I’m probably not the only
person who grew up thinking my religion had all the answers and that
ultimately everybody would agree. I was convinced we’d live happily
ever after. It didn’t turn out that way, and like many others, I have
been pondering why not. Religious pluralism runs against the grain of
most religious claims of ultimate truth, but this is the tension religious
communities must confront in this age. Rather than changing religions
or changing Gods in order to come to terms with these issues, I have
found myself shifting in my understanding of God, even while
remaining faithful to my religion.
As I thought further about
a specific idea put forth by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian
Science, I began to see how this could help me conceive of the diversity
of religious approaches to the ultimate truth without compromising the
integrity of my faith. This idea is that God is Principle
– divine Principle. This is the same God who is the creator of the
universe, the one whom Jesus called
“Father,” and the God whom the Christian scriptures call
Thinking of God as Principle
is unlike the relative principles of cultural values, where human opinions
clash. But the divine Principle (with a capital P) functions more like
a single central command system, or a consistent law that governs everything
in harmony. As numbers in the number system are universally governed
by the rules of mathematics, all of God’s creation is governed by
an orderly, divine Principle - or God.
The main issue we’ll consider
in this paper is how this one divine Principle can support individuality
and promote loving engagement between diverse religious communities.
First I’ll describe why
pluralism requires something beyond the human capacity to bring harmony
between rivaling communities. Then I’ll address the way God, as divine
Principle, can resolve the tension between our needs for an omnipotent,
transcendent God and a loving, immanent God in our pluralistic world.
And finally I’ll consider the means by which this divine Principle
can help us deal with differing claims for salvation and ultimate truth.
The need for divine intervention
The first issue
– “how the divine can help us deal with pluralism” - is
now a necessity for humanity to come to terms with. Pluralism has been
thrust upon us. It is here, because as many have noted, we all live
too close to each other now. Churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues
spring up in the same neighborhoods, and our children attend school
with each other. We cannot circumvent the necessity to re-define our
relationships within and without our own faith communities. In the Middle
Ages in Europe, anyone’s denial of the divinity of Christ was enough
to trigger another Holy Crusade. We clearly need a better way to relate
to those whose religious views are radically different from our own.
Tolerance is not enough. Neither is dialogue. We need honest, active,
and even loving relationships established between faith communities
of all sorts.
So, when the autonomy of
one community is threatened by the autonomy of another, where do we
find the authority to break the impasse? The social arrangement of human
beings clearly requires the benign government of a power greater than
humanity. Without it, we inevitably fall into relationships based on
dominance and subordination. As usual, here’s another opportunity
in the development of human civilization where religion can either solve
the problem or make it worse – depending largely on our views of God.
As human beings, we want to preserve our cultural identity and autonomy, but we want outside help if we’re in trouble.
We want help when we’re in trouble, but we don’t want to be manipulated.
We want security, but we don’t want to be dominated.
We want freedom of expression, but we don’t want everyone else to be free to harm us.
We want to experience the beauty of the divine in proximity, but we want enough distance to maintain our own control.
We want assurances for the
afterlife, but we don’t want to make promises now for the future.
In other words, as human
beings, we want to thrive, to experience respect and joy, - and without
being dominated. When humans are free to grab whatever they
want - without divine intervention
– they inevitably dominate others, as in the law of the survival of
the fittest. There can be no resolution to this tension with humanity’s
resources alone, because someone’s privilege is always going to be
someone else’s oppression. We will only succeed in active dialogue
and sincere love for one another when we see past our roles of domination
Divine intervention, then,
is a benefit to everyone, so long as we perceive that intervention as
universal justice. This is precisely the reason that an understanding
of God as divine Principle can give us a radically different perspective
on inter-community dignity as well as intra-community harmony.
There is, understandably,
human reluctance to giving over autonomy to an omnipotent, transcendent
God. Women, in particular, are frequently hesitant to feel dominated
by yet another layer of lordly power.
Transcendent and Immanent God
So, the second point I will
address in this paper is the means by which this divine Principle can
resolve the tension between our needs for a transcendent God and a loving,
We think we want an immanent
God who is here, close to use, and enabling us to touch and experience
the sacred. We want to experience the beauty of the divine, and
we want to be valued for our cultural identity and unique existence.
On the other hand, we want security from oppressors and assurances for
our after-life. We need that transcendent God who can expose and oppose
evil on our behalf.
