“Brahman Has Many Faces” by C. Robert Mesle

This is an essay from “Restoration Studies XIII” which was published on February 6, 2012.

Like many of you, I grew up in the one true church in all the universe, or universes, as the case may be. Many of us could swap long stories about how we came to find that idea quaint, and even absurd. That we do not all agree on this is part of what makes for an interesting conversation. Certainly during my lifetime Community of Christ more or less officially abandoned that idea, and declared ourselves to be part of a larger Christian community. I am going to assume that I have a mixed readership — that many or even most of you find the idea of the one true church quite provincial, but that at least some of you still see it as an essential part of the restored gospel. To that end, I will begin with a brief rationale for what many of us see as a larger spiritual vision, and then point to some ways to think about religious pluralism.

Although the term “religious pluralism” may simply describe the diversity of religions, I am going to use it to name a position that affirms that most spiritual traditions, including modern humanism, can each contain ethical and spiritual resources of great value, and that no single tradition has a monopoly on, or singularly superior claim to, spiritual or ethical truth. If we include things like the Ku Klux Klan and Nazism as religious traditions, I am prepared to say there can be traditions that are largely bad. Also, if fundamentalism refers to a way of thinking about the world that crosses many religious traditions, I would raise strong objections to many aspects of that approach to life. But by and large, I assume that the great religious that the great religious traditions of the world, and most of the smaller are a reasonable spread of good and evil, wisdom and folly, as most human communities do. Assuming there have been wise and compassionate persons within all great traditions, it seems clear that they have both fan contributed to resources within their own traditions that nurture wisdom and compassion.

Let me begin with a brief argument for such a view from within my own religious upbringing. I was raised with the lovely hymn, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” So I was ready when I heard RLDS apostles say that when they intended to carry the Holy Spirit to foreign shores, they found it there waiting for them. Also, my father unintentionally prepared me for religious pluralism when he taught me to evaluate theologies by asking of them, “Is that what a truly loving God would be like? Is that what a truly loving God would be doing in the world?” So, whether you believe in God or not, for the moment work with me in thinking through the traditional Christian belief that “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” If we assume that God exists and is infinitely loving, then we can ask: Who does God love? Everyone! How long has God loved everyone? Forever! Let’s work within that framework for a moment.

Imagine a woman named Mira living in a village in India about twenty-five hundred years ago. Did God love Mira? Of course. We can imagine her with an extended family in her village, being married with children. Probably some children have died young while others survive. Is she likely to love her children just as we love ours? Of course. Probably in her village there were some people who were foolish and others wise, some folks very kind and compassionate and others not so much. Would God love all of the people in her village? Yes. Would God love all the people of ancient India? Of course. How long has God loved the people of India? As long as they have lived there. So what would it mean to assume God loved all those people over all those millennia?

Would God be a negligent parent, or would God have been present and working in their lives, calling them toward love and compassion? Isn’t it likely that over time people would have produced shared responses to the loving work and call of God as experienced and understood within their culture, responses which might take the form of hymns, prayers, rituals for worship, and scriptures expressing shared ethical values and spiritual goals? Clearly, the image of a loving God I was raised with, and that most of you were raised with, would very easily lead to the expectation that a truly loving God would be present and active in the lives of people in every culture in the history of our world, and that people would respond by creating their own culturally shaped religious traditions.

I will mention briefly that the theology of the Book of Mormon assumes that God loves and cares for all people, and that God does not abandon people just because they did not happen to live in Palestine at the right time. Unfortunately, in the Book of Mormon Joseph Smith Jr. chose almost exactly the wrong solution to the problem. He assumed that true religion had to be imported, rather than that the Spirit of God would already be at work in the people there. If followed out consistently, Book of Mormon theology would require Christ to leap from continent to continent, from culture to culture, and almost from village to village throughout human history. This is an old problem ined often by thoughtful Christians, Muslims, and others who wonder if spiritual truth can only be spread by their own missionary efforts.

Having offered a very brief argument on behalf of religious pluralism from within a fairly traditional theistic framework, let me now turn my attention to those already persuaded by the general concept of religious pluralism – where such pluralism includes modern secular humanism.

