The Depths of the Riches: Part 2, What if We All Get Where We are Going?

In his book The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends S. Mark Heim is trying to do two things. On the one hand he wants to find a way to affirm the soteriological visions found in other world religions. But on the other hand he wants to embrace the theological distinctives of the world religions and to question the notion that we are all pointed in the same direction.

More, Heim is writing from a Christian perspective and he does, in the end, want to affirm the "superiority" (that's a bad word for this, but crudely makes the point) of the Christian vision of salvation, but in a way that fully embraces (rather than co-opts) the soteriological visions of other world religions.

So the question becomes, how do you keep all these balls in the air? How do you make all these affirmations simultaneously?

Heim builds his argument around what he calls a "religious end." Heim defines a religious end this way (p. 21):

A religious end or aim is defined by a set of practices, images, stories, and concepts which has three characteristics. First, the set provides material for a thorough pattern of life. The ultimacy often spoken in the definitions of religion is here given a quite concrete meaning. The religious end and the path that leads to it do not address only a limited dimension of life or one particular human need among others. They are ultimate in providing a framework that encompasses all the features of life, practice and sublime, current and future.
Importantly, Heim continues, elements of the religious end "are understood to be constitutive of a final human fulfillment and/or to be sole means of achieving that fulfillment.

Summarizing (or, perhaps, oversimplifying), a religious end is a worldview that has a telos (a goal) aimed at some vision of human fulfillment or flourishing. In religious language, a religious end is a lifepath that leads to salvation. Concretely, Buddhism is going somewhere. Christianity is going somewhere. Islam is going somewhere.

So where are they going?

Exclusivism suggests that all but one of these paths is going to hell. This places one path (usually yours) over against the other paths. By contrast, pluralism suggests that, despite the diversity of these paths, they are all going to the same place.

We'll already talked about the problems with these two views. Trying to find a way through Heim suggests another way.

Specifically, he asks: What if everyone gets to where they are going? What if each religious end leads the believer/practitioner to its vision of human bliss and fulfillment?

What Heim is challenging in his book is the notion that religions must wind up in the same place. So what if we imagine a diversity of religious ends? Different paths with different destinations. Let's examine this using the examples of Buddhism and Christianity.

Consider the religious end known as Buddhism. We begin with the Four Truths of the Buddha:
1. Life is suffering/unease (dukkha).
2. Suffering is caused by craving and attachment.
3. There is an end to suffering (nirvana)
4. The path to nirvana (the cessation of suffering) is the Eightfold Path.
So a Buddhist follows the eighfold path to cease craving and attachment. When this is accomplished suffering ends and nirvana is attained.

Now let's step back and ask: Is the Buddhist religious end the same as the Christian's religious end?

Not really. No doubt there are areas of overlap. Non-attachment is a part of the Christian witness. For example, here is Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also...

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
But despite these areas of overlap, the Christian view of salvation isn't the extinguishment of craving/desire. Rather, following St. Augustine here, the Christian view is that our desires are fundamentally disordered, pointed at all the wrong stuff (e.g., sex, power, money). Christian salvation is taking all these fallen and broken forms of love (because desire is, at root, a form of love) and focusing them upon God, the object of our true desire. As Augustine writes at the start of his Confessions, "Our hearts are restless, until they rest in You."

So we have two really irreconcilable views. For Buddhists salvation is the cessation of desire. For Christians it is the right ordering of desire (in the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount we take the cravings for the stuff of this world and root them in the Kingdom of Heaven).

In short, Buddhism and Christianity are two distinct religious ends. Buddhism isn't going to produce Christian salvation. And Christianity isn't going to produce the Buddhist nirvana. As Heim notes, "There is no way to the Buddhist end but the Buddhist way." And the same goes for the other world religions or life philosophies.

What I like about Heim's proposal is that it shifts us away from issues of truthood and falsity. Which is how we typically approach these debates. Is your religion true or false, right or wrong? In contrast, the focus on religious ends asks us to examine the kind of humanity your path is trying to produce. What is your vision for a fulfilled and flourishing humanity? That's a much more interesting and productive conversation. Heim on this point:
[W]e shift from dealing solely with flat issues of truth and falsehood to facing alternatives. We ask not "Which religion alone is true?" but "What end is most ultimate, even if many are real?" and "Which life will I hope to realize?"
So, since many of you are Christians, where does this leave the Christian claim that "true" salvation is only found in Jesus?

The point for Heim is that recognizing the the diversity of religious ends doesn't mean one cannot claim an ultimate religious end. For Christians, Heim suggests, our religious end is aimed at participation in the Triune love of God. We can, if we chose to, claim that this end is the "best," that it represents the ultimate vision of human fulfillment. Not that other religious ends are terrible, just that some wonderful and beautiful piece would be missing. A piece only found in Jesus.

Of course, the Buddhist might disagree. But at least we are talking about what Jesus means for human fulfillment rather than debating the truthhood or falsehood of Buddhism versus Christianity. Which is, in my opinion, a much more interesting conversation. Practically speaking, what is so special about following Jesus? Could I share experiences with a Buddhist and perhaps convince him that something was missing from Buddhism that can only be found in Jesus? Sure I could. (And it could go the other way around.)

The point is that, if we allow for multiple religious ends, that God will allow you to get where you are going, we can still make the following claims:
1. That the Christian vision of salvation is "best."
2. That the only way to reach the Christian salvation is through Jesus.
3. Evangelism (proclaiming the "good news") is vital to the Christian life.
And yet we do this, if we follow Heim, in a radically new way. A way that honors each religious end in its distinctiveness and allows for respectful and robust conversation about the visions of human fulfillment being offered.

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