by Dr. Jan Garrett

For an independent study of the same issue, see "Religious Diversity: Some Implications for Monotheism," by Rita M. Gross.

The following talk was originally presented at the January 9, 2000, meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green KY. The text has been slightly modified as of November 8, 2000.

Religious diversity is and has long been a fact of social life. What should the liberal religious person's response to religious diversity be? The covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green already recognizes the importance of going beyond tolerance in relation to the diversity in its own ranks. What should its response be to the religious diversity that exists outside Unitarian-Universalism as such?

I discovered that I already owned a little book which addresses this question in an excellent way. I refer to Christian Responses to the World's Faiths, by Rev. Harry H. Hoehler, published in 1990 as vol. 45, nos. 2-4 of the Unitarian Universalist Christian journal. Hoehler considers various approaches to the fact of religious diversity, with an emphasis upon the response of the Christian churches. He regards Unitarian Universalism as a part of the Christian tradition, a move that can be justified at least in terms of the history of Unitarianism and Universalism. Hoehler sees himself as asking, "what should the Christian response be to the world's faiths?" But he answers this from the perspective of a very liberal Christian. I have found that it takes little effort to restate his question as one with which I can identify: "What should the liberal religious person's response to religious diversity be?"

The book distinguishes ways in which one religion can approach another. We'll be discussing four of them: exclusivism, preparationism, relativism, and syncretistic universalism. These correspond to chapters 2-5 of Hoehler's book.


The first two approaches will be familiar because they represent approaches that most Unitarian Universalists today have encountered and rejected, although the first, exclusivism, is the most familiar. Exclusivism is the view that my faith (e.g., Christianity) is the true faith; other faiths are false. Exclusivism generally regards other faiths as products of sin and evil forces to be overcome. After the rise of Islam, Christianity tended towards exclusivism, although Hoehler asserts that exclusivism was not the dominant Christian attitude in the early period.

By and large the Protestant missionary enterprise is characterized by unabashed exclusivism. The task of the missionary was to save the heathen from what the missionary characterized as devil worship. Hoehler quotes Carl Braaten's useful description of exclusivism (cited, p. 29):

The idea that there is salvation in the non-Christian religions is denied point-blank [by today's evangelicals]...They now teach as dogmatic truth and as a criterion of being faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ that all those who die or who have died without conscious faith in Jesus Christ are damned to eternal hell. If people have never heard the gospel and never had a chance to believe, they are lost anyway. The logic of this position is that those who die in infancy are lost. The mentally retarded are lost. All those who have never heard of Christ are lost. Nevertheless, evangelicals cling to this view as the heart of the gospel and as the incentive to missions.

Unitarian Universalists often take pride in being a non-exclusivist religious community. But, as Hoehler shows, the rejection of exclusivism immediately raises another question: which of several major non-exclusivist approaches to other religions should liberal religious people take?


From the earliest days of Christianity to the rise of Islam, the dominant Christian attitude toward other faiths was what Hoehler terms preparationism. He is probably influenced in his choice of this word by the title of a famous early Christian work by Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica. Preparationism is the view that only in my faith (usually Christianity) is God's revelation fully disclosed. Other faiths are not entirely worthless because they are "preparations for the Gospel . . . . imperfect glimpses of the truth God has revealed decisively and uniquely in" the defining persons or teachings of my faith (41).

The early leaders and theologians of Christianity consciously borrowed language from Greek philosophy and symbols and holidays from pre-Christian religions. They justified doing so on the grounds that these earlier views contained glimpses of the divine only fully revealed in Jesus Christ. When in modern times Unitarianism and Universalism independently broke with the exclusivism of orthodox Christianity they did not necessarily abandon preparationism. They briefly offered some of its more sophisticated advocates.

Consider this statement of the preparationist outlook in the work of James Freeman Clarke (1810-1888). Clarke was a well-known Unitarian preacher and America's first lecturer in comparative religions. He taught at Harvard Divinity School from 1867-77. Clarke distinguished at least four levels of religious development (tribal religions of primitive peoples; "ethnic" religions, which included Hinduism and Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Scandinavian pagan religions; universal ("catholic") religions in which he placed Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity; but Christianity itself rose about the other "catholic" religions to complete them. It alone was "the fullness of truth, . . . coming . . . to fulfill the previous religions, capable of replacing them by teaching all the truth they taught and supplying that which they have omitted."