John Hick is one of the most famous voices in scholarly discussion of religious pluralism, especially as reflected in his classic work, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, Hick noted early in his career that approaches like the one I describe are still provincial. They start with the assumption that one’s own framework is true and others must be derived from it. He began by proposing a Copernican revolution in which, following the lead of Copernicus in astronomy, Christians take themselves out of the center, placing God at the center, with Christ as one among many orbiting religious traditions. That would allow equal respect among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others. It was not long, however, before Hick realized that a more radical revolution was required, one that granted equal respect to the great traditions of Asia that do not revolve around the God of Abraham.

Hick proposed a new kind of Copernican revolution drawing on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant had distinguished between noumenal reality – reality as it is in itself – and the phenomenal realm of our experience from within the confines of our own minds and bodies. Kant argued that our minds inescapably structure our experience and concepts into categories like time, space, substance, and causality, but that noumenal reality is not itself so confined. It is impossible for us to know reality as it is apart from our experience of it; but Kant assumed that the phenomenal world of our experiences was nevertheless somehow rooted in that transcendent noumenal reality – reality as most truly is in itself. You can imagine that there has been much discussion of these issues.

Hick proposed that we take the same approach to religion by positing a noumenal Transcendent Real which transcends all human experience that is culturally, biologically, and historically conditioned, and transcends all but the tract of human concepts. The Real is beyond such distinctions as personal or impersonal, good or evil, or categories of time and space. Nevertheless, as human being we all somehow arise out of and encounter this Transcendent

Real within the boundaries of our own time, space, bodies, and cultures. Religious traditions emerge as finite, human, phenomenal interpretations of the Transcendent Real. So, when a Christian experiences the Real as Christ in their lives, it is not an illusion. It is their own genuine phenomenal experience of the Transcendent Real as shaped by their own culture and personal biography. But the same is true of the Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, or Native American who experiences the noumenal Transcendent Reality within the framework of their own religious culture and biography.

Although I think there are persistent aspects of Hick’s writings that seem to exclude secular humanists from full respect in his framework, when I pressed him in private conversation he was willing to agree that even secular humanists could be seen as articulating a spiritual framework legitimately responsive to Transcendent Reality. 1

In Hick’s view, we have to abandon any claims that our religious – or secular – doctrines stand as literally accurate descriptions of Transcendent Reality. Transcendent Reality is not literally our Heavenly Father, Eloheim, or Yahweh, or Allah the All Merciful and Compassionate. Neither is it literally Brahman or the Tao. But all of these are fully legitimate phenomenal experiences of the mythical interpretations of Transcendent Reality, Rather than make claims of literal truth, Hick proposes that we weigh the truth of symbols and myths in terms of their ability to provoke appropriate moral responses to life. By this standard, we can see that while all great religious traditions contain some ideas and practices that are destructive and cruel, these great traditions also contain great myths and symbols that are profoundly true in evoking wise and compassionate responses to life. It is foolish to claim that any one of them is clearly superior to all the others if we ask about their power to save us into lives of compassionate love and wisdom.

When Hick’s book An interpretation of Religion first appeared he invited me to present a paper at a gathering of scholars to discuss the new work. 2 I think now, as I did then, that Hick has made an important contribution to our thought,

as did Kant before him. Still, I have a couple of basic objections. First, if the Real is beyond categories like love or hate, good or evil, why should we wish to set it at the center of our spiritual universe? Second, even though Kant was surely correct that we can never step outside our own lived experience to objectively and accurately describe reality, I don’t think it follows that we are justified in postulating the kind of Reality Hick proposes that transcends the natural universe. Of course, we can have the same discussion about the Hindu vision of Brahman or the Chinese concept of the Tao. It is one thing to think of any of these as all-inclusive names for all that exists, and another to understand them to name something utterly behind, and wholly other than, the observable world of nature.

So while I deeply appreciate Hick’s effort at universal respect for religious traditions, I would still propose that we are better off to replace Hick’s concept of the Transcendent Real with the natural world of which we are clearly a part. If we understand nature as a comprehensive name for all this is, without invoking anything transcendent to nature, I think we can achieve much of what Hick rightly proposes. We have evolved within nature into being capable of thought, love, compassion, and concern for a reality larger than ourselves or our own immediate community. Interacting with nature, we experience our world in a wide variety of ways and develop diverse conceptions of our experience and the reality that produced it.

