Chicago — Because she attends Catholic mass every Sunday and observes all the religious holidays of her faith, Angela Bowman may well exemplify the Latin root of the word “religion,” which is “to bind.”
But the Chicagoan also meditates several times each day and practices yoga every other week. She knows Catholicism, Hinduism, and Buddhism have contradictory elements but is unfazed by her multiple observances because, to her, “it’s all pretty much the same thing.”
“The biggest part of praying is opening yourself up to a connection with God, and I perceive clearing your mind in meditation as another form of receptivity,” says the 30-something textbook editor. Although she is a devoted Roman Catholic, she says she doesn’t “believe it’s the one true path and anything else is flirting with the devil.”
How, exactly, are the following "pretty much the same thing"?
• Belief in a personal God who is One in nature, God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
• Belief that the question of whether or not there is a God or gods is irrelevant.
• Belief in multiple gods (polytheism).
• Belief that everything is God (pantheism).
I suspect that if Ms. Bowman were asked how she might reconcile the
four specific beliefs above, she would likely say, "Well, those are just
different ways to get at the same thing." What, then, is this "same
thing"? If there is no "one true path," what is the goal, the point,
the reason for meditation, prayer, and chasing "a connection" with
Yet the primary and pressing issue here is not about a particular understanding of God, but about a particular approach to truth. The 1996 document, "Christianity and the World Religions," produced by the International Theological Commission, put it is this way: "The problem of the truth of religions underlies this whole discussion. Today one can see a tendency to relegate it to a secondary level, separating it from reflection on the salvific value of religions. The question of truth gives rise to to serious problems of a theoretical and practical order, since in the past it had negative consequences in interreligious encounters. Hence the tendency to ease or privatize this problem with the assertion that criteria of truth are only valid for each individual religion."
One of the finest books in recent years on this matter of truth and religious relativism is Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (Ignatius Press, 2004). Ratzinger is well aware of the approach taken by Bowman and so many others—"most people," he says:
The dominant impression of most people today is that all religions, with a varied multiplicity of forms and manifestations, in the end are and mean one and the same thing; which is something everyone can see, except for them. The man of today will for the most part scarcely respond with an abrupt No to a particular religion’s claim to be true; he will simply relativize that claim by saying "There are many religions." And behind his response will probably be the opinion, in some form or other, that beneath varying forms they are in essence all the same; each person has his own.
To lay claim to truth for one's religion's particular expression of faith appears today, not merely presumptuous, but an indication of insufficient enlightenment. ... Culture is set against truth. This relativism, which is nowadays to found, as a basic attitude of enlightened people, penetrating far into the realm of theology, is the most profound difficulty of our age. This is also the reason why practice is now substituted for truth and why the whole axis of religions is thereby displaced: we do not know what is true, but we do know what we should do: raise up and introduce a better society, the "kingdom", as people like to say, using a term taken from the Bible and applied to the profane and utopian sphere.
There is much, much more from Ratzinger, but the point that interests me here is captured in the statement: "we do not know what is true, but we do know what we should do..." Bowman, for example, doesn't believe there is one true path, but she is apparently convinced of the necessity of prayer and meditation. Again, why? Based on what, exactly? How is saying, "There is not a single, true path," any less of an objective claim to truth than saying," There is a single, true path"? Both require the same amount of certainty and confidence, do they not?
Ratzinger points out that one problem is that "in the consciousness of mankind today, freedom is largely regarded as the greatest good there is, after which all other good things have to take their place. ... In the scale of values with which man is concerned, to live a life worthy of humanity, freedom seems to be the truly fundamental value to be the really basic human right of them all. The concept of truth, on the other hand, we greet rather with some suspicion: we recall how many opinions and systems have already laid claim to the concept of truth; how often the claim to truth in that way has been the means of limiting freedom."
The religious relativist inhabits a most uneasy land; in fact, he stands in metaphysical quicksand. To his credit, he might well reject the claustrophobic fatalism of scientism, which asserts—once you cut to the cold chase—that man is a material accident driven by complex but impersonal, evolutionary forces. So he fights for freedom and free will: "I will meditate; I will pray; I will try to seek transcendence!" But, having admitted, at least implicitly, his desire for the Other, he refuses to accept that the Other—whatever he, she, or it might be—can really be known or distinguished or defined to any real degree. Why? Because, as Ratzinger suggests, as soon as you acknowledge or accept specific characteristics of God—He is Creator; He is personal; He is omnipotent; He is holy—you begin to realize that freedom has a source and a goal beyond yourself. The hip spirituality of our day is loath to get into specifics; they are anathema to the "open minded" seeker. But, said Chesterton, "An open mind is really a mark of foolishness, like an open mouth. Mouths and minds were made to shut; they were made to open only in order to shut."
Which means, taken further, that freedom, which is a great good and gift, is oriented toward an ultimate Good. Freedom cannot exist for its own sake; by its very nature it testifies to a greater good. "Freedom without truth," Ratzinger states, "is no freedom." And yet so many people, including many Catholics, continue to believe that freedom is the goal, and freedom can only be found by rejecting—either openly or otherwise—the existence of truth.
• Cardinal Ratzinger Considers Whether Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Are Compatible | Ignatius Insight
• The Better We Reason, the Nearer We Come to Truth | The Introduction to Reason to Believe: Why Faith Makes Sense | Richard Purtill
• Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | Carl E. Olson