I started Paul F. Knitter’s No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions. In my latest reading, Knitter discussed the thought of Ernst Troeltsch, a theologian who highlighted the dynamic nature of history.
I guess my question is this: Is there truth, even though there are a lot of religions and cultures out there, and even though we are all part of an in-flux historical process in which people and ideas change? I’d say that, on a certain level, the answer is yes. Or let me rephrase that: I don’t think that the existence of different religions and cultures and the dynamic nature of history necessarily mean that there is no truth. There can be one right religion, while others make incorrect claims. Other cultures may do things that we in twenty-first century America judge to be wrong: I think of widows in India immolating themselves. And there are things that were done in history that many of us in twenty-first century America deem to be immoral, such as the Holocaust, the unjust treatment of Native Americans, etc. Do we seriously want to rob ourselves of the right to make those kinds of moral judgments? If not, then we have to admit that there is a truth that transcends religions, cultures, and historical contexts.
Would Troeltsch agree with me on this? To be honest, after reading Knitter, I’m not entirely sure. On the one hand, Troeltsch was somewhat of a relativist, who thought that Hinduism was right for Hindus and Christianity was right for Christians. At first, he tried to argue that Christianity was superior to a number of other religions—-because it had a personal God, for example—-but he backed away from that. On the other hand, Troeltsch believed that there was some divine revelation to humanity, and that God was somehow “immanent…within our very being” (Knitter’s words on page 25). That’s why we see in most cultures a desire to search for more, to need, and to love.
I’d say there’s a truth. But do I equate that truth with the Bible or Christianity? I have issues with taking that step because the Bible itself appears to reflect its culture, in a number of cases, and in doing so it sometimes offends our moral sensibilities. We see in the Bible that slavery is condoned (Leviticus 25), and that women in the Torah are regarded as second-class citizens (Numbers 30). Even a number of conservative Christians would say that these ideas are not normative for today but reflect the times when they were written down. In making that claim, they move somewhat in the direction of Troeltsch, who highlighted that people and cultures change throughout history.
What is truth, then? I’d say that it includes our twenty-first century moral sensibilities—-at least those in the U.S., and perhaps elsewhere. Does that sound rather imperialist? And why should I assume that my culture is superior? Well, maybe there are areas in which my culture is wrong—-our individualism and materialism arguably go too far, for example. But do we really want to get to the point where we can’t say that widows immolating themselves in India is wrong?
Perhaps I can say that history is in flux, and yet God is somehow involved in it, leading people to what is right. Yes, there is morality throughout the world, and throughout history. Yes, people desire something more, and they want to love. I guess my question then would be this: Why hasn’t God revealed more in the past? Why could people treat others as second-class citizens, without even a second thought? Or maybe, deep within some elements of humanity, there were second thoughts about the bad things that were going on, and that was a reflection of the image of God.