Will a history of conflict lead to a future of harmony?
"The fact that we are now living in a global society in which technology permits much greater mobility than was previously possible; the fact that huge migrations have come about due to wars, persecution and poverty in many parts of the world, means that the borders established on the basis of religion have gradually become blurred."
The degree of similarity among the religions at the fundamental level, writes Dr. Schaefer, "provides evidence for the unity of religions."
"Beyond the Clash of Religions:
The Emergence of a New Paradigm"
by Udo Schaefer,
Zero Palm Press, Prague
One of the most puzzling theological questions of our age - how to account for the great number and diversity of world religions and at the same time to acknowledge their similarities - is also one of the most challenging social issues confronting humanity.
Disputes and disagreements over religious beliefs have been and continue to be one of the main sources of conflict, civil war, terrorism and even genocide in the modern world. As the noted theologian Hans Küng has said: "There will be no peace among the peoples of the world without peace among the world religions."
In Beyond the Clash of Religions: The Emergence of a New Paradigm, Udo Schaefer offers a new theological conceptualization that seeks both to explain how the world's great religions can be so different and yet the same, and also to suggest how a wider acceptance of this understanding could cure religious intolerance and the social ills that stem from it.
"The fact that religion appears in such colorful variety - that there is not one single religion but a plurality - has always been a source of irritation for people," writes Dr. Schaefer, laying out the problem. "Religions are in many ways similar, and yet they are so different; there is much which unites them, but also much which divides them. This is indeed irritating. All the world religions teach that there is only one ultimate reality, which we call God. If that is so, there can logically only be one truth: But if there is only one truth, why are there so many religions?"
The answer, writes Dr. Schaefer, lies in understanding a new "unity paradigm" in religious studies - a paradigm that is as different from the old "absolutist" paradigm in theology as the Ptolemaic view of the universe is from the Copernican - and one which conveys "a new image of religious phenomena and of religious history."
Dr. Schaefer, a respected German jurist who has made writing about comparative religion a second career, begins with an analysis of the old paradigm, wherein each religion has traditionally laid claim to "uniqueness, finality and exclusivity."
"That religion is always associated with a claim to truth is self-evident," he writes. "Something that is untrue is unworthy of faith. All of the world religions… make absolute claims to truth. Each is convinced that it possesses a divine message brought by its founder which to them is 'the way, the truth and the life.' "
The problem with this attitude is that it too often leads to intolerance. "This claim to exclusivity and superiority, in which one's own religion is regarded as a priori better than others…easily slips into fanaticism," Dr. Schaefer writes, adding that "[h]atred is never so profound and irreconcilable; envy never so wretched and wars so merciless and cruel as when their motives spring from the deepest levels of consciousness, from religious belief."
As if it were necessary to verify this notion, Dr. Schaefer recounts a few of history's many examples of religious persecution and intolerance: pogroms against the Jews, the Crusades, the displacement of Jews and Muslims under the Spanish Inquisition, the European religious wars resulting from the Reformation, the current wars in the Punjab, Sudan, Algeria and Lebanon, and "last but not least the bloody persecutions of the Bahá'ís in Iran by a clerical, obscurantist regime." All of these are "consequences of claims to exclusivity and finality," he writes.
The curious thing, says Dr. Schaefer, is that all of the world's religions also preach tolerance and peace. Although the absolutist paradigm was the dominant one in religious history, there have always been religious officials who have pleaded for such understanding and tolerance.
The plea for tolerance, however, has only come into widespread acceptance in the last 100 years, Dr. Schaefer notes. Advances in religious studies and modern communications, he writes, have illuminated the similarities between the religions - while the highly destructive nature of modern warfare has made tolerance all the more necessary.
Writes Dr. Schaefer: "The fact that we are now living in a global society in which technology permits much greater mobility than was previously possible; the fact that huge migrations have come about due to wars, persecution and poverty in many parts of the world, means that the borders established on the basis of religion have gradually become blurred. The earth has become a communicational unity through radio and television, mass tourism and mass publications. People have become vividly aware of the plurality of faiths. Thus, the religions no longer exist separated from one another in distant continents: they exist very close together - and now find themselves confronted by an urgent necessity for an interfaith dialogue."
