How Do We Know Our Religion is the Right One?
Well, as it happens, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that ALL major world religions reveal some truth about God. That’s according to a document that came out during the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) called NOSTRA AETATE: DECLARATION ON THE RELATION OF THE CHURCH TO NON-CHRISTIAN RELIGIONS. Check it out – click here.
So that’s the first thing we have to realize – that all of these major world religions have truth in them. The reason for distinguishing MAJOR religions is that they’ve stood the test of time. Unlike a cult, like David Koresh’s or Sun Young Moon’s or Scientology, the fact that generations have followed it and it has been tested by reality gives us some reason to believe that its not a destructive bunch of wackos.
So that gives us the major world religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam (all three of which worship the same God), Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Shinto, Buddhism, Taoism, Native Religions, and we can even consider some tribal religions of Africa – they all tell us SOMETHING about God.
How is it possible, however, that a polytheistic religion, like Hinduism, has truth in it? Well, if you asked a Hindu about their many gods, they would likely say that those many gods are symbols of the one god, of which we are ALL a part. Interesting. Of course it may be going a little too far in saying that everything is God – I can think of a few pretty evil things that I’m pretty sure aren’t God – in fact in Christianity we call this pantheism – everything is God – but there is an element of truth in it, according to Christianity, in that God created everything, and we could understand the Spirit of God as dwelling in everything, pointing us to God, in a way. That’s not too far from what we believe.
And there’s a reason that all these religions have so much in common with each other. A guy named Joseph Campbell talks a lot about this. Religions, the stories (or myths as we call them) upon which these religions are based, and the rituals they use, all use similar symbols, called Archetypes, which are the same symbols we encounter in dreams, universally. Somehow they all speak a similar language, a language that speaks to everyone, everywhere. If you wanna read more about Joseph Campbell, click here.
And if we really believe in God, the kind of God we Christians say we believe in, then we believe in the God of the burning bush, who revealed himself to Moses as YHWH, which means “I AM” – in other words, “Moses, you don’t need to know my name, its beyond your comprehension. All you need to know is that I AM.” Our starting point in encountering God is that God is BEYOND HUMAN COMPREHENSION.
This means that no matter what symbol or description we use to describe God, like “rock,” “Lord,” “shepherd,” even “Father,” they may be accurate, but they also have their limitations. Even the word “GOD” has a particular meaning that doesn’t completely grasp what God is.
So, if this is the case, then different perspectives of God can all give a deeper understanding of what God is and what God does. Maybe one of the best analogies I can think of is the story of the five blind men and the elephant. Five blind men were trying to describe an elephant. The first felt the elephant’s ear, and said, “an elephant is a flat canvas wingy thing.” The second felt the elephant’s leg, and said, “no, an elephant is round tree trunk thing.” The third felt the elephant’s tail, and said, “no, an elephant is a rope like thing.” The fourth felt the trunk, and said, “no, an elephant is like a snake.” The fifth felt the elephant’s torso, and said, “no, an elephant is a big wall.” They were all wrong, but all partly right – the best way to get a picture of the elephant would be for all of them to share their ideas of the elephant with each other, rather than insisting that only they were right and everyone else is wrong. I suspect that all of us religions are like blind men trying to see and describe the elephant, which is God.
So, back to the question, how do I know that Christianity, or Catholicism, is the right religion? For me, I think it gives the best picture of the elephant – why? One, in Catholicism we are clear about the ultimate unknowability of God. In fact, the only reason we know God, we believe, is that God makes himself known – God isn’t something that we’ve figured out, God has shown himself to us. That’s the second reason, for me – it’s the revelatory nature of Christianity. The third, for me is that Christianity is the only religion that tells us not only that God loves us, it tells us God loves us SO MUCH that God gives his very self for us, that God IS love. That speaks to me in a way I don’t completely understand – I know that there’s a truth to that, that I haven’t seen in other religions, from my own studies and explorations . And fourth, Christianity is to a large extent confirmed by my own lived experience. And there are reasons to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus that I will cover at another time.
I realize that this last reason is not transferable to somebody else. This is why, I think, it’s important for every Christian, as part of each person’s journey, to have their own experience of God, and not just rely on what our parents taught us, what our teachers taught us, what our priest taught us.
As a Christian, I believe that Christianity shows us the clearest and most complete picture of “the elephant” that is God – the more I’ve studied other religions, the more parts of the elephant I realized that we also cover in our own picture, confirming the Christian notion of God - but the truth is, a lot of people within Christianity focus on one part of the elephant while ignoring the other parts – in that sense, studying other religions can also act as a corrective for us. That’s why I encourage everyone to explore all the world’s religions, and find out for themselves what is true and what isn’t, about God, about ourselves.