How Big is God’s Tent?

little tent

Lisa Miller wrote an interesting article, published the other day in Newsweek, called; We Are All Hindus Now.  I’ve reprinted the article in its entirety;

America is not a Christian nation. We are, it is true, a nation founded by Christians, and according to a 2008 survey, 76 percent of us continue to identify as Christian (still, that’s the lowest percentage in American history). Of course, we are not a Hindu—or Muslim, or Jewish, or Wiccan—nation, either. A million-plus Hindus live in the United States, a fraction of the billion who live on Earth. But recent poll data show that conceptually, at least, we are slowly becoming more like Hindus and less like traditional Christians in the ways we think about God, our selves, each other, and eternity.

The Rig Veda, the most ancient Hindu scripture, says this: "Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names." A Hindu believes there are many paths to God. Jesus is one way, the Qur’an is another, yoga practice is a third. None is better than any other; all are equal. The most traditional, conservative Christians have not been taught to think like this. They learn in Sunday school that their religion is true, and others are false. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me."

Americans are no longer buying it. According to a 2008 Pew Forum survey, 65 percent of us believe that "many religions can lead to eternal life"—including 37 percent of white evangelicals, the group most likely to believe that salvation is theirs alone. Also, the number of people who seek spiritual truth outside church is growing. Thirty percent of Americans call themselves "spiritual, not religious," according to a 2009 NEWSWEEK Poll, up from 24 percent in 2005. Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University, has long framed the American propensity for "the divine-deli-cafeteria religion" as "very much in the spirit of Hinduism. You’re not picking and choosing from different religions, because they’re all the same," he says. "It isn’t about orthodoxy. It’s about whatever works. If going to yoga works, great—and if going to Catholic mass works, great. And if going to Catholic mass plus the yoga plus the Buddhist retreat works, that’s great, too."

Then there’s the question of what happens when you die. Christians traditionally believe that bodies and souls are sacred, that together they comprise the "self," and that at the end of time they will be reunited in the Resurrection. You need both, in other words, and you need them forever. Hindus believe no such thing. At death, the body burns on a pyre, while the spirit—where identity resides—escapes. In reincarnation, central to Hinduism, selves come back to earth again and again in different bodies. So here is another way in which Americans are becoming more Hindu: 24 percent of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, according to a 2008 Harris poll. So agnostic are we about the ultimate fates of our bodies that we’re burning them—like Hindus—after death. More than a third of Americans now choose cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America, up from 6 percent in 1975. "I do think the more spiritual role of religion tends to deemphasize some of the more starkly literal interpretations of the Resurrection," agrees Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard. So let us all say "om."   [Lisa Miller, Newsweek Magazine, August 15, 2009]

Miller’s take on religious development in America reminded me of something that I read this morning in Robert Wright’s “Evolution of God”, which suggests that this not something  new to Abrahamic faith:

Konrad Schmid (professor of theology at the University of Zurich) sees P’s * three different names for God—Elohim, El Shaddai, and Yahweh—corresponding to three “concentric circles.” The Priestly source, he says, depicts “a circle of the world over which God stands as Elohim, an Abrahamic circle to which God relates as El Shaddai, and finally an Israelite circle inside which God can be called upon with his real and cultic name Yahweh.”  57   In this view, the term Elohim acquires a new sense for Israelites after the exile; P has in effect changed it from a generic noun (our god, their god) into a proper noun (God).

In one sense, this is hardly surprising and may not have seemed new; if you’re a monotheist, like P, then the generic noun for god almost has to be, in a sense, the same as the proper noun for God. Still, Schmid thinks this grammatical maneuver had a subtler implication that was new: P was saying that the gods of the different nations—all the elohims—are just different manifestations of the same underlying divinity: Elohim with a capital E.   [Robert Wright, The Evolution of God]

* the Priestly authors of certain parts of Hebrew sriptures

So what do you think? Heresy? Apostasy? Or a manifestation of God’s communal vision for the world?

big tent

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  1. #1 by Alex on August 20, 2009 - 9:48 am

    How can you say who’s out and who’s in? Who gets to decide what’s ‘too whacko’?

    There’s a good deal of difference between saying, ‘this is what the Church teaches’ and ‘such and such a person is outside of Christ’.

    For example, someone may say that stealing is not a sin – this is not consistent with the teachings of Christ – yet how do we know what is in the hearts of those people who choose to follow such a leader? Perhaps they will become more like Christ than you or I ever will be.

    It’s tempting to think of such things in terms of black and white. It was once said, however, that if we were to draw a line separating black and white, darkness and light, in the universe, we would be shooting a line straight through the heart of every human being.

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