But traditionally, an understanding
of God as transcendent is in tension with an immanent God. Too much
transcendence leaves us with an autocratic deity far removed from the
lives of immigrants, colonized people, or the poor. Too much immanence
tempts us with idolatry and pantheism, or worshipping what is not God.1 The tension in pluralism appears to lead us to an unsatisfactory situation
of having to choose between one or the other.
However, the concept of
God as divine Principle includes both transcendence and immanence. It
is difficult to find metaphors that express precisely a spiritual idea,
but this one may serve our purpose in illustrating this point. Imagine
a rose suspended by itself inside a six-sided cube
– each side, a mirror. We could envision six completely different
views of that rose, even though they are images of the same rose. If
we were to multiply each side by ten, we could encircle the rose with
sixty mirrors – and then we’d have 60 different views of the same
rose. In a similar way, our relationship to God is like countless reflections
of the one central Being, from whom we each find our wholeness. We are
not made alike, as if there was only one mirror with the same image.
Rather, we each derive our unique individuality from the same origin,
or Creator. No one is an imitation of another, but we are all the image
If transcendence is the
power we need beyond human capacity, then we access that kind of power
by reflection. As the flower in the middle of the room gives color,
shape, and beauty to the reflected flower, we also gain the dignity
and worth of our lives by virtue of a reflected relationship to the
omnipotent God. We are not dominated by a different reflected entity.
If immanence gives us a God who is with us and who cherishes the unique
purpose of each of us, then we are embraced by virtue of being one of
those intimately related reflections of God. In the metaphor of reflections
around the rose, one could argue the rose would not be fully appreciated
– or glorified – if one of the mirrors was missing. Our unique importance
is not self-made, but established by the original.
Transcendence needs not
exclude immanence, nor vice versa. How helpful it is to realize that
the principle of mathematics is universal. Whether we live in China
or Latin America, a number 3 operates in the same relationship with
a 6 for everyone. Everyone benefits from a reliable principle of numbers.
Realizing that the universal Principle of our lives is actually
divine Love is beautiful. Love never fails, as the Bible says.
And never failing is a transcendent concept. Love also blesses and supports
and cherishes each individual – which is a sense of immanence.
The divine Principle, Love
is able to nurture, encourage, and enable each of us to thrive. When
Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, he used both Greek terms for love,
agape and filia. Agape love is universal, blessing all. Filia is a particular
love that embraces the details of each individual. When the divine Principle,
God, is Love, then our God is both universal and particular.
Jesus’ life and teachings
make the theory practical for us today. His humanity points to the origin
of his divinity, as the reflections of the rose point to the flower
in the center of the room. Jesus, the Jew, lived as a Jew, supporting
its virtues and critiquing its practices. But he revealed himself as
the Messiah to not only a Jew – Peter
– but also to a Samaritan woman. He told a Canaanite woman that she
had enough faith to experience the power of God’s healing
for her daughter. And yet with his divine power, he did not confront
the domineering Romans. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,”
he said. He was living his cultural identity, but he neither dominated
other cultures nor enabled them to dominate him.
Examples in Jesus’ life
show us how to discern the transcendence of the Immanent and the immanence
of the Transcendent. Jesus’ provision of food for 5,000 people, for
instance, was evidence of the work of the divine Principle, Love. For
those who actually ate the fish and the bread, this was a very practical
and present experience of the Immanent God. Their immediate needs were
met, and they were not merely theorizing about the abundance of a remote
Kingdom. And yet, we would probably all agree there was a power at work
beyond the human capacity to produce the food. There are no laws of
physics by which food could multiply itself. By law of the divine Principle,
what works for one must work for all. If there is enough for one, there
is enough for all. Here the transcendent omnipotent power was also the
immanent existential realism of the presence of food.
It is not surprising that
large percentages of women are generally more attracted to the Immanent
God than the Transcendent one. Their institutional access to the divine
is so frequently blocked, they more naturally seek the sacred presence
in the world they live in. When God is repeatedly associated with the
Lord, Master, male-dominant figure, who prefers the repentance of women
and wisdom of men, is it any wonder that women would shun an omnipotent
God? The same can be said of all oppressed or dominated people, and
this injustice again highlights the importance of a divine Principle
that unifies the transcendent with the immanent God.
