In postwar Britain, the Butler Education Act (1944) required all schools to teach religious education and to start the day with an assembly that included worship. The Butler Education Act took it for granted that both the “R.E.” and the assembly would be “non-denominational,” which naturally meant Christian, which obviously meant the piety and hymns of the Church of England. The latter clause is a joke; there were Catholic and Jewish state schools. (I cannot write “public school” without thinking of Eton or my of own alma mater, Roedean, which was Anglican, of the Evangelical persuasion.) One advantage of an established church is that when everyone living in a parish belongs to it whether they want to or not, religion is not a matter of tortuous investigation or Kierkegaardian brooding.
The Anglican instinct that it is bad form to think subtly or decisively about matters of religion assisted the English in evolving the idea that all the world’s religions—those of the Muslims and the Sikhs in their glorious turbans, the Hindus along with the Buddhists, and even the Christians—are partial installments of a great scheme higher than them all, of which they are but vague adumbrations. A former Evangelical, John Hick, launched the confused idea of a “Copernican revolution” in religions, which would turn them aside from their self-centered belief in their own doctrines and convert them to a higher “Ultimate.” But when faced with decades of immigrants belonging to the largely non-Anglican peoples of the Indian subcontinent, the beneficiaries of the Butler Act quaked in their shoes. Their vision of the ultimate oneness of religions now seeming pedagogically impracticable, headteachers compromised (and remained in compliance with Butler) by requiring all teachers in primary and secondary schools to indoctrinate their charges in two “major world religions.” This is how things stood in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the late 1980s, a Kenyan theologian who had come to England from India, Gavin D’Costa, issued a dissent from this way of implementing the Butler requirements in English schools that had ceased to be culturally Anglican. D’Costa disavowed the “Hicksian” “all-religions-are-anonymously-one” theory of R.E. with a piece of solid, English reductionism. Many Catholic thinkers at the time were fascinated by Wittgenstein’s notion of language-games. Wittgenstein had interpreted systems of ideas as coming down to cultural practices with their own order and rules, like games. With language-games, Wittgenstein had proposed an anti-intellectual idea of ideas that was appealing to the British. It opened the way to saying that the rules included in the board game “Buddhism” are quite different from those of the card game “Christianity.” D’Costa argued that each religion is its own great game, with regulations, practices, and ways of making a goal that are as different as the rules of rugby and tennis. Or better, rugby and choral singing: The rules are not so much discrepant as incommensurable. It was not difficult to explain to English educationists that Hick’s claim that “all is one” amongst the diverse religions is not cricket. In England, D’Costa won the theoretical argument, though the practical discussion of what was to be done in schools was soon a dead letter, since few teachers felt a strong vocation to promote irreligious R.E. in schools.
An American Dominican, Joseph DiNoia, wrote a book that reiterated D’Costa’s case, arguing that all religions are different because, in day-to-day practice, they require different behaviors and make their adherents into different kinds of people. They inculcate different habits and virtues because their ends or goals are different, just as the goals of piano practice and football practice are different. But even with this more theoretical, Dominican backup, D’Costa’s case never took root in the States as it had in England. In the States, the argument had never been about how Religiously to Educate school children, and the Americans, as rationalist children of the Enlightenment, could not swallow the reduction of religions to practices or “games.” The good-hearted rationalists of America never lost hope that religions could find common values and truths.
I remember hearing Paul Griffiths, a convert to American rationalism, questioning Gavin D’Costa about whether there really are no analogies between the diverse religions. In the English context, denial of analogies was a valiant pushback against too high-minded R.E. monism. In America, no public intellectual will submit to denial of analogies between different things, because he or she needs analogies between diverse cases to make public arguments. Commensurability is always going to resonate better than incommensurability in a culture whose basic paradigm for reasoned argument is the court case.
If there are analogues between the religions, that means that the whole of any one religion need not get lost in translation. The varied religions can at times speak the same lingo, or at least communicate a bit. Something higher unites the faiths, something that has shaped the different civilizations of the four corners of the globe. It’s like a conversation between well-meaning strangers who don’t speak each other’s tongues with any fluency. There is no systematic common language, no Esperanto, but there are common words the natives of diverse continents can use to make bumbling conversation, with the help of hand signals and facial gestures.
Today that set of words, the common religion that unites the “world’s great faiths,” is the Christian religion. We find analogous values and common understanding in words taken from the vocabulary of the Christian religion. It’s not the revealed faith of the Church as guided by the Holy Spirit (Catholic or Orthodox) or faith in the revealed Word of God (Protestantism). It’s a non-dogmatic, messy representation of some of the truths incarnate in revealed Christian faith. While Rab Butler was legislating how to educate young Englishmen who would never go out to serve the empire, the “Christian religion” had already begun its missionary journey through the post-imperial world, sowing the seed of its partially true truisms. Gandhi was steeped in Christian religious ideas of justice, equality, and compassion. It’s not so much that the other faiths were influenced by Christian faith, as were the Buddhists of Sri Lanka, to whom the anthropologist of religion Gananath Obeyesekere ascribed a “Protestant Buddhism.” It’s that the common language, the analogous words they use to enter into pious “religious dialogue,” are borrowed from the lexicon of Christianity.
Religions today do indeed share a single, common “Ultimate” beyond them all. It is the set of ideas about the worship of God—and thus about God himself—implied by Christian religiosity, ideas such as freedom, equality, and compassion for all. Is this common foundation for all the faiths in the Christian religion what 1066 and All That would call a “Good Thing” or a “Bad Thing”? As a solidly Whiggish Tory, I would have to say it’s unavoidably a Good Thing. The near-universal spread of Christian religiosity is what makes interreligious dialogue possible, after all. And we all know that interreligious dialogue is a jolly Good Thing.
Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a fortnightly blog on religion.