Knowledge and Religious Unity

Douglas P. McManaman
October 26th, 2018
Reproduced with Permission

Whenever I speak or write about our Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh brothers and sisters in the context of a talk on Catholic spirituality or quote one of the great Sufi or Jewish mystics in the course of a homily, inevitably someone from the congregation or group of listeners will afterwards pose a question or series of questions at the root of which is a presumption, namely, that these religions really have nothing to offer us that we don't already possess. There seems to be a suggestion that quoting thinkers of other religious traditions implies relativism, the position that every religion is fundamentally the same as any other. I believe that at the heart of these claims is a knowledge problem. What follows is an attempt to explain this contention.

Generally speaking, we can discern throughout history roughly two ways of conceiving knowledge production. One way - still very much alive today - is to begin with a grand idea and then proceed to implement that idea, either on a multitude or on the society at large; in the process, all corroborating evidence is noticed, collected, and cited in support of the idea. The other way is to begin not on the level of the idea, but on the level of the facts, the data, the evidence of a problem in which we are interested, and to proceed to account for that evidence by putting forth the best or most plausible estimate.

The latter approach is messy, labor intensive, and characterized by uncertainty, because, as the very logic of this method shows, nothing more than a plausible conclusion is guaranteed - i.e., typically, there are many alternative hypotheses that at first glance can, to some extent, account for the same facts in evidence, which is why each one must be tested. This, of course, describes the basic logic of the scientific method. The former approach on the other hand is characteristic of the literary mind, the artist, the poet, etc.; the novelist is inspired by a vision of the entire plot at a glance, and it is later on that the details are filled in to give concrete expression to that idea.

It has always been interesting to witness the reaction of some of my colleagues to grand ideas introduced by school administrators who were former English, Drama, or Art teachers, ideas peddled as panaceas, grand solutions to the problems teachers have been confronting for centuries: it is typically those in the hard sciences who wonder to what extent these ideas have been tested or who will challenge the ideas by citing evidence that strongly suggests these ideas have not produced what was claimed they would inevitably produce.

We see this methodological tension between grand but untested ideas typically supported by anecdotal evidence on the one hand and a more empirical/pragmatic, evidence-first approach on the other in the lives of our religiously diversified student body. I have taught for 20 years at a school with very devout Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Catholics, Protestants, etc., and what is particularly interesting is that many of these students have come to conclusions at odds with the religious ideas (dogmas) of their parents, or uncles, grandparents, etc. The data they receive on a daily basis as members of a religiously diverse population does not corroborate the "idea" that a good number of them received from the older generation, namely "we have 'the truth', while they walk in darkness". The young Muslim discovers that the devout Hindu (or Catholic, or Sikh, etc.) sitting next to her or behind her or in front of her is not the infidel, pagan, or miniature monster she was somewhat led to believe he was, and vice versa. The data simply does not support the "idea" (the dogma). And the students realize the reason for the discrepancy is "degree of exposure to information" - the students have data their parents tend not to have, because many of the latter came from religiously homogeneous backgrounds. It is simply not necessarily the case that the "others" (i.e., the non-Catholics or Catholics, depending on who you are) are living in darkness because they have not been baptized, confirmed, or do not profess the Shahada, etc.

I believe the myth of the conflict between "science and religion" perpetuated over the centuries is one of the reasons that many devoutly religious fail to appreciate the logic of the scientific method and are unaware of just how much theology depends on it - biblical hermeneutics is methodologically inductive; it is a matter of plausible reasoning. Moreover, inductive conclusions are never "money in the bank"; the truths that we are committed to and which are the result of a theological reasoning process that is investigative in nature are tentative. For the most part, we are dealing with theses having only a degree of plausibility, and one's conclusion is only as strong as its weakest link in the chain of premises. Moreover, new data can and often does cause us to discard theses that are inconsistent with the new and more plausible data. Science is an evolutionary process (we speak of the scientific revolution), and so too is theology and philosophy.

There is no escaping our epistemic limitations. Each person is born into a specific tradition; man is a social, political, rational, linguistic, economic and religious animal, among other characteristics. At any given moment, each person understands himself and the world through a conceptual framework made up of epistemic conditions, a host of cognitive data, i.e., first principles, perceptions, deductions, uncertain inferences, ideas embodied in a particular and ever evolving language, the science of the day, cultural myths, biases and prejudices that both blind us to some things and open us up to other things, etc. And so not only is science subject to an evolutionary process, so too is our own personal "knowing" - not even the stubborn dogmatist who refuses to open himself to anything new that would threaten the stability of his comfortable worldview can put a complete stop to his own cognitive development.

