For most of my life I have held the occasionally unwilling belief in something capital ‘T’ Transcendental. Whether it was God, the Universe, or even just the whisperings of my own sub-conscious I have not always been sure, but I’ve come to accept that the Transcendent, as its name implies, is beyond me. And since it is both outside of me, and affects me, it demands my investigation. In the world of ideas I am a scientist at heart (isn’t this the definition of a philosopher?).
Religions and worldviews all approach the Transcendental in different ways. Most religions postulate a deity, and most Western religions claim to be monotheistic. ‘Monotheism’ is the doctrine or belief that there is only one deity, yet many Evangelical Christians speak of the deities of other religions as though, like the religions themselves, they are competing for influence over the hearts and minds of the populace.
If I claim to be monotheistic I must completely abandon the concept of ‘god of.’ Not just the ‘god of war’ or the ‘god of finance,’ found in some polytheistic pantheons, but also the ‘god of Muslims,’ the ‘god of Hindus,’ or the ‘god of ‘Buddhists’ (who, except Mahayana Buddhists, are technically atheistic). I’ve heard it said that when people refer to the ‘god of,’ they mean the ‘god as understood by.’ It is a convincing argument, and probably true for many people. Yet I have heard many evangelicals (particularly those who have a high media profile) purport that they worship, “Not Allah, not Krishna, but the Lord God Jesus Christ.”
The ancient Jews weren’t monotheistic and thus it made sense for them to spend energy asserting the dominance of Yahweh over, say, Marduk. If I claim to be a monotheist, however, I must believe either that the ‘gods’ of the other religions don’t exist (which seems to be the assertion of many evangelical Christians), or that all the names used for god refer to the frame of understanding through which different individuals approach the divine.
If I assert the gods of other religions are imaginary I run into the problem of demarcation. At what point does the deity addressed by a group of people become so different—in their understanding—from the reality of what God is, that they cease to address God and instead address a god of their own making? And if it is possible for someone to be so mistaken about the nature of God that she inadvertently fails to interact with the divine at all? Perhaps, but defining the absolute boundaries of Truth is above my pay grade.
I prefer to focus on the universal human goal of understanding, recognizing that religion is not the object, but the lens. In short, the existence of multiple religions doesn’t indicate a multiplicity of gods, or a delusion on the part of those who do not adhere to the ‘true’ religion. Instead, most religions are the result of an attempt to understand seemingly boundless divinity. Buddhism represents one attempt, Islam another, and Christianity yet another.
I have to believe that understanding is an asymptotic venture. Man is constantly trying to answer the basic questions of cosmology, and each of these attempts lead to different places, result in different societal values, and paint a slightly different Big Picture. While some religions may produce more desirable results for women, or Westerners, or people in developing countries, it seems arrogant to believe that any one religion—or worldview—has it ‘right.’ More likely we’re all fluttering about in various densities of smoke and fog. This is a comfort to me, for to be worthy of my worship, divinity must transcend the methods used to understand it.