Getting from God to Christ (Part 2)

Our relational capacity, and all the emotions that accompany it, is significant in that it is difficult, first of all, to account for such things with naturalism.  For example, if naturalism were true, then one would assume that all our emotions gradually evolved and, in a Darwinian framework, have some kind of survival value.  Yet there are some human emotions that seem to have been built into us for reasons of knowing we need something more than life “under the sun” can offer, reasons far beyond mere survival. C. S. Lewis has suggested, “If I find in myself a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[1]

One of the most significant things about our emotional make up as humans is that we have an inner yearning for love and relationships with other humans. Perhaps that is why we, in our best state, seem to seek the well being of the weak and sickly.  Is it not plausible to suggest that we were made for love?  But what is love, and where does it come from?  Is it merely a human invention; a social convention?  Or is it something that we discover to be meaningful and wonderful; something that comes to us from “out there?”

Given our yearning for meaningful and loving relationships, we may make the following intimations.  Humans are deeply relational beings.  This relational capacity is of the essence of our personhood.  Anything that is of such fundamental inherent quality would only have meaning if it were much more than a mere social convention, thus it must have an origin outside of and independent from human experience, that is, its source must be objective.  Further, that origin must share something of that relational capacity as well, insofar as it is the source of personhood and relational capacity among humans, that is, the source of human relational capacity must share that same capacity to relate meaningfully.

If, as has been suggested, our personhood is at least partially defined by our capacity to relate meaningfully with others, and the source of our personhood and relational capacity shares this as well, we are dealing with a Person that seeks a relationship with persons.  We could further expect that what makes relationships among ourselves as persons possible is what is needed in our relationship with this Person as well.  An indispensable means for establishing and maintaining relationships is self-disclosure.  We cannot begin to come to really know and relate meaningfully to each other until we decide to communicate.  So it stands to reason, if our relational capacities come from a higher source, and that Source (God ) is the master of relationships, so to speak, then we would expect that God, wishing to relate meaningfully as a relational Person to persons, would disclose himself in some fashion; i.e. we might expect that God would somehow communicate in a clear and unmistakable way the terms for a relationship with himself.


Evaluating Religious Pluralism and the Moral Criterion

Why would such “clear and unmistakable” disclosure be necessary?  Religiously oriented people have historically concluded that humans are not what they are supposed to be individually and collectively, and thus develop some idea as to how to get into a right relationship with ultimate reality, or God. This, partially, is what gives rise to the many different theories about what ultimate reality is, and how we, as humans are to relate to it for our salvation/liberation/enlightenment/deliverance, thus contributing to religious pluralism.  A small sampling should suffice in demonstrating this. 

Buddhism is essentially atheistic (no god), having broken away from Hinduism, which is polytheistic (viz. 300 million deities). Buddhists hold that it is desire that keeps us ignorant about reality and binds us to this temporal illusion (maya), which results in our continued cycles (samsara) of death, re-birth and suffering.  The goal for human existence is enlightenment/liberation, which delivers (moksha) us from this plight and enables us to achieve the bliss of Nirvana (cessation of desire).  Within Hinduism are various approaches to the question of the divine.  Some say the gods are personal; others may assert them to be impersonal. It is through the various yogic disciplines that humans become one with reality, and achieve deliverance.  New Age philosophies are more pantheistic, claiming that “god” is an impersonal force in us all and we are all god, teaching that the reason we are so miserable is that we have not discovered in ourselves our own god- or Christ-consciousness.

Even of the religions that claim that there is one personal God that created all things there is still much distinction, particularly in terms of how they view Jesus Christ.  Jews say that Jesus was nothing more than another, misguided, Jewish man, while Muslims claim that Jesus was, indeed a great prophet, but that he did not, as Christians proclaim, die on the cross, or rise from the dead.  Christians claim that the death and resurrection of Jesus have a special significance for all humanity, since Jesus himself claimed that “he who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9)” and that he alone is the “way the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father (an interpersonal relationship with God) but through me (John 14:6).”[2] 

Moving on from this point, we might also conclude that the very presence of such religious diversity points up a problem; in fact a serious problem that cannot be dis missed.  “It is impossible to discern a consistent pattern among the innumerable human strategies for seeking spiritual fulfillment.  The sad track record of religious activity initiated by humans suggests that the conditions for a genuine spiritual satisfaction must be set by our Creator.”[3]  This is no doubt the source of religious diversity, but also much religious and spiritual confusion.  One of the serious factors often overlooked, however, is that these many “strategies” that have been proposed throughout human history in the great religions and the current “spirituality” of modern times are not only different, but outright contradictory.

