It’s a perennial dialogue: how do the various religions interrelate? Was Jesus merely a Jewish rabbi, a forerunner of Muhammad, a Hindu avatar, a Buddhist bodhisattva, a crypto-gnostic, or a Sufi in disguise? Or are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religious traditions all diverse paths to a similar goal? These questions tend to dominate interfaith dialogue.
Syncretism in the Church
The publication in 1997 of Bishop Michael Ingham’s Mansions of the Spirit: The Gospel in a Multi-Faith World brought such questions to the fore once again. Bishop Ingham was, at the time, the Anglican Bishop of the diocese in New Westminster (British Columbia), and his challenging missive could not be ignored. Ingham pondered four models as a way of answering the multi-faith issue: inclusivist, exclusivist, pluralist, and a form of subtle syncretism. He advocated subtle syncretism in which mystics of most religions were in agreement in a hidden way.
This extreme form of ideological liberalism—as also embodied in the life and work of John Hick and Bishops Ingham, John Spong, William Swing, and Richard Holloway (to name a few)—alerted conservatives to a more serious problem in the life of the church: the subversion of Christian truth claims. Mansions of the Spirit required a response that was neither uncritical nor excessively critical—a thoughtful and reasoned third way of sorts.
And so this short book was commissioned by a group of conservative Anglicans in the Anglican Church of Canada, who brought together a more classical catholic form of Anglicanism with Reformed, evangelical, and charismatic tendencies. (They were known as the Essentials Group; they convened the Essentials Conference in Montreal in 1995.) Regent College (Vancouver, BC) originally published this as In a Pluralist World, part of the Charting Our Course series in 1998.
The Lure of the Primordial Tradition
Mansions of the Spirit was, in many ways, a popular rendition of the Primordial Tradition. The Primordial Tradition takes the position that religions are separate and discrete ways to God, the Ultimate, the Infinite (various names used), and yet they cannot and should not be synthesized—each of these traditions offer legitimate ways, when followed in a disciplined and faithful path, to the higher esoteric and mystical heights of a greater unity. It is the mystics within each of the traditions that reveal this hidden unity in contrast to external diversity.
However, mystics do not all agree on the nature of union with the Ultimate. The Primordial Tradition tends to skew the facts and choose selective mystics that fit its predetermined thesis. In fact, the mystics of various traditions diverge greatly in their approaches to and understanding of God—if they even believe in a god—and their understanding of the ultimate purpose of humanity.
Pressing Questions for Today
The actual historic reason and context for Mansions of the Spirit and In a Pluralist World are—except for those who lived through such a moment of history—mostly forgotten. But the same questions remain. We need to ask substantive questions about our society’s pluralistic approach to a variety of issues, including our multi-faith world. It is not very liberal of a liberal not to critique liberalism. But many liberals seem unable to question their blindspots—such is the nature of ideology. They signal openness to the legitimate nature of alternate readings of timely and timeless issues, yet they are actually quite closed to such.
Many today continue to assume that history moves in an upward and positive direction—those bygone eras weren’t quite as enlightened as we are.
Hermann Hesse offers a nuanced and subtle critique of such people in his Nobel Prize winning novel, The Glass Bead Game. At its core The Glass Bead Game is about elite and highly educated contemplative intellectuals who weave together varied beads of thought—the best that had been thought, said, and done across time and cultures—into a grand and unified vision. It was assumed that this metanarrative of spiritual unity would bring an end to wars, poverty, and division. The many cultures, civilizations, tribes, and clans that had fought and destroyed one another again and again throughout history would now be united.
And that’s the hope of many intellectuals today.
But Hesse had witnessed the betrayal of the loftiest ideals during World War I and World War II. The Glass Bead Game makes it abundantly clear that the naïve idealism of a universal synthesis will often be betrayed and subverted by power politics, nationalism, and tribal interests—the unfortunate realities of our fallen world that the synthesis is meant to overcome.
Pluralism and syncretism can be as exclusivist as any of the positions they rail against as being exclusive.
This post is adapted from the preface to Christianity and Pluralism by Ron Dart and J.I. Packer (Lexham Press, 2019).