Dear Donagh, I saw a programme on religions and it seems there is no God in Buddhism but hundreds of them in Hinduism. The Christian Creed says, We believe in one God. What are we to say? is our belief in one God better than belief in none, and not as good as a belief in hundreds!!! Another thing. -Is the Christian God now so soft and gentle that he’s doing a disappearing act? - like the Cheshire cat?! Can you say a few words about this on your site? Daniel M.
Dear Daniel, thanks for your letter, which brings us to the heart of the matter. Your question would require a very long answer indeed. In this space I can only draw some very rough sketches.
The number of deities in Hinduism is said to be 33 crores. A crore is ten million. Obviously the word ‘deity’ or ‘god’ in that context doesn’t mean what Christians mean by it. Hinduism is better seen as a family of religions than as a single religion. It embraces a great variety of doctrines, cults, and ways of life; and the worship of local gods does not exclude belief in a single high God. Local gods are also seen as manifestations of a high God. It is said that no religious idea in India ever dies or is superseded; it is just combined with the next. Hindus are inclined to revere the divine in everything. This sounds alien to a Christian mind, but then many of the things we forget or never knew about our own religion sound almost as alien. For example, St Thomas Aquinas could write, “God is one in reality but multiple according to our minds; we know him in as many ways as created things represent him.” This is not to imagine that the Hinduism and Christianity could be ‘synchronised’ in some way - why would anyone be tempted to do such a thing? At present, the best we can do with other religions is to realise we don’t understand them, to have the grace to respect them, and perhaps to learn through them how little we have plumbed the depths of our own.
Buddhists were gravely offended a few years ago when the pope described their religion as “atheistic.” The Buddha was a Hindu of the 5th century B.C. When questioned about God he remained silent. He neither affirmed nor denied the existence of a God or crores of gods. He refused to be drawn into the jungle of speculation. His silence was his answer. Was that atheism? One might as well call St Thomas Aquinas an atheist, who said, “Neither Christian nor pagan knows the nature of God as he is in himself.” Or Meister Eckhart, who said, “God, who has no name - God has no name - is ineffable.” This is not to pretend to capture the two religions in one view, but it is to see at the very least that the other religion is worthy of respect and consideration. There are about 300 million Buddhists in the world today. They were given even greater offence when Cardinal Ratzinger described their religion as “a form of spiritual auto-eroticism.” It beggars belief that anyone, let alone a Christian so prominently placed, should utter these degrading words. Please don’t repeat that Buddhists are atheists. It doesn’t describe the ones I know, it doesn’t even describe the way they talk. Jesus praised the faith of people of other religions and none: Samaritans, Roman centurions, the Syro-Phoenician woman…. And he said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
Christians ‘inherit’ the one God of the Old Testament, but he is changed in the process - something we don’t always sufficiently acknowledge. For example, there’s a passage in the Old Testament that Christians especially love to quote. It’s about “God in the gentle breeze.” That passage is about the prophet Elijah’s encounter with God. “There was a great wind… but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle breeze.” (1 Kings 19:11-12). In another translation it’s even nicer: instead of the gentle breeze there is “sheer silence” (NRSV). Other translations say, “a still small voice,” or “the sound of a soft breath,” or “a quiet whispering voice.” All this would seem to make us think of the God of the Old Testament as a soft, gentle, unchallenging Presence - until we read on and hear what he said to Elijah in his ‘soft whispering voice’; he told him take up his sword and put his enemies to death! You could say that we Christians misread this text - and many others. We take it out of context and apply it wholesale. But we have always been doing this with the Old Testament.
The Old Testament is not the last word. God's word to us is primarily in the New Testament. We don’t look at the New Testament from the standpoint of the Old; we look at the Old Testament from the standpoint of the New. We take what suits us, reinterpret it, and pass a blind eye over the rest. Even when we read the most gruesome things in the Old Testament - some passages in the psalms, for example - we read them differently. Every Sunday in the Prayer of the Church thousands of gentle people placidly recite the words of Psalm 149, “Let the praise of God be on their lips and a two-edged sword in their hand!” These words are the classic headline for religious terrorism, but we don’t really hear them; we gloss over them for the sake of the rest of psalm 149, which is beautiful!
Christians know something about the gentleness of God that people of the Old Testament could not have known. One name for the Holy Spirit is ‘Paraclete’, translated sometimes as “the Comforter” (John 14:26). Does this soften our religion to the point of weakness? What kind of comfort can we expect from the Comforter? Look more closely at the word ‘comfort’. Modern usage has weakened its meaning to softness and gentle touches; in fact its real meaning is just about the opposite! The word comes from the Latin ‘confortare’, which means ‘to strengthen’; ‘fortis’ means ‘strong’. Comfort therefore means strength! The Holy Spirit will make us robust. This is not weakness, but neither is it the unrestrained violence of the Old Testament. St Paul gave a list of the ‘fruits of the Spirit’: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22). If you had no love in you, you could hardly claim to be a Christian; likewise gentleness (and all the others). This is our way. Christians have very often been unfaithful to it. But being faithful to it doesn’t require that we do the dirt on other religions.
This answer is already over-long for here, Daniel, but I hope you will continue to read and reflect on this question of God, the ultimate question. But above all, these things make sense only when we pray them.