Back to Politics and Theology


On Difference in Religion

Substance of a talk given to an informal discussion group meeting near Brecon on Saturday 2nd July, 2005

My thesis is broadly that each religion has its own internal logic and that these logics are incompatible. It may be that they are all relative to an absolute in which they can be reconciled. That is the argument of Frithjof Schuon's book, The Transcendental Unity of Religions. (1) But I will argue that if there is such a unity it is more transcendental than Schuon reckons. It is beyond human experience this side of the grave. We derive little or no benefit from any particular religion unless we experience it as an absolute or at least as holding the promise of being an absolute, so any attempt to reconcile the teachings of the different religions, to iron out their differences is destructive of religion. We are obliged to regard other religions as false because they are, necessarily false to the logic of our own religion and we have no standpoint higher than that of our own religion by which we might judge them to be true. Using Biblical imagery we may regard this as a consequence of the division of tongues after the fall of the tower of Babel.

Arriving at this conclusion has been difficult for me. I have always been very reluctant to assert the truth of one religious system as against another and I have tried hard to find a standpoint from which it would be possible to respect all the great religions equally. So I thought it might be possible to develop this argument in the form of a brief and perhaps rather sanitised intellectual autobiography.



From a very early age I developed a lively interest in myths and legends, meaning real myths and legends of real peoples and not just any old fantastic tale. And I early accepted the idea that these myths and legends were a means of conveying truths that could not be conveyed by other means ­ that intrinsic to the definition of the word 'myth', for example was the conviction that it had to be in one way or another true, it had to contain a hidden truth. And this quickly broadened out into a general interest in poetry and the arts, still informed by the conviction that they were a means of conveying truth and that if they were not a means of conveying truth they were not very interesting.

It was fairly clear that that truth would be 'religious' in character, otherwise it could perfectly well be expressed in prose, and so I set to reading as much as I could about religion ­ the Upanishads, Farid al-Din Attar's Conference of the Birds, Edward Conze's Buddhist Scriptures, R.C. Zaehner on Zoroastrianism, the Epic of Gilgamesh, material like that. Which I might say in parenthesis, was easily available on the shelves of the very informally run Linen Hall Library in Belfast. It has come under more efficient management since and I somehow doubt that the religion shelves, if they still exist, are as interesting and varied as they were then.

All this left me with the conviction that human experience has depth. For reasons I won't go into, Yeats was important in my life and a favourite quotation from him may be in order (though I wouldn't have known it then):

'We proclaim that we can forgive the sinner, but abhor the atheist, and that we count among atheists bad writers and Bishops of all denominations. "The Holy Spirit is an intellectual fountain" and did the Bishops believe, that Holy Spirit would show itself in decoration and architecture, in daily manners and written style ... No man can create, as did Shakespeare, Homer, Sophocles, who does not believe, with all his blood and nerve, that man's soul is immortal, for the evidence lies plain to all men that where that belief has declined, men have turned from creation to photography.' (2)



The phrase 'the Holy Spirit is an intellectual fountain' is adapted from William Blake (introduction to Jerusalem chap 4) and from an early age I could have subscribed wholeheartedly to the brief creed given by Blake under the title All Religions are One:

'Principle 1st. That the Poetic Genius is the true Man, and that the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius. Likewise that the forms of all things are derived from their Genius which by the Ancients was call'd an Angel & Spirit & Demon .....

'Principle 3d. No man can think, write, or speak from his heart, but he must intend truth. Thus all sects of Philosophy are from the Poetic Genius adapted to the weakness of every individual .....

'Principle 5th. The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation's different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is every where call'd the Spirit of Prophecy.

'Principle 6th. The Jewish & Christian Testaments are an original derivation from the Poetic Genius; this is necessary from the confined nature of bodily sensation.

'Principle 7th. As all men are alike (tho' infinitely various), so all Religions &, as all similars, have one source.

'The true Man is the source, he being the Poetic Genius.'