Preparationism is a subtle view in many ways. It allows us to show a degree of respect to religions other than our own without abandoning the privileged position of our own. It also allows a historian to tell a meaningful story, linking religions in a historical sequence of increasing approximation to the present. The present is thus meaningful as the outcome of the work of ages.

But preparationism can easily shape-shift into a kind of exclusivism. If the other faiths are but preparations for the best faith, now that the best faith exists it seems reasonable to conclude that we should spread and teach it and substitute it for whatever remains of the earlier faiths since those earlier faiths do not measure up to the complete faith. Preparationism as well as exclusivism can provide ideological support for cultural imperialism, or, in more recent terms, a monoculture of the mind and spirit.

When persons try to relate to other faiths in a way that recognizes their inherent value and interest as well as the value of their own, they are sooner or later tempted to become religious relativists. For philosophical reasons, most scholars try to avoid outright relativism. But a great historian of religion Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) expressed in his later works a view very close to relativism. The basic idea of religious relativism is that different cultures not only perceive religious truth differently and in mutually exclusive ways, but that they are right to do so. No perspective exists from which we could properly pass judgement on the religious truths internal to a faith and find them wanting.

Troeltsch wrote of Christianity: "The Christian religion is in every moment a purely historical phenomenon." Thus "it is subject to all the limitations to which any individual historical phenomenon is exposed, just like the other great religions." For Troeltsch all religions were products of particular historical events "which gave them their unique substance and form"; therefore none could claim absolute legitimacy. Later he wrote,

Christianity could not be the religion of such ...mighty spiritual power and truth...if it were not, in some degree, a manifestation of the Divine life itself. The evidence we have for this remains the same . . . it is the evidence of a profound inner experience. This experience is undoubtedly the criterion of its validity, but . . . only of its validity for
us. . . . It is final and unconditional for us because we have nothing else . . .
According to Troeltsch, it is also possible that
other . . . groups . . . may experience their contact with the Divine Life in a quite different way, and may themselves also possess a religion which has grown up with them, and from which they cannot sever themselves so long as they remain what they are . . . .
Now, religious relativism has its own problems. Even if we accept the criticisms of exclusivism and preparationism that at first make relativism attractive, relativism provokes two objections. One is that it seems to assume that cultures are sealed off from one another; that there is no interaction or influence of the one upon another. But this is historically false, as the study of the origins of Christianity alone reveals (See Alan F. Segal, Rebecca's Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World [Harvard University Press, 1986]). Like philosophies religions often borrow from one another, developing common themes, blending common symbols. Moreover, like philosophies religions sometimes develop in conscious opposition to one another, stressing certain cultural elements to differentiate themselves from others (Early Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism seem to have done this no less than Stoicism and Epicureanism in philosophy [Again see Segal's Rebecca's Children, chapters V-VII]).

The second objection to relativism is that it is self-refuting. For if there are no universally valid truths and only truths within a particular culture, what is the status of the relativist's assertion that there are no universally valid truths? The relativist's claim that there are no non-relative truths seems to stand neutrally above the particular cultures and perspectives; yet if the relativist is right, you can never reach a neutral perspective above particular cultures. Thus to state relativism carefully is to provoke a strong and perhaps unanswerable philosophical objection.


Syncretistic universalism is "the attempt to create a common world faith by abstracting and putting together universal elements believed to underlie the outward forms of all religions" (74). Despite the tendency of early Christianity to borrow concepts freely from Greek philosophy and other elements of Mediterranean culture, Christianity has mostly avoided taking this path. The syncretistic route has also been resisted by Judaism and Islam. The reason, according to Hoehler, is that these faiths claim uniqueness for their specific revelations and the ultimate saving power of their gospels. On the other hand, syncretistic universalism has been welcomed by some adherents of eastern religions, especially in the Hindu and Buddhist context.

