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Infinite Mountains: An Interfaith Theology

February 20, 2011


Galaxy NG 1614 photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, courtesy of the

Interfaith relationships are described in academic literature in one of three ways, as exclusive, inclusive, or pluralist.  Religions and religious leaders are then classified within one of these three categories depending on their approach to other traditions.  However, as a personal theology, I find these categories rather useless.  My relationship with various religious traditions relies primarily on two ideas: 1) that within an infinite universe almost anything is possible and 2) that all ideologies, philosophies, faiths, and beliefs have a purpose, whether hidden or acknowledged.


“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

– Albert Einstein, exact source unknown

The idea that in an infinite universe much is possible may sound very theoretical in nature, but I find it  grounding.  This notion is beyond simple open-mindedness.  Rather, it is an active acknowledgement of just how much we, either as individuals or collectively, do not know and cannot know.  It is not simply unprejudiced receptivity to new ideas, but the forthright confession that many of the ideas we already possess are not only likely, but certain to be wrong.  It is the Zen “don’t know mind.”  I apply this most strongly to my relationships with other religions and the ongoing question of “God.”

As a once Protestant Christian who became an angry atheist who then reformed into first a mellow agnostic and then to a non-theistic Buddhist, the main way I interface my current and former faiths is with by acknowledging that God is a reasonable proposition.  In The Quantum and the Lotus, Trinh Xuan Thuan, an astrophysicist, posed “Leibniz’s existential question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?  For nothing is both simpler and easier than something.’”  God is a perfectly rational cause behind the creation and operation of the universe.  Nor do I believe science, whether through biology, chemistry, or physics, has the ability to either prove or disprove the existence of God as atheists so claim.  They study the laws by which the universe ostensibly operates, but one thing on which all agree, even the atheists, is that should he or she exist, “God” operates beyond the laws of the measurable physical universe.

Therefore, when dealing with theistic faiths I can only stand upon honesty regarding the matter of God: I do not know.  I believe it is possible, though not likely, nor that it matters personally one way or the other.  However, assuming for a moment that God exists, assuming he or she is benevolent, omnipotent (all three being possible), and recognizing that he or she matters to the person before me, as a chaplain I can then proceed from that standpoint.  These understandings allow me to be comfortable discussing God in the context of another person’sbelief set, though I would never preface such a discussion with “in my opinion” or “I believe.”  I can pray to God or ask for divine guidance from within the realm of the possibility of God’s existence and the recognized efficacy of such practices for the believer.  This brings us to the second main idea upon which my own interfaith theology rests, the utility of belief.

“Ummm.”  Julie wasn’t quite sure how to ask this.  “Do you really think that there’s an ogre in the supply cabinet in Room A?”

Grandma Richter snorted.  “Of course not.  I am not an ignorant woman.  I am not a stupid, superstitious peasant from some remote village.  I am a townswoman, the widow of a printer.  My husband was a Stadtburger, a Druecker.  But some things I know, and one of these is that if a child believes that there is an ogre in my cabinet, he will not open it and get sick by eating the soap.  If he believes that there is a troll under the bridge that has no railing, he will not run onto the bridge and fall off the side.  If he believes that there is a snake-monster in the carp pond, he will not wade too deep and drown.  The world has dangers for small children, many dangers.  By the time they are old enough to realize for themselves that there are no ogres or trolls or monsters, they are old enough not to eat soap or fall in the water.”

– Eric Flint, The Ring of Fire, 2003

If anyone objects to the above analogy on the basis that they are not children, I hereby convict them of hubris.  Given the infinite universe hypothesis, in great part we are all children regarding our limitations as individual human beings, as linguistic beings.  Buddhism can make no claims to ontological truth given the nature of sunyata, or emptiness, as Kiblinger points out in her seventh chapter of Towards a Tenable Form of Buddhist Inclusivism. In fact, no religion, philosophy, or any ideology whatsoever can be said to be ontologically true due to the inability of language to exactly describe existence. (I reserve judgment on the realm of mathematics and, by extension, physics, but only by assuming an “evil genius” or “Matrix” like situation does not pertain.) Buddhism, as compared to other religions, merely emphasizes this recognition.

