Many Religions: One God? (Greg Spearritt)

  (06 March 08)

Many Religions: One God?  



Greg Spearritt offers a critique of the quest 
for a 'highest common factor' among the religions.

An elephant joke from antiquity goes like this. (It’s Buddhist, though some say originally Jain.) A raja took an elephant to a group of blind men and asked them to explain what an elephant was like. Some felt the ear and said it was like a winnowing basket. Those who’d felt a tusk likened it to a ploughshare. Some felt the tail and said it was like a rope. They soon fell to quarrelling.1.


Thus did the Buddha demonstrate the many-sidedness of things and the futility of disputing who has the true account of reality.


The role of the blind men in the tale could be played by any number of conservative religious folk the world over. They believe they have the One Truth, and all others are deluded. We liberal thinkers, however, can stand back and see what everyone else can’t: that they’re all holding part of a much bigger Truth. We’re not blind – or are we?


Here’s another story. A man gathers a basket of valuable objects – a smooth nugget of gold, a cactus leaf with wonderful medicinal properties and so on – and distributes them to a bunch of blind men. “How similar these items are!”, they tell one another. “My cactus leaf is quite smooth, just like you say your stone is – where there are no prickles, that is.” They conclude that in some mysterious way they’re all holding part of the same object. They feel such a warm glow at this notion that they throw the objects away and head off, arm in arm.


A Theology of Religions

Throughout the 20th century, growing familiarity with people of many other faiths led Christian theologians to develop a ‘theology of religions’. There seemed to be competing claims for truth and it was plain that they couldn’t all be right. Approaches varied from the ‘exclusivism’ of Karl Barth and others (where Christianity “alone has the commission and the authority… to confront the world of religions as the one true religion” 2.), through the ‘inclusivism’ of thinkers like Karl Rahner (as ‘anonymous Christians’, people of other faiths could conceivably access salvation), to ‘pluralist’ positions where a ‘rough parity’ of religions was declared.


Liberal-thinking folk these days lean hard towards pluralist understandings of other faiths. It is not uncommon to hear the refrain, ‘There’s no right and wrong way to the sacred, for there is only one God.’ It’s the theological equivalent of Australian multiculturalism, and widely believed to be the only polite, peace-loving, ‘tolerant’ way to go.


This point of view, which I’ll call the ‘One Reality’ approach, has been around for a long time. In the words of thirteenth-century Sufi poet/mystic Rumi, “the lamps are different, but the Light is the same”.


The One Reality view has been put in a very sophisticated way by such worthies as theologians Winston L. King, WC Smith and John Hick. In his 1995 book The Rainbow of Faiths, Hick says:


The different world religions are referring, through their specific concepts of the Gods and Absolutes, to the same ultimate Reality.


He justifies this view by noting


the striking similarity of the transformed human state described within the different traditions as saved, redeemed, enlightened, wise, awakened, liberated. This similarity strongly suggests a common source of salvific transformation.3.


But there are dangers in apprehending an unfamiliar faith. Hick, Smith and King all acknowledge this, but I believe they fail to take the dangers properly into account.



First, a brief historical detour. Hick and the others are heir to a western Enlightenment tradition of a neutral, universal rationality which has proved very useful, but it’s also historically bound up with issues of power and justice. Western scholars have tended to deny that the ‘Other’, for example the Hindu or the Buddhist, has access to a genuinely competing reality. Edward Said is one of those to draw our attention to the phenomenon of ‘orientalism’.


Orientalist scholars of the nineteenth century at times saw the Other as merely a variant (often a corrupted version) of us. These scholars were familiar with the Pali scriptures and took them to be normative. The Buddhism they encountered ‘on the ground’ in India and East Asia was seen through the rarefied spectacles of these scholarly texts. It was pronounced a perversion of an earlier, pure form of Buddhism which, to suit the temper of the times, lacked what Europeans saw as superstition and exotic ritual. In other cases thinkers idealised the Other, as in the infamous example of the ‘noble savage’. The effect was the same: difference was diminished and rendered harmless.


Another tack was to see the Other as utterly different, inscrutable and irrational – and therefore easily dismissed.


