking some boon for mankind, pro­phets or holy persons seeking and bringing spiritual renewal. But behind all the masks, Camp­bell finds a similar pattern.

In the first stage, heros are called to some higher adventure or quest. They must acknowledge their destiny and prepare to leave home, traditions and everyday life in order to answer the call. This symbolic death to former life is followed, in the second stage, by a series of trials and vic­tories, won in great part through their own efforts, but with spiritual help. The heros recognize at this stage that their outer victories must be matched by inner ones. To win out they must conquer the forces of evil and selfishness within themselves through self knowledge and self control. (In some of the myths, the hero’s journey is an entirely inner one—a removal from the world for a period of inner study, meditation or mystical enlightenment.)

Finally, having over­come all obstacles, and having died to their personal egos, the heros in the third stage return home to reintegrate themselves with the society they had left. The object is to return to the world “transfigured, and teach the lesson [they have] learned of life renewed.”(p. 91)

In this heroic pattern are contained most of the elements of the religious quest for objective worth. The leaving of home, traditions, and everyday life in the first stage is symbolic of the distinction between secular undertakings in which one seeks only personal happiness, on the one hand, and the religious quest in which one seeks objective worth, on the other. (Note here that objective worth is worth that benefits all beings, not just oneself.) The return of the heros with their boons for humankind makes clear that “the greatest among you is the servant of all.” Excellence is sought, but only to serve some higher ideal. This is service, but not servility. The servant of all theme signifies that the worth which is gained is good from all points of view, i.e. objectively or absolutely good, not just relatively good for oneself or a few.

12. Truth And Practice: Can Those of Other Faiths Be Saved?

I have suggested that these three central features of religion—the ethical, the sacred and the heroic—are ways of seeking objective worth for religious lives. If an important feature of religious belief lies in the ultimate convergence of objective reality and objective worth, then the ethical, the sacred and the heroic become a part of the quest for objective validity in religion.

But we have still only scratched the surface of the problem of objective truth in religion. Per­haps we can rule out many religions as false in this way: If they do not require ways of life that have objective worth, then they are heading in the wrong direction. Such are religions or cults that condone hate, selfishness, exploitation, or even genocide.

But while considerations of objective worth may eliminate many religious views and cults, it need not narrow the options to one. Nor do considerations of objective worth anwer all of our questions about objective truth in religion. Different religions have vastly different beliefs about the the supreme reality and about the way to reach it. Where their doctrines disagree, it would seem that only one of them could be true—however ethical, sacred or heroic the lives of their adherents might otherwise be.

This problem arises in a very practical way for religious believers. It takes the form of a fami­liar question. Can people in other religions be saved if they live good lives, though they do not have the right (“our”?) beliefs? In the West, Jews and Christians have wrestled with this ques­tion for centuries. The hardliners have always said No. But the drift over the past few centur­ies has been toward saying Yes, with varying qualifications.

When the West discovered new peoples, Christians asked whether American Indians or Chi­nese or Hindus, who had never heard the message of Christ, could be saved; or if they had heard the message, could they be saved if they lacked the requisite background to truly under­stand it, or if it came to them distor­ted by poorly informed preachers (of which there are more than a few). To say such persons could not be saved, even if they lived sacred, heroic and ethi­cal lives in accordance with their consciences seemed inconsistent with the belief in a just, merciful and loving God—t­hat is, a God eminently worthy of love and praise.

Once this door was opened, such logic has gradually led many in mainline Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches to concede that persons may be saved in other faiths, even non-Christian ones (though fundamentalists have not gone along). The Second Vatican Council put it this way: “men and women who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but who sincerely search for God and strive to do his will, as revealed by the dictates of conscience…can win eternal salvation.”[23] In an important conci­li­atory gesture, considering Christian history, the Council made a special point of saying that “God’s saving will” can also extend to Jews and Muslims. Many mainline Protestant Christian denominations expressed similar views.

In fairness, we have to add that such ecumenical statements, even when they are made by Chris­tians (or in other religions), often are the reverse of earlier positions of these same chur­ches, which often involved persecution of heretics and unbelievers, and are surrounded with qualifications. But even qualified and hesitant as they are, such ecumenical concessions show the modern churches wrestling with the issue of salvation in other faiths.

