We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, March 6, 2014

God and Exclusivism—A Trend

In a posting entitled, "COMMENTARY: The rise of the diminished, ordinary God," Mitchell Stevens argues that people today generally don't see God as the all-powerful deity worthy of worship that they once did. He writes, "Many individuals, particularly athletes or those caught in difficult situations, may still say little prayers, but God is also being given less credit for the outcomes of our struggles. The course of human events — wars, finances, love affairs, basketball games — is more and more seen as determined by humans, not by an increasingly ordinary God."  We, thus, no longer look to God to explain happenings in the world.  We attribute events to human behavior rather than divine intervention.  Fewer people feel bound by the demands that religious institutions make on them.  Stevens concludes, "Religion’s supporters can take comfort in the fact that, so far, most minds still find room for some sort of God. But as religion recedes and we contend less and less with the strictures of ancient holy texts, it is an increasingly distant, indistinct, uninvolved, ordinary God."

The argument is an interesting one and worthy of debate, but at one important point it fails.  In the course of his argument, Stevens claims that, "Most today also hold their religious beliefs more lightly than did their ancestors. And we seem less sure of the beliefs we do have: According to a 2007 Pew survey, only about a quarter of Americans are convinced that their “religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.”  Our God, in other words, has grown smaller and become "ordinary" because fewer people are exclusivists.

The assumption is that those who do not believe in an exclusivist religion take their religion less seriously.  Firmly held religion, that is, must be narrow minded.  Thich Nhat Hanh, by this logic, must be somehow less religious or less serious in his religion than was Jerry Falwell.  This is simply not the case.  Quite often those who reject exclusivism exhibit the same depth of commitment to their faith as do those who embrace a one-gospel-saves-all doctrine.  And the fact that three-fourths of Americans reject the idea that their religion is the only path to salvation could well be seen as a mark of a growing spiritual maturity rather than an indication that people take their faith less seriously.  That, indeed, is the key distinction here: the difference between practicing a faith and holding certain beliefs.  The intensity with which we hold certain doctrines, such as the doctrine of salvation, is not in and of itself a measure of the seriousness with which we approach a life of faith.  In Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh goes so far as to make the rejection of exclusivism his first "precept of the Order of Interbeing."  That precept reads, "Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology.  All systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth."

It may be that today the general public takes God less seriously, but the decreasing prevalence of exclusivism is not a measure of the seriousness with which people take their religion.  That's the point.