world council of churches

The Ultimate in a World of Religious Plurality
Jack Bemporad

When we speak of the ultimate we usually mean that which is primordial or foundational or irreducible, some reality that anything whatsoever in one way or another presupposes, and which is required for the being and understanding of anything at all.

This ultimate has been characterized in many different ways in both philosophical and religious speculation. Thus religions have spoken of God as that which is primordial in the sense of being the ground and end of all that is. In non theistic religions such an ultimate can be seen as the foundational law or process by which everything takes place.

It is clear that when we speak of the ultimate we are referring to three corollary concepts.

First, the idea of the transcendent, that is, minimally that which is before, with, and after everything that is.

Second, that of the self sufficient, since if it were not in some sense primordially independent, it would be dependent totally on something else, and thus not be ultimate.

Third, the necessary contrast between what is designated as ultimate and everything else that at least appears not to be ultimate.

In theistic creational religions the non-ultimate is the created universe separate from, or in part independent of God. But even in non creational religions where the doctrine of emanation is affirmed, there is still a distinction between the primordial reality and what emanates from it.

In philosophy, speculation about the ultimate has often been approached through the appeal to an absolute. It is largely due to the influence of philosophy on religion that the concept of the ultimate in religious thinking as characterized above has been integrated with the idea of the absolute.

In philosophy, the idea of the absolute has signified the "self-sufficient, unconditional, the independent, not relative. The all inclusive all comprehending totality of the real" (E. S. Brightman's article on the absolute in Ferm, Encyclopedia of Religion). Philosophical speculation about religion is ancient, and it concerns itself with inquiring into the meaning and truth of the religious affirmations of faith of a particular religious tradition. Such an enterprise became essential when faiths encountered one another. It became necessary to determine what distinguished one's own faith from the faith of others. It was necessary usually to clarify one's faith both with respect to other faiths and the contrary witness these other faiths proclaimed, but also with respect to the questioning that took place within what became branches or divisions in one's own faith perspective.

Philosophy became important because logical argument became central in the attempt to achieve the tasks of confronting other faiths and criticism from within and without. Philosophy also was and is important as a proper arena for discussion with non- believers and not just believers in other religious traditions.

In discussing the question of God, Schubert Ogden has characterized God and ultimacy in the following manner: " 'God' is what ultimately makes our life worth living. Must we not concede that whatever functions for a particular person or community to make his or her life worthwhile is, in effect, God for that person or community ... that there are in fact 'many gods,' as many indeed as there are different ways of understanding what it is that makes our life worthwhile ... thus whatever a man looks to as the ultimate reason for his existence, is the final ground of its meaning or worth, is in a way, his God ... this implies that the word God does in a sense have many referents ... as a matter of fact, it is only by saying precisely this that we can give any clear meaning to what Scripture means by atheism, namely idolatry" (Ogden, How does God function in human life?, Christianity and Crisis, May 15, 1967).

It is important to recognize that God as ultimate is contrasted to that which is less than ultimate but which may be treated erroneously as ultimate.

In this sense one can speak of idol worship or idolatry as taking the partial, fragmentary, derivative as ultimate. An idol is a false hope. Something that cannot bear the burden of our legitimate trust. I am reminded of what Buber said by way of criticizing Hegel: "Faith in creation maybe replaced by a conviction about evolution, faith in revelation by a conviction about increasing knowledge, but faith in salvation will not really be replaced by a conviction about the perfecting of the world by the idea, since only trust in the trustworthy is able to establish a relation of unconditional certainty toward the future" (Buber, Between Man and Man, p. 142) . Trust in the trustworthy -- that which will not betray our trust is what God or the ultimate is all about.

Buber is speaking within the context of biblical faith, but I think the affirmation that that which truly brings about salvation is God or the ultimate can be expressed in the language of most faith traditions. In quoting Ogden and Buber I have stressed the distinction between faith in God versus faith in an idol (and Buber does not shy away from pointing out philosophical idols). However I do not believe that one can remain within the terms of existential or subjective categories. I believe that rational, discursive, objective, categories must be assumed to be able to clarify and legitimize the distinction between God and idols. There must be some explicit, reflective, way of making this distinction.

From a biblical perspective this distinction can be characterized as an appeal to that which transcends the human capacity to bring about salvation. This is not a subjective statement but attempts to discover what in fact, to use Wieman's language, "actually does operate in human life to transform man as he cannot transform himself" (Bretall, Robert, ed., The Empirical Theology of Henry Nelson Wieman).

