God is like a large elephant surrounded by several blind men. One man touches the elephant’s tail and thinks it is a rope. Another touches the trunk and thinks it is a snake. Another touches a leg and thinks it is a tree. Yet another touches the elephant’s side and thinks it is a wall. They all experience the same elephant, but in different ways. The same goes for God and the various religions.
What if there are a plurality of paths to salvation, and each of the great world religions offers such a path?
Participants discussed this idea of religious pluralism, which is articulated in the Hindu parable about the blind men and the elephant, during the third session of Everyday Religion in a World of Many Faiths. The class, offered by the Ansari Institute, meets online Thursday evenings and is free and open to the public.
Perspectives on pluralism
Professor Adnan Aslan used the parable to introduce students to the thinking of John Hick, a 20th-century theologian and philosopher of religion.
Hick’s pluralist hypothesis—a meta-theory about religions—argues that they offer different paths to salvation, Aslan said.
Hick denies the view that religion is only human projection, Aslan said, but contends that our experiences and descriptions depend on the interpretive concepts through which we understand them.
In Hick’s view, ultimate reality, or “the Real,” is beyond the range of our conceptual systems. Some religions interpret this in theistic categories (e.g. Allah or Yahweh). Others do so in impersonal, pantheistic ways (e.g. Nirguna Brahman in Hinduism). Still others understand ultimate reality as completely non-personal (e.g. Buddhist concepts of dao and nirvana).
“The Hindu parable of the blind men and the elephant poignantly reflects this point,” Aslan said.
This idea resonated with class participants. Stephanie Mirza (South Bend) said humility is key because our perceptions are limited to our own experience, and we have a limited understanding of God. Ahuche Peter Zaka (Nigeria) noted that conflict and crises occur when we assume everyone else should think like us and experience the world in the way we do. Emma Devitt (Chicago) added, “God isn’t human. In trying to understand him in human concepts, we are limiting him.”
Aslan noted that aspective pluralism, articulated by the philosopher and theologian Peter Byrne, differs from Hick’s view. It argues that there is an objective ultimate reality we can know, and that each of the religions reflects some aspect of “the Real.”
Ultimately, Aslan said, if God is defined as transcendent, then religion, as the truth issued from God, must transcend human understanding. Further, he argued that God shapes religions according to human social contexts. Finally, he said, the instrumental rationality of modernity has failed to understand the multi-level metaphysical truths of religion.
The class also discussed the importance of living well and becoming a better person, echoing a conversation from the previous session.
Aslan said that although religious doctrines and dogmas are important for Hick, the fundamental aspect of religion is personal transformation. Hick argues that religions are on a par with each other insofar as they produce saints—people who move from self-centeredness to reality-centeredness.
Here, Aslan cited the 12th-century poet Iban Arabi, who said that to have lived one religion fully is to have lived them all.
Charly Pine (South Bend) focused on the idea of fully experiencing a religion.
“You believe what you believe, but I would like to see what you do—and not for yourself, but for others. This is moving from egoism to altruism.”
“Which of us has actually experienced our faith tradition to its complete fullness?” he asked. “Probably none, though that is what we are striving for. The striving to experience fullness is a unifying experience.”
Ronnie Ansari (Winthrop Harbor, Ill.) agreed that transformation is crucial.
“You can be devout, but what does it matter if your heart doesn’t change?” she asked.
“You believe what you believe, but I would like to see what you do—and not for yourself, but for others,” he said. “I interpret this as moving from egoism to altruism.”