Epilogue: Can There Be a Universal Faith?

After our discussion of any "unitive" or so-called "universalizing" faith, this problem simply cannot be avoided. To the extent that unitive consciousness tends to universalize faith, the question of a universal faith or set of beliefs naturally follows; consequently not only every known major religious faith but even most of the great mystics themselves have made the claim of their own special insight into ultimate reality and, on the basis of that claim, tended to absolutize their own views as the superior, sometimes the only way, of approaching God or achieving salvation. Thus the subjective experience of unity with the absolute all too easily becomes the exclusive claim to absolute objectivity. The truth as grasped by this or that person or culture is elevated to the status of the sole ultimate truth for all persons, all cultures.

Theologian Hans Küng, in his book Theology for the Third Millennium, sums up the possible alternative reactions to this claim of religious faith. They are basically four (with Küng's phrasing given in italics) :

1. No religion is true or all religions are equally untrue -- this usually meant in the sense of absolute atheism.
2. Only one religion is true or all other religions are untrue -- this is the "absolutist-exclusivist" position.
3. Every religion is true or all religions are equally true -- this is seen as a typically "relativistic" approach.
4. Only one religion is (essentially) true [while] all other religions have a share ([more or less]) in the truth of this one religion -- generally termed the "inclusivist" view.

In light of the various faith stages, we have to eliminate the first two choices given above. Both dogmatically preclude any further discussion, neither qualifying for consideration by either a truly conjunctive or a universalizing faith. The first, "absolute atheism", reflects, as it usually does, the extreme negative or rejecting phase of the process that would otherwise lead toward a personal faith. Rather than being a cautious agnosticism, such a dogmatic rejection of all religion often assumes all the trappings and intolerance of a competing religion-for example, as [was] seen in the official atheistic propaganda of the communist world.

Much the same degree of fanaticism mars the second possible response, the "absolute-exclusivist" position. This attitude, which often accompanies literal and conventional faith, unfortunately sometimes displays even more intolerance when it is taken into a more personal faith. Long the stance of most of the Christian denominations -- either regarding themselves or Christianity as a whole -- this second position was essentially repudiated by the Catholic Church at Vatican II.

The third possibility, however, is especially appealing to the conjunctive and unitive stages of faith, despite its questionable logic. It is claimed, for example, that each religion, within its cultural setting, essentially performs the same function -- giving ultimate meaning to life. Some will go further and claim that all the religions have the same essential message. But I would dispute both claims. No doubt any religion gives some meaning to life. But are all meanings of equal value? For example, can a faith that turns its back entirely on the world be considered functionally the equal of one that tries to transform the world? Or, on the other hand, can we say that a religion that promises worldly success be considered as advanced as one that seeks to develop higher consciousness of and unity with the ultimate truth? Obviously, even by the criteria we've seen developed in our consideration of the stages of faith, there are serious gaps and contradictions in a purely relativist view of this type.

So this leaves us with the fourth possibility, what would be an "inclusivist" and, I presume, universalized view -- but the problem here is: of which "true" religion? Küng points out that this is essentially the view taken by Hinduism as it has evolved in recent times, while we might add that Christian theologians, including Küng, are scrambling to come up with a convincing Christian version of the same. Even just a sketchy review of what has been attempted along this line so far would require another whole book.

This is the reason that I decided to avoid, as much as I could, up till now, the term "universalizing" faith or, even more, the suggestion of a "universal faith". Not that I don't believe that one is theoretically possible -- it is just that the importance of faith understood primarily as commitment, and only secondarily as a set of convictions leading to an all-enabling confidence or trust, has been the main point, even if not the whole point of this book.

Yet the fact is that strong commitment cannot be made, except to someone or something. And, accordingly, certain convictions about that object of our commitment come to the fore. Unfortunately, even error, when firmly held, can sometimes inspire the highest confidence. Given the wrong set of convictions, that same confidence can wreak havoc upon the human mind and upon the world. Ultimately, only "the truth will make you free."

Truth involves, whether we like it or not, teachings or doctrine. But doctrines unfortunately still tend to divide more than unite. This is why Hinduism's and especially Buddhism 's attempts to solve the problem propose to sidestep the issue of doctrine altogether by relegating it to a lesser level of religious consciousness -- of course, by advocating a "higher" mystical doctrine of their own. Or else one may attempt a synthesis of competing doctrines -- such was the idea of the founder of Sikhism who attempted to blend the Hindu world-view, with its belief in karma and reincarnation, with Islamic monotheism. Unfortunately, history shows that such attempts at syncretism often turn out to become just another competing sect.

