(Our Perspective Needs To Widen)
We have touched upon the concept that the theologies, and religious faiths based upon them, were directly related to the knowledge and way of life of the particular people they served. As the world merges into a larger and larger family; that is, as we begin to share in a greater knowledge, not only of the world around us but of each other, the theology must strive to be much more encompassing. In the realities of this world we live in, the compositions, aims and goals of our societies are much more diverse than in any previous era. Today's world is no longer simple communities of farmers or hunters who are self-dependent, but rather, an interdependent world community dealing with a diversity of cultures, societies, and philosophical ideals. If theology is to be responsible, it can no longer ignore the religious beliefs of those who disagree with its doctrines; it can no longer exclude people by contending that they are pagans, heretics, or satanic because of their beliefs.
The reality of our world telIs us that every religious ideal has its saints who are a credit to its existence and its demons who could disgrace their founders. The Christian church can lay no greater claim to holy people than the Buddhist, nor are there any greater numbers of saintly Muslims than there might be Hindus. Responsible theology has to recognize that God in Her wisdom could have provided more than one way to attain personal salvation whatever one's definition of salvation is. We must admit that for God to have done otherwise would be a gross injustice by the very Deity who is often proclaimed most just. What rationalization can be used to justify that God would pick a chosen people where birth into a particular race would give one an unfair advantage? What kind of a God would offer His salvation only to those whom can accept Christ as God when there are religions and cultures that consider it blasphemous to declare any man God? Doesn't this give a very unfair edge to the people born into Christian families over Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, or any other religion?
And what religion which exists is so perfected, that it stands out so much above every other, that it can proclaim it holds God's truths above all the others? One might a reasonable argue that if God had a particular faith which represented Her truth it would offer some mark of distinction that would make it stand apart from others. One cannot cite miracles, for all types of religious faiths have miracles they can report. You cannot cite numbers, for there are large numbers to many religious faiths. You cannot cite the resurrection, for there have been numerous resurrection accounts of religions now extinct. If God's ways were not diverse, if there was only one truth and one way; would it not make sense that the true religion might stand out from the rest?
While some may argue that their particular faith does stand out over others, we must keep in mind that such claims are subjective. It would seem that if we were talking about a religion endorsed by God, that which makes it stand out would be more objective; in other words, even those who are not believers might be able to observe the a Divine fingerprint of sorts. What would seem to make more sense from a theological perspective is that God's relationship and messages to humankind are diverse, presented in a manner which most greatly effects the people that it serves. Given the expansion of cultural contact and the inter-relations among peoples, it would seem that the best way for theologians to approach God's inspiration today would be to study the religious scriptures and beliefs of a wide variety, looking for the common messages that link them.
Of course you cannot look to these scriptures literally, for they in fact would contradict each other. But if we approach God's message in symbol and metaphor, with the knowledge and understanding that we have of each other and the world today - we would have the necessary tools to look beyond our own narrow perspectives and truly find the inspiration of the Almighty. This is not to say the Buddhist, or the Christian, or the Muslim, or the Jew, or any other; do not have all the messages necessary to carry out a satisfactory relationship with God. We ourselves will present this theology from a Christian approach (Christian as in the teachings of Jesus more than the traditional Pauline Christianity which society is most familiar with).
What we are trying to impress upon you, is that it is time for responsible theology to stop allowing itself to be used to justify one person being better in the eyes of God than another. We have advanced so much as peoples, yet religiously we remain children, declaring ourselves as the only one's saved - or, declaring ourselves the equivalent of God's chosen. We have no right: not based upon scripture, not based on logic, not based upon theology - to say, any person who does not believe as I do is not saved. Any reading of scripture, any logic, any theology which makes such an assertion is deeply flawed and can be charged with the equivalent of a spiritual holocaust - for according to them, those who differ in their faith will be condemned to spiritual death for all eternity. Any person, or group of persons, who set themselves up as determining the immortal state of another's soul is claiming equality to God. No matter what any scripture says (all of which were written by men), such conclusions must be in error.