Within the broadly Christian context Unitarianism and Universalism have gone farther towards syncretistic universalism than other groups. Hoehler puts it this way:

Occasionally Christianity has spawned groups that have jettisoned their christological underpinnings for syncretistic universalism. Such groups have changed their theological focus from issues surrounding the interpretation of Christian doctrine to a search for the fundamental components required for constructing a common world faith. Probably the most prominent American religious body to journey such a path is the Unitarian Universalist Association. A merged association of churches composed of the former American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, it is the only major denomination in America to include in its founding purposes a commitment to religious syncretism. In its 1961 statement of principles and purposes, the denomination asserted that it was uniting in order to cherish those "universal truths taught by the prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition . . . ."
The evolution of American Unitarian thinking presents a fascinating story. Unitarian transcendentalism in the nineteenth century seems to have reversed the process that created Christian logos-philosophy out of Greek philosophy. The logos or Universal Reason is a notion found in Stoic philosophy and in the Jewish Platonism of Philo before it shows up in the Gospel of John and is identified with Christ. Early Christian theologians familiar with the Gospel of John claimed that pre-Christian logos philosophy prepared pagan culture for the revealing incarnation of the Logos (sometimes translated as "Word") in Jesus Christ. But nineteenth century transcendentalists like Ralph W. Emerson promoted an opposite process. According to Harvard Divinity School professor George H. Williams, the transcendentalists, by stressing universal Reason, encouraged Christians to de- emphasize or even give up the historically contingent and supposedly inessential features of their religion so as to find the abiding reality that happens to be identical in all religions.

A few decades later radical Unitarians and Universalists created an organization called the Free Religious Association. They were convinced that democracy and unfettered belief should characterize the climate of a truly free church; behind this conviction lay the assumption that religion was a universal phenomenon hidden by the variety of historical religions. If we could just scrape away the incrustations of historical religion, we could liberate the dimensions of pure faith uniting all religions in their depths. Many "free religionists" became convinced that Christianity had to be rejected or modified if the "universal agreements" existing beneath the "diversity of religious practices" were to be unmasked.

Francis Ellingwood Abbott's Fifty Affirmations, which became the manifesto of the FRA, contained the following statements:

2. The root of religion is universal human nature.

3. Historical religions are all one, in virtue of this common root.

5. Every religion has...two distinct elements--one universal or spiritual, and the other special and historical.

6. The universal element is the same in all religions . . .

7. The universal and special elements are equally necessary to the existence of historical religion.

8. The unity of all religions is to be sought in their universal element.

Hoehler observes that although the FRA lasted only a few decades its overall attitude continued to grow among Unitarian clergy, especially in the Western conference. Syncretistic universalism also appeared in the ranks of Universalism with theologian Clarence Skinner. (Skinner is the Universalist thinker after whom Skinner Books, associated with the UUA, is named.) Skinner advocated a religion of humanity which "lifts every individual and every aspect of culture into a unified whole," in which "races, creeds, science and beauty are integrated into harmony," in which "partial experience gives way to universal experience" (77). In one of his last essays, Skinner foresaw a radical religion
which would repudiate the exclusivism of historical religions and ... move forward from authoritarianism to freedom, from limited insight to an understanding of the unities and universals which lay at the heart of creative faith wherever found (78).
A more recent advocate of syncretistic universalism is the Rev. Donald S. Harrington, minister emeritus of New York's Community Church. Describing his church's worship life, Harrington writes:
In our Community Church syncretism, we are blending those insights which we find, in the light of modern, scientific knowledge, to be still true. We are taking from each [world religion] its offering of truth, and rejoicing in the universal elements which we find in all of them . . . .
Rev. Harrington delivered the major address at the 1961 merger celebration of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. More radical than Abbott of the FRA, who distinguished between universal and historical elements of religion but judged that any specific religion would always have both, Harrington now asserted that a universal religion could be established that would possess the common features buried in particular faiths. Harrington stated:
Many thousands have married across faith lines and are looking for a common ground of belief. They . . . are looking for an inclusive faith by which to love in dignity and freedom . . . We can be, we are that faith.