In school I knocked around with what might be loosely called a gang who were younger than myself. What we had in common was an interest in such things as beat poetry, Black Power, the blues. Others in this little group ended up in various of the Hindu-inflected movements ­ the Divine Light Mission (currently called Elan Vitale), the Krishna Consciousness Society, the Guru Sri Chinmoy Lighthouse. I personally discovered and was attracted by the Baha'i World Faith and I was also very taken with (and still have a soft spot for) the teachings of G.I.Gurdjieff. I organised a school debate on the motion 'This house believes that Christianity is not the only way to salvation' (the Christian Union turned out in force and we lost). And in University I was secretary of the 'Philo Society', which held meetings in which representatives of different religions were invited to explain their beliefs.



In all this of course, though acquiring a lot of knowledge, I had no coherent religious base of my own. I was formally an Anglican and I liked the sober formality of the Church of Ireland as I experienced it but with all these other exotic infuences working on me its doctrine naturally seemed narrow and superficial. I was puzzled as to why people who claimed to be religious seemed uninterested in the wealth and variety of religious phenomena throughout the world. My own inclination was towards the poets expressing more personal religious ideas and to the idea that spiritual truth was to be found in dreams, visions and the subconscious. Which naturally led to an interest in Jung and, as I would see it now, a confusion between the spiritual and the psychological. 'Depth' was to be found in the subconscious, the need was to integrate the conscious and the subconscious worlds, which led to the 'long, enormous, rational disordering of the senses' of the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud ­ drugs'n'sex'n'rock'n'roll, though in my case it was more like drugs'n'free form jazz.

We are of course talking about the late sixties and these were ideas that were very much in the air. They led to a great improvement in my social life but, eventually, they produced a reaction, a suspicion of everything that could be called psychological or spiritual (since I wasn't able to draw the distinction), an insistence on immediate perceived concrete realities and a taste for historical and political analysis. I did not lose my interest in religion but it became sociological, historical, 'objective', contingent on politics. Hence my thesis on Controversies in Ulster Presbyterianism which led me to explore a Calvinist theology I did not find personally attractive. But I did recognise something of a fellow-feeling between these Calvinist disputes and certain disputes within Marxism in which I was getting involved. And I came to appreciate the atmosphere of intellectual rigour, refusal of easy spiritual experience and even of a subtle and mischevous sense of humour.

If I were St Augustine I would say that God was working on me and in the 1980s, I was feeling a great desire to pray but without any idea how to go about it. I was still convinced that religion had to be homogeneous. It was impossible for me to choose a religion as being better than others yet I felt the need for a religious discipline. I was persuaded that the much longed for depth requires an encounter with God, with something other than the self. To quote Kierkegaard (a wonderful quote I am at present unable to place precisely): 'Prayer is to ordinary human conversation what ordinary human conversation is to the chattering of a parakeet' (my attempt to do a Google search on 'Kierkegaard', 'prayer' and 'parakeet' produced some extraordinary results but not the one I wanted).



This led me back to the Baha'i World Faith, which had interested me while I was still in school. The Baha'is argued that all the great religions were true for their particular place and time, they were part of a continuous process of divine revelation. The Baha'i Faith, which had emerged in Iran in the nineteeth century in the context of Shi'i Islam, was the revelation for our own time when, with the development of global communications, a unity throughout the world had become possible.

This teaching provided both a clear and distinct religious doctrine and discipline of its own as well as a standpoint from which the truth of all the great religions could be respected.

At the same time my religious seeking was informed by my interest in the French painter Albert Gleizes. Gleizes argued that the truth of religion was manifest not so much in its doctrines as in its acts and in particular in the works of art that it produced, especially the visual arts. The visual arts manifest the spiritual shape or form of the society that produces them. He saw history as developing in cycles. Religious ­ or he would say 'rhythmic' ­ cycles alternated with materialist or static cycles and these were visible in the arts. The Baha'is also had a cyclical conception of history ­ each religion going through a process of growth followed by decay followed by a new revelation, a new growth, a new decay. The two ideas therefore seemed to me to be complementary with myself wonderfully well placed to bring about their reconciliation.

