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.