So too in the west. Not even the attempt to formulate a universalized interpretation of Christianity has ever been very successful, with what one group or another considers "heresy" dividing such efforts almost from the beginning. So also many groups stubbornly resist the ecumenical movement today. Nor has organized ecumenism's strategic shift to "service" instead of doctrine been noticeably more effective -- in fact many of the moral and political dimensions of such service turn out to be more divisive than pure doctrine alone.

What then is the answer? Does the unitive faith stage inevitably call for not just a universalizing, but a truly universal faith? I am personally convinced that despite the divisive effect religious teachings have had in the past, only a deepened religious faith in the broadest sense of the word -- which includes doctrine -- can generate the hope, confidence, or trust that makes life possible in the long run. So I would like to end with a short consideration of what the content or convictions of that faith might include, at least from a Christian perspective. It is not the only and hardly the latest such attempt, but it is the one with which I am most familiar, and because of its emphasis on faith both as a conviction leading to confidence or hope for this world, as well as to a renewed commitment to the future of humanity, it is most appropriate for concluding our discussion.

About seventy years ago, the scientist-philosopher-theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) began pondering the question of humanity's future in the face of a growing pessimism. We have, he felt, reached an impasse in the evolution of the human species; either we shall have to make the difficult choices that are necessary to advance, or else we will slowly, but surely, regress (see "The Grand Option" in The Future of Man). And that choice, he said, is essentially a question of faith, a faith that must combine both a "propulsive" faith in the future of humanity along the horizontal horizon of this world's evolution, as well as an "ascensional" faith that aims at the transcendental goal of the spirit (see "How I Believe" in Christianity and Evolution). To Teilhard's mind, the classical faiths or religions of mankind had fallen into a trap: either the development of the "soul" or spirit at the expense of this world, or else, as in the case of western and Marxist civilization, development of this world at the expense of the spirit. These two "faiths" must be reunited, and the world must search for the religious expression that is capable of doing so. For Teilhard, as a Christian, the symbolic goal of this dual faith is the "Christ-Omega", the focal point in which creator and creation are brought into a union through which "God becomes all in all" (1 Cor 15:28).

If I were to attempt to recast Teilhard's vision in trinitarian terms (or should we say Hegelian terms? -- something similar to R. Panikkar's venture some years back) we might say that what Teilhard attempted to do was to reach a synthesis of the western emphasis on the transcendent "Father" God-image, on the one hand, and the immanential tendency of Oriental [Asian] religion on the other. The latter's tendency to immerse divinity within the universe as its "soul" or "spirit", which, to Teilhard 's mind, paradoxically tends to devaluate the material, changing universe as maya or illusion, too often ends up cultivating an indifference to the world as something not really real. Teilhard's approach to a synthesis of the two is based on a progressive or evolutionary view of the universe where "spirit" is not opposed to "matter", but where the two are seen but as poles of a single weltstoff and what appears to be pure materiality evolves, through a process of complexity leading toward consciousness, into what is more and more capable of full communion with God in love.

The great agent of this evolution is God's "Word" or the self-manifestation of God in human form, Jesus Christ. In him are not only the two views of divinity, transcendence and immanence of God, united, but through the evolution of his own humanity into a perfect instrument of the spirit, Jesus himself becomes the concrete embodiment of the "Omega"-goal of evolution where materiality itself is transformed into the consummate expression of the spirit. Yet, at the same time, the risen Christ is physically united to the universe, not just as the ecclesial or even the sacramental "body of Christ," but through him the universe itself becomes, as it were, "the body of God" or the pleroma, "the fullness of him who is filled all in all", or, as some translations put it, "who fills the universe in all its parts" (see Eph 1 :23).

Teilhard himself never developed an express "pneumatology" or theology of the Holy Spirit, but his writings are pregnant with possibilities. His concept of the "noosphere", the interconnected "skein" or network of consciousnesses pushed ever more tightly together by "planetary compression" (the effect of ever-expanding population on a limited earth surface), not only portends a growing "world-culture" (as well as a world population crisis unless astutely managed) but also a growing unanimity of spiritual aspirations -- even perhaps a drawing together of the world 's religions. We can no longer ignore the existence of and the values of the other religious traditions. Either we learn to draw together under the attraction of that great spiritual pole and through the force of its primary energy, love , or else we will implode upon ourselves in an orgy of disharmony and self-destructive friction. Just as Christ's "body" grows, so to speak, through its expression in Christianity (or to Teilhard's mind, in whatever is "christified" in creation), so, too, cannot we say that God's Holy Spirit "grows" as it were, where and whenever the spiritual potentialities of the universe are developed and unified (or, as Teilhard would say, "amorized") through the power of love?