Gleizes was a Roman Catholic who believed that the Christian idea had expressed itself most clearly in the western Church prior to the twelfth century. Then the materialist idea had arisen, through the Gothic and the Renaissance, manifest in an increasingly realistic, photographic art. Cubism he saw as a sign of a return to the rhythmic religious idea. Such cycles were characteristic of all the great religions, and compared to this manifestation in the act the doctrinal difference between the religions was a matter of relative indifference.

Gleizes was associated with a group of people with different religious affiliations but who had what appeared to be similar ideas, notably Ananda Coomaraswamy, Marco Pallis and René Guenon. Coomaraswamy was a Hindu, Pallis a Buddhist. Guénon was formally a Muslim though most of his writings turned on Hindu doctrine. To these we could add Henri Corbin, who wrote extensively on the Shi'i Muslim tradition, and the Orthodox Christian, Philip Sherrard. They all had in common the doctrine that all religions were 'exoteric' manifestations of a single 'esoteric' teaching - the 'perennial wisdom', 'tradition', 'metaphysics'. The closer we come to the source of religion the more the differences disappear or become irrelevant, as the rays of the Sun come closer together the closer they come to the Sun itself.


As part of this intellectual quest I naturally discovered Orthodox Christianity and at that point something happened which is rather outside the argument I have been developing. I fell in love with it. I felt quite clear in my mind that nothing could possibly be better than this. I fell into the position which I had always from the outset refused - I found myself attached to one possibility to the exclusion of the others. I experienced what the Church is ­ a place of encounter with something incomparably greater than oneself, something that compels us to recognise that we are at the bottom of the ladder, something so great that it is beyond all human judgment or evaluation. To quote Psalm 130, which I regard as the touchstone of religious experience:

'O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother's breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and for evermore.'



My discovery of Orthodox Christianity, then, represented the failure of one of the great efforts of my life, the effort to find a standpoint from which all religious experience could be seen as part of a single world-embracing phenomenon. This ambition had led me to explore five possibilities:

1) The psychological approach, after the manner of Jung. Religious imagery is related to the furnishings of the subconscious as manifested in dreams and in experiments with drugs. The subconscious is the collective property of all humanity, consequently the entry into the subconscious is the assumption of an experience that transcends the differences between the religions and to go towards a unity that underlies them.

This is a way, however, that the great religions have for the most part rejected. Consequently to assume it is not to assume the teachings of the great religions but to reject them, in favour of their fringe phenomena ­ gnosticism, alchemy etc. It is effectively to create a new religion. This new religion, with its own doctrines and methodology, may or may not be true, may or may not be better than the existing religions, but it is not a standpoint from which they can, in their own integrity and self-understanding, be respected.

2) Objective sociological or historical study. This approach is intrinsically irreligious. It examines the external manifestations of the religion, how they have functioned historically, and how their doctrines may have contributed to that external functioning. The religious mind revolts against it but the external political, social, historical functioning is a fact and one can see that similar circumstances can produce similar external religious phenomena. We all go into sociological mode when we are thinking about a religion other than our own and I for one would argue that we should develop the ability to see our own religion in this light as well. But it remains at a superficial and non-essential level because religion is by definition internal and to do with something other than its functioning in the immediately perceived world.

3) Pick'n'mix. We go where we like, when we like, like a bee sucking honey from all the available flowers in the field. This option can be easily ­ too easily ­ dismissed. It is impossible to engage fully in any coherent religious practice without accepting its theoretical foundation so this engagement will always necessarily be superficial and religion implies, at the very least, depth. Nonetheless, I know people who have been doing this for a long while and I find them very sympathetic. Indeed I am inclined to be sorry for anyone who has never done it. And I cannot help thinking it is better to be superfically engaged with many things than deeply engaged in something which is itself superficial.