And, indeed, the development of modern religious dialogue and studies have opened the door to new understandings. "Religions that in the past were condemned without anything being known about them are now known," he writes.
Dr. Schaefer then makes a comprehensive but concise list of the "essential similarities" of the world's major religions.
"The first fundamental point that all religions have in common are the convictions that religious phenomena are based on the reality of the Transcendental, the Holy, the Divine, the Eternal One, the Great Being, and that beyond all the fluctuations there exists eternal reason, an eternal order, a non-material ultimate reality, the Reality of Realities, the Eternal Truth, which is neither empirically verifiable nor logically demonstrable." He notes that this "Reality" is commonly called God in all but the Buddhist tradition, where the concept of God is absent, but which nevertheless uses other terms such as Nirvana, Shunyata, and Dharmakaya.
Other commonalities include: "the belief that this transcendental reality reveals itself to mankind in the form of great, holy figures, who speak to man and show him the path to the sanctification of his life"; that this ultimate reality is "man's ultimate and highest goal," the embodiment of absolute perfection, truth and justice and of all that is good and beautiful"; that that which we call God is justice, love, compassion and mercy, which are generously poured over humanity; that "man's path to God is one of sacrifice, renunciation, resignation, moral discipline, the via purgativa, prayer and meditation"; that the path to God is also "the path to one's neighbor, service to others, the via activa"; that in "all religions this love also includes love for one's enemies"; that all religions share "the belief that man's life is not confined to this earthly existence; that he possesses an immortal soul"; "that man must live on earth according to certain standards in order to attain salvation in both this life and the life to come"; and that the common ethical basis of all religions is the so-called "Golden Rule known to us from the Gospel: 'Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do you even so to them' "; and that, finally, the "most fundamental feature common to all religions is mysticism, the highest aim of which is the unity of the soul with the eternal God."
The degree of similarity among the religions at the fundamental level, writes Dr. Schaefer, "provides impressive evidence for the unity of religions." This unity, however, he says, is not subject to scientific proof, nor can it be classified as rational, empirical knowledge.
Two things religious studies cannot do, he says, are create "by means of eclecticism" a "uniform world religion as a sort of substrate of all the various religions." And they cannot "deliver incontrovertible proof of the unity of religions." "It is like a glass of water which, depending on the observer's point of view, is either half full or half empty: both views are correct," he writes. "Similarly, one can regard the differences and contradictions among religions as the most important aspect; or, if one chooses, one can recognize that beyond the diversity there is an essence which is the same in all."
Dr. Schaefer, however, suggests that "a conclusive, rationally acceptable, comprehensive explanation" for the unity paradigm can be found in the writings of the Bahá'í Faith, which suggest, essentially, that God's Revelation is the "central, dominant theme" of history - and in this way provides an answer to the question of why there is not only one religion.
The book's final pages, then, are devoted to explaining some basics of Bahá'í theology, with a view to helping even the most skeptical reader at least acknowledge that a cogent explanation for the outward diversity but inward unity of all religions can be found in the Faith's doctrine of progressive revelation.
The essence of the doctrine, Dr. Schaefer writes, lies in the idea that the "Creator of the universe did not create man and thereafter abandon him to himself; He reveals himself to mankind, speaking through His prophets and messengers." These messengers have successively revealed God's will in relation to the capacity of the peoples to whom they have appeared. "This capacity differs according to the spiritual, cultural and social level of the development of those people," writes Dr. Schaefer - not in relation to the absolute truth that God represents. This, he explains, accounts for the apparent differences of the various religions - and yet upholds their essential unity.
"God's revelation in the course of history is a continual, cyclically recurring phenomenon," Dr. Schaefer writes. "The purpose of divine revelation is the education of humanity."
"Seen in this way," he continues, "religion is not static but dynamic. In its origin it is the most revolutionary, the most radical of all forces. All the Founders of the world's major religions have inevitably broken with past traditions; with obsolete outworn forms and institutions… in order to protect the remaining substance of the religion of God and adapt to the requirements of a new era."
As Dr. Schaefer himself concludes: "The unity paradigm constitutes a positive basis for the study of religions. They are taken seriously, revered and portrayed in a sympathetic light. They are regarded in no other light except as different stages in the eternal history and constant evolution of one religion, Divine and indivisible."