Beyond the Clash of Religions: The Emergence of a New Paradigm
Author: Udo Schaefer
Translator: Geraldine Schuckelt
Publisher: Zero Palm Press, Prague, 1995, 177 pages
Review by: Burl Barer
"The fact that we are now living in a global
society in which technology permits much greater mobility
than was previously possible; the fact that huge migrations have come
about due to wars, persecution and poverty in many parts of the world, means
that the borders established on the basis of religion have gradually become blurred."
One of the most puzzling theological questions of our age - how
to account for the great number and diversity of world religions
and at the same time to acknowledge their similarities - is also
one of the most challenging social issues confronting humanity.
Disputes and disagreements over religious beliefs have been and
continue to be one of the main sources of conflict, civil war,
terrorism and even genocide in the modern world. As the noted
theologian Hans Küng has said: "There will be no peace
among the peoples of the world without peace among the world religions."
In Beyond the Clash of Religions: The Emergence of a New Paradigm,
Udo Schaefer offers a new theological conceptualization that seeks
both to explain how the world's great religions can be so different
and yet the same, and also to suggest how a wider acceptance of
this understanding could cure religious intolerance and the social
ills that stem from it.
"The fact that religion appears in such colorful variety
- that there is not one single religion but a plurality - has
always been a source of irritation for people," writes Dr.
Schaefer, laying out the problem. "Religions are in many
ways similar, and yet they are so different; there is much which
unites them, but also much which divides them. This is indeed
irritating. All the world religions teach that there is only one
ultimate reality, which we call God. If that is so, there can
logically only be one truth: But if there is only one truth, why
are there so many religions?"
The answer, writes Dr. Schaefer, lies in understanding a new "unity
paradigm" in religious studies - a paradigm that is as different
from the old "absolutist" paradigm in theology as the
Ptolemaic view of the universe is from the Copernican - and one
which conveys "a new image of religious phenomena and of
Dr. Schaefer, a respected German jurist who has made writing about
comparative religion a second career, begins with an analysis
of the old paradigm, wherein each religion has traditionally laid
claim to "uniqueness, finality and exclusivity."
"That religion is always associated with a claim to truth
is self-evident," he writes. "Something that is untrue
is unworthy of faith. All of the world religions… make absolute
claims to truth. Each is convinced that it possesses a divine
message brought by its founder which to them is 'the way, the
truth and the life.' "
The problem with this attitude is that it too often leads to intolerance.
"This claim to exclusivity and superiority, in which one's
own religion is regarded as a priori better than others…easily
slips into fanaticism," Dr. Schaefer writes, adding that
"[h]atred is never so profound and irreconcilable; envy never
so wretched and wars so merciless and cruel as when their motives
spring from the deepest levels of consciousness, from religious
As if it were necessary to verify this notion, Dr. Schaefer recounts
a few of history's many examples of religious persecution and
intolerance: pogroms against the Jews, the Crusades, the displacement
of Jews and Muslims under the Spanish Inquisition, the European
religious wars resulting from the Reformation, the current wars
in the Punjab, Sudan, Algeria and Lebanon, and "last but
not least the bloody persecutions of the Bahá'ís
in Iran by a clerical, obscurantist regime." All of these
are "consequences of claims to exclusivity and finality,"
The curious thing, says Dr. Schaefer, is that all of the world's
religions also preach tolerance and peace. Although the absolutist
paradigm was the dominant one in religious history, there have
always been religious officials who have pleaded for such understanding
The plea for tolerance, however, has only come into widespread
acceptance in the last 100 years, Dr. Schaefer notes. Advances
in religious studies and modern communications, he writes, have
illuminated the similarities between the religions - while the
highly destructive nature of modern warfare has made tolerance
all the more necessary.
Writes Dr. Schaefer: "The fact that we are now living in
a global society in which technology permits much greater mobility
than was previously possible; the fact that huge migrations have
come about due to wars, persecution and poverty in many parts
of the world, means that the borders established on the basis
of religion have gradually become blurred. The earth has become
a communicational unity through radio and television, mass tourism
and mass publications. People have become vividly aware of the
plurality of faiths. Thus, the religions no longer exist separated
from one another in distant continents: they exist very close
together - and now find themselves confronted by an urgent necessity
for an interfaith dialogue."
And, indeed, the development of modern religious dialogue and
studies have opened the door to new understandings. "Religions
that in the past were condemned without anything being known about
them are now known," he writes.