“If you have been to Paris, you have a concept of Paris.  But your concept is quite different from Paris itself.  Even if you’ve lived in Paris for ten years, your idea of Paris still does not coincide with the reality,” Thich Nhat Hanh tells us in The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching.  Likewise, our description of Paris, no matter how detailed and precise, will not coincide with the reality of Paris.  Therefore, no one can ever transmit an ontological truth to another through words, or even supra-linguistic means, for it will always be mediated by the mental concepts of both the transmitter (assuming she is not a fully enlightened Buddha free of concepts) and the receiver, just as direct perception itself is.

The recognition of emptiness and the inefficacy of linguistic communication leads one to the conclusion that inevitably beliefs will rise up because they are useful regardless of whether or not they are also true. An examination of a belief on the grounds of its utility can lead to many insights as to why one might believe it and consequently why people do the things they do.

This approach has been criticized by Huston Smith, among others, in his book Why Religion Matters.  He calls it “the hermeneutics of suspicion” and states it “has been a disaster” “for the notion of truth.”  However, Smith is proceeding from the viewpoint that, firstly, “truth” exists and, secondly, that we are capable of both recognizing and communicating it.  While I hold that the first is more than likely, the second is in gravest doubt.  That being the case, the utility of a belief has no bearing whatsoever on its truth.  A very useful belief, the proverbial troll under the bridge, may be utterly false, while a not very useful belief (to me), such as the existence of God, may be entirely true.  The utility of any belief, like the belief itself, is individual, but can also be generalized for broad application.

The utility of belief is important to understand not because of any bearing it may have on truth, but because of the bearing it has on practice, and the work of a chaplain specifically.  The common Buddhist example is the story of Kisa Gotama or The Parable of the Mustard Seed.  A grieving mother, Kisa, came to the Buddha after the death of her child and asked the great one to bring her baby back.  Though the Buddha has taught Right Speech, refraining from lies, he told the grieving mother that if she brought him a mustard seed from a house in the village that has not known death, he would restore her child.  Kisa went to every house in the village, but found no one who had not grieved the loss of a loved one.  She returned to the Buddha having come to understand the inescapable nature of grief and death, thus her suffering was much relieved by the compassion she felt and received.  The Buddha knew he could not bring back the child under any circumstances, but what he told the mother was useful in the alleviation of her suffering.

Likewise, different religions, often consisting of a set of beliefs (as one aspect), may be more useful to some people than to others.  I, for instance, find Buddhism to be the more useful religion the world has produced.  Period.  I find it superior to all other faiths, creeds, philosophies, or ideologies.  This is true for myself and the world as a whole.  However, I would never recommend my family all cease being Christians and become Buddhists.  Such a suggestion would cause a great deal of strife in the family and, if such a conversion was attempted, would result in a great deal of confusion and suffering.  Why?  Because my family has stood on the strong ground of their belief in Jesus Christ for so long and with such good results that to take that ground away from them would be no less than cruel.

This is not a case of ‘different strokes for different folks,’ as pluralists would have it.  My own discernment has demonstrated to me through experience that Christianity is not as effective as Buddhism at the alleviation of suffering, either on an individual or global/historical scale.  However, not only do I recognize that belief in Jesus Christ as the son and human incarnation of God is a reasonable possibility, I also acknowledge it as a useful thing to believe in that it can lead to compassionate moral development.  And I must be honest once more.  My beliefs as to Christianity’s efficacy compared to Buddhism are just that, beliefs.  As such they serve their own purposes independent of the truth.  While in the end, whether I am right or not serves little purpose to my larger mission, that of dedicated service to others.

In an infinite universe there can be infinite mountains.  We don’t all have to be climbing the same one.  We don’t all have to be climbing.  All mountains may not be the same, but as all people aren’t the same, that is all right.  I couldn’t handle the same mountain as a skilled rock-climber or the same cave as a spelunker.  We all must decide which path is most useful for us to travel.  If I am going to put others first, I must be able to discern and respect their best path.  It is as simple as that.

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