In putting the question of the ultimate in salvific terms, not merely subjective but also objective, I have tried to make it clear to all who see the main function of religion as that of salvation. However, I believe that I could have made a similar case if I had investigated creation, or the soul, or God. In each case we are dealing with an ultimate in the sense of inexhaustibleness.

Problems arise in the various forms or religious ways in which these ultimates are characterized, and how they are related to one another. All major religions do this, and it is here that philosophy has considerable value. The ultimate is seen as a reality, but one which a reflective religious individual can affirm.

One begins to try to understand one's belief by reflecting on the particular religious tradition of which one is a part and especially on its history and teachings so as to represent its teachings correctly. This has been characterized as the criteria of appropriateness.

It is also necessary objectively to recognize the influences of other religious traditions that may have contributed to one's own religion. For example, the dependence of Christianity and Islam on Judaism and the later dependence of Judaism on Christianity and Islam.

Within a particular religious tradition numerous affirmations about God or the ultimate are made. These affirmations are part of religious traditions. There may be religious texts that are considered authoritative and which make statements about God's acts and attributes.

Certain individuals may be given prominence in a particular religious tradition who in other religions are either ignored or given a secondary or even alien role. In any case, each religion may make central a figure that in another tradition may be peripheral or insignificant.

Similarly, for centuries religious traditions have accepted supernatural elements, miracles, sacred objects, and so on, not perceived as such in other religions.

Religions make statements in a "mythological" context or are intermixed with "mythological elements" that have to be interpreted and restated in terms that are acceptable in the context of common discourse. But not just mythological statements but also statements about religious objects and values must be credible.

Reason is concerned with knowing. "The complex of the natural procedures of the human spirit is the acquisition of knowledge; it comprehends therefore all the processes of scientific and philosophical thought, from observation and the critical evaluation of facts to the determination of their causal relations, of their laws and their principles, including also all rational processes that regulate the systematization of the laws and principles in one logically coherent system" (Martinetti, Ragione e Fede, p. 9). "That which confers value to these rational processes is the character of objectivity, that by means of such rational procedures a universal and necessary structure is imposed on all intelligent individuals" (ibid.). Such preparation is as much needed in moral and religious knowledge as in scientific knowledge. Knowledge which reason strives for includes not only logical processes but also intuition, insight and all of the psychological elements that constitute the process of knowing. Religious faith is often counterposed to reason as an independent and superior authority. Such claims occur only in the field of religion. But even here the preparation for such an affirmation of superior knowledge and authority is itself a use of reason. Nevertheless, there are formed two realms, that of faith and that of reason.

How are we to critically evaluate the claims of faith? Revelation is a historical fact, and its justification must come about through rational premises of a historical nature. It relates to facts of an exceptional character that transcend the natural order of things and thus impose themselves as superior knowledge, as the revelation of a divine authority. This is the view of fideism. We must ask what is the place of faith in the life of reason? Jonas speaks of the use of philosophy by religion in his essay on Heidegger and theology, "The elucidation of the nature of reality by secular thought and of the nature of thinking about reality in secular thought is desirable and even necessary in theology ... since theology as the logos about things divine, is by definition the discursive, in some sense scientific elucidation of the contents of faith (not, of course, of the internal structure of faith, which would be phenomenology) and thus, ... what theology needs in this relationship is the otherness of philosophy, not its similarity" (pp. 239-240).

Once the work of reason and ethics and the broad range of experience have done their work, one can construct post-systematic statements. Such systematic or post- systematic integration cannot take nor should it take the place of faith. But it is important in explicating the meaning and truth of one's faith and in laying the rational foundation for interreligious understanding.

Some such distinction is needed in each religious tradition. In some cases the relationship between particular religions is very close, either as having arisen from one religious tradition as in the case of Judaism and Christianity, or in sharing a very close characterization of the divine as in the case of the radical monotheism of Judaism and Islam. We see similar close relationships between Hinduism and late Buddhism.

I wish to affirm that in the world today, where global proximity is an everyday occurrence, where we are exposed daily to events in areas where different religions hold sway, some method of dialogue and communication becomes essential. We need to develop ways of accurately learning about one another and accurately depicting both our common values and ideals and also our differences and uniqueness. We must find ways of being able to stand in the other person's place and look at the world from the perspective of the other, so that our own consciousness and awareness becomes enlarged and deepened. We must widen the shared values so that the values of the faith community of which we are a part will be broadened in the understanding of the other. Thus cooperation and mutuality will be enhanced, respecting the uniqueness of each in constructive rather than destructive ways. We must find a way in which we can learn to live with each other and respect and learn from one another.