Divine Principle and
My third point is that this
Immanent and Transcendent God who is divine Principle can help us respect
differing claims of salvation and ultimate truth without losing the
integrity of our own faith. Pluralism is forcing all of us to consider
whether salvation may take on any form other than that which is conceived
in our own systematic theologies. If we are going to honestly respect
the culture of others, we will inevitably have to reckon with their
understanding of salvation. Someone else’s route to salvation may
look like a very different side of the
“rose” we’ve never known to exist. But by imagining the rose as
the ultimate truth, or the absolute complete being, we can see how people
on the other side of the rose might see their pathway to that central
place completely differently from our own. Respect for the other’s
view is possible by the realization that we all are conformed to the
same “rose” – or Principle, Love. If we can conceive of salvation
as the discovery of the original – or, in Christian and Judaic terms
– the image and likeness of God – then our orientation is toward
the rose, not so much our claim for the process.
Whatever is not
“rose-like” - or the likeness of God - in our lives, does need saving,
or correcting. The only way to discern in ourselves the original likeness
of that perfect Principle, Love, is through what we have called salvation.
In my view as a Christian the adjusting requires repentance and is achieved
through the work of Christ. Again, as mortals, we need that transcendent
power to turn us back toward the original. Jesus’ words,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life” serve as guideposts for
lost mortals to find their way. In my opinion
– again as a Christian – Jesus is the most able human on earth to
accomplish this, because he never lost sight of what he called his Father’s
house – or, the “rose,” as we’ve been calling it. It is from
the source of the divine power that he is able to exercise the grace
of healing and salvation.
Our God, Love, is always
going to be there, like the rose in the center of the room. So our prayers
move the angle of the mirror if it has turned away. But our prayers
do not change or turn the divine Principle, which remains eternally
good. For Christians, our Savior moves us into alignment with God. It does not ask God to become
more compassionate with our particular sufferings. This transcendent
aspect of Love is important when we know we need help. We know quite
well what happens if we’re drowning in either the ocean or the waters
of hell, and someone who feels just as weak as we do, jumps in to help
us. Our tragedy is more likely to end in a double drowning. Whereas
if the savior stands firmly on the ground and sends us a secure line,
that line will move us in the direction we need to move. That
kind of a savior may not be in the drowning waters with us, but
it is definitely a loving act for this savior to reach us right where
we are, and move us to safety.
I think of the way Jesus
had his meals with people who were regarded as misfits. He touched the
people who were considered unclean, like people suffering from leprosy.
He calmed the storm when danger surrounded his disciples. He cast out
the devilish spirits that tortured the man living in the cemetery, and
the boy with some kind of epilepsy. He liberated women suffering from
things like hemorrhage, fever, and spinal curvature. He comforted parents
whose children were dying or dead, by bringing them back to life. He
was there. Touching them, loving them, binding up the
broken hearted, and freeing them from their suffering. This is as immanent
an image of God as we can conceive.
And yet this example of
immanent love indicates why this Savior is not separate from the transcendent
authority of divine power. Beyond the cultural taboos of not touching
the unclean, and beyond the fear of evil spirits, and beyond the powers
of disease, and beyond human inevitability of death, this Savior exercised
the Transcendent power of Principle to bring justice and peace to the
Here is where the analogy
of the rose breaks down, however. A rose is not actually God, or Principle.
It indicates a spatial relationship between God and us, and that is
not a spiritual concept. A rose is the expression of a beautiful idea,
perhaps the principle of grace and beauty. It is not Love itself, but
the effect of God’s love. The difference, then, is that Love
is not a static entity suspended in space. It is the active movement
of good that blesses. Therefore, as reflections of that Principle, Love, each one of us must necessarily engage
with each other in the act of love. Jesus’ teachings that above all
things, we must love God with our whole hearts and love our neighbors
indicate the nature of this universal Principle.
As a Christian, I am most
satisfied that Jesus is “the way” to salvation. But if Jesus is
showing us the way to his Father’s house, or the realm of God, or
the reality of the absolute Principle, Love, then it is conceivable
to me that others may find just what they need along their journeys
too. Those on the other side of the mountain may encounter sheer cliffs,
when others enjoy open meadows. But the summit must be the same for
all. It is no wonder that the Golden Rule is an essential teaching in
all the world’s religions. That must be a necessity for humanity’s
discovery of the absolute, divine Principle, Love.
In conclusion, the requirements
of religious pluralism today are neither an invitation to defend our
turf ever more vigorously, nor to denounce
our faith homes which have brought us closer to God. Rather, each faith
tradition ought to inspire more loving engagement with others, even
as we adjust to new theological necessities. The implications of God
as divine Principle give us a transcendent power that nullifies the
injustice of dominance and oppression. It also gives us the immanent
divine presence that cherishes and nurtures every unique individual.
How satisfying it is to realize the privilege of loving our neighbor
as ourselves, even when their pathway to salvation is so radically different
from our own.