God of Many Names:

An Introduction to Dialogue with Other Religions

Robert C. Brow

Scriptures and Denominations

As a result of our method in the first three chapters we have landed ourselves in a relativism of innumerable religious and ideological explanations. As believers that seems an intolerable conclusion. We cannot accept the idea that all ways are equally valid. We want some bedrock certainty that our way is the right one.

In this chapter we wonder whether our own scriptures can give us that assurance? But immediately we discover that believers in every kind of religion and ideology are also nourished by writings which encourage their faith. In India for example the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavadgita are used by millions of Hindus. Muslims revere the Qur'an. Sikhs have their Grantsahib. Christians read the Bible in their services. Christian Science needs Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health, 1875. Jains, Parsis, and Buddhists each have their own writings. And for members of the Communist Party the writings of Marx and Lenin had their special authority.

In each case these scriptures use a selection of metaphors and extended metaphors in the form of parables. There may also be some historical or mythical accounts of a people, proverbs, sayings, rules for rituals, laws, morals, and some logical connections between these. In our day scriptures are available in written form, but the principle is the same if the stories and proverbs are passed on by oral tradition. In that case the inspiration will reside in those who can remember and recite what has been passed on.

Next we note that for individual believers who honour the accepted scriptures of their culture there is a very wide range of commitment. Some never read them at all. In the west a family Bible can be lost for years in a dark corner though the parents might fight to the death for its Christian truth and inspiration. Others are happy for portions of their scriptures to be read on ceremonial occasions even though they do not understand the language, or intend to live according to what they can understand. There are also those who are willing once a week to listen to sermons from the Bible in a church or from the Qur'an in a mosque, but in practice their behaviour is totally secular.

Only a small proportion of adherents read their scriptures with any enthusiasm or regularity. And even these tend to be very selective as to which portions they read and which they intend to put into practice. We also know that even the best of preachers in any religion or ideology tend to work with a rather limited repertoire of metaphors and themes. Evidently there are large parts of the recognized scriptures of the world which remain unmined for their ore.

The professional propagators of a religion or ideology are likely to encourage their followers to claim every part of their scriptures as inspired, authoritative, and even infallible. Even though the reading may make very little impact on their lives, many believers therefore revere their scriptures and become incensed if they are desecrated or changed into modern language.

Many assume that the question of truth can be settled from their Scriptures. Hindus may never read the Vedas or Upanishads but they are sure that they are revealed truth (sruti). Muslims know that the Qur'an came straight down from heaven through the prophet Muhammad. Jews have their Old Testament Torah and the interpretations of the Talmud. And Christians accept the Old and New Testaments as the inspired word of God.

Apart from immemorially accepted tradition we wonder how people attain such certainty about the writings which nourish them? Let us imagine someone who has had no previous contact with scriptures of any kind. We will also make the artificial assumption that this person has had no previous explanation at home or in school of what is to be believed. As she thinks about life she has a strong sense of injustice between the classes, and longs for a world where people will respect and treat others as brothers and sisters.

Now she meets up with some dedicated Marxists, and they get her to read the Communist Manifesto, Das Kapital or the works of Lenin. Immediately she finds herself responding to these writings. The metaphors used make sense. She begins reading, and rereading, and feeding on the words which give her strength as a communist in a hostile society. And when people ask about the reasons for her new enthusiasm, she develops or learns from others a logic of explanation. By now her Marxist scriptures are not only important to her, but they have taken on an aura of authority if not infallibility.

Let us try out another sequence of events. Instead of being introduced to the writings in Karl Marx, our friend who was bothered by class injustice is given a Bible to read. She immediately likes the prophetic condemnations of luxury and oppression of the poor. She also loves the account of the early Christian communism in the Book of Acts. But she longs for stronger revolutionary action to be taken, and feels Paul is too other-worldly and accepting of the Roman status quo. So she reads the Bible for a time but soon tires of it. She also tries the Gita and the early Buddhist writings which seem even more other-worldly. When eventually she comes across the writings of Marx and Lenin she feels she has discovered the true scriptures. And this is confirmed as she discovers that all the other enthusiasts in her Marxist cell believe in and demand acceptance of the truth of these writings.

We frequently see this same adoption of scriptures in the conversions which take place in huge numbers in schools and universities. Where the person has had some commitment to one set of authoritative explanations there is now a change in the way he or she now gives an explanation of the reasons for faith. It may be possible to use some portions of the previously accepted books to illustrate and nourish the new form of explanation. The metaphors can also be rearranged in a new logical sequence. But eventually the time may come when like-minded believers recommend another set of scriptures which meet the new need. In that case the previous writings are rejected as false, and the converted life is nourished by the new.

After a genuine conversion a book or set of writings tends to become meat and drink to a new believer. Within a year he or she is convinced that these writings are inspired. The writings themselves often claim a special authority. The convert may conclude that the book is true or even infallible, and all others wrong.