The marked differences in how strategies prescribe obtaining a relationship with the divine has led religious pluralists, like John Hick, to conclude that all of the religions must somehow be experiencing the same ultimate reality, just in different ways. [4]  This entails seeing in each of the great religions embodiments of different perceptions and experiences of the same ultimate reality, although these are not direct experiences; instead they are experiences of “the unexperienceable reality that underlies that realm.” Hick identifies the Real, so as not to privilege any given religious tradition over another. This explains the diversity.  The incompatibilities between the different faith systems are real, admits Hick, being culturally conditioned responses that should be expected.  This does not in anyway mean anything ontologically with regard to the Real itself.  The Real is what it is, and in the end it is ineffable, “the ultimate Mystery” about which no single system can definitively say or know anything.    No substantial attributes can be known about it, only informal attributes, which are altogether “trivial and inconsequential.”  That is, these attributes, observed in the phenomenological expression of people in the various religions variously as God, Brahman, Allah, Vishnu, etc., do not give us any actual information about the Real.  Consequently, it can not be said to be “one or many, person or thing, conscious or unconscious, purposive or non-purposive, substance or process, good or evil, loving or hating.”  Hick’s model is one of the most sophisticated as far as an attempt to explain the diversity without privileging one religious tradition.  It is saying that there is an absolute Reality, but it is experienced in culturally conditioned, and thus indirect, ways, all of which, although incompatible, are legitimate.

Hick speaks of the different conceptions and cultural expressions of the Real as neither literally true nor false, but rather “mythologically true,” and this is judged by the effect that that belief has on individuals and communities.  That is, they cannot be considered true in any objective sense, but rather a pragmatic sense. The greatest criterion by which this mythological truthfulness can be evaluated is whether the religion is “soteriologically effective.”  For Hick this means the “production of saints.”  He writes, “one valid criterion by which to identify a religious tradition as a salvific human response to the Real” is whether or not it has produced “saints.” A saint is one who, having assimilated the teachings of his or her faith system, is transformed into a person characterized by “moral goodness,” which is manifest in one’s “serving his or her fellows either in works of mercy or, characteristically in our modern sociologically-conscious age, political activity as well, seeking to change the structures with in which humans live.” Focusing on others in this sense means that one has experienced the salvific transformation, and has moved from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness. This is the hallmark of salvation/liberation/enlightenment/redemption/awakening (the various concepts of the different religions describing in Hick’s mind, the same experience of the Real). No matter what it is called in the various faiths, it represents “a striking similarity of the transformed human state.”  So the criterion by which one can judge the validity of a given faith is in its moral fruits.  There are several glaring difficulties with Hick’s model.

First, his claim that none of the major religious traditions represent direct experiences of the Real is a reinterpretation and distortion of the systems themselves with which the practitioners of these various religions would not agree.  In fact, it is of the nature of any truth claim to be exclusive. Every true devotee of the various religious systems would claim to be in direct, not indirect, touch with Ultimate Truth, and that the other religions are lacking. Even the Dalai Llama has stated “Liberation . . . is a state that only Buddhists can accomplish.  This kind of moksha or nirvana is only explained in the Buddhist scriptures, and is achieved only through Buddhist practice.”[5] Hick’s thesis reinterprets and distorts main tenets of the different religious faiths calling their accounts “trivial and inconsequential” insofar as they are not direct experiences of the Real, saying things about their views that are simply unacceptable to the practitioners of those faiths.

Second, Hick is being inconsistent when he claims that the Real cannot be known, yet we can know that a given religious tradition is in touch somehow with the Real when it fulfills the minimal criterion of “salvific transformation” and the “production of saints.” This moral framework for evaluation raises important questions.  If the Real cannot be known, and neither personal nor non-personal, good nor evil can be predicated about it, then how can one know that the Real is behind the salvific transformation of any given faith?  How is it that being appropriately related to Hick’s a-personal and amoral Real somehow produces people characterized by moral characteristics to which the Real itself is indifferent?  If “salvific transformation” is seen in “the transition from self-centeredness to Reality centeredness” as Hick suggests, but the Real cannot be known, how can one know he or she truly is reality centered, or even that being such is a worthwhile endeavor?  

