4.) Do Different Religions Agree on the Relationship of the Ultimate Reality to the Universe

I

I would like to begin by explaining the task I have set out before myself, and why. When we review the religions of the world we encounter different concepts of the ultimate reality. To describe these various terms such as Semitic Monotheism, Hindu Panentheism, Confucian Agnosticism, Taoist Mysticism, Buddhist Transtheism, etc., have been used. You may be inclined to join issue with me on the appropriateness or otherwise of these distinctions but this is not the time to do so. For my purpose at the moment is merely to draw attention to the wide variety in the concepts of the ultimate. If this fact of diversity in the conception of the ultimate is challenged then my task shall be complicated and this is something we could pick up on again later. At the moment I would like to emphasize the fact of this diversity in the conceptions of the ultimate.[1] This is the first point. The second is that when we review the conception of the universe in the various religious traditions then we encounter a similar diversity of opinion. We encounter here Semitic Creationism, Hindu pulsating eternalism, Buddhist dependent coorigination, Confucian Realism, and Taoist Naturalism.[2] Again, if this fact of diversity about the nature of the universe were challenged then my task shall be complicated and this is something which could be picked up later. At the moment, again, I would like to emphasize the fact of the diversity in the conceptions of the universe.

I would also like to add that this diversity in the concepts of the ultimate and the universe seems to exist not only among the various traditions, that is, interreligiously but also within the various religious traditions themselves—in their different subtraditions or at different periods in history, that is, intrareligiously.[3] I shall, however, speak only of the major religious traditions as a whole.

To recapitulate then, when we survey the major religious traditions—by which, bowing to academic tradition—I mean Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism[4]—we find a wide variety about the conceptions of the ultimate on the one hand and conceptions of the universe on the other. Now I am in a position to identify the task I have set before myself today—could it be that although the various religious traditions have different conceptions of the ultimate reality and different conceptions of the universe, they might agree on the nature of the relationship between the two? Their views on the nature of the ultimate may differ as also about the nature of the universe—but despite this could it be the case that they agreed on the nature of the relationship between the two items they are not agreed about?

II

There are two ways in which we could set out to accomplish our task: (1) We could survey the relationship between the ultimate reality and the universe in each tradition and try to formulate a generalization on the basis of such a survey or (2) we could define the various possible relationships that could exist, to start with, between the two—the ultimate reality and the universe, and see which category provides us with a catch-all net or at least one which will cover the maximum number of cases.

For reasons not entirely clear to me I have opted for the second procedure.

III

The various possible relationships which could exist between the ultimate reality and the world could be either obscure or recognizable. If recognizable they could either involve a relation of complete independence between the two or varying degrees of dependence. If dependence were involved, it could either be unilateral or bilateral (perhaps mutual is a better word here). If the dependence were unilateral it could mean either that the ultimate reality depended on the universe or the universe on the ultimate reality.

Let us now see if we can narrow the focus further. If the ultimate reality depended on the world, it could hardly be regarded as ultimate. If the relationship between the two was too obscure, our enterprise will come to a quick end. If the universe and the ultimate reality were quite independent of each other, the ultimate reality would have to be regarded as an ultimate reality and this in turn would raise the question whether it could be regarded as ultimate.

Thus before we proceed further, two ends of the spectrum of possible relationships are defined. The relationship, at least initially, may not be taken as too obscure for investigation, and the ultimate reality and the universe so independent, that the universe may lay claim to its own ultimacy.

Hence we are thrown into the range wherein the relationship may be unilateral or one of mutual dependence. An example of mutual dependence would be sonship depending on fatherhood and fatherhood on sonship.

Let us now see how far a model of unilateral dependence can carry us. Such unilateral dependence can be of three kinds: (1) temporal; (2) ontological; or (3) logical. To illustrate with examples from daily life: When a painter paints a picture at a point in time the painter possesses temporal priority; the screen can exist without the movie but not the movie without the screen, thus the screen possesses ontological priority; the “idea” of the chicken may be seen as preceding the chicken, in the chicken-egg debate, to make it intelligible, thus providing an illustration of logical priority. Now to apply the categories: In the first case, the ultimate reality is seen as creating the universe. At first sight this would seem to fit the Semitic religions neatly but not the Eastern ones wherein the universe as well as the ultimate reality in some sense may be viewed as eternal. However, trouble could arise from within even the Semitic tradition. It is true that a belief in creation ex nihilo would be consistent with the temporal dependence of the universe on the ultimate. However, the extent to which the Genesis account can be so interpreted has been debated. Unlike the English word creation, the Hebrew word for “creation” is used uniquely in that sense so it can be argued that we do not quite know what it means.[5] Again, the question of the universe being created out of nothing leads one to ask the further question—what is meant by nothing? Does it mean just nothing or no-thing, in the sense of matter existing without form. Medieval Jewish, Islamic and Christian scholasticism is rife with a discussion of such issues.[6]