13. The Vedic Many Paths View

The problem of other faiths becomes more complicated when we consider that in some of the world’s religions, especially the Eastern ones, people are prepared to make even stronger ecu­menical claims. The Hindu Vedas say “The truth is one, the sages call it by many names.”[24] In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna (an avatar, or incarnation, of the Divine) says that “Howsoever men may approach me, evenso do I accept them. Humans come to me in different ways, but whatever path they choose is mine.”[25]

Mohandas Gandhi, who was deeply influenced by these traditions and texts, insisted that in reli­gion there are many paths to the one Truth—different paths, as he put it, up the mountain to the one summit.[26] He acknowledged that Christianity was a legitimate path to the divine (it was a version of what the Hindu traditions call “bhakti” yoga, the way to the divine through love) and Gandhi claimed to have learned much from the Christian Gospels as well as from other reli­gions. Yet he insisted that his own religious consciousness—his own path up the mountain —was guided by the Bhagavad-Gita and other works of his own tradition.

To many Westerners, this Vedic “many paths up the mountain” image is appealing, but seems to come too dangerously close to outright relativism in religion. Will any path do? No, not exactly, if objective worth is a precondition. In order to pass the tests of objective worth a reli­gion should not preach hate or oppression or practice injustice as a matter of principle. So we can limit the “many paths” in terms of objective worth, as I think Gandhi would have us do. But there are other problems.

Another typically modern reaction to the Vedic “many paths” view might go like this: “If there are other ways up the mountain, why not look around for the easiest one.” But to this reaction, Gandhi and those who share the “many paths” view have a ready reply. “There is no easy way. The way up the mountain is hard and steep, no matter which direction you are coming from. This is because the sacred life requires an emptying of the self and sacrifice, the heroic life is one of trials and dedication, and the ethical life is one of shared obligations and duties. No mat­ter which religious path you choose, your worthiness for salvation will depend on how sacred, heroic and ethical your life may be.

14. A Further Clue: Two Views of Revelation

In such manner, some of the obvious objections to the Vedic “many paths” view of religion may be answered. But other objections remain. We have not yet touched upon the problem of conflicting doctrines. If, for exam­­ple, Christians are taught that Christ is the Son of God, and that redemp­tion must go through Christ, how can they be comfortable with this “many paths up the mountain” view? Can they say that others who do not hold these Christian views and fol­low other paths can equally well be saved? Can they maintain their own beliefs with the same conviction and pursue the Christian life with the same intensity if they believed it might not be the one true way? And likewise for pious Muslims, Jews, and others.

We need at this point one further clue in our attempt to understand objectivity in religion, some­­­thing that must be added to our earlier themes about religion as a Way or Path with trans­cendent goals. This clue has to do with yet another central feature of religion, namely, revela­tion, the disclo­sure of religious truths through scriptures, prophecies and religious experi­ences. If the problem of objective truth in religion is to be adequately addres­sed, some further thin­king about this important feature of religion is needed.

Revelation in religion can be looked at in two ways, as completed in the past and set down in some book or sacred document once and for all, or as a continuing process still going on that may be completed only in a distant future. The first, or “past-directed,” view was the dominant one of earlier ages, including the original Axial Period. But our arguments suggest that a new Axial period will require the second, or “future- directed,” view as well.

The past-directed view is associated with the traditional way of searching for absolutes and has all the problems of that way. You look to your own sacred texts handed down from the past, not only for revelation of the divine, but for the whole and completed revelation, and then try to convince others that your sacred text has the truth. In that direction lies uncritical authorita­rianism and the potential for fanaticism and sectarian strife.

The forward-directed view does not deny past revelations. Christians, for example, can and should believe that the Bible, and especially the New Testament, contains a large chunk of what is worth knowing about the supreme reality. And believers in other religions must take similar attitudes toward their sacred scriptures. Yet in view of the uncertainties of interpreta­tion, transmission and translation of these sacred texts, well known to scholars who study them, in view of what they do not discuss or what they may say conflicting things about, in view also of the continuing revelations of experience of those who read them and follow them, believers in these sacred texts have no similar right to say that their interpretation or any other particular interpretation of these texts is the whole and final truth. On the forward-directed view there may be as much or more revelation ahead of us as behind us, including more that we may have to learn from these sacred texts themselves. The spiritual quest of humankind is not over.

