Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth
by Mortimer J. Adler
MacMillan, 162 pages, $18.95
For many moderns, “truth in religion” means little more than what is deemed important for the psychological and communal needs of individuals or religious communities. Religion is understood as a personal and private endeavor that is best left in the murky zone of “religious preference”—that opaque area of our mental lives where drives, desires, and dispositions combine to produce an essentially arbitrary selection of sacred symbols, rituals, and beliefs. Since we arc free lo attend “the church (or synagogue) of our choice,” that choice is likewise deemed free from rational scrutiny. Simply put, religion is a matter of taste. To think otherwise is illiberal, intolerant, dogmatic, and provincial”all mortal sins against modernity.
Mortimer Adler, incorrigible philosopher that he is, isn’t afraid to sin against modernity, so long as he doesn’t sin against logic. (This should be more than evident given that he has written a philosophical—not oracular—book on angels called The Angels and Us .) For this Aristotelian, the laws of logic—whether brought to bear on ethics, science, religion, or anything else”are inviolable and not subject to popular opinion. Some things are indisputably matters of taste, such as cuisine and fashion, and are relative to individuals and cultures. Yet other matters, such as certain political judgments, are not matters of taste, but are issues over which rational people do disagree in good conscience. In these matters, tolerance is advisable, and a pluralism of perspectives is laudable. But these two categories do not exhaust the moral and intellectual universe. Adler defends the existence of transcultural truths. Truth in Religion is essentially an argument that religion must be subjected to the demands of reason if it is to mean anything more than arbitrary opinion, if it is to make transcultural affirmations. To make his case, Adler argues several points.
First, he bucks the tide of myriad anthropologists, sociologists, mythologists, and scholars of religion by claiming that religions are more than cultural or psychological manifestations best explained without reference to metaphysics. Religions make truth claims: they proffer propositions about the nature of reality itself”God, the gods, nature, humanity, ethics, and salvation. These beliefs may have a richly textured history and may be well integrated into social and personal life, but their significance is not exhausted thereby. Religions involve the irreducibly credal “I believe . . . ” Adler recognizes that religions not known for developed doctrines—such as Confucianism and Shintoism—nevertheless implicitly express cognitive claims by virtue of their religious practices. They are “credal . . . in the affirmative or negative beliefs about matters of fact that their precepts, prescriptions, or rules of conduct presuppose.”
Second, an honest look at the world’s religions, Adler argues, will reveal logically incompatible truth claims concerning what religions describe (theology, cosmology, anthropology) as well as what they prescribe (ethics and the way of salvation). A nontheistic or cosmological religion such as Taoism cannot logically be harmonized with the resolutely theological religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Tao is not the Logos; neither is Brahma also known as Allah. The unity of truth does not allow mutually exclusive truth claims to dwell in cognitive communion.
Giving this orientation, Adler has little patience with the syncretism of Hans Kung’s Theology for the Third Millennium (1988) and Harvey Cox’s Many Mansions (1988) which, he believes, violates the unity of truth. He even takes Cox to task for faulty exegesis in interpreting Jesus’ statement about God’s “many mansions” (John 14) as a reference to various world religions. Adler notes that in context the “many mansions” refers to a heavenly abode for followers of Jesus, not a diversity of present religions. (Here the octogenarian philosopher displays more exegetical acumen than the theologian.) Kung errs by falsely equating truth with the moral conduct within religions, asserting that a religion is more or less true by virtue of the way of life it engenders. While Adler thinks that truth may be tested pragmatically, he criticizes Kung for making “the mistake [of thinking] that the pragmatic method of testing whether a given proposition is correctly judged to be true or false eliminates the definition of truth as the agreement of the mind with reality.”
Third, Adler rejects a recurrent but fallacious doctrine which exempts religious claims from logical evaluation while affirming their meaningfulness. Adler finds the roots of this in Averroes, the Arabic philosopher who argued that a proposition may be “true” for religion but “false” for philosophy or science. Following Aquinas, Adler argues that this “double-truth” theory offends the unity of truth itself. “There is only one all-embracing sphere of logical or factual truth, in which all the parts, however various and diverse they may be in other respects, must be coherent and compatible with one another.”
Adler is reasonably successful in defending and applying these main points. Although he moves quickly through the material and considers little of the recent scholarly literature in the philosophy of religion, his essential framework for analysis is a challenging alternative to various noncognitive interpretations of religion.