Dr. Schaefer then makes a comprehensive but concise list of the
"essential similarities" of the world's major religions.
"The first fundamental point that all religions have in common
are the convictions that religious phenomena are based on the
reality of the Transcendental, the Holy, the Divine, the Eternal
One, the Great Being, and that beyond all the fluctuations there
exists eternal reason, an eternal order, a non-material ultimate
reality, the Reality of Realities, the Eternal Truth, which is
neither empirically verifiable nor logically demonstrable."
He notes that this "Reality" is commonly called God
in all but the Buddhist tradition, where the concept of God is
absent, but which nevertheless uses other terms such as Nirvana,
Shunyata, and Dharmakaya.
Other commonalities include: "the belief that this transcendental
reality reveals itself to mankind in the form of great, holy figures,
who speak to man and show him the path to the sanctification of
his life"; that this ultimate reality is "man's ultimate
and highest goal," the embodiment of absolute perfection,
truth and justice and of all that is good and beautiful";
that that which we call God is justice, love, compassion and mercy,
which are generously poured over humanity; that "man's path
to God is one of sacrifice, renunciation, resignation, moral discipline,
the via purgativa, prayer and meditation"; that the path
to God is also "the path to one's neighbor, service to others,
the via activa"; that in "all religions this love also
includes love for one's enemies"; that all religions share
"the belief that man's life is not confined to this earthly
existence; that he possesses an immortal soul"; "that
man must live on earth according to certain standards in order
to attain salvation in both this life and the life to come";
and that the common ethical basis of all religions is the so-called
"Golden Rule known to us from the Gospel: 'Therefore all
things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do you even
so to them' "; and that, finally, the "most fundamental
feature common to all religions is mysticism, the highest aim
of which is the unity of the soul with the eternal God."
The degree of similarity among the religions at the fundamental
level, writes Dr. Schaefer, "provides impressive evidence
for the unity of religions." This unity, however, he says,
is not subject to scientific proof, nor can it be classified as
rational, empirical knowledge.
Two things religious studies cannot do, he says, are create "by
means of eclecticism" a "uniform world religion as a
sort of substrate of all the various religions." And they
cannot "deliver incontrovertible proof of the unity of religions."
"It is like a glass of water which, depending on the observer's
point of view, is either half full or half empty: both views are
correct," he writes. "Similarly, one can regard the
differences and contradictions among religions as the most important
aspect; or, if one chooses, one can recognize that beyond the
diversity there is an essence which is the same in all."
Dr. Schaefer, however, suggests that "a conclusive, rationally
acceptable, comprehensive explanation" for the unity paradigm
can be found in the writings of the Bahá'í Faith,
which suggest, essentially, that God's Revelation is the "central,
dominant theme" of history - and in this way provides an
answer to the question of why there is not only one religion.
The book's final pages, then, are devoted to explaining some basics
of Bahá'í theology, with a view to helping even
the most skeptical reader at least acknowledge that a cogent explanation
for the outward diversity but inward unity of all religions can
be found in the Faith's doctrine of progressive revelation.
The essence of the doctrine, Dr. Schaefer writes, lies in the
idea that the "Creator of the universe did not create man
and thereafter abandon him to himself; He reveals himself to mankind,
speaking through His prophets and messengers." These messengers
have successively revealed God's will in relation to the capacity
of the peoples to whom they have appeared. "This capacity
differs according to the spiritual, cultural and social level
of the development of those people," writes Dr. Schaefer
- not in relation to the absolute truth that God represents. This,
he explains, accounts for the apparent differences of the various
religions - and yet upholds their essential unity.
"God's revelation in the course of history is a continual,
cyclically recurring phenomenon," Dr. Schaefer writes. "The
purpose of divine revelation is the education of humanity."
"Seen in this way," he continues, "religion is
not static but dynamic. In its origin it is the most revolutionary,
the most radical of all forces. All the Founders of the world's
major religions have inevitably broken with past traditions; with
obsolete outworn forms and institutions… in order to protect
the remaining substance of the religion of God and adapt to the
requirements of a new era."
As Dr. Schaefer himself concludes: "The unity paradigm constitutes
a positive basis for the study of religions. They are taken seriously,
revered and portrayed in a sympathetic light. They are regarded
in no other light except as different stages in the eternal history
and constant evolution of one religion, Divine and indivisible."