4) Progressive Revelation. This is the Baha'i doctrine. It sees all religions as true but relative to their place and time. They are part of an ongoing process of revelation. Promising as this is, it does not actually succeed in reconciling all the existing religions. Insofar as the existing religions differ from the teachings of the Baha'i Faith, it is assumed that the message of the Founder of the religion has been misunderstood. The other religions are obliged to fit into the Baha'i framework and eventually all that remains really respected is the name of the founder ­ all the peculiarities of the religion are regarded as errors (while I was with the Baha'is I developed an argument that religious truth could change, that since religion was to do with the Absolute and we are in the relative, religions could contradict each other and still be true. I thought this was the Baha'i idea, or at least compatible with the Baha'i idea, but it was impressed on me that I was wrong). The Baha'i Faith thus becomes a religion like the others. It respects the truth of the other religions only in its own terms, much as Christianity respects the truth of Judaism, or Islam respects the truth of Christianity and Judaism.



5) Finally there is the idea that all the religions are different exoteric manifestations of a single esoteric truth. Here is a doctrine that seems to allow for an intense and intelligent engagement in one particular religion while maintaining respect for the others. However, the same thing happens as in progressive revelation. In that case all the religions are judged according to their conformity with the new religion. In this case all the religions are judged by their conformity with what is often presented as the old, original religion. Thus for example Schon's Transcendental Unity of Religions begins by arguing that the Intellect ­ the highest human faculty, the faculty by which we can enter into union with the divine ­ is itself divine, or, what amounts to the same thing, that it is uncreated. (3) This is a very fundamental challenge to Orthodox doctrine which draws a clear distinction between what is uncreated and what is created. Christ as the Union of Man and God is the union of the created and the uncreated. But if the highest human faculty is itself divine, then this distinction falls and with it the whole drama of God's assumption of humanity and struggle with death.

Schuon likewise insists that reincarnation is a metaphysical impossibility, which does a similar violence to the integrity of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. (4)

The esoteric/exoteric distinction implies the existence of a caste above the level of the exoteric communions, a caste who possess and transmit the real esoteric doctrine. Orthodoxy too recognises the existence of different levels of spiritual excellence. The highest level is not the hierarchs of the administrative order, priests and bishops, but the saints. And the saints write books. The Philokalia is a collection of writings of the saints, it is the treasury of the highest level of Orthodox life and thought (and has been made available in English through the efforts of, among others, Philip Sherrard, who is an admirer of Schuon, and G.E.H.Palmer who had been, I was pleased to discover, a disciple of Gurdjieff).

Although the peculiarities of Orthodox doctrine do not feature largely in The Philokalia, there is no suggestion that it is formulating an esoteric doctrine held in common with other religions or with other denominations of Christianity. The writer who features most prominently, Maximus the Confessor, had his tongue pulled out because of his insistence on denouncing the monothelite heresy according to which the human and divine natures in Christ possessed a common (divine) Will ­ a doctrine that seems to me not too far removed from Schuon's uncreated Intellect. I don't see that the man who suffered for this distinction would have seen no difference between Christianity and Buddhism. Far from believing that the closer we come to the Sun the different rays come together it seems to me that the higher or deeper we go in any one religion, the greater the differences with the other religions. It is from afar that they all look much the same.

Where, we might ask, are these higher esoteric philosophers? In Roman Catholicism mention is made of the Knights Templar, guilty as they are of what in Orthodox eyes is the monstrous sin of confusing the vocation of the soldier with that of a monk. In Constantinople in the fifteenth century there was a flourishing school of Platonic philosophy. When Constantinople fell to the Muslims, many of the Platonists converted to the newly dominant religion on the grounds that the differences between Orthodoxy and Islam were merely exoteric. Had this idea been more widespread Orthodoxy would have disappeared altogether, as it would when the differences between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism were, supposedly, reconciled at the Councils of Lyons and Florence.