Thus believers, on this future-directed view of revelation, must believe that the fundamental doctrines of their faith will turn out to express some profound truths in the final accounting of things, however inadequately those truths are now understood. But they would also believe that these and other doctrines will be transfigured in the long process of future revelation so that our present understanding of them is “only through a glass darkly.” The ancients were correct in believing that the stars were sources of fire in the sky, though there is an immense difference between their understanding of fire and our understanding of nuclear fusion. A long history of continuing revelation stands between the two views, yet the ancients who believed that the stars were sources of fire were on the right track; what they believed turned out to be true by our present accounting, though inadequately understood.

And so we may view our religious doctrines, on this future-directed view of revelation. It de­means the search for truth in religion to say that what we have in our scriptures and revela­tions are merely “myths,” or “pretty stories,” or “edifying symbols,” with no foundation in reality—meant only to galvanize us to lead good lives. But it also demeans our intelligence to say that our readings of these same scriptures and revelations are literally and completely true as they stand, knowing how deep are the mysteries they convey and the uncertainties of interpretation and transmission through generations of fallible humans, and the disagreements in their inter­pre­tation. With regard to religious truths, we are, as the medieval thinker Nicholas of Cusa put it, like “owls squinting at the sun.”

But what, then, is to be said about the contradic­tions in the doctrines of major world religions? Jews and Muslims hold, contrary to Christians, that God could not become man, in Christ or anyone else. Muslims hold that Mohammed was the seal of the prophets, while many Jews and Christians hold that he was no true prophet at all. Buddhists believe that the supreme reality is an apparently impersonal state of Nirvana, quite different from the personal Deity worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Could they all be true?

The answer, if we take seriously what has been said thus far, is that some, even much, of what they say, which seems contradictory, could be true in this future-directed view of revelation—though not all—and surely not if they claim the complete and whole truth for what they affirm or deny. Consider that physicists once held that light was made up of particles of matter and then later that it was made up of waves. Today they believe that both views were right in a way, since light is both wave and particle, in a manner unimaginable to those who held the simpler views of the past. Each of the older views was right in a way, but wrong insofar as it claimed the whole or complete truth, rather than just some aspect of the truth.

So it may be, for example with the conflict between the impersonal views of the supreme rea­lity of some Eas­tern religions and personal views of other religions. Theologians have always held that the personhood of God is different from that of humans, though there is some faint resemblance. Perhaps there is some room in those differences for the truth to the Eastern impersonal views of the supreme reality, a truth consistent with Western beliefs that in some profound sense also, God is a person. Any reconciliation would unquestionably transfigure our views of both alternatives, much as the modern physics of wave-particles transfigured tradi­tional (and formerly contradictory) views of waves and particles.

On this view, religious believers can hold that the doctrines of their religion, which they be­lieve and cherish, are not only valuable but will turn out to be true of an objective reality in the final accounting of things. But they must also hold that these doctrines are only inadequately understood at present, that revelation is not complete, that much of the spiritual journey of understanding is ahead of them, and that many (not necessarily all) of the cherished doctrines of other religions may also have truths to contribute to the final accounting of things. How this may be so (given the apparent conflicts between religions) is one of those things that the spiri­tual journey can teach them, if they remain open to new revelation and do not assume they have the whole truth already.

Yet they may also hold that their own beliefs have something unique and indispensable to contribute to the final truth. Two examples will explain how this might be. As a first, consider that Christians do and must hold that there is a profound truth in their claim that God suffered in Christ out of compassion for the human race. They should insist that this message of divine compassion to the point of participation in human suffering will be part of the final accounting of things religious, and is an important message to all humans, not just to Christians, though it is not wholly understood at present. In other words, they need not say that the doctrine fails to be objectively true, only that it is not now completely understood. This is what it means to call it a “mystery.”

