How can there be one divine truth amongst the cacophony of conflicting views across the world’s religious and spiritual traditions?
Some faiths teach self-realisation. Others promise enlightenment. Still others offer liberation or salvation. Some are theistic and some not. Even within each major religion there are numerous subdivisions which themselves vary in their teachings; Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Sunni and Shiite Islam, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Given all the apparently huge differences, we may ask how can different religious and non-religious spiritual beliefs all be right? If they cannot, then is one divine truth an illusion?
We sometimes deny what we don’t see
There is a legend about an Indian king. He was advised by 5 wise men who believed they knew everything. The king had them blindfolded and then an elephant was brought into the court. They had never seen this animal before. They were asked to tell the king what they thought it was. The first wise man touched the body and thought it was a wall, the second touched the leg and thought it a tree, the third touched the ear and said it was a fan, and the fourth touched the trunk and thought it was a snake, and the fifth thought the tail a piece of string. The wise men all came up with different aspects of the one truth. But they argued about what it was. They denied what they couldn’t understand.
Is this a bit like any of us being asked what the truth behind reality is? People sometimes deny what they don’t see. They like to be right, so they tend to argue about what they think.
As we each follow our inner journey we often don’t see our way at all clearly. Perhaps we all have our blind spots. And, like the men in the story, don’t the different religious traditions each perceive only part of the truth? And sometimes deny what they don’t see? No wonder they maintain their own religious identities.
“The reality is that every religion makes absolute truth claims about God. For example, Catholics and other Christians declare that God is a Trinitarian communion of Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Islam holds that God is simply one. Hinduism acknowledges the existence of hundreds of deities, while Buddhism seems to be without a belief in God, at least a personal God.” (Doug Culp, Catholic writer)
Denial of what one doesn’t see can be observed in the attitude of exclusivism sometimes found faith traditions. This is shown for example if a Christian were to ask:
“If I am right to believe that the only way to salvation is to have faith in Jesus as my Saviour, then how can those who don’t believe this, possibly be saved? “
There is reason to suggest that people attracted to the attitude of exclusivism tend to be those who are a bit concrete in their thinking, who like certainty with no ambiguity. I would say this kind of hard-headedness creates a clear in-group who attract fellow believers who like to feel they belong. In other words, the kind of community distinguishable from those outside of it, who are seen as plain wrong.
However, it is very difficult to learn something of the full scope of human religious belief and practice across the world and then to imagine that God just happened to speak the full and only truth to one’s own very particular tradition. That would strike many as suspicious and more than a bit self-serving.
Commonalities across religious traditions
Despite their differences religious believers often have things in common with those of other faith traditions.
- The acceptance of two realms of reality – firstly a realm of physical objects and secondly a realm of consciousness, not limited by space or time.
- Acknowledgment of a divine spark within us usually said to be inseparable from the source and foundation of all reality.
- The improvement of one’s spiritual nature as the greatest aim of one’s human existence.
And what is obvious is the integrity, honesty and humanity of many religious people with different beliefs and practices.
Swedenborg on the middle level of heaven
Swedenborg describes the state of existence after bodily death of those who don’t fully understand divine truth. Different groups each only have a partial appreciation of how things really are deep down. These less advanced spiritual groups inhabit what he terms the ‘spiritual heaven’, a level of the heavens that is lower than the highest ‘celestial’ heaven.
In matters of faith variety is so great that not one community, nor even one member of a community, is in complete agreement with any other in the things which constitute the truths of faith. (AC 3267)
This doesn’t sound much like consensus about one divine truth. Swedenborg attributes this to a lesser spiritual condition with less wisdom than that of those in a higher state. So, in the middle heavens, they need their religious teachings because their understanding of divine truth is relatively obscure. Lacking a direct perception of divine truth, they require teachings to guide and inform them as to what are good actions. Being less humbly receptive to the inflow of love and wisdom, they tend towards a haughty attitude. I suppose this results in their each sticking to their own faith tradition.
Swedenborg on the celestial state
Instead, in the highest heavenly level, Swedenborg maintains one has a direct intuitive feeling about divine truth. As a consequence those in this state of heart and mind would naturally know what to think and do that is good. This requires them to humbly attune to the good of love. Such people see and grasp divine truth on this basis. There is no need for talk or reasoning about religious beliefs.
On the contrary, the moment these celestial people hear what is inwardly true, they immediately grasp and acknowledge it as divine truth.
These are the ones about whom Christ said:
‘All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.’ [Matthew 5:37.]