UU syncretistic universalism seems to be confirmed by the fact that a similar approach to religious diversity has evolved in the East. The greatest exponent of this position was the Indian philosopher Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Radhakrishnan was President of India, Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford University, and Chancellor of India's Delhi University. In his 1939 work Eastern Religions and Western Thought he tried to trace the influence of Upanishadic mysticism, through Hellenistic religions and philosophies, upon the insights of early and medieval Christianity. In this work he states:

We cannot afford to waver in our determination that the whole of humanity shall remain a united people where Muslim and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu shall stand together bound by common devotion. .. . to a great dream of a world society with a universal religion of which the historical faiths are but branches.
In a later essay he writes that dogmas and creeds
prove disruptive and create barriers [while] religious experience binds people together. When we descend into the depths of our being, we discover the same truth and aspire to the same goal. . . . It is the age- old wisdom of the prophet souls of the East and West that religion is one while religions are many, and the many religions are the varied dialects of the one language of the human spirit.
In Radhakrishnan's view the singular goal to which all religions aspire is alternately described as "the knowledge of God" or the ultimately ineffable experience of reality and truth "not susceptible to objectification or definition."


Syncretistic Universalism's biggest problem is that it rests on a factual assumption that is subject to doubt. Comparative study teaches us that religions are not one and the same in their core beliefs, at least if we take these beliefs in terms of what the various faiths conceive and state their beliefs to be:
1. Hindus believe in an eternal soul; Theravada Buddhists do not.

2. Orthodox Christians and Muslims believe in a personal God, Vedantin Hindus for the most part don't; the Theravadin Buddhist denies that any god exists at all.

3. Most Christians and Hindus believe in divine incarnations, Jews and Muslims do not.

4. Hindus and Buddhists believe in reincarnation, the Semitic religions do not.

Especially problematic is Harrington's claim that the universal goal of religion is the human soul's harmony and oneness with God. The Theravadin Buddhist would reject it; Marxists and nontheistic humanists would reject it; in fact, many orthodox Christians would be unable to swallow the notion that humans could seek and find metaphysical harmony and unity with God. They experience themselves as finite and created, identical neither in definition nor in experience with God.

Syncretistic universalists may respond that the same truths unite all faiths even if adherents of these faiths do not recognize that they do. But if we respect religious diversity, we have to pay attention to what other people say they believe and not pretend that we are better situated than they are to say what they believe.

Syncretistic universalists also tend to have a blind spot, according to Hoehler. "They never cease chiding the adherents of traditional religions . . . for their dogmatism, for identifying their unique faith claims with absolute truth. [Yet] they [often] have no qualms about equating their own claims with absolute truth." For example, Radhakrishnan claimed, first, that "each of the great religions...has more or less the same ideas," none being superior to another, and then he equated his own form of Hinduism with the highest reflection of the Absolute (Hoehler, 81).

Hoehler does not deny that philosophers can identify universal features of religious experience at some very abstract level. But he agrees with Joachim Wach, one of several scholars of religion who developed such a description, that "universal religious experience always ends in a hunger for what would transform it into something other than itself: a specific revelation." The point here is not the debatable term "revelation," but the adjective "specific": what does our faith tell us to do? Myths, symbols, teachings, rites, disciplines, community patterns must become concrete or they will have no relevance for living.

Some syncretistic universalists recognize that the world's religions do not as yet exhibit the unity described by syncretistic universalism; they may argue that this unity is developing even as we speak, although its fulfillment lies in the future. Now, this is a factual statement, subject to refutation by evidence, and the evidence is far from conclusive that it is true.

Radhakrishnan believed that mysticism is the core religious experience underlying the world's great faiths (and he is surely not unique in making this assertion). The basis for this view is that mystics in different traditions describe similar peak experiences. Yet there are types of religious experience in which mysticism plays little or no role. In the "Semitic" religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) stress is on a kind of religious experience often described as prophetic or revelational. This sort of religious experience recognizes an awesome and transcendent power who brings out of the believer worshipful responses and ethical obedience. There may be communication between such a power and humanity but it could not honestly be described as a mystical absorption into the Absolute.

