Posted by: Kimber Terese | February 12, 2009

Universal vs. Particular

I recently encountered an article by Ishwar Harris entitled “The Dilemna of the Universal and the Particular nature of Religion”. Addressing the issue of religious pluralism in the world today, Harris attempts to resolve a serious issue that seems to come into the battlefield of New Atheism. With the help of two religious representatives, he presents the idea that we must accept the necessity of the particular in religion, while recognizing the need for a more universal nature. His two front men include Paul Tillich, a Christian thinker, and S. Radhakrishnan, a spokesman for Hinduism. As a side note, I am reading a book by Paul Tillich for my final project, entitled Dynamics of Faith, which I recommend as a refreshing gasp of air in the dense stank of New Atheism. Back to the article by Harris- this discussion of the universal and particular is intriguing within the realm of our debate. It appears as if these two authors are making an earnest attempt to universalize religion, while maintaining identity with their personal rituals stemming from the particulars of their religion. The discussion begins with the current problems which dilute the scene of religion. Harris himself criticizes the Western conservatism for their emphasis on creeds and dogmas. From our cradled faiths of rules and regulations, Eastern faiths begin to look liberating. The problem arises here, as Harris states, “As evident in our culture today many have undergone a religious transformation without any serious reflection. This has caused a certain religious schizophrenia which is undesirable.” In order to reconcile this issue, we must clarify the universal and particular in our faith.

This article brought me to consider the way we define religions, drawing lines between views, separating fact from possibility, creating divisions among ourselves. New Atheists criticize the amount of religions that exist today. Even within Christianity, a seemingly united faith, there are somewhere over 38,000 different denominations (depending on which source you check). Is religious pluralism a strong argument for the New Atheists? Or are they simply focusing on the particulars of a religious faith? In my study of cultural psychology, I began to seriously doubt the existence of religious exclusivity, which has been taught in the realm of Christianity as well as Western society for quite some time. As Harris explains in his article,

“[Christians] do not admit narrow-mindedness in matters of creeds and doctrines but assert their unique place in a faith. They hold it to be a prophetic religion which by its very nature pronounces judgment on undesirable elements in light of the biblical revelation. This is not seen as exclusivism, but a necessary element of the prophetic faith so that it may reflect truth in their beliefs.”

However, as he continues, the Eastern tradition does not take this same approach. With a focus on a person’s experience with the ultimate reality, they escape these exclusive terms. A concept I found most intriguing was this possibility of the universal. Harris states, “[T]he universal religion is seen as the most tolerant and broad-minded. It believes in the cooperation between faiths to foster peace and a world community. It does not believe that one religion is better than the other, but asserts that all must transcend their particularities in order to become universal.” I enjoy the word choice he uses here: transcend. Religions must rise above, go beyond the limits, triumph over the particularities that are formed in the constraints of humanity to find the truth within them. Beyond all this we find deeper meaning than a dogma or scientific term could ever contain.



  1. I think this is such an interesting topic Kimber. I read an interesting article called “Hearing the Other: The Promise and Problem of Pluralism” (by Carl E. Braaten) last semester for my Trinitarian paper on evangelization, and in it Braaten notes that there are 3 basic attitudes one can take towards other religions. On one hand, one can be exclusive and thereby remain closed off towards any other religions or religious ideas, while on the other hand, one can be pluralist and accept all other religions in an attempt at universalism. Between these two extremes, however, Braaten elaborates on the concept of inclusivism, in which one remains steadfast in his or her beliefs while yet tolerating, and perhaps even more strongly – listening to, other religious notions.

    The problem is so complex and yet pretty simple at the same time, and I think it all depends on perspective and approach. We, as Christians, have certain solid beliefs concerning God, Jesus, and how we are to live, and no, we should not have to either dilute our beliefs to make them “acceptable” to others or accept others’ beliefs through pluralism. Yet at the same time, if we present our ideas slightly differently, it can make a world of difference in how they are perceived. For example, I could write the following phrases in two different ways:

    1) (Inclusivism) I believe that Jesus Christ died for the payment of my sins and therefore it is through His grace alone that I may enter heaven. God is merciful and He has offered His gift of Jesus to everyone, and while I do not understand His plan perfectly, I think this is how it works….

    2) (Exclusivism) I believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven, and therefore anyone who does not agree is condemned to hell…

  2. Rae, I liked your stuff on inclusivism. That’s the paradigm I take with Catholicism. It’s a headache to even think about synchronizing all the religions into one. At the same time, Vatican II explanation of Jesus being present in the whole world, not just in the church, is a big mind opener for me. Within the practice of inculturation there is an acceptance that within other cultures that have never heard the Gospels, Jesus awaits to be discovered by Christians in an even deeper way. That’s pretty intense!

    Anyway, here is a little food for thought on the diversity of religion from the standpoints of other Islam and the east.

    Dr. Renard sent me this from the Quran.