If Others are essentially the same as us, we can freely exploit and appropriate what’s theirs. If different, they require assimilation, since what we have must (of course) be best for them too. This is what happened under much of the imperial rule of European powers the world over, and we see the results in the political basket case of the Middle East as well as in pathetic statistics concerning the well-being of indigenous Australians.


The Other was also viewed as homogenous and monolithic. We are allowed shades of grey, but they are just ‘Buddhists’ or ‘Muslims’ who all believe, or should all believe, the one thing. Familiarity with the Pali scriptures led the orientalist scholars to see Mahayana Buddhism, for instance, as an aberration of ‘true’ Buddhism.


The Other, moreover, is seen as not truly knowing her own tradition. Strange customs could be ‘discovered’ by westerners to have a particular function or fulfil some need of which the practitioners were, naturally, unaware. Objectified in this way, the Other loses its potential to surprise us or to threaten our authority, and requires a western voice if it is to be truly articulated.


The Modern Quest for the HCF

So much for history. However, many of these problems may be seen to attend the modern-day quest for some ‘highest common factor’ among the various faiths – a quest, I should say, which results from unarguably well-meaning motives. A close examination of what King, Smith and Hick have to say reveals the very traps described above. They all deal most extensively with Buddhism. A few examples will have to suffice here.4.


Wilfred Cantwell Smith declares faith to be “a universal human quality” and it is “living according to Dharma, the pre-existing Law” that saves the Buddhist. Somewhat alarmingly, Smith goes on to aver that “whatever their beliefs, they in fact lived lives of faith.” 5. This is not, however, what some Buddhists report. Thus Walpola Rahula:


Man’s position, according to Buddhism, is supreme. Man is his own master, and there is no higher being or power that sits in judgement over his destiny.




However you put it, faith or belief as understood by most religions has little to do with Buddhism.6.


John Hick believes that the Buddhist and the Christian “appear to be responding to a cosmic reality which affects them in essentially the same way”. 7. Despite the appearances, at base the same salvific process is taking place, and the major world religions are equally effective vehicles for salvation. The Dalai Lama, however, begs to differ: nirvâṇa itself, he says, “is achieved only through Buddhist practice”. 8.


Hick also asserts that for Buddhists, the nibbâna of the Theravadins, the sunyatâ (‘emptiness’) of the Mahayana strains and the Buddha-nature of Pure-Land Buddhism are equally valid ways to “conceive and experience the Ultimate”. 9. Yet for millennia Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists have argued just the opposite. (Indeed, as many Mahayana adherents will happily tell you, ‘Hinayana’ – a word some use in place of ‘Theravada’ – means ‘lesser vehicle’ and Mahayana ‘greater vehicle’.)


Further, Hick declares the essential equivalence of Buddhist karuṇa (compassion) and mettâ(universal love/goodwill) with Christian agape. However, other scholars note that these concepts may play radically different roles and may differ, for example with respect to motive, in their respective contexts.10.


For Smith and Hick there is a unitary, ineffable Ultimate provoking all genuine religious response, but many Buddhists do not see themselves as ‘responding’ to any ‘provocation’ or pressure. At least some varieties of Buddhism claim simply, in a clinical way, to see the world as it is and to act on that understanding.


Winston L. King, despite recognising the inherent dangers of comparing different faiths, finds Buddhism to be unwittingly theistic. He acknowledges the “flat Buddhist rejection” of grace and faith as understood by Christianity, but does not allow the objection to stand:


We shall need to modify slightly and expand the meaning of ‘grace’ to make it do service in the Buddhist context, and be prepared to recognize it even in disguise. 11.


King is surprised and hurt that his Theravadin interlocutors are unimpressed with his ideas, and he speaks of their “doctrinaire rigidity”. 12.


The Whole Elephant?

In their urgency to declare Buddhism every bit as valid as Christianity, these theologians are striving to see what the ‘blind’ men cannot: the whole elephant. Arguably, though, they themselves are the blind ones. They ride roughshod over difference and appear unable to respect what Buddhists themselves want to say, and their Buddhism turns out to be a remarkably ‘Christian’ faith. Their elephant – with its giraffe’s neck and lion’s mane – is, I suggest, a figment of their imagination.


The pursuit of an ultimate Reality behind the religions is of much more interest to Christian than to Buddhist scholars. It’s Christian belief rather than Buddhist, after all, which demands a resolution to the paradox of a God of love who offers salvation to a minority, and it’s the western intellectual tradition which most compulsively requires a comparison of truth claims in a bid to establish the Truth.