So how do we explain the theological aporia that 1) Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and 2) there are Muslims, or Hindus, or Sikhs among us who are holier and wiser than I, who am a baptized Catholic? A fundamental axiom of philosophical method is: "Never simply abandon. In the face of insuperable difficulties, introduce distinctions and qualifications that enable you to save what you can of your commitments" (Nicholas Rescher). I believe John Paul II provides a possible avenue to explore this problem credibly: "When we penetrate by means of the continually and rapidly increasing experience of the human family into the mystery of Jesus Christ, we understand with greater clarity that there is at the basis of all these ways that the Church of our time must follow, in accordance with the wisdom of Pope Paul VI, one single way: it is the way that has stood the test of centuries and it is also the way of the future. Christ the Lord indicated this way especially, when, as the Council teaches, "by his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, in a certain way united himself with each man" (Redemptor Hominis, 13).

The Son of God, the Word, is present to every man, because he has united himself in a certain way to each man, and a person does not have to be a member of the visible Catholic Church to respond to that presence, which is a "redemptive presence" within the deepest nature of the human person: "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Behold, here it is!' or There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is within you" (Lk 17, 20-21). The evidence is clear to anyone who lives among faithful Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, etc., that one may respond to that redemptive presence and love that presence without being completely or even explicitly aware of who it is - as a child can love his mother without a properly scientific knowledge of who or what she is.

At a very profound level, the devout Muslim, Sikh, Jew, and Hindu, etc., is our brother, our sister; for it is not possible to love Christ except through the power of the Holy Spirit, so if you, a Christian, live in Christ and Christ lives in you, if you carry in your body the death of Christ so that the life of Christ can be made manifest through you (2 Co 4, 10), and the devout Muslim for example likes what he or she sees in you, or better yet loves what he or she sees in you, that is, your deepest identity, then they love Christ without necessarily being aware of it - given that Christ really does live, act, and speak through you. One day I asked a good friend of mine, a priest of a nearby diocese, to tell me where in the Old Testament can one find the following words: "How can I describe the Greatness of Your Name, O Lord? If I had a hundred of thousands of stacks of paper, and if ink were never to fail me, and if my pen were able to move like the wind, and if I were to read and recite and embrace love for the Lord--even so; I could not estimate Your Value. How can I describe the Greatness of Your Name?"

My friend responded: "The book of Wisdom? One of the Psalms?" No, so I continued: "So many endure distress, deprivation and constant abuse. Even these are Your Gifts, O Great Giver! Freedom from slavery comes only by Your Will. No one else has any say in this. If some fool should presume to say that he does, he shall learn, and feel the effects of his folly. He Himself knows, He Himself gives. Few, very few are those who acknowledge this...Speak of Him continually and remain absorbed in His Love."

He was sure it came from one of the wisdom books, such as Sirach or Ecclesiastes. Before telling him the answer, I asked him to tell me which mystical theologian in history would have said the following:

Does anyone think that the ocean is only what appears on its surface? By observing its hue and motion the keen eye may perceive indications of that ocean's unfathomable depth. The Lord's mercy and compassion are an ocean with no shore, providing endlessly varied vistas for those who sail its surface; but the greatest wonderment and fulfillment is reserved for those "creatures of the sea" for whom that mercy has become their own medium.

The Lord beckons us through a divine love and attraction that has been implanted in our hearts, a love that may be understood and felt consciously as divine by some, and only indirectly as love for His creatures or creation by others. In either case the pull of our heartstrings draws us to those Mercy Oceans, just as our physical bodies feel drawn to a warm and gentle sea.

By means of the revelation of the Scriptures and through the example set by prophets and saints, all human beings have been brought in contact with those oceans. For humankind at large, these revelations serve as vessels, or as "instruction manuals" for building and maintaining vessels that ply those most spacious seas, but for those who have the means to read between the lines, a great revelation emerges: that we are of that sea, that our place, our home is in the depths of that sea, not on its surface.

My friend's list of possibilities included Meister Eckhart, one of the desert fathers, Pseudo-Dionysius, St. Gertrude, St. Hildegard of Bingen, etc. But the first piece of writing was from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the latter is an excerpt, with some modification of vocabulary, from modern Sufi writer Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kibbani.