But obviously an argument becomes circular if we claim that our own Scriptures are true because they themselves say so. Which is why believers who want to prove the authority of their own Scriptures will try to develop arguments from their antiquity, the beauty of the words, their moral power, or from history, archaeology, psychology, or the other sciences. But none of these arguments can logically convince someone who finds a particular set of scriptures unhelpful, boring, or immoral. No scriptures can therefore give anyone logical certainty that they are true. Any certainty must first be derived from the individual's personal commitment. It is the individual's life commitment together with the appropriate choice of metaphors from his adopted scriptures, and their ordering in an acceptable model, that together give those scriptures their authority.

We can now see how the adoption of an explanatory model, especially if we can quote scriptures to give it authority, generates its own certainties. Within Islam there can be no possible doubt that we will face the last judgment. In Hindu Vedanta there can be no doubt that unless we attain salvation we will come back into the dreary round of reincarnation. Within one form of Calvinism there can be no doubt that God chooses who will come to believe and be saved, and all others certainly go to hell. But in each case the certainty can only be derived from the adoption of an explanatory model, and the Scriptures are used to confirm it and nourish it.

Among Christians there are many who say "I cannot believe in a God who sends people to hell." They therefore reject an extreme Calvinistic model, but still continue to nourish themselves from the same scriptures. If asked to explain their model of faith they will perhaps emphasise other metaphors and parables, and certainly use a different explanatory logic. Which proves that our explanatory model not only influences which scriptures we choose to adopt, but it governs the way we choose and organise the metaphors in those scriptures. No scriptures can prove that we are right and all others have the wrong explanation.

Whatever scriptures are nourishing us, there will always be some parts which seem obscure and contradictory to the most ardent of believers. It is the function of the teachers of a religion or ideology, and the books which they write, to explain these difficulties. In some cases they will resort to typology. Often dispensational explanations are needed, as when Christians distinguish between the Old and New Testament food laws and rituals. Hindus distinguish between the very early Vedas and later writings like the Upanishads or the Gita. Another alternative is to continue to accept one's scriptures but become modernist in rejecting the miraculous. Or one can be liberal enough to permit one to pick and choose which parts are to be believed.

The result of all these various factors is that the scriptures of a major religion or ideology can continue to be viewed as in some sense inspired or authoritative. This is compatible with very different interpretations of what they mean. Thus among Christians it is possible for individuals to be pacifists, and a whole denomination like the Mennonites will reject any use of force. Other Christians expect to have chaplains to support them when they go to war. Hindus can subscribe to half a dozen different kinds of philosophical system, and few will object if a particular Hindu even prays to Jesus as his personal God. So again we seem to have arrived at a disquieting relativism.

But all is not lost. It soon becomes apparent that the previous total relativism is only on the surface. At a deeper level major differences divide each set of scriptures, with the explanations and denominations that are nourished by it, from all other scriptures. In any world religion it is possible for different denominations to exist under the umbrella of one set of scriptures. Here we are using the word denomination to refer not only to Christian denominations like Anglicans and Baptists, but also to any grouping of believers connected with particular scriptures. Thus among Christians all using the same Old and New Testament there are Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Mennonite, Charismatic, Adventist, and a host of other denominational variants.

These groupings might be compared to family resemblances among sub-species in zoology. Thus among the Artiodactyla we find camels, giraffes, pigs and hippopotami, and a large class of bovidae. The latter can be subdivided into cattle, sheep, goats and antelopes. Although there are marked differences between each of these, the family connections are obvious. We would never confuse any of them with rodents or with the cat family. As in the case of overlap between different species in the same grouping, there is also a huge amount of common ground in the denominational and individual explanations of what is to be believed. Though each denomination will tend to claim that it alone has the true interpretation, there is a constant borrowing of explanations from one another.

A person might for example be Roman Catholic by denomination but uses feminist or more typically Protestant models of explanation. High Anglicans adopt Roman Catholic forms of explanation and practices. Evangelical Anglicans learn from the Plymouth Brethren. Others in all denominations are more charismatic than the Pentecostals. And all borrow each others' hymns and Sunday School and liturgical practices. So in spite of a vast range of different methods of explanation, there is a clear sense of oneness around the one Christian Bible. This becomes particularly evident when Christians are in a minority and fighting for their right to exist.

We find a similar set of family resemblances among Sunni and Shia and Sufi Muslims around the Qur'an. There were also resemblances among Maoists and Stalinists and miscellaneous groups of Communists around the writings of Marx and Lenin. The family resemblances among Hindus used to be easy to discern, but Hinduism in the past century has developed a bigger range of very different patterns of explanation around the various sacred books that are viewed as inspired. But among Hindus, as in every other religion, there is inevitably fundamentalist pressure to force one or another "correct" interpretation and silence those who do not conform.

We therefore conclude that no proof of absolute truth or certainty that all others are wrong can be derived from one particular set of scriptures. But we can see that each set of scriptures permits certain families of denominational life to flourish under its umbrella. And it seems that those forms of denominational life would could not easily flourish in relation to other scriptures. There are also individual committed believers who find their faith nourished by their own set of scriptures and no others.

The total relativism with which we began was of very individual explanatory models. At least now we have the possibility of a triangle of connections between the explanatory models of individuals, the scriptures which nourish them, and the group of denominations around each set of scriptures. That suggests a more limited relativism of mutually exclusive groupings, but any assurance of certainty that one or another is in any sense right still eludes us.

Chapter 5...