    [5:48] Then we revealed to you this scripture, truthfully, confirming previous scriptures, and superseding them. You shall rule among them in accordance with GOD’s revelations, and do not follow their wishes if they differ from the truth that came to you. For each of you, we have decreed laws and different rites. Had GOD willed, He could have made you one congregation. But He thus puts you to the test through the revelations He has given each of you. You shall compete in righteousness. To GOD is your final destiny – all of you – then He will inform you of everything you had disputed.

    I like this because it takes the pressure off of converting everyone to one religion. If God had ‘wanted’ to make everyone one religion, there would be only one religion. Though we tend to find our religion the most informative on the great mystery of God, other religions have their own particular thing to say about that which no words can encapsulate.

    There is a eastern story that illustrates this point well. One day a guru stumbled upon a quarrel amongst people over which religion was the best. A lot of argument and high emotions you can bet, probably as intense as a Chicago native and St. Louisan over the best baseball team. They put the question to the guru to get some resolution.

    The Guru’s answer was to blindfold them all and lead them into a room with an elephant. Then he had them describe to him what it was in the room using their hands. They went up to feel the elephant and the Christian said the thing was like a skeleton, smooth and cool gripping the tusk. The Muslim disagreed saying that it was more like a tree trunk, feeling around the leg. The Hindu priest said they were both wrong and that it was like a wall that didn’t budge no matter how hard he pushed on it.

    They all had part of the picture, important parts of the picture, but not the whole thing. Let’s be honest. God keeps us blindfolded and we are continuously surprised to find our original ideas are too small. So I try to be inclusive, hold onto my own ‘picture’ of the divine, but bring in other perspectives when helpful.

  3. I’m curious, Jim, as to what part Christ plays in your conception of the world’s religious environment. Maybe I read your post incorrectly, or maybe you didn’t have space to elaborate as much as you would have liked; but from what I can tell, what you wrote would be completely unacceptable to Rome.

    To say that the grace of Christ is present in the whole world through the power of the Holy Spirit is not incorrect. To say that other religions are divinely inspired is also proper. But to say that the revelation which the other religions have is equal to what has been revealed in the person of Christ would be inappropriate.

    It is true that through what we have from Jesus, we can know how to interpret other religions and also we can know that other religions offer truth (even though many times this truth must be adapted to be able to meet the Truth, as per the Jewish Law).

    Certain theologians like Jacques Dupuis will even argue that the teachings of Jesus do not encapsulate, complete, or fulfil the revelations of other religions; that Jesus did not say anything unique or particularly special in his message of love.

    What must be maintained, however, in order to avoid heresy is that Jesus’ self-sacrifice was unique and constitutive for the salvation of the world. In this situation, without Christ, Islam, Buddhist, and Hinduism would be just as meaningless and valueless as Christianity. Christ’s act, if not his teaching, fulfils the religions.

    In this manner, there is not a completing theophany for each religion, Christ is The Theophany. He does not exist only for his discovery by Christians for their spiritual edification, but for his discovery by all the world.

    (Just as an aside, Jim, you might have already done so; but if you haven’t , you might be interested to read the rest of the chapter of the Qur’an which you cited. You’re observations weren’t necessarily wrong, but there’s always a larger perspective to see.)

  4. Gabesky, nice response. I first have to admit to a little bit of proof texting in that Quran quote. The rest of the verse describes how Islam is the revelation that has superseded the previous revelations and that Muslims do not have to adhere to the regulations of those earlier religions. I don’t think it discounts what I wrote above, but way to follow up.

    It leads me to my next point. I didn’t hammer home Christianity as the ultimate religion because it seems, especially taking into account what I just wrote, that every religion thinks it has the ultimate revelation and would disagree with you that Christ is the ultimate theophany. It doesn’t feel like it does any of us any good to put to much energy into showing how our revelation is better than everybody else’s.

    Still I believe Christ Incarnate to have freaking ridiculous consequences that blow our whole understanding of humanity into a different stratosphere. The infinite becoming human, that and its implications are NUTS!

    I guess I don’t know what Christ would say about Hinduism or Islam. He seems pretty adamant about us following Him. We have also come to the recent conclusion that there is salvation outside of the Church which is where people strive to follow Christ as a community. It is not our job to indoctrinate the world with Christianity even if it is “for their own good”.

    My beliefs are more praxis than orthodox. I give people the freedom to believe in what gives them life to the extent that it respects the dignity of everyone. I look for ways their lives expand my understanding of what Christ’s radical call to love entails. I hope my greatest preaching comes not from my words but from my actions. It’s a little bit of a cop out, but I prefer to error on living the gospel well and proclaiming poorly than proclaiming well and living it poorly.

  5. I’m glad my response didn’t strike you as too domineering. I reread it a few times and was afraid it sounded too condemning.

    I’m sure we’ll have a chance to talk about this on Monday, and so I’ll just say that I disagree. 😉
    But I wonder, when you say the Incarnation has freaking ridiculous consequences, do you mean for the whole world? Are those consequences only important for Christians, for those who will become Christians, or also for those who never will be Christians?

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