I am brought back to the simple truth I outlined at the beginning of this talk. Each religion, and each denomination within the great religions, has its own logic and those logics are incompatible. A religion is a discipline. To enter into that discipline is to accept it as infinitely greater than ourselves. We accept to be judged by it, we cannot stand above it. Its heights are above the clouds and we cannot see them.

Schuon argues that, while recognising the truth of different religions, we should nonetheless practise one of them integrally. He uses the image of the Sun. There are, he points out, many thousands of suns in the Universe, but so far as we are concerned there is only one that we can call The Sun. (5) I would add to this that we still do not know if any of the other suns in the Universe nourish life.



I am still not myself prepared to declare that the other religions or denominations within the religions are false in the absolute, an absolute that I cannot myself attain; but I do have to declare that theycannot be reconciled with the logic of the religion in which I am myself engaged. If they are true it is according to a logic which I cannot understand, which I can never understand, which I should not try to understand. I do not find this position difficult given that the one thing we know for certain is that our knowledge in space and time will always fall short of the Reality in Eternity. I am in agreement with Philip Sherrard when he says:

'God in His non-manifest nature transcends all forms, whether intelligible, imaginable or sensible. In this sense He is beyond all determination and limitation. But if He is to reveal Himself to human beings in their fallen state He has to determine himself, and hence to limit Himself, in a specific intelligible, imaginable or sensible form; for unless He does so we cannot possess the concrete and determined inner vision of God which alone makes it possible for us to worship Him. And since God is infinite, there is nothing to prevent Him from choosing to reveal Himself in an infinite number of limited forms, all of which He Himself, in His non-manifest nature, infinitely transcends, and all of which, both singly and collectively, fail to exhaust the plenitude of His knowledge and wisdom: however many the forms in which He reveals Himself, aspects of His full reality will always remain undisclosed.' (6)

But I cannot agree with him when he says:

'It is the task of Christians and above all of Christian theologians to recognize and affirm this presence and this mystery not only within the boundaries of the historical Church but also in those other testimonies to this presence and this mystery that are to be found in other religions. It matters little whether the religion in question has a historical character or not. It is superfluous to ask whether it regards itself as compatible with the Christian Gospel. The Logos in His kenosis, His self-emptying, is hidden everywhere, and the types of His reality, whether in the forms of persons or treachings, will not be the same outside the Christian world as they are within it. Yet these types are equally authentic: any deep reading of another religion is a reading of the Logos, of Christ. It is the Logos Who is received in the spiritual illumination of a Brahmin, a Buddhist, or a Moslem. Indeed, if the tree is known by its fruits, only spiritual blindness can prevent us from recognizing that those who live and yearn for the Divine in all nations already receive the peace the Lord gives to all whom He loves.' (7)

'These types are equally authentic ...' to which the obvious answer is, how does he know? unless he is himself standing in a position of judgement that is higher than the logic of Orthodoxy. For an Orthodox Christian to say that Calvinism, say, is true or 'Buddhism' (a term which of course covers a multitude of different tendencies as does 'Christianity') is not only insulting to Orthodoxy, it is insulting to Calvinism or Buddhism. Not only is he setting himself up as a judge over something he maybe knows a little bit (Orthodoxy), he is also setting himself up as a judge over something he can hardly be expected to know at all - unless by 'knowledge' is meant the accumulation of a large amount of information. He claims he can discern the fruits of the spirit. But he belongs to a religious tradition which reminds him constantly that the devil himself can appear in the form of an angel of light ...



Am I arguing then that there is no salvation outside the Church?

The answer is simply that I do not know. I believe that there is salvation within the Orthodox Church. I have no grounds for thinking there is salvation anywhere else.