In our own society we can see the danger of this single way to salvation doctrine. Once a group puts itself in the position of saying: "By our faith alone we are saved", it is saying all those who do not share the belief are condemned. But it usually goes beyond this, and these people begin to proclaim their morality, their politics, and their personal beliefs as the only ones acceptable to God, which implies, that anyone who opposes them is of the devil. Once someone is of the devil, out of God's grace, they are considered to be lesser human beings in the eyes of so many of the faithful.
These ideas psychologically influence us often leading to oppression, hatred and bigotry. To give you just a few examples: such thinking might lead to political ideals, which state: poor people are poor because they are lazy and do not want to work (of the devil in some way). One-truth doctrines can oppress a group such as homosexuals, banning them from various aspects of the society, and this is justified because they are not saved (of the devil in some way). Theology that allows the rationalization of this "one faith concept" is not only irresponsible but also downright dangerous.
Another reason why the responsible theologian needs to avoid supporting this type of "single truth" doctrine is because it motivates people to come to God for the wrong reason. Granted, offering God's only plan of salvation is a powerful drawing card for a faith based upon such theology. It fact it is clear, from a sociological standpoint, why it is so often used by churches. What better inducement can one offer than to proclaim they alone have God's truth and they alone can lead us to Her eternal reward? But one has to wonder about the reality of any salvation for people who cling to God because He is going to give them immortality in paradise. That would seem to be pursuing God for a somewhat very selfish reason, limiting the potential of a fuller spiritual experience based on love alone.
It is time for responsible theology to remove itself from the tunnel vision it so often enjoys. We can and should explore our own spiritual perspective, expressing our ideals about such, but never at the exclusion or condemnation of another's faith. We have a right and a responsibility to proclaim what we believe. We can argue it and defend it. We can even state in faith that our way will save us. But, we do not have the right to proclaim that to think or believe differently from us places one in jeopardy with Almighty God. Such assertions are the most dangerous kind of bigotry in humankind. Such assertions can lead to massacres such as those of the Native American peoples, or the slaughter of Muslims in the crusades.
There has never been any official endorsement by God on any religious faith; in fact, from our reality, God has never even endorsed Her own existence - unless one sees creation itself as a proof of God's existence. There is also an advantage to taking into consideration the beliefs of other faiths in widening our approach to theology. Incorporating such might help us to see more clearly the inspiration of God within our own scriptures. Such may help us rectify misinterpretations or misunderstandings of our own scriptures, helping us to avoid literal interpretations of scripture
There have been many wise men, which have studied religions and cultures of a wide variety. One thing, which stands out in their studies, is the common motifs, and the symbols, which portray those motifs, among those different cultures. Creation stories, flood stories, belief in life after death in some way - are almost universal in their scope. Such forms tell us of a Creator or Creative Force from which we have become separated. They come alive with the message that there is something very powerful and important contributing to our purpose of being beyond our intellectual and conscious perceptions.
Then there are ideals such as loving one's neighbor, taking care of those less fortunate, controlling our own selfishness, and the concept of a universal family: which are expressed by many sacred writings no matter how dissimilar the creeds of the religions may be. These can give us a prescription, which enhances our quality of life beyond the ego-driven realities of our world. These can help us to look at our own sacred stories in a way that may help us avoid error in our interpretations. Such an approach can also help us to see our own Scripture in a different perspective, allowing us the potential to get much more from them. The scholars also tell us that it seems that there is little difference in these themes whether one culture had contact with another.
Many of these concepts we are discussion are found in isolated instances where a particular people had no outside contact with the rest of the world. Might not one make the speculation that God wanted all peoples to be aware of certain principles? Rather than being sacrilegious as some claim, it is to the theologians advantage to look beyond his own scriptures and reach out to others to support his opinions about God's nature and intended messages for mankind. We must always keep in mind that human intellect is limited, but the Divine is infinite.