To take another example, the sacred scriptures of Judaism, the Torah (or five books of Moses), along with the books of the Prophets, the Psalms and other writings, tell the story of a special Covenant between God and the Jewish people made through Abraham. The Jews were to re­main loyal to God, have no alien gods before them, follow the Law, and in turn, God would be with them always and they would be a “light unto the nations.” On the future-directed account of revelation we are considering, to be a believing Jew would be to believe that this story will turn out to express some profound truths in the final accounting of things, however inadequate­ly those truths are now understood. Nor would these truths be just for Jews; they would be “lights unto all the nations,” if objectively true.

Imagine how this might be. One of the themes of the Hebrew scriptures is that worldly rulers are not gods, nor supreme authorities. Only God is the true King, and earthly sovereigns are not above the commands of God. Thus, the prophet Nathan chastises King David for transgressing against God and Elijah rebukes King Ahab. This profound idea of the subservience of human rulers to a higher law emerges for one of the first times in human history in these Scriptures. But it is an idea for all peoples, and may therefore be one of those things in the final accoun­ting for which the House of Israel will have been a “light unto the nations.”

Yet another doc­trine of Hebrew scriptures, which has been a scandal to many non-Jews, is another case in point. I refer to the doctrine of the “chosenness” of Israel, which is interpreted by most rabbis as imposing special responsibilities rather than as merely a form of favoritism. Moreover, it need not rule out the chosenness of other peoples. As Leo Trepp says, in a book on Judaism, “the chosenness of Israel, through the forces that have fashioned it serves as an example of humanity to consider itself chosen for duty and held divinely responsible for its perfor­mance.”[27]

In a similar manner, believers of other faiths can hold that their central doctrines will express profound truths in the final accounting—t­hat they will be “lights unto the nations”—though inadequately understood and not the completed or whole truth. Not all cherished doctrines will survive these requirements of a future-directed view of revelation, to be sure. Any claim that our Way or religion is the only true Way, our prophet or scripture the only true or fully right ones, and all others contain no truth whatever, will fail it. Any that claim that their present view represents the whole and complete truth, leaving nothing more to learn in the future spiritual journey of humans, will also fail it.

We should not underestimate these changes; they are major and wrenching changes in the way religious revelation is viewed and they will not sit well with those who demand to see religion in the manner of the original Axial Period, in terms of past-directed revelations alone. But they can be reconciled with the idea that our particular religious beliefs, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc., are objectively true—n­ot just true for us, but lights unto all the nations.

A fitting motto for this view of revelation can be found in a theme often expressed by the great 18th dramatist and poet, Gotthold Lessing—that no religion has the whole truth; only God alone has the whole truth.[28] The supreme reality is too great to be fully encompasssed by any finite hu­man tradition. If the goal of the religious quest is a transfiguration of human existence, should we fail to acknowledge that this might involve a transfiguration of our present limited beliefs and understandings as well?

15. The Mosaic Of Life

The final clue we need to make sense of this approach to religious truth, is a theme introduced in the section on Values and Ethics—the image of the great Mosaic of Life. The spiritual jour­ney of humankind was represented by a mosaic of different colored stones and glass making up a larger pattern. The different pieces represent different Ways of Life through which humans have sought to connect themselves with the supreme reality, with the spiritual center—from Singer’s penitent returning to the Hasidic quarter of Jerusalem to the Buddhist monk sitting cross-legged in his temple. They have different beliefs because they have an imperfect grasp of the reality and are seeing it through a glass darkly. But they are trying to see the whole more clearly by trying to reduce bias and narrow vision in their views.

Among the ways of reducing bias and narrow vision are the sacred, heroic and ethical dimen­sions of their lives through which they seek objective worth, thereby viewing themselves, not selfishly, but from the point of view of the “whole of creation.” Understood in terms of the mosaic image, the role of this search for objective worth in religion is to make one’s point of view fit into the whole mosaic, so that it will represent part of the objective truth.

With regard to factual beliefs and doctrines, the reduction of bias and narrow vision requires that religious believers be open to a continuing revelation and further under­stand­ing of what they believe (that they meditate on the mysteries of their faith, not assuming that those with differing views have nothing to teach them).