No doubt such a vision, however philosophically astute in speculative terms, is neither scientifically well-founded according to the methodology of biological science nor even theologically well-grounded according to the canons of biblical scholarship. At best, it resembles, somewhat vaguely, the Christology begun in the later Pauline "captivity" epistles (Colossians and Ephesians). The historical figure of Jesus presented in the scriptures, (especially the first three "synoptic" gospels) becomes all but swallowed up in the suprahistorical personage of the "universal Christ" -- the universal meeting point between God and humanity.

In addition, in the face of the claims of the other major world religions, Jesus of Nazareth becomes (to Teilhard's mind, expressed in a later unpublished "Journal" note) the "definitive" (but, it seems, not the exclusive) manifestation of the "Trans-Christ" -- the revelation of the divine "Logos" within the universe, which, by implication, has expressed itself in manifest ways, perhaps even in other "incarnations".

What are we to think of such speculations? No one can doubt the daring power of his thought -- Teilhard even seriously pondered the implications of not just the possibility but even the virtual certainty of life on other planets. But, as Küng (1988) implies, not only do such flights of theological fancy break with the claims of the gospel as the absolute norm (the "norma normans") for Christian theology, but Teilhard's naive belief in the "infallibility" of human evolution, which so scandalized his Roman censors, is, in our "post-modern" period, a passe remnant of a bygone era. We can no longer be so optimistic about this world or our abilities to shape its future. So are we not dealing here with a mystical vision of sorts, a personal faith of one extraordinary individual that just happened to fill the needs of many persons seeking a new faith or a new sense of security in a very insecure time? Perhaps. No doubt there is much truth in these criticisms.

Nevertheless, I believe there is also something more to be said in his favor. Teilhard's synthesis, because of its mystical dimension, represents for me the clearest example of a conjunctive faith straining toward a unitive resolution -- for what could be, at first glance, more paradoxically disjunctive than a faith in both the "infallibility" of the world and in the God of biblical tradition who "thinks, loves, speaks, punishes, rewards in the same way as a person does"? (See Christianity and Evolution, p. 99.) How expand trust in Jesus of Nazareth into a faith in the universal Christ except as the product of a unitive vision that embraces, all at once, God and cosmos, the "pantheistic" insights of the east and the "personalistic" views of the west? (See "The Spiritual Contribution of the Far East" and "The Road of the West" in Toward the Future.) This necessity for a new, expanded faith is at once the driving force, the underlying motif, and as often as not the featured theme of a whole lifetime's worth of his writings.

If I have brought this discussion to a close by turning to Teilhard's version of "The Evolution of Faith" (the introductory section of "How I Believe") it is not because I think his is the only possible version of a unitive vision that reaches out toward a universal faith. There have been and will be many more such attempts -- Teilhard perhaps only having been one of those "precursors" (see Küng, 1988, pp. 186 and 214) who attempted to speculatively bridge the gap between traditional belief and modern scientific views. But I personally think that it was less a matter of Teilhard's speculative genius and more the power of his unitive consciousness that inspired him in his universalizing synthesis and his attempts to formulate a universal faith. For Teilhard, "research" was the cutting edge of evolution, and mysticism the highest form of research.

Teilhard more than once remarked in letters that he knew that his efforts would not be appreciated either by strict scientists or by the church theologians. It was a very accurate prediction, still largely borne out by the treatment of his thought in professional circles. The power of Teilhard's vision is instead in its dual commitment to God and the world that alone can inspire the confidence, along with the trust in God and in the Spirit working through us, that this present age demands. Only by taking the risk of breaking through the confines of outmoded forms of thinking and formulas of belief can we hope to arrive at the renewed confidence and security that we so desperately crave.

Yet when all is said and done, I doubt whether on this side of eternity any so-called "universal faith" is possible as such. Perhaps the most we can expect is an all-embracing, a "catholic" (in the original sense of that word) openness and faithfulness to the truth wherever it is found. Just as there has always been a plurality of theological approaches within Christianity, even within the New Testament itself, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that the human race, as long as it is made up of separate peoples, with different cultures, and varying outlooks on life, will also have diverse religions, some as different as Hinduism is from Islam, or Christianity is from Buddhism. Yet each has something to contribute, because each has experienced, in its own way, something of the ultimate truth.

I may firmly believe -- as I do, and as did Teilhard -- that the "ever-greater Christ" will be revealed as the culmination of an on-going process by which, in humanity and through humanity, the whole cosmos is progressively united with God. Yet, even if I were to say that I knew this to be true as a result of some peak-experience of some sort or another, the habitual enjoyment of such a unitive consciousness remains provisional in this life. At best, even the highest vision of the truth remains as "a dim reflection in a mirror" (1 Cor 13:12), always on the level of the life of faith. Such faith demands that we always remain committed to the search for ultimate meaning -- enough that we are willing to take the risk of recognizing it wherever and whenever it is encountered.

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