Moreover, let us not forget the various forms of humanism. Humanists testify neither to mysticism nor to the awesome and transcendent Other of revealed religion.

Sometimes syncretistic universalism is defended by the citation of ethical agreements between the world's religions. But does this hold up? Rev. Donald Harrington thought that a common pattern is the love of one's enemies as well as one's friends. Yet Confucius said, "Repay kindness with kindness, but repay evil with justice." And the Koran commands the faithful to wage war on all who would seek to "expel the Messenger" from their midst. Syncretistic universalism ignores or discounts complexity and variety of the interreligious situation. Hoehler writes,

As long as people continue to respond to the Ultimate differently, as long as they experience and interpret their encounter with existence in a rich variety of ways, there will be corresponding differences in doctrines, rituals, and forms of religious life. There will be no complete converging or merging of faiths . . . [T]he truth is: religious pluralism is the dominant religious fact of our world. Very likely it will remain so. (84-85)
Even if religious diversity is the dominant religious fact of our world, perhaps we have a duty to overcome it for ethical reasons: Donald Harrington claims that it is the particularities, the differences between various faiths, that lead to interfaith animosity, indeed to some of the worst wars fought between human beings. But Hoehler challenges this assumption too. Christian myth and symbols were part of a faith commitment that motivated Francis of Assisi, Albert Schweitzer, and Martin Luther King Jr. They were also part of the context that created the Inquisition, persecution of witches, and apartheid. How can this happen if the same symbol patterns and beliefs are involved. Hoehler's conclusion: "It is not the particular myths and symbols that cause divisiveness...it is the different values and meanings which those myth and symbol patterns endorse which are the crux of the problem" (86).


I shall end with a brief statement of some of the lessons I would draw from Hoehler's study:

1. At a very abstract level, perhaps, there are common or overlapping characteristics found in the many religions of the world.

2. But this at best provides us with a broad framework in which we can study the various concrete forms that religion takes. Nobody lives out his or her religion on a purely abstract level.

3. Respect for religious diversity requires that we admit that our own religious faith is not the last word in religion. However, nothing prevents us from defending particular features of our faith on ethical grounds as superior to particular features of other faiths.

4. Not only can the universal, abstract features of religious experience be filled in, in various ways, with different mythologies, metaphors, symbol systems, ritual patterns, and the like; but the same or similar mythologies, metaphors, and symbol systems can be and are often given varied content in different historical circumstances.

5. The presence or absence of religion as such is not the key towards understanding modern social crises. The solution to social problems does not lie either in more religion or in less.

6. It lies partly in a concrete historical understanding of how issues of human belief, desires, character, justice and injustice, on an individual and a social-structural level are playing out. Religious issues enter into the mix; they may even provide the framework through which individuals and groups perceive the crisis; in that sense, surely, they must be addressed. But such salvation as we can achieve (whether through our own efforts or divine grace working through us) does not lie in stripping away the particularities of religious diversity and difference. It does not lie in isolating those abstract universal features that are presupposed by everything else. It lies in sensitivity to facts, physical and experiential; it lies in awareness of social structures, and actual and perceived justices and injustices; it lies in a thorough ethical consideration about what is at stake.

7. We cannot reduce religion to ethics, yet we have a religious duty to cultivate awareness of the ethical dimension of personal and social issues. Here we must reject relativism and stand upon our right and duty to criticize particular practical manifestations of religion; for example, we should not say that the Taliban's treatment of women is all right because it happens to be endorsed by the Taliban's peculiar version of Islam.

8. While not expecting or even desiring religious diversity to vanish, we have a religious as well as ethical duty to promote the conditions for peaceful coexistence among individuals and groups of different faith perspectives, including non-theists who may not accept that they have a faith perspective.

January 9, 2000;
minor revision April 2009

Note. The Unitarian Universalist Christian was published by the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship. The group still exists but, so far as I can tell, not the journal.

P.O. Box 6702
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Copies of Harry Hoehler's book may be available through the UUCF.