Part I: Brief History of Religions
The subject of Pluralism is inherently convoluted and voluminous. On one hand, pluralistic theories deal simply with the interplay of religious entities. On the other, they deal with the complex web of theological nuances that exist within each great faith tradition. None the less I have decided to tackle the issue of pluralism in this series.
Before I begin I would like to lay some groundwork for my positions. More pointedly I would like to clarify what I am not saying. I am not going to argue for some form of monism nor from a position that all great faiths are essentially the same. Both of these betrays the unique beauty that each faith holds and ultimately destroys the value that each faith brings to the table. Also I am not arguing that religious exclusivism is invalid or that it is based solely in ignorance. We have moved passed a stage in which religious intolerance was simply the outcome of religions having misinformed positions of each other, although this is still the culprit of some of the religious bigotry that we experience.
Having laid some groundwork I believe it most beneficial to begin this series of posts on pluralism with a brief history of religion. This will not and cannot be comprehensive. It is simply a cursory review of how religious thought has evolved over time. While there are surely exceptions to every trend the basic flow of religious thought is largely agreed upon by historians. The topic of this post has been heavily influenced by the works of Karen Armstrong and John Hick to a lesser degree. That said this will not be a review of their positions. George, that is for you (just because I said his name doesn’t mean I am spouting his positions).
To lay out a history of religious thought is by nature quite difficult. Any good history has a fixed point from which it begins. Unfortunately, religious thought has been part of human experience since seemingly the beginning of time. Because of this ambiguity at the onset there is much dissent as to the earliest forms of religious expression. Historians and theologians alike cannot agree on whether early or natural religion was monotheistic or polytheistic in nature.
Wilhelm Schmidt popularized the theory that early religious thought emphasized the transcendence of God or the Gods to explain the unexplainable mysteries and tragedies of life.This early religious belief of the divine seemed to inherently create distance between humanity and the transcendent that it worshipped. Eventually, this divine status rendered the transcendent too unrelateable for humanity and was replaced by more human Gods.Whether this theory is accurate or not is still being debated. However, there are three aspects of this theory that align with our understanding of the ancient period.The first is that the emphasis of transcendence to fill the voids of human knowledge fits well with the pre-modern mindset of the time. The second is that religious thought is incredibly resilient and adaptable to the needs of mankind in every age.
There is a third, and even more interesting, correlation between Schmidt’s theory and our understanding of religious thought. This third aspect is the emergence of what Karl Jasper’s called the axial age. Schmidt’s understanding of the personalization and personification of divinity aligns itself with this religious age in which many of the religions of the modern world found the source of their religious thought.
The axial age roughly spanned between 800 BCE and 200 BCE. Like any other great shift in religious thought, the axial religions sprung up out of a shift in the culture. The rise of a middle class greatly strengthened the influence of the lesser in society. As a result, religious thought was forced to become valuable not only to the leaders. During this time period new ways of speaking of God began to take hold across the globe. In China a great religious thinker named Confucius burst onto the scene. From his writings would come the great religions of Taoism and Confucianism.
In India Mahavira and Siddhartha Gautama both lived. From their teachings would spring the religions of Jainism and Buddhism. Also Hinduism moved from the cold teachings of the Vedas by way of a new revelation known as the Vedanta or end of the Vedas. The Vendatas, composed of two works the Upanishads and Aranyakas, emphasized the cultivation of the relationship between ones self and the transcendent which presides within.
In the Middle East two new religions were taking off, both from the same monotheistic perspective. First in Iran a new teacher known only as Zoroaster began to teach the value of a singular, personal, transcendent entity. The second was the rising of the Hebrew prophets in Israel. They too emphasized the intimacy of God. Finally, in Greece came the rise of philosophical rationalism via the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
In every region of the globe new religious thought was being cultivated. Each revelation was uniquely fashioned for the culture to which it spoke. None the less there was a common theme that emerged. The emphasis of intimacy with the transcendent. They spoke about this relationship in different ways, and saw it manifest with varied perspectives. However, from this intimacy came a universal emphasis on the value of compassion within religious life.
This new perspective on God would continue to shape the theology of the great faiths through the rest of the pre-modern period. In the far East Confucianism would develop into a complex ethical doctrine of compassion. Likewise Taoism focused on a pacifistic approach to life. In the Middle East the teachings of Zoroaster, though not in an official capacity, would strongly influence the teachings of the Hebrew monotheists. From them would spring the three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each would use the emphasis on compassion to bring new ways to understand God. Judaism would focus on God’s compassion for the world via the illumination of the path to God through the life emphasized by their religious piety. Christianity would emphasize compassion through the spiritual act of reconciliation. Finally, Islam would focus on compassion by emphasizing the unity of God as a moral mandate to care for others. In the West, philosophical rationalism continued to work out this emphasis on compassion via morally mandated complex political structures.
These religions would continue to formulate new doctrines and dogmas based on their earlier understandings right through to the enlightenment of the 17th century. With the enlightenment came a new movement that would again change the religious landscape. This new movement was modernism. While in many ways modernism shared the common value of compassion with the world’s religions, it had one major departure which would send the religious world spinning. Modernism’s emphasis on human intuition as the answer to the problems of the world flew right in the face of every religions understanding of divine empowerment. While the pre-modern age had seen the unknown as the place where the transcendent dwelt, modernists saw it simply as the next frontier. This led to an emphasis on human progress conquering the ills of society instead of spiritual connection lifting individuals above.
As each great religion began to face this new modern spirit it gave rise to new religious movements unique to each religion but commonly categorized as fundamentalism. A new conservative spirit was formed. This conservative spirit would see modernism as a personal affront to the great faiths. In each religion fundamentalist sects would form, each with unique ways of dealing with the attacks of modernism. Yet in spite of their attempts modernisms influence was far too pervasive. As modernism has systematically run its course through each sector of the globe, it has left its imprint on conservative and liberal alike. Even the conservative movements in each faith, which were based in a desire to hold fast to what once was, have changed the way they understand their own faiths. The history of each faith tradition is viewed through a lens of modernism. Many of the ideals and pragmatics that have been established in every faith, in response to modernism, are seen as normative.
This brings us to the emergence of yet another great shift in the religious landscape. As the influence of modernism has begun to fade on culture, a new counter movement has begun to take hold. With the creation of a new post-modern cultural mindset comes a new set of challenges and opportunities for all the great faiths. In my next post in this series I will look at some of the religious responses to modernism and how they will once again be forced to change with the onset of a post-modern culture. Specifically I will focus on exclusivism and why I believe that its relevancy is based in the modern culture for which it was a response to.
In closing I leave you with this picture. Modernism is a wave which has slowly washed over every culture and thus every religion. With that wave came the opportunity for the worlds great religions to wash themselves clean of some of the dogmas of pre-modernism that were holding them back. Things like racism, bigotry, and ethnocentrism were seen in a new more informed light. Yet behind every wave is a wake. The wake provides time to reassess what has been lost and to determine a new way forward. Post-modernism is that wake. I believe that every great religion has or is going through the process of washing that the wave of modernism brought. Soon we will be in a global wake of reassessment. The questions that each religion will bring to the table will be unique. None the less, let us hope that they all come.
Continue on to Part II