Reduction of narrow vision also involves being open to secular learning, including science and philosophy. The idea that religion should not be reduced to science, yet should not contradict science, is of a piece with the goal of seeking objectivity by reducing bias and narrow vision. “Reason,” as Arabic philosopher Al-Ghazzali once said, “is God’s scale on earth.”[29] In the mosaic image, the reduction of bias and narrow vision is signified by each piece attempting to reflect the whole while remaining unique. This is how a view becomes a “light unto the others” and obtains objective truth, or truth for all.

As noted in the section on Values and Ethics, the objective point of view, which represents the objective in religion, is not a neutral point of view. It is the summation of all the partial points of view that have objective worth and truth, just as the complete description of New York City or the elephant of the Buddhist tale, is a summation of all the partial descriptions from different points of view. The mosaic was used as an image of this summa­tive idea of truth. Removing any piece would make it less complete just as removing one of the many possible descriptions will give us an incomplete picture of New York City or the elephant.

The problem about religion for many people is how to retain the intensity of conviction re­quired to follow their particular religion—to follow the difficult, sacred, heroic and ethical path it requires of them—knowing that it is particular and limited in its history and point of view, and without the assurance (which earlier believers may have possessed) of knowing that it is the sole right way and others wrong. It helps to know there is no easy path, one way or the other, and that worth is measured by the difficulty of the struggle, no matter which path is taken.

But it also helps to believe that your own religious tradition can be, as noted earlier, a unique and indispensable piece of a larger mosaic of spiritual truth so long as it manifests ob­jective worth and remains open to further revelation and understanding of the supreme reality. For then your contribution and that of your religious tradition is required for the good of the whole, as is a piece of the mosaic. This allows us to return to our “roots,” as Milosz and Singer would have us do, and yet find the “absolute.” It speaks to the paradox of the spiritual center which requires people to reconcile the particularity of their lives and traditions with the universality of their aspirations.

Following this line of thought, a proper thing to say to those who belong to various religious traditions would be this. “If you are not disenchanted by your own religion and still believe you can find the sacred, heroic and ethical dimensions through it, then it is the logical choice as a path for you, because it represents your roots. But if you are concerned about its objective truth as well as its objective worth, knowing that it is only a finite way of life, then keep your mind and your heart open to the continuing revelation of your own and other points of view. For the objective truth and worth of your own Way require that it be true and good from all points of view, not merely from your own.”

[1] Smith (1992); also see his (1982); Kung (1978) and (1981).

[2] from Milosz (1986): p. 35.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Laurence (1989).

[5] Weber (1958), p. 182.

[6] from Untermeyer (1955), p. 54.

[7] James (1959), p. 3.

[8] Kant (1959), p. 85.

[9] One way to solve this problem is the aforementioned one of claiming to be “spiritual” but not religious, not adhering to any particular religion. Perhaps this is why such an attitude has be­come increasingly popular in a secular age. But one must be spiritual in some specific way or other as well and one’s spirituality must be informed by some beliefs about the nature of the universe. One must particularize one’s beliefs and practices in some ways or other if one is to live a spiritual life.

[10] See H. Smith (1991) and Robinson and Johnson (1982).

[11] John 14: 6

[12] H. Smith (1958), chap. 5.

[13] Ibid. pp. 19-22 (for the Hindu values), 207-11 (for the Taoist ideal).

[14] A Human Approach to World Peace, (Wisdom Publications, 1984), p. 13.

[15] Plato, Euthyphro, Plato (1937); for the Euripides quote, see Grube (1941), p. 62. I am indebted to Barbara Goff for the latter reference.

[16] e.g. Eliade (1954), chap. 1.

[17] Durkheim (1964).

[18] Scherer (1963). Selections are reprinted in Eliade (1977).

[19] Eliade (1977), pp. 165-6

[20] H. Smith (1991), chap. 1.

[21] Matthew 23:11

[22] Campbell (1956).

[23] Second Vatican Council Constitution of the Church, Article 16. Referred to in Kung (1978), p. 97.

[24] Prabhavananda and Manchester (1957), pp. 125-6.

[25] Prabhavananda and Isherwood (1955)., p. 51.

[26] The relevant passages are quoted in Radhakrishnan (1939), pp. 25ff.

[27] Trepp (1982), p. 9.

[28] See, for example, Lessing’s play Nathan the Wise in Lessing (1906), pp. 227ff.

[29] Quoted by Berger (1979), p. 163.

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