If we want world peace, it is becoming increasingly crucial that Christianity and Islam get along. However, how can any religions get along? Religion, by its very nature, tends to take things to the limit, to globalize its beliefs and absolutize its truths. If my truth is absolutely true, your different truth must not be true.
This attitude generates conflict not only between religions, but also within religions. For example, Sunnis and Shiites have a long history of conflict in Islam, as do Protestants and Catholics in Christianity.
One attempt to solve this dilemma is the annual World Day of Prayer wherein the major Christian denominations try to pray together. Another effort is World Religion Day, usually in mid-January, in which the major religions get together and speak their truth about peace.
However, these approaches, while salutary, do not address the basic problem of how to handle conflicting truth claims. On the one hand, the Koran tells us that Islam is the true faith, Buddhism maintains the Buddha taught the true path, Christianity claims the absolute truth is Jesus Christ is Lord, and Hinduism asserts that Lord Krishna was divine.
On the other hand, every world religion also teaches wisdom, compassion, prayer, fasting, taking care of the needy, and avoiding evil. Given this, no one can say that every major religion is all wrong or all evil. All of them have at least some truth or goodness in them. So, how do we reconcile all this? There are four basic approaches to truth.
The first approach is that all religions are equally true and valid. However, this choice has to be rejected when you compare say rabbinic Judaism to Aztec religion with its human sacrifices in order to keep the sun-god rising, or when you compare say Voodoo cults with the sublime theology of Thomas Aquinas.
The second approach is that no religions are true. This is the stance of the atheist or the person who cannot reconcile all the competing assertions of absolute truth, and therefore decides that all religion must be nonsense.
However, this choice is not very satisfying either. Religion expresses the deepest insights of the human heart. To say there is no truth in any religion is to leave humanity in a truly hopeless situation.
The third approach is black and white religious truth. This is the attitude of “we are saints, you are sinners,” “we have all the answers, you don’t have any,” “only Catholics will be in heaven” or conversely “all Catholics are going to hell.”
This approach, when taken to its limit can result in self-righteousness and endless division, hatred, and war between religions and within them. Truth as black and white eventually disintegrates when you start to notice the shortcomings and sin in your own community and the virtue in others.
The fourth approach is degrees of truth. This choice has as its basic premise that there is truth in all the major religions, but some religions are truer than others.
This choice forces you to really study and weigh where you can honestly find the most truth, rather than just accepting or rejecting everything wholesale. This approach also allows you to be completely committed to your own tradition while at the same time being open to whatever degree of truth you find in other traditions. In fact, everyone could enrich their own tradition with the truths they found in other traditions.
Catholics could learn a lot about humble service and justice from the Salvation Army, peacemaking and community from Mennonites, preaching and Bible study from Baptists, and joyous worship from Pentecostals. Protestants could learn from Catholics about the riches of the sacraments, contemplative prayer, the saints, and church history.
Christians in general could learn from non-Christians: love of God’s law from Jews, detachment from Buddhists, a spirit of poverty from Hindus, and zeal for God from Muslims. These traditions could similarly learn a lot about forgiveness from Christians.
An objection from evangelical Christians might be “If we admit there is truth in all the major religions, why reach out to them with the good news of Jesus Christ?” The answer is simply that, if you believe Christianity to be truer than other religions, you will want to reach out to them with your greater truth. In the process you might learn why they believe they have the greater truth, and so understand each other better. This can only be good.
In a degrees of truth approach, every person is given the human right of freedom of religion and is free to believe that their religious tradition is truer than other traditions without absolutizing their tradition as the one and only truth.
“All religions are true” has great tolerance, but no commitment; “no religions are true” has no religious commitment or tolerance; “black and white religious truth” has commitment but no tolerance; only the “degrees of truth” approach has both the religious commitment and religious tolerance which together can lead to world peace.
Bruce Tallman is a spiritual director and religious educator of adults. firstname.lastname@example.org