Nature per se is not good or evil. it is what it is, and I would not propose it as a center of worship. But if we turn to the Christian mystics, to the scriptures of India, and to the great philosophies of China and elsewhere, we can recognize an awareness that reality is profoundly relational. Drawing on those spiritual traditions we can affirm that deep sensitivity to those vast relationships in which we are all interwoven can invoke deep compassion, and what Hick described as appropriate responses to life. As I argued at the theology colloquy on Religion and Science in 2008, I believe the world’s great religious traditions offer us resources for constructing a rich religious humanism within the limits if nature alone. 3

However, let me step back closer to home, and explore another approach to religious pluralism that sees a loving God at the center of reality. Process relational theologians like Marjorie Suchocki and John Cobb propose a vision of a loving God that is deeply compatible with central Christian doctrines like the Trinity, Christ as the incarnation of the divine Logos, and the spiritual and ethical teachings of the bible. Whereas Paul Tillich spoke of standing at the “boundary like” of Christianity, John Cobb believes he can appropriately stand at the center of the Christian tradition. At the same time, Cobb and others argue that process theology offers the spiritual and intellectual resources for a fully appreciative religious pluralism.

At the center of process theology lies the rejection of traditional concepts of omniotence as unilateral and coercive, in favor of an understanding of the divine as infinite relational power and love. God is at work in all creation at all times, revealing God’s love and calling the world forth in freedom and love to create the future. Because God cannot unilaterally coerce any creature in the world, we escape the core theistic question of why a loving God does not simply make clear to everyone in the world the single truth of Christianity – or Judaism, Islam, or whatever. Rather, we are free now to envision a God whose loving work is always, inescapably, interwoven with nature and culture, so that each person inescapably experiences God’s work and call within the framework of their own culture and lived experience. This vision of God takes us right back to where we began – seeing God as loving Mira twenty-five hundred years ago in India, loving and working with every person in her culture, giving rise to human responses reflective of both God’s activity and human finitude and creativity.

Process thought makes another crucial contribution to this conversation by emphasizing the model of beauty. The traditional focus on objective truth leads us to think of a single truth for all. But the language of beauty reminds us that it would be absurd to think there is a single poem, painting, dance, symphony, or song that was so perfect that we need no further poems, paintings, dances, symphonies, or songs in our lives. Beauty points us toward infinite diversity of value. In the same way, the process appreciation for beauty reminds us that different religious traditions nurture overlapping but also deeply different visions of spirituality and life, and that it may be just as foolish to point to one of them as so perfect and complete that we need no other vision of spirituality and life, as it would be to say this about a poem or symphony. If God appreciates the infinite diversity of beauty in life, then there is no problem with imagining God working within different cultures to draw out and life up diverse spiritual visions, each of which may make the world a richer and better place. I for one do not believe the world would be better off if all nations bowed their knees to the God of Christianity and abandoned the richness of their own traditions.

Process thinkers are very good at approaching apparent contradictions with an eye toward how they might be reconceived as mutually enriching contrasts. A key example of this is John Cobb’s approach to Buddhist Christian dialogue. Christians, Jews, and Muslims would ordinarily argue that there can be only one ultimate reality, that it is logically contradictory to posit two ultimate realities. Hence it cannot be the case that both Christianity and Buddhism are true since they pursue visions of different ultimate realities. Cobb disagrees. Alfred North Whitehead had argued that creativity is the ultimate of ultimates, with God as its primordial instance. Cobb argues that we can make a slight shift in the way we think of ultimacy, so as to see God as ultimate in one sense, and creativity as ultimate in another. If we do that, we can begin to explore the close relationship between Whitehead’s concept of creativity and Buddhist concepts of emptiness as ultimate. If, as seems likely to Cobb, the Buddhist concept of emptiness can be fruitfully understood as dialogue with Whitehead’s concept of creativity, then it is possible to see as ultimate both the God of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and Buddhist emptiness. As you can see, this represents a very concrete and fundamental step in dialogue between the Abrahamic traditions and the Buddhist traditions.

