Whose God are you praying to?

How do you know that God exists? This question was the title of a Channel 4 programme broadcast twice during August. I hope that some of you chose to watch it.

The question was put to a number of faith leaders: the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, our own Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the Muslim theologian Tariq Ramadan, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the Hindu authority Sadhu Paramtattvadas.

What struck me most forcibly was not the difference between the religions but their radical similarity. That is, they all professed a belief in a supreme personal being, and that our purpose in life was to achieve eternity with God through perfecting ourselves in virtuous living. This included the Hindu, for whom reincarnation was to be seen as a series of successive opportunities to scale the ladder and eventually to be ready for eternity with God. Incidentally, it was explained that the multiplicity of gods in Hinduism was not polytheism: each separate god was a different manifestation of the supreme God.

Of course all the religions represented (except Catholicism) have their different schools, and I daresay that different spokesmen would have varied in their answers. But at least I was left confident that what we heard was respectable, mainstream doctrine. (I was taken by the Muslim explanation of paradise. The prospect of numerous virgins and lush green gardens was addressed to a desert people. What it was offering was simply a reward which would give them what they wanted most. I thought of angels and harps in the Christian tradition. I do not choose to say which I thought was the more inviting prospect.)

Only too often we think in terms of the worst aspects of a religion.  Dawkins et al. choose to see Christianity only in its worst aspect. And, quite rightly, we think that selectivity to be unjust. Sauce for the goose.

My conclusions drew me not one whit closer to religious indifferentism. I have never doubted that the one way to salvation which God offers is through the redemption of Christ and the Church. But it did show me that those who, for whatever reason, do not accept this can point in the right direction. I do not find it hard to accept that they may share in the redemption, albeit through remote means. They may even have insights hidden to us through habit and culture. And if they adore God and love him through true love of neighbour (just as we must do) then I expect to meet them in heaven.

If you saw the programme, I wonder if you interpreted as I did. And, even if you didn’t, you may have some comment to make on my understanding of the similarity between the major faiths.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Church and Society, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Whose God are you praying to?

  1. RMBlaber says:

    Hinduism, I have to say, _is_ radically different. It is true that Hinduism is not polytheistic, although it grew out of a polytheistic background by way of syncretism (god X being equated with god Y, and later, god Z, and so on). However, that does not make the religion monotheistic, as Judaism, Christianity and Islam are monotheistic (_tawwid_, as Muslim scholars say).
    No: Advaita Vedanta, the predominant philosophy of Hinduism, is _pantheistic_. It is monist, i.e., there is only one existent substance; it is idealist: that substance is pure thought, not matter, which is illusion (_maya_). The one substance that is pure thought is _Brahman_, the Godhead, which contains within itself both good and evil. The individual self, _atman_, is a part of the one Self, and its true destiny is to lose its false self-definition as a separate entity and become wholly and totally absorbed in the one Self that is Brahman.
    While it remains in the false self-identity, the atman is trapped in the illusory world of matter and of time (_Samsara_). This is cyclic, and all events within it re-occur ad infinitum. To escape from the Wheel of Time, and the endless cycle of birth, death and re-birth the soul (atman) must endure as it is re-incarnated, the Hindu must accrue sufficient good karma (‘merit’) to bring about Nirvana, the merging of the atman with Brahman.
    Meditation and contemplation, along with the ascetic practices of the _saddhu_, can hasten Nirvana, and achieve the state of _Samadhi_, isolation, and complete freedom from material desires, which is a necessary prelude to Nirvana.
    The Hindu conceptualisation of the deity is immanentist, in the sense that everything and everyone is _in_ God and _is_ God; but no Hindu would agree with Spinoza’s ‘Deus sive natura’. Brahma(n) is both immanent _and_ transcendent; the Godhead is above and beyond the world of Samsara and Maya that is the material Universe, but includes it.
    The moral-, as well as substance-, monism we noted earlier, is a striking and crucial difference from our own ethical monotheism. Brahman contains both good and evil, light and darkness, life and death. The Hindu god Siva is the god of destruction, and his consort Kali, goddess of destruction, is even more terrible – depicted dancing on a corpse and drinking blood from a human skull. Her 19th Century devotees practised _thugee_ (pronounced ‘tugee’), ritual murder by garrotting, and were called _thugs_ (‘tugs’), giving rise to our word thugs.
    We need to be very careful about identifying similarities between our own beliefs and those of others where no such similarities exist. We may have the best of eirenic intentions for doing so, but the cause of inter-faith dialogue and understanding is not served by over-hasty and ill-informed judgements.

  2. claret says:

    Where a person has a religious faith is it an ‘accident of birth’ ? I cannot help but feel that had I be born in a different country in different circumstances I would more likely have been a Moslem and thought the very idea of a trinity as ridiculous at best and blasphemous at worst.
    At other times i just think that it is futile to contemplate on the ‘might have beens’ and just concentrate on the now.
    The Church would seem to have it about right in seeing the evidence of the goodness of God in other faiths that have these elements of goodness while reserving for itself ‘all truths.’

  3. Fariam says:

    Regarding this remark, “Where a person has a religious faith is it an ‘accident of birth’ ? I cannot help but feel that had I be born in a different country in different circumstances I would more likely have been a Moslem and thought the very idea of a trinity as ridiculous at best and blasphemous at worst”

    I have often heard this or similiar remarks, not least from atheists, inlcuding RD and a friend of mine! But is it true? It seems to be based on the assumption that everyone sticks with the most predominant religion in their environment, and that these religons are to be found in specific areas. However, that goes no way towards explaining conversions (usually adult)from one faith to another sometimes at great personal cost; it diminishes the role of intelligence and free will; and it does not adequately explain the large presence of people of other faiths in predominantly “other ” faith cultures, for example, Christians in the Middle East, Africa (16%) and Asia (growing) for example.

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