I mentioned earlier that I once engaged in a major study of the Presbyterian tradition in Ulster. In the course of this I was introduced to a man whom I continue to hold in high esteem - Rev John Paul of Loughmorne. Paul was a member of the most extreme of the Presbyterian sects - the Reformed Presbyterians, or 'Covenanters'. As his contribution to the debates of the 1820s he wrote a masterly Refutation of Arianism and he was absolutely intolerant with regard to heresy within the Church. But he was also absolutely opposed to any attempts on the part of the state - even an imagined Calvinist state - to impose religious conformity; and in particular he opposed all legislation which discriminated against Irish Catholics. He was a rigorous conservative in religion and an extreme (for the time) liberal in his politics. (8)

Asked if there could be salvation outside the church he replied that he could find no clear answer to the question in the Bible and therefore had no means of knowing. However, he went on to suggest that where the Bible gives no clear guidance it is safest to assume the worst. Christians are called to convert the world to Christianity. They are urged to this work by the desire to save souls. That impetus would be lost if we really thought that the souls did not need to be saved, that they were all right as they are. (9)



There is, however, I believe, at least one passage in which the Gospel talks about the possibility of a spiritual life outside the church and that is the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25 et seq). I have not studied Christian exegesis as much as I ought to have done so I do not know if my understanding of this parable is very original (I hope not) but the core of the story, it seems to me, is the fact that the Samaritan is a Samaritan. A heretic. The Samaritans were the descendants of the people who moved into Samaria after the tribes of Israel had been deported to Syria (2 Kings 17, 24 et seq). They practised what an orthodox Jew would regard as a debased form of Judaism.

Jesus is asked: Who is my neighbour? The answer he gives, and compels the questioner, a Jewish lawyer, to accept, is 'A false Jew.' If we were writing the story for a modern Catholic audience we might call it the parable of the Good Protestant, or for a Protestant audience, the Good Catholic, or for either of them, The Good Jew.

Jesus is not suggesting that the differences between the Jews and the Samaritans are a matter of indifference. In His conversation with the Samaritan woman by the well, He makes it clear that the differences are real and the Jews are in the right ­ 'Salvation is of the Jews' (John 4.22). We might draw a comparison with the parable of the two sons (Matt 21.28 et seq). One says he will do what the father wants but doesn't . The other says he won't, but does. Which of the two did what the father willed? C.S.Lewis picked up the idea in the last of the Narnia stories (will Walt Disney ever get round to filming it?) ­ The Last Battle. The warrior who fights chivalrously for the false God is shown to have been really fighting for the true God.

It is impossible not to see the virtues, the heroism, the greatness, vastly beyond anything of which I am capable, manifested by people who belong to religions other than my own. It is impossible not to be moved by many of the stories of their saints, by their achievements in the arts, by their willingness to suffer for their beliefs. I feel entirely free to enjoy them and to profit from them. But, though I can recognize a theoretical possibility that these religions are true I have no standpoint by which I can declare them to be true without undermining the foundations of my own faith. The standards by which I judge the usefulness of material taken from other religions must, necessarily and exclusively, be derived from what I am capable of understanding of the standards of the Orthodox Church. In debate with representatives of other religions I must, necessarily, insist that, according to the logic of my own belief, their beliefs are false.



(1) Frithjof Schuon: The Transcendental Unity of Religions, Wheaton, Ill; Madras: London (Theosophical Publishing House) 1993

(2) J.P.Frayne and C.Johnson (ed): Uncollected Prose b y W.B.Yeats, London and Basingstoke (Macmillan) 1975, pp.438-9

(3) Transcendental Unity, pp.xxix-xxx

(4) Ibid, p.88 (fn)

(5) Ibid, pp.29-30

(6) Philip Sherrard: Christianity - Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition, Edinburgh (T&T Clark), 1998, p.70

(7) Ibid, pp.61-2

(8) There is an account in my essay The grand principle of magistratical restraint in matters of religion - A dispute in the Reformed Presbyterian Synod in Ireland, 1830­40, accessible at

(9) Paul: 'Review of the Rev Dr Montgomery's Speech' in Bates, D, (Ed): Works of the late Rev John Paul, D.D., Belfast 1855, pp.473-8