Finally, then, let me offer my own contribution to that discussion. Building on Cobb’s work, I have argued elsewhere 4 that there is no barrier to respecting three ultimates: Buddhist empiness (Whitehead’s creativity and perhaps what Tillich might have meant by being itself), God, and the world. For me, the world, understood as the all-inclusive infinite history of the realm of nature, has within it all the resources needed to rightly claim ultimacy. While I do not have time to explore this idea at length here, elsewhere I have pointed to the Hindu distinction between Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman, and the Chinese contrast between Wu, the Tao un-manifest, and You, the Tao as manifest. Both cases distinguish between the unformed world that cannot be named – similar to Whitehead’s creativity – and the world of form, time, and space that can be named – which the Chinese often refer to as the ten thousand things. Both of these have been seen as ultimates in their respective traditions, and give us rich resources for our conversation today.

It is important to be clear that for me, personally, the primary question is about love and compassion – about spiritual ultimacy rather than metaphysical ultimacy. I think there are good metaphysical reasons to view the world as a metaphysical ultimate, but that is never the main question for me. It is the creatures constituting the world in all its concreteness that draw my ultimate (though of course flawed) compassionate love. It is my children and grandchildren – Sarah, Mark, Elliot, Asher – and you. It is the children and other creatures who I think have the greatest need of my love.

Another way to explain why the world takes priority for me is that I don’t think a truly loving God would have issued the first great commandment “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12: 29-30 NRSV). 5 Or perhaps, God would not have broken the great commandment into two parts, where the first commandment is to love God and the second is to love your neighbor. At the very least I think a genuinely loving God would have reversed the order. I think this God would be saying something more like, “Love each other and the creatures of the world who need your loving care. That is who I love most, and I will always be working with you for the world’s welfare – whether you think I am here or not. As long as you care for the world with compassionate wisdom, we are working together.” I suspect that for many people, any persuasive argument for putting the commandment to love God first is that it will better enable us to live out the second – to love our neighbors. But if the commandment to love God is really a means to that end, we ought to make that clear. I cannot imagine a truly loving God wanting us to love God more than we love the children of the world. Would any of us who have children want people to care more for us than for our children?

Such a view of God, I hope, allows theists and humanists to join arms, or roll up their sleeves, in common cause. Given this view of Divine love, the theist has no need to be concerned about viewing the world as a third (but equal) ultimate, and the nontheist has no cause to be concerned that such theism will draw love and loyalty out of the world where it is so desperately needed. This is not to say that theists will feel their personal relationship with a profoundly loving God is not important, or that nontheists would not be better able to love the world if they shared such spiritually empowering love. Nor does it mean that nontheists will lose all concern that aspects of theism may still draw energies into less productive directions. But my hope is that these could remain friendly concerns shared while working in a common vineyard, helping to keep each other continually open to others’ compassionate wisdom.

  1. See John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1989), and other works. For a short statement of this view, see the fourth edition of Hick’s Philosophy of Religion (Prentice-Hall)
  2. In April of 1989 when I was working on a book on John Hick’s theodicy, Dr. Hick invited me to present a paper at an international gathering of scholars in Claremont, California, to discuss his work, and especially his newest book, An Interpretation of Religion. My paper was titled “Humanism and Hick’s Interpretation of Religion” (later published in Problems in the Philosophies of Religion: Critical Studies of the Work of Joh Hick, ed. Harold Hewitt [Macmillan in the UK and St. Martin’s in the US, 1991]), so during that conference I had the opportunity to raise the question of whether he would allow that religious and secular humanists were also responding to the Real. He (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) agreed that they may be. I reviewed Interpretation for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion in the Winter 1990 issue.
  3. C. Robert Mesle, “Religious Naturalism: Seeking the Welfare of Children within the Limits of Nature Along: A process-Relation Perspective,” Theology Vol. 15: Science and Religion: Pastoral Implications, ed. Ruth Ann Wood and Peter A. Judd (Independence, Missouri: Community of Christ Seminary, Graceland Press, 2008), 2-16.
  4. I developed these ideas in a paper titled “Elliot Matters: The World as an Ultimate: Children as Windows to the WOrld’s Sacredness,” presented at a conference on “Theopoetics and the Divine Manifold: Toward Process Theologies of Multiplicity” at the Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, CA (April 20-22, 2010). The paper is forthcoming (2012) as a chapter in On Poetics and Theopoetics: Exploring the Mystery and Urgency of Multiplicity, Ed. Roland Faber and Jeremy Fackenthal (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012)
  5. Of course, I suspect that many modern Christians, and especially process-relational thinkers, would agree with me in seeing the whole format of commandments as anachronistic for a compassionate vision of the divine.