God of Many Names:

An Introduction to Dialogue with Other Religions

Robert C. Brow

Classification and Choice

In the previous chapter we tried out a three point method for analysing the explanation given by a particular believer of his or her personal faith. With a bit of practice we learned how to note the metaphors, and capture the logic in such a way that our friend can agree that we have correctly understood that form of explanation. We now wonder if there is any way to arrange these various explanations in a helpful system of classification.

 We can easily grasp that lions, tigers, and jaguars all belong to the cat family. Children can do that just by looking. Zoologists went deeper into internal structure by dividing the vertebrates from animals without backbones. Then among vertebrates they distinguished the mammals, and classified them as rodents, carnivores, deer, elephants, camels and primates. By the use of such names and classifications a natural history of zoological species emerged. And by arranging these in a chart we can see at a glance how the various kinds of animal relate to one another.

 In the case of religions and ideologies we first note four kinds of goal that people have in mind. And we will name these A Theistic Heaven, A Monistic Oneness, A Personal State in this Life, A Social State in this Life.

 Theists distinguish between the Artist and his canvas. The universe we live in is the created world, and theists look forward to a resurrection from this space-time world to eternal life in the world of the Creator. Monists view God as in and part of the evolving cosmos, and for them the question is whether they use the name God for the whole process, or the life force, or the soul, or the unity behind the universe. Among the religions and ideologies which only have this present life in mind we differentiate between those whose summum bonum is some attainment for the person himself, and those who like Marxists and Humanists have a social goal for their country or humanity as a whole.

 Next we try sub-dividing these four categories according to the way they diagnose the wrongness that prevents the attainment of their ultimate goal. This gives us eight categories of sin. And we then connect these in the following chart with twelve ways of moving from what is wrong with humanity towards attaining the goal.
A Theistic Heaven Sin is wrong behaviour OBEDIENCE 
Sin is a wrong attitude SACRAMENTS
A Monistic Oneness Sin is wrong thinking KNOWING
Sin is wrong imagination DEVOTION
A Personal State in this Life Sin is servility MENTAL EFFORT
Sin is egoism NATURALISM
A Social State in this Life Sin is alienation HUMANISM
Sin is social structures REVOLUTION

As our classification begins to emerge we will be wise to suspect the too tidy clear cut sub- divisions. In nature and in religion there are no sharp edges. An individual has a right to say " I do not make that distinction in that way." And we should respect his or her own way of explaining what is important. "I believe in a Creator, so you can call me a Theist, but for me sin is the servility from which God wants to free me. And you have listed servility under a personal state in this life." In such cases we correct the person's explanation, and realize that our chart is imperfect.

 So we recognize that our classification system will need many qualifications and improvements, but it is still useful to make our point. The object of the exercise is not to force a friend into our classification system, but to give us a rough picture the vast differences in the way individuals explain their ideal or goal in life and what prevents them attaining it.

 Now we come to naming the species we have identified. In different parts of Britain there is a profusion of different local names for plants and wild flowers. That confusion of names was corrected by Botanists who agreed to use an exact Latin name for each species. This kind of work has not been done for religions and ideologies, and perhaps because of the infinite gradations and overlaps it may never be possible. But it is still useful to have names as long as we recognize that our naming is arbitrary and temporary for the purpose we have in mind. Here is a sampling of names I have assigned for the present in my collection:
wrong behaviour OBEDIENCE Islam
wrong attitude FAITH Creative Love Theism
Law Court Theism
wrong thinking KNOWING Abolute Monism
DEVOTION Hindu Bhakti
Mahayana Buddhism
wrong imagination MEDITATION TM
Original Buddhism
Servility MENTAL EFFORT Zen Buddhism
Egoism MORALISM Epicureanism
Alienation HUMANISM Western Bahai
John Dewey
Structures IMPERIALISM Cultural domination
Racial domination

My list of names in the final column is not a list of religions and ideologies in the wider sense. They are merely the names which I assigned to the commitment of one particular person. In some cases they are names individual believers rightly or wrongly chose as labels for their way of salvation. Similarly botany began with the common or garden names for flowers, and the first zoologists talked very imprecisely about crows, and cats, and deer.

 Using the categories as arranged under our three vertical columns, the total number of species in our natural history of religions and ideologies is limited to twenty-four. By sub-dividing the categories and cross connecting them in various ways, we could end up with hundreds of possibilities. And we can conceive of an expert in religions and ideologies mastering, classifying, and teaching the internal logic of every kind of faith explanation that could reasonably be given. And that could be done scientifically without committing oneself to any one particular way of salvation.

 Later on if experts in religion wanted to improve on this chart they could decide that some of our names are confusing, incorrect or located in the wrong place in the classification. They might even prefer to construct an elaborate Latin nomenclature. Or they could decide to begin the classification in another way. In a natural history instead of beginning with vertebrates and invertebrates we could divide birds and mammals as either vegetarian or carnivorous, day time feeders or nocturnal. Similarly there are no doubt many other ways a classification of religions and ideologies could be organized for various purposes. Our only motive at this point is to show that the explanations of believers could be arranged in some sort of classification. And we have sufficient to illustrate the vast variety of explanatory logics used by believers in various types of religion and ideology.

 This work of analysis and classification has so far not required any evaluation. In the natural sciences we can classify the mammals without having to choose whether lions are better than whales, or whether rabbits are preferable to donkeys. That kind of decision is only forced upon us if we have to settle between buying a horse or a donkey for the farm, or adopting a cat or a skunk as a pet.

 We can see that after looking over our chart a person might quickly decide that some of the goals and ways chosen are not acceptable as ways of ordering one's life. Choosing to lose all desire would never be appealing to someone who wanted to love and be loved to the full. And choosing to flow with the tao of life as a Taoist would seem quite wrong if one wanted to be saved from hell according to some form of legalistic religion.

 Our expert in religions and ideologies might even be able to include in his science an account of which options were possible or impossible in view of the various goals one might have in mind. And he could still do that without committing himself to any one of them. It would be like a biochemist setting out the chemical structure and nutritional values of celery and tofu in relation to other vegetables, but refusing to say which he would choose to eat.

 Does that mean that in matters of religion and ideology anything goes? Anyone can choose as they please? All options are valid, and all should equally be respected. Do we conclude that every country and every school should offer a pluralism of free choices? In their attempt to escape from this kind of extreme relativism committed believers will often claim some kind of absolute certainty. They want to prove that their way is the right one, and all others are wrong. In the next chapter we therefore begin with those who offer proofs that their scriptures are true or infallible.

 Chapter 4...