In Huston Smith’s famous book, The World’s Religions, he attributes the following words to Hindu religious leader Ramakrishna (1836–1886)
God has made different religions to suit different aspirations, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God Himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion.
This statement may seem to make sense because every religion has some idea of a divine reality who is sometimes called God. Yet each religion’s notion of the divine is different from the others. In some religions, God is a what and not a who. In others, there are plural gods and not just one. The plethora of definitions for the divine leads us to the question: Just which God is Ramakrishna talking about? Since all religions talk about God/gods differently, they do not point to the same God. In the following sections, we will explore some religions — namely Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and Christianity — and their understanding of the divine. In this process, I hope it will become clear that different religions think about the divine very differently.
DIFFERENT RELIGIONS THINK ABOUT THE DIVINE VERY DIFFERENTLY.
Broadly speaking, religions can be divided into two kinds according to their idea of the divine — inclusive religions and exclusive religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism can generally be categorised as inclusive religions. What makes them inclusive is the notion that the divine has many expressions, and thus the worship of one god does not exclude the worship of another.
In Hinduism, the countless number of gods — some of which are avatars (manifestations) of other gods — point to a supreme reality or divine essence, known as Brahman. Though Brahman is often translated as “God,” there is no consensus on whether Brahman is a who or a what.
In addition, Brahman and atman (soul or human essence) are considered to be one and the same. Because human essence and divine essence are the same to them, the highest aim for those who practise Hinduism is to be released from the cycle of death and rebirth. This is when atman re-joins Brahman like a drop of water returning to the ocean. Inclusivity in this sense not only blurs the boundaries between different deities, but also between the divine and the human.
Buddhism, which was birthed from Hinduism around sixth to fifth century BCE, shares some of Hinduism’s inclusivity. Like Hinduism, the temples of Buddhism house many figures of worship, such as bodhisattvas (enlightened one). However, whether these figures are considered divine in Buddhism is open to interpretation. According to the teachings of Buddha (the founding figure of Buddhism), the goal of Buddhism is to achieve individual enlightenment and escape from suffering, rather than to worship the divine. Therefore, what or who is divine is not the central concern of Buddhism. The existence of a divine reality is questioned even within Buddhism.
Taoism’s idea of the divine is somewhere between Hinduism (a belief with many manifestations of the divine) and Buddhism (a belief with no certain definition of the divine). Taoism points to an impersonal “ultimate reality” called Dao (the Way or the Path) which is the rule by which the universe functions. Though in Taoism there is a pantheon of many gods and demigods, none of them represents Dao, nor do they collectively make up Dao. These deities, if properly appeased, can help people in their desire to flourish in life, but the main concern for those who practise Taoism is to find Dao and live according to its ebb and flow.
As we can see, these three inclusive religions differ in their ideas of the divine, even as their inclusivity sometimes allows them to absorb gods from other religions into their own mix. It would be an error to equate the Hindu Brahman, Buddhist enlightenment, and Taoist Dao as the same divine reality.
Unlike inclusive religions, exclusive religions such as Islam and Christianity are clear in expressing that their respective concepts of God are different from other religions. Not only is the concept and identity of God distinct from other religions, the worship of God must also be exclusive — given to Him alone.
In Islam, the Shahadah (an Islamic statement of faith) declares that “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” Even though Allah is known by 99 names, these names merely describe attributes and do not change the fact that Allah is the only God in Islam. In fact, Islam is so intensely monotheistic that it often accuses Christianity of having not one God but three because of the Christian idea of the Trinity.
Indeed, Christianity’s doctrine of the Trinity — the unity of one God in three fully divine persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is a most perplexing but unique concept of the divine. It is not the same as Hinduism’s polytheistic notion of many gods blending into one. Rather, the Bible teaches that God is to be worshipped to the exclusion of other gods (Exod 20:3). Jesus Himself makes the claim, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). (Whenever Jesus says, “I am,” it is an echo of how God declares Himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14: “I AM.”)
Because Islam and Christianity are exclusive religions, they would not consider their ideas of God to point to the same God, though they share some historical roots in their development. And it would be even further from their understanding of divinity to assert that their God is the same as the divine reality described in Hinduism, Buddhism, or Taoism. Hence, from the above overview of just these five religions, we must conclude that not all religions lead to the same God!
After seeing that all religions diverge in their ideas of the divine, it is important to know that we can still talk respectfully to people of other faiths about their beliefs. In Acts 17:16–34, Paul is a model for engaging people of other religions in a winsome conversation whilst also presenting the gospel boldly. Recognising that other religions are different from ours can be more respectful than rushing to find false similarities. As we listen carefully to people of other religions, we can also be confident to present ours. In this way, we can bear witness for Christ in both our attitude and message!