 Finally, moral capacity is part of the very essence of what it means to be a person. Morality is concerned with persons, and it presupposes that persons matter.  But ultimately, persons do not matter to the Real.  If salvific transformation produces moral goodness, compassion and justice, it would seem that the Real was concerned about these virtues. But to be concerned and prefer one form of behavior over another are personal attributes. This actually reduces morality to a purely human convention, and provides no basis for suggesting that some behaviors (e.g. relieving injustice, compassion on the poor) are indeed to be morally preferred over others (e.g. luring followers into mass suicide, mass homicide through crashing planes into buildings).[6]   

If we look exclusively to the idea of morality as a chief criterion for discerning any given religion as “true,” as pluralists and spiritually oriented people tend to do, it is immediately clear that most religious viewpoints do in fact share much wisdom in this particular department.  For example, most have in their ethical instruction a version of what has come to be known as the “Golden Rule;” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  This idea did not originate with the Bible or with Jesus.  The Dalai Lama has opined, “all the different religious faiths, despite their philosophical differences, have a similar objective.  Every religion emphasizes human improvement, love, respect for others, sharing other people’s suffering. On these lines, every religion has more or less the same viewpoint.”[7]  This proposition rings true. But given this unanimity in morality within religion, how should the validity of religious systems be assessed?

Morality has to do with our relationships with one another.  In a theistic framework it would seem sensible to expect a consensus on moral wisdom not only among the “great” world religions but also among pagans, atheists and secularists as well.  If the God that created us is a loving God that takes continued interest in his human creation, as the anthropic principle intimates, then it would stand to reason that this God would build into these humans, whom he wishes to preserve, something, minimally, to keep them from destroying each other; so that humankind cannot only survive, but thrive.[8]

So what do we do with morality?  Morality is a putative concern because we have an intuitive sense that human life has intrinsic worth and value.  We establish our moral rules to preserve this value.  It is almost instinctual, and inevitable, thus so common that it would be foolish to place much stock in the moral sense as a means to achieving a meaningful relationship with God.  Morality should be understood as God’s means of preserving his human creation by protecting them from each other, and giving them an impetus to care for each other. Again, this is what one would expect in an anthropically fine-tuned universe.  Our moral sense is a part of that fine-tuning, not a means to establishing an interpersonal relationship with God.

If our focus is on morality, we soon realize that morality is not necessarily our friend, but our foe, for sincerely focusing upon the moral law only results in the painful awareness of our failure to uphold it and thus an awareness of our need for something more.  When we come to realize what is expected of us, and strive to be that good, it dawns on us quickly how very short we fall from the standard.  We realize that a relationship with the divine, or God, is somehow interrelated to our morality, and that our failure to keep the moral law is the root of our estrangement from this God; thus the emphasis in most religions on morality and doing good.    In fact, one might say that religions exist in such abundance because there is this deep sense of estrangement from what we humans know we are supposed to be doing and experiencing.  It is also in the concept of the “solution” to our estrangement that we see much contradiction among the religions.  In Buddhism it is relinquishing all desire, in Islam it is careful observance of Allah’s will as revealed in the Quran, in the New Age it is discovering and embracing a cosmic consciousness, and in Christianity it is being saved from you sin.

This is where Hick’s moral ideas should lead us.  The putative nature of human morality leaves us not with a means of salvation, but a means of recognizing our need for it.

The Law of Non-Contradiction

Given these inadequacies of Hick’s model, and the moral criterion used to judge all religions as equally valid, we must evaluate the diversity of religions using a different approach.  Instead of dismissing out of hand the glaring contradictions by merely relegating them to indirect experiences of an ultimately unexplainable reality, we are left with many religions making contradictory truth claims. From this standpoint, simple logic should lead us away from the idea that all religious viewpoints are equally valid. Consequently, while all these religions may be found to be inadequate, there also remains the possibility that one of them is indeed the way to God, at the exclusion of all those that contradict its truth claims. 