The only way we can limit that which is unlimited, which is what we as humans are inclined to do, is to arbitrarily set aside a portion of it. While this is helpful in relating to God, it can be dangerous too. We can so narrow the perspective (as in literalism, or in one-faith doctrines) that we loose sight of the bigger picture. We can so distort the loving image of the Divine that we no longer have a clue as to the reality of what we are looking at.
To analogize, if we encounter a circle, the line is infinite for it has no beginning and has no end. We cannot talk about the circle's parts unless we identify them in some way. Until we put points or marks that limit the eternal line there is no reference point beyond the entire circle.
Now, if we represented God as a circle of light it would be such a big circle that we could never perceive the whole circle; therefore, we can only grasp the eternal order of God by looking at the sections we have marked off. (See fig-I - p9) The more parts we look at, the greater perspective we are going to have of such an immense circle. We might be able to use our part of the circle to relate to the circle, but the overview is tunnel vision at best. A responsible theology will not declare that its picture is the entire picture of God. It cannot assert such because it cannot know such.
The affecting nature of "one truth" theology needs to be restated here to clarify the position for responsible theology. Such theological attitudes, and the faiths based upon them, create an atmosphere where one people are implying that they are better than another - that they are closer to God than those of differing faiths! What else is one saying when they assert: We hold God's only truth! Or, only through our faith can you come to God's favor! Psychologically, this only leads to one group looking down upon others who do not share in their faith. Ultimately, this can lead to persecution, oppression, bigotry and hatred of those who refuse to accept their testimony. If we are to approach God in a responsible theological approach, the theologian must sharpen two human virtues within him or her self. The first of these is humility; that knows one's limitations in proclaiming the truth of the Divine. The second is respect of beliefs which may differ from ours, for in those same beliefs God may be speaking in a manner we cannot understand - those same beliefs might allow us to understand our own Scriptures better.
Theologians cannot ever forget that all religious beliefs are an evolutionary process. If we take just Christianity as the example, it is a by-product of Judaism. The Jews in turn have built some of their scriptures and beliefs structures from other ancient myths and sacred stories of yet older cultures. When we examine books like Genesis, we see that they are remarkably similar to other myths, which are. older and which the Jewish peoples had access to. Of course, they refined these tales and incorporated them into their own conception of God.
Christianity itself is not just a refinement of Judaism, but incorporates philosophies from the ancient Greek philosophers to the very pagan churches it strived to overcome. Each of the faiths that claim to be the final, true, and unchanging knowledge of God are but a compiling of various types of inspirations which are refined to fit the needs of the people they serve.
This is how we evolved to be able to comprehend God, from a polytheistic image when people could not envision a power capable of overseeing everything, to the monotheistic religions who used some of those polytheistic tales to write the story of Genesis. *
Many of our complex religious systems, and the theologies they are based upon, are the merging of a lot of sources, which they might tend to deny. Nevertheless, when we talk about such systems as Christianity, one only need trace its history to see the impact of sources other than scripture in the formulation of the theologies. This is in fact the way God seems to have led us, but the danger comes when we fail to recognize that this influence from outside has helped us
* Note- John Romer in his work entitled Testament, c1988, gives an insightful explanation of the similarities of the Book of Genesis to the older creation accounts which flourished in the Mesopotamian world in which the Jews wondered as nomads for much of their early history.
to refine and formulate our religious beliefs. This blindness causes us to miss out on the same potentially refining qualities, which might be useful today. A danger lurks when we ignore the profound inspiration from Jesus, one which directs an individual to "seek and you shall find". It is this constant "seeking" of truth that makes theology responsible. The declaration of faith as truth stagnates the individual, whereas, the seeking of truth provides motivation for growth.
If theology is to be responsible it must recognize the reality of God in the diversity of the world's peoples. If we are all God's children Her inspiration is to all of us. Scriptures, the theologies based upon them and the religious faiths resulting from the theologies are all human assertions; never to be confused with Divine pronouncements!
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