This is graphically demonstrated in a report on the ‘Third North American Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter’ from the 1980s:


the Christian participants… kept asking a characteristically Christian question, whether there was something more than ‘Just This’ behind the ‘Ultimate Reality’ of the Buddhists explanations. The Christians tried to discover whether there is some Buddhist analogue to the Christian symbol of God or the Godhead. Though it was extremely frustrating to the Christians, the Buddhists resolutely refused to be drawn into this kind of discourse. They clearly understood what the Christians were asking but pointed out that this was a Christian mode of discourse, not one which would be normative for the Buddhist traditions, either historically or culturally considered. 13.                                              


Even if one is taking extra care not to misunderstand or simplify another religion, there are further issues complicating and confounding the task of representing a foreign faith or culture. One of my favourite cartoons shows a guru sitting on a mountain top. A pilgrim has just laboured up the mountain to receive the unfortunate advice, “I’m sorry, the meaning of life won’t translate into English.”


Should we expect that there is nothing in another’s culture that can’t be expressed without remainder in our own language? The One Reality theorists seem to assume just this, though they are aware of the point. Indeed, the same Winston L. King mentioned above says that using the term ‘selflessness’ (a word “deeply tinctured with Christian meanings”) in a Buddhist context


may be a circular walk out and back to the user’s own side, not even in hailing distance of the other shore.14.


Some of our most basic terms are problematic. ‘Belief’, for instance. Anthropologist Pascal Boyer spent time with the Fang people of Cameroon. They believe in spirits and witches, and in the existence in some people of an invisible internal organ with supernatural power, the evur, that flies away at night. But the Fang themselves don’t speak of ‘believing’ in these things. They just notice that they’re there. It’s not an article of faith, it’s a matter of knowledge.15.


Further, if we’re serious about understanding the Other, we’d want at least some direct interaction with them. But who do you choose to interact with? For Smith, Hick and King it’s been mainly Buddhist scholars. We noted above the difficulty Christians had in getting Buddhists, even ones familiar with western thinking, to conform to their mode of discourse. Here’s another way to put the problem, this concerning Indian-White relations in North America:


the Indian whose story is most valuable because least contaminated by white culture must tell it in his own mode (poetic, repetitious, symbolic, nonsequential, and so on) which makes it unacceptable or incomprehensible to whites. 16.


What is Religion?

Yet another problem with the ‘One Reality’ project is its failure to properly take account of ‘popular’ religion. Hick and co. were all dealing with scholarly, educated Buddhists. We know from our own experience, however, that the views of many scholarly, educated Christians won’t wash too well at the local Pentecostal church, let alone in the slums of Brazil or Manila. Boyer makes the point that official religion is by no means the whole of religion:


In official Islam there is no God but God, but many [Muslim] people are very much scared by jinn and afreet, spirits, ghosts and witches.17.


Is ‘true’ Christianity what we WASPs do in Oz or is it what those syncretistic African Christians get up to? Friends of mine work in Cambodia, nominally a Buddhist country (Theravadin, in fact). They report that the bulk of people they meet are anything but pure-bred aspiring arahats. Indeed, they find a significant element of animism there.


And what of those religious expressions that don’t fall under the heading ‘great world religions’? Finding some Ultimate behind the bewildering variety of ‘beliefs’ and practices outside this great Fold is surely harder still. Even where there’s a ‘supreme’ god, he or she is not always terribly important. In many places in Africa, according to Boyer, there are two gods, one abstract and one more down-to-earth, but ancestors, spirits and witches are far more significant in people’s daily lives. Some gods die. Some spirits are stupid and easily fooled. Salvation is sometimes a peripheral concern: it simply may not be reckoned that moral action has anything to do with the fate of the soul; dead people just become ghosts. And where do powerful invisible organs which fly around at night on banana leaves fit in? Is this just superstition rather than religion?


I’m prepared to believe that religion could, possibly, have common features the world over – depending on how you define ‘religion’. If this is so, I’d want to account for it in terms of human biology and human brains. If you want to make a case for a God behind God or a Single Reality I believe you need to do better than Smith, Hick and King.