Nevertheless, conservative Christians and Jews will take issue with how Adler applies his notion of the unity of truth to certain biblical passages. He is quick to identify Adam and Eve, the serpent, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and the journey of the wise men to visit Jesus as “mythological” because these accounts do not comport with modern opinion. The Bible, he suggests, is best demythologized so that the unity of truth may be retained. Adler even invokes exegetical principles from Augustine to justify interpretations that would likely have scandalized the Bishop of Hippo.
This move is reminiscent of Peter Berger’s observations concerning the dangers of cognitive bartering with modernity. Traditionally held beliefs are relinquished in order that other core beliefs can be preserved. As Berger puts it in Facing Up to Modernity (1977): “We’ll give you the Virgin Birth, but we’ll keep the Resurrection. You can have the Jesus of history, but we’ll hold on to the Christ of the apostolic faith.” But beliefs once bartered away by Christians in the face of an accusing modernity have often reasserted their cognitive muscle. For instance, Middle Eastern archaeology has repeatedly confounded critics of the historicity of the Old Testament, and Wolfhart Pannenberg has successfully led a scholarly assault on the anti-supernaturalism of critics who deny the resurrection of Jesus in space-time history.
Adler seems too ready to side with “science”—the term itself is an amorphous generalization—against religion with respect to certain truth claims. We should remember his statement from Ten Philosophical Mistakes (1985) that “in the history of science even the most revered formulations have been subject to change and correction.” As Dean Inge said, “He who marries the spirit of the age is soon a widower.”
Furthermore, Adler fails to realize that his style of demythologizing injures the overall integrity of a religious system. If it can be plausibly argued that an author in Scripture intended to assert a literal truth that “science” now denies, demythologizing the passage does not save face theologically. Instead, it leads to the conclusion that the author was incorrect in a factual claim. An alternative approach, where appropriate, is to argue that the inherent literary features of a passage indicate that its author did not intend the passage to be taken literally. This seems more faithful to Augustine than Adler’s treatment.
Although Adler makes the case for bona fide truth claims within religions, he says that the purported truths are entirely beyond the reach of normal proof or positive verification, though the claims may be falsified by science or philosophy. Adherence to these claims, then, involves what Adler calls a leap of faith. Even if the existence of God can be shown to be rationally credible (as Adler argued in How to Think About God ), the “God of the philosophers” falls short of being an object of religious veneration. Reason takes one only so far on the path to faith.
Adler’s approach highlights the distinction between natural and revealed theology. If all religious truth claims could be established by reason alone, there would be no need for revelation, and apologetics would put dogmatics out of business. Pascal astutely noted in his Pensees that “if we submit everything to the test of reason, our faith will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural about it. If it shocks the principles of reason, our faith will be absurd and ridiculous.”
Despite Adler’s insistence on the propositional character of religious claims, his understanding of religious faith sometimes seems fideistic, as when he speaks of “the leap of faith” (Kierkegaard’s locution). One may, after all, take a step of faith—induced through reasoning—without leaping into the dark. At the crucial areas where religious truth claims overlap with historical, scientific, and philosophical concerns, religious claims can be rationally discussed by means amenable to those disciplines. There may be no scientific evidence for the Trinity, but a philosopher can argue for its logical coherence or incoherence given the canons of logic. Various claims of the historically oriented religions—such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are subject to corroboration or falsification through historical inquiry. Of course, one may be persuaded through historical evidence that, for example, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate, yet deny the event any redemptive significance. But positive evidence is relevant at key points to historically conditioned claims.
Finally, there is one dimension of evidence for religious truth that Adler ignores entirely, because he would deem it merely subjective—that is, religious experience. Interesting arguments (not just autobiographical instances) concerning religious experience have been marshaled for centuries and remain in scholarly currency. If individuals from differing backgrounds, temperaments, and situations report similar religious experiences within a given tradition, this can provide evidence for their veracity”so long as the experiences are veridical and the reports stemming from them are not logically contradictory or unintelligible.
Despite these criticisms, Adler’s insistence on the objectivity of knowledge, the indispensability of reason, and the cognitive content of religious claims is a bracing tonic in an age of sentimental syncretism and irrational religion. Adler clearly develops the logic of truth and applies it to the claims of world religions in programmatic fashion. Rather than reaching any conclusions about the truth or falsity of particular religions, he lays out the logical guidelines within which religious dialogue, discussion, and debate can profitably take place. For this antimodern prolegomenon, we should be grateful.
Douglas Groothuis is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the University of Oregon and author of Revealing the New Age Jesus.