“Theology is like a map…. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences compared with which many thrills of pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further you must use the map” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).
More and more these days, I end up finding myself in a discussion about faith and religion which fizzles out fairly quickly, because my interlocutor will suddenly prate on at length about his very firmly held opinion about what is wrong with religion in general (and often conflating that with my religion in particular) and then summing up with some cliché about how we shouldn’t argue about such things because we can’t really know for sure and all religions are basically the same anyway. I say the conversation usually fizzles out at this point, because I am perennially at a loss about how to proceed at this point (this bafflement is usually compounded by the fact that these conversations usually occur at work and I simply don’t have the time available to pursue the question at any great length before break or lunch happens to end, and when next we are able, the conversation is difficult to organically revive). More confounding to me than coworkers expressing this viewpoint (I can expect it from non-religious and nominally religious people who tend not to think too deeply about the subject), is when I hear it from religious people—devout, practicing religious people! It was a cause of great consternation from me when I heard it from one of my Pentecostal friends, a member of an evangelical denomination that bordered on fundamentalism when I was still a member.
To hear the opinion expressed that “theology isn’t important” when it comes to living the Christian faith just seems nonsensical. I wish I could say that it was a Protestant problem, but that we Catholics are somehow better than that, but we all know that’s certainly not the case. The notion that religions are all basically the same, and that theological teachings are somehow unimportant, is an almost faddish attitude in our culture today. One almost could expect a Grand Inquisition set up to indict as heretics those who refuse to dogmatically hold that there are or should be no dogmas!
Suggesting that all religions are the same, and equally valid paths to God, is like saying that Hockey and Soccer are basically the same because both involve two teams trying to get a roundish object into a net in order to get points and win the game. Just as the particular settings and rules are what differentiate Hockey from Soccer, and them from Football and Baseball, and every other sport, so Theology is what distinguishes Christianity from Judaism and both of them from Islam, and they from Hinduism and Buddhism and Shintoism and on and on. Yes, there are common elements in their teachings, and some religions have more common to them than others. But to say that some commonalities mean that they all “basically teach the same thing” is to completely disregard the differences, and put on a pair of ice skates in order to go play Soccer!
The differences, when we seriously investigate them, are deeply different. They cannot be dismissed simply as matters of “perspective”. Whether there is only One God or millions is rather significant when the religions that hold the one perspective have made it one of the non-negotiable principles of their belief system. Whether Jesus Christ is that One God made flesh, or if He was only a good teacher or something else is also something that goes beyond matters of opinion. Each faith’s theological system is what defines that faith, and differentiates it from the others. They are not the same. They don’t claim to be the same. And they don’t even claim to all “end up in the same place”.
When it comes right down to it, the reason I have difficulty continuing a conversation with someone who says that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, is that they’re essentially saying that they just don’t care about the answer. For some reason, they don’t think that the most fundamental questions of life are important: Where did I come from? Why am I here? What happens when I die? Is this all there is, or is there something more? Why is there suffering? How can I be truly happy?
Deep down, we all ask these questions. The religions of the world seek to provide the answers. Most of them claim in some way that God (or a god) has revealed those answers, and even that the wrong answer will lead to prolonged (or even eternal) misery, whereas the right answer will lead to eternal bliss (in some form or other). Not all of these religions can have the right answer, as said above. Concluding either that none of them does, or that we can’t know if they do, because thinking through the answers is too difficult, is just lazy.
Ignoring the very questions themselves is crazy.
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