The law of non-contradiction asserts that two contradictory propositions cannot both be right at the same time and from the same perspective.  That is if one religion claims that god is impersonal and manifested in many deities, and another claims that there is only one God and God is personal, then they both cannot be providing a correct assessment of God.[9]  Many authors have brilliantly illustrated not only the law of non-contradiction, but also how this law of logic is is inescapable and undeniable. In fact, the moment one would object to the use of the law of noncontradiction as the way to discern truth, they have used the law to try to denounce it. [10]  

Now, as mentioned, while all these religions cannot be equally correct, they could quite possibly all be wrong. As Netland states, “Even if in principle it is granted that one religious tradition might be superior to the rest, why should we assume that Christianity is in this privileged  position?  After all, why Jesus and not the Buddha?”[11]  Is there a way to cut through the confusion?  This is where it becomes necessary to resume the paradigm of love and relationships point to the truth about our spiritual situation in the universe. 


[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Macmilllan, 1952), p. 106.

[2] Netland has done an informative job in detailing the incompatibilities and conflicting truth claims not only between the different religious faiths, but also within them. He center shis dission on how the various faiths answer the questions of the nature fo the religious ultimate, the human predicament, and salvation. Encountering Religious Pluralism,


[3] Geivett, Is Jesus the Only Way? p. 194.


[4] The following discussion on Hick derives from Harold J. Netland’s Encountering Religious Pluralism, The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Downers Grove, IVP) 218-246.  Netland was a former student s of Hick’s, and now teaches at Trinity International University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.


[5] The Dalai Lame, cited by Netland in Encountering Religious Pluralism, p. 218


[6]It should be noted that Hick’s moral criteria for evaluating the validity of a given religion is actually exclusionary when it comes to some religions and their practices.  Harold Netland, a former student of Hick’s, has observed the following about Hick’s notion of the soteriological transformation.  “It provides the criterion for discriminating between responses to the Real that are legitimate and that are not.  No one supposes that all religious leaders or teachings are equally valid or equally in touch with the Real.  There is a substantial difference between Jim Jones and . . . St. Francis of Assisi and Mahatma Gandhi.  Likewise, there is a difference between child sacrifice and the Muslim  practice of . . . (giving alsms).” He then quotes Hick who opines that religious traditions “‘have greater or less value according as they promote or hinder salvific transformation.” Encountering Religious Pluralism; The Challenge To Christian Faith and Mission, (Downers Grove, IVP, 2001), 227.


[7] The Dalai Lame, cited by Netland in Encountering Religious Pluralism, p. 216.


[8] Atheism provides no ultimate framework for morality.  Ethics operates on the assumption that human life is important and worth preserving, and Atheism provides no convincing or certain basis for affirming human dignity or intrinsic value.  This, however, is the very root of ethics since ethics has to do, largely, with how we ought to treat one another.  If belief in a personal God or being religious were prerequisite for any kind of ethical outlook on life, the “human” experiment would probably have been a very short one.  The theistic view understands God as the source of human dignity. Biblical theism, in fact, holds to the unique position that humans are created equally as male and female in the image and likeness of God.  This view provides a fixed basis for affirming the intrinsic value of human life. The notion of intrinsic value, however, is not logically consistent with a view of origins that claims that humans are either simply matter in motion, as Western materialism asserts, or Maya, a temporary illusion, as is generally held by most Eastern monistic philosophies and religions. I am indebted to Francis A. Schaeffer with regard to this significant observation regarding the distinction and yet similarity of Western and Eastern thought. His ideas concerning this matter are most clearly set forth in Whatever Happened to the Human Race? in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer , Volume 5, A Christian View of the West (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), pp. 367-373.


[9] Zacharias, Can man Live Without God, p. 125-126.  Zacharias carefully demonstrates that every religion is exclusivistic in the final analysis, and that they teach contradictory things.


[10] Ibid., pp. 126-131. See Also Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism, 293-297. Paul Copan, “True forYou but Not for Me” (Minneapolis, Bethany, 1998), 29-31, and Ronald H. Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions, An Introduction to Philosophy, (Grand Rapids,Zondervan, 1999), 193-207.


[11] Netland, 157.

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