A religion is seen with different eyes when it is recognized by the other. It then forces itself not only to recognize the other religion but also itself.

It must be hoped that in the coming century all religions will strive to ask and answer this question: How can I be true to my own faith without being false to the faith of the other? How can interreligious understanding bring about the best in my own tradition and in the tradition of the other?

The early rabbis developed the doctrine of the fence around the Torah. Like a garden fence it protects growth. Sometimes fences turn into walls; all religions have created walls in one form or another. This is particularly true of the Jewish religion. This is perfectly understandable due to the numerous periods of persecution in its history. Therefore, Judaism will have to look within and ask itself how much of its tradition is the result of fear and external hostility which forced it in many ways to protect itself and build these walls. Each religion must do this. How can it be free to see itself in terms of its essence and not as a result of external necessities? And in that light it must also change itself and its attitude to other faiths.

The very first step in this process is for each religion to strive to represent the other in a way that would be recognizable by the representatives of that religion. It is not sufficient to simply be nice to one another or even to strive to correct centuries of stereotyping each other, but we must seek the common foundations which will enable us to work together. The religions of the world have great power, they communicate with millions, even billions, of people and they have an obligation not simply to make pronouncements but to work for a better world. If indeed our task as religious individuals is to mend the world, tikkun olam, then it is essential for us to devote ourselves completely to changing human beings and society so that, in the words of the Jewish tradition, the evil inclination or fabricatory power for excess can be tamed and transformed into terms of the good inclination which seeks harmony and cooperation.

This does not mean that we have to negate our institutions. It is by perfecting our institutions and actually making them function genuinely that we can best work together. This reality can be summarized as the development of a new harmony which cannot be separated from the distinct elements within it.

The next century will not bring about a homogenized universal religion but rather all religions will be working harmoniously together, each one helping the other to bring out the best in itself. By all religions seeing the good in each other they will help bring about the good that each religion has.

One cannot believe that religions that have lasted thousands of years and have been of considerable benefit to their adherents have nothing important to teach us. I do not see such communication endangering our survival but rather enhancing it by bringing out the best in each religion.

The final recognition in Christian communities that Jesus was a Jew, that the apostles were Jewish, and that the milieu was Jewish can only help Jews see the Jewish character of many of Jesus's teachings and gain respect for Christianity. On the other hand, the recognition that Jesus was a Jew can only help Christians gain a better recognition of the teachings and values of Judaism.

What is of utmost importance is that we be certain of our ideals. So much that goes into the formation of our character and ourselves in our society, is based on the ideas and ideals we hold to be sacred, precious and true. We are unfinished beings and we need religion to complete us. Thus, it is of utmost importance that we be sure that we do not have a false sense of the sacred. Progress in religion can be measured to the degree in which we can winnow outthe false senses of the sacred or that which we claim to be sacred, which has no right to adulation.

In the next century religion can only prosper to the degree that it can maintain a sense of community among its adherents. The great challenge, both of modernity and post- modernity, is the atomization of the individual and the dissolution of community bonds. The Hebrew word for people am comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for "with" im. To be indeed a people of God we must learn to be with our neighbors fully in their pains and joys. When the Bible states, "Love your neighbor as yourself," it can be interpreted to mean: Be conscious of your neighbor as you are conscious of yourself.

The past century has been the glorification of materialism, and the fundamental paradigm for knowledge is the subject to object. We must now strive together to create a state of being and a world culture wherein we will be able to see each other as subject to subject, wherein the inner dimension is given prominence over the outer. There is a long march from the biblical institution of the Sabbath, which gave the stranger, the slave and even the animal a day of rest, to the sabbatical year, which gave the land a year of rest, to the jubilee year, which freed all slaves -- even those who chose slavery for life -- and reestablished the distribution of property, to that messianic goal described with the words of Isaiah, "nation shall not lift up sword against nation or learn war anymore. The earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea." We have to go towards the words of Micah: "each individual shall sit under his vine and fig tree and none shall make them afraid."

Rabbi Jack Bemporad is an American rabbi with a long experience in Jewish-Christian relations. He is presently director of an institute for interreligious understanding in New Jersey, USA.

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