Consider the image of a pyramid that is upside down. On the top and widest level represents the level of articulated religious belief (doctrine); here there is a wide range of diversity and difference. But as we approach the "mystical" level of each of these religions, the two sides gradually converge toward one another, so much so that at its deepest level it is very difficult to distinguish them on the basis of the specific religion; they all seem to be speaking the same language; in other words, there is a significant unity at this level. Hindus speak of the need to become aware of the distinction between the unchanging "I" and the passing events of our everyday lives, which they see as Maya, and the need to detach the "I" from that which is fleeting, and we encounter, in Islamic mysticism, the idea of Allah as the ocean that dissolves the individual ego, if we permit such a thing. Christian mystics speak of the death of self, the need to die to oneself in order to rise to new life, a regenerate life, and Islamic mysticism has similar ideas with only slightly different vocabulary. Buddhism speaks of the thickening of the ego and the need to drop all desire, but so too do Christian, Jewish, and Muslim mystics. Hinduism speaks of Atman at the center of the human person, and according to the Vedanta school, Atman is Brahman. But according to Islamic Sufism, Allah is both immanent and transcendent; as immanent, God is that eternal and necessary ground of all being at the very depths of the human soul, and our goal is egoistic annihilation. Kabbala speaks of God as nothingness, the fullest and purest mode of being; Buddhism speaks of the emptiness that is the fullness of Nirvana, etc.

On the most profound level of human religious existence, there is a sense in which we are all "brothers/sisters"; for we may be operating out of the same subterranean world, if you will, a world in which is present a Person, the Word, who gives us his undivided attention at every moment of our existence. When we begin to understand that "doctrine" (the explicit articulation of what is believed) proceeds from that deepest level of religious experience, it becomes increasingly evident that we need to carefully interpret each other's doctrine in the light of that mystical understanding, otherwise we run the risk of misinterpreting one another. If we do not possess a mystic sense, we are sure to misinterpret one another, understanding the 'other' on our terms, not on their terms.

Individual human beings are continually growing in knowledge and understanding. This is because experience provides us, on an ongoing basis, with new information, and it is in the light of this new data that we re-interpret our current body of knowledge. It often happens that we discover that what we thought was absolutely and definitively true is not so after all, at least not completely. But it is very difficult to know whether our current body of knowledge suffers serious deficiencies - that tends to happen retrospectively. In other words, truth is an idealization. What we possess at any one time is often and for the most part a matter of putative truth. Our information is always incomplete, and new information has a way of changing the plausibility of our current data, causing us to make finer distinctions and to revise our estimates. As we learn from one another, we begin to see the world from a different angle, that is, within a new cognitive framework containing additional information. This angle is not necessarily any better, at least not in any absolute sense, but often we discover that much of that "different perspective" sheds light on what we already know, enabling us to distinguish where we failed to earlier, and enlarges our current body of knowledge, often refining it in some ways. The resulting hybrid is usually better.

From a statistical point of view, if the vast majority of our knowledge at any one time has undergone tremendous revision, enlargement, expansion, serious editing, etc., then it is reasonable to expect this trend to continue; in fact, there are no signs that this is slowing down. But for some reason, many people find it difficult to acknowledge the implications of what they already know implicitly. Uncertainty seems to give rise to fear, perhaps a fear of losing one's identity. Raimon Panikkar writes:

In the West identity is established through difference. Catholics find their identity in not being Protestant or Hindu or Buddhist. But other cultures have another way of thinking about one's identity. Identity is not based on the degree to which one is different from others. In the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity), people seek God in difference - in superiority or transcendence. Being divine means not being human. For Hindus, however, the divine mystery is in man, in what is so profound and real in him that he cannot be separated from it, and it cannot be discharged into transcendence. This is the domain of immanence, of that spiritual archetype that is called brahman. In the Hindu system, people are not afraid of losing their identity. They can be afraid of losing what they have, but not of losing what they are.

Being afraid is always a bad sign. Christ says, "I give you peace" and "Do not be afraid." Contemporary Christians feel surrounded and are afraid of being dissolved. But what does the gospel say? "You are the salt of the earth." The salt has to be dissolved in order for the food to be more tasty. The leaven is there to make the bread rise. The Christian vocation is to lose oneself in others (Eruption of Truth: An Interview with Raimon Panikkar - Religion Online:

The irony here - if what Panikkar says is true - is that the truly "Catholic" approach, in the sense of international or universal, is the latter. As Panikkar writes: "The whole history of Christianity is one of enrichment and renewal brought about by elements that came from outside itself. Do not Christmas and Easter, and almost all the Christian feasts, have a non-Christian origin? Would it have been possible to formulate the basic Christian doctrines without the hellenic tradition, itself pre-Christian? Doesn't every living body exist in symbiosis with its external milieu?" (Ibid.) The authentically Catholic approach to the uncovering of truth is integrative. Nothing good is discarded, but appropriated. Catholics believe Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn 14, 16), "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col 2, 3). But this Scripture is very clear; it is in him that are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, not in me. My appropriation of Christ is always deficient, that is, my response to his redemptive presence in the world and within me is profoundly imperfect, and thus my knowledge of him is always deficient. But the more perfect that this appropriation becomes, the more will I be able to recognize him outside of myself, and that is why the more I will discover the treasures, that is, the truths or aspects of the Logos dispersed in the lives and the wisdom of those who truly love him and who are outside the visible contours of the Church.