In Short

The One Reality approach, in my view, fails on two counts. First and foremost it demeans the Other by failing to represent her religion in terms that she can wholly accept. It is, arguably, well within the western scholarly ‘orientalist’ tradition. In essence, it fails to take the Other seriously:


In their studies of the cultures of other people, even those anthropologists [read ‘theologians’!] who sincerely love the people they study almost never think they are learning something about the way the world really is.18.


Second, the One Reality view limits us. It’s an astonishing fact that Hick, Smith and King have very little to say about Buddhist specifics, and little to show for how Buddhism has influenced their Christian thinking. Foucault is reported to have said, “the attempt to think in terms of a totality has in fact proved a hindrance to research”, 19. and this effect is indeed evident in the work of Hick and others. They are too caught up in the task of finding commonality to seriously bother about the differences.


The Good News

Fortunately, One Reality is not the only pluralist show in town. Among some well-respected Christian theologians who’ve had a great deal to do with and to say about other religions (Buddhism especially) are Ninian Smart, Process theologian John B. Cobb, Langdon Gilkey and Don Cupitt. Perhaps the most radical of these (no surprise here) is Don Cupitt, who takes the view that


Radical Christians are pluralists. We don’t believe in an objective absolute Unity of either God or Truth or the human soul.20.


I wouldn’t call myself ‘Christian’, but this is the position I’d want to take. Cupitt reflects much on what Zen Buddhism in particular might offer Christians. Buddhism is important not because it’s in touch with an objective reality, but because it’s a source of creative ideas and attitudes which may help Christians reshape their own tradition.


Ninian Smart, too, makes a considerable reappraisement of his Christian thinking in the light of his encounter with Buddhism, notably with Theravadin traditions. His enthusiasm and respect for Buddhism stands in stark contrast to the dry and abstract theorising of the One Reality thinkers:


I love it: its messages entrance me. I sometimes count myself a Buddhist Episcopalian, when I am not worrying too much about contradictions. 21.


In principle, this approach could be taken with religious traditions of all kinds. Instead of trying to force them to fit a pre-conceived mould, look clearly at what they are really on about. They just could be saying something worth hearing.            



1. See Udana 68-69.

2. Barth, quoted in John Hick God Has Many Names (Westminster Press, 1982) 8.

3. The Rainbow of Faiths (SCM, 1995) 69. See also, from 2001,

4. The case is more fully argued in my unpublished 1995 MA thesis, Buddhism in British and American Pluralist Theology: Its Character and Influence.

5.   See Towards a World Theology (Westminster Press, 1981) 122 and Faith and Belief (Princeton Uni Press, 1979) 28.

6.   What the Buddha Taught (2nd ed., Grove Weidenfeld, 1974) 1 and 8 respectively.

7.   ‘Religion as Skilful Means: a Hint from Buddhism’ Philosophy of Religion 30 (1991) 155.

8. Quoted in S. Mark Heim ‘Thinking About Theocentric Christology’ Journal of Ecumenical Studies 24 (1987) 354.

9. ‘Religion as Skilful Means’ 151.

10. An Interpretation of Religion 321. Compare N. Ross Reat ‘Buddhist-Christian Dialogue: Whether, Whence and Why’ (in Perspectives on Language and Text ed. EW Conrad and EG Newing, Eisenbrauns, 1987) 430.

11. Buddhism and Christianity (Allen & Unwin, 1963) 204 and 207 respectively.

12. ‘Buddhist-Christian Dialogue’ (in Religions in Dialogue ed. Z.P.Thundy, K. Pathil & F. Podgorski, University Press of Anmerica, 1985) 261.

13. John Berthrong ‘Third North American Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter’ Journal of Ecumenical Studies 23 (1986) 776.

14. Buddhism and Christianity 175.

15. Pascal Boyer Religion Explained (William Heinnemann, 2001) 11.

16. A quote by Farb in Bernard McGrane Beyond Anthropology (Columbia Uni Press, 1989) 125.

17. Religion Explained 10.

18. Riesman, quoted in McGrane, 128.

19. Quoted in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (ed. C. Gordon, Harvester Press, 1980) 81.

20. Radicals and the Future of the Church (SCM, 1989) 156.

21. Buddhism and Christianity (Macmillan, 1993) 3.




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