One is, therefore, naturally led to a discussion of ontological dependence. If it is granted that the universe or matter in some form always exists then its relationship to the ultimate reality needs to be discussed. Now many religious traditions, it seems, would concede that whatever form this matter or universe may be in, it is ontologically dependent on the ultimate reality. That is to say, the ultimate reality could exist without it, but it could not exist without the ultimate reality. This would seem to be true of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as of Hinduism in general (with the possible exception of Sāṅkhya in which universe could exist but not evolve without the ultimate reality of purusas).

But what about Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism? In the case of Confucianism, or more properly neo-Confucianism, the relationship between li (principle) and chi (form) may be described as that of mutual dependence—but it is clear that Principle possesses on ontological priority according to the statements of the neo-Confucians themselves.[7] Even if this is disregarded, logical priority must be conceded, for although we do not know whether the egg came first or the chicken, the “principle” on which the chicken is formed must be seen as prior to the chicken, not on a sequential but a structural view. Similarly, the priority of the Tao can be clearly established on the basis of the opening statement of the Tao-te-ching.[8]

The careful observer would have noticed that in moving to Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, sometimes the concept of ontological priority had to be replaced by that of logical priority when the ontological connection between the ultimate and the universe became too close. But when they seem to be fused, as in forms of Mahayana Buddhism, the situation becomes rather complex. For if “Sasāra and Nirvāṇa are the same” and “Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form” then how are we to establish the ultimacy of one over the other? Here, however, two points need to be borne clearly in mind: (1) The kind of description mentioned above belong to the world of samvṛtta satya or the relative plane as opposed to the paramārtha satya or the Absolute, identified with Śūnyatā. But the distinction between the Absolute and the Relative is itself a product of the relative realm of discourse, so that ultimately only the Absolute exists and must possess ontological primacy, the Relative being dependent on the Absolute. (2) Whatever be said of Nirvāṇa and Śūnyatā, and its relation to the world, the fact that salvation lies in the realization of Nirvāṇa or Śūnyatā is not challenged.

The case of Mahayana Buddhism, however, can pose a tough problem when looked at from another point of view. If the universe and the ultimate are seen as interpenetrating each other, in such a tight embrace that they can’t be separated, then the ontological priority of the ultimate is thrown in doubt on account of complete mutual dependence. In this case, even invoking logical priority may not prove very helpful because the idea of logical priority can be seen as assailing the logic of logic itself, something the Mādhyamika School is notorious for. It will be noted, however, that the Ultimate, be it Emptiness or whatever, still possesses axiological priority.[9]

IV

The foregoing discussion suggestions the following conclusions. (1) As relationship necessarily involves relata, it involves a fundamentally dualistic world-view. Thus those world-views which regard the ultimate as “none” (Mādhyamika Buddhism) or “one” (Advaita Vedānta) tend to fall off the table if the point is pressed too far.

(2) If both the Ultimate and the universe are eternal, their co-eternalism shifts the gear into that of ontological priority. If the universe itself is regarded as ultimate one ends up with some form of scientific materialism or Marxism.

(3) The more intimate the contact, or the greater the measure of mutual dependence between the Ultimate and the universe, the greater is the pressure to move from temporal, through ontological to logical and finally towards axiological priority.

(4) Temporal, ontological and logical priorities imply axiological priority automatically. The Creator has more “value” than creation, the independent over the dependent, etc.

(5) The final conclusion then is that all the diverse religions agree on the axiological priority of the Ultimate. But isn’t that why it is Ultimate one might say, to begin with? Or, one might ask, does the end provide the beginning and the conclusion becomes the introduction.


[1] See James Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951 [1925]), Vol. VI, p. 243 ff.; S.G.F. Brandon, ed., A Dictionary of Comparative Religion (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), p. 303 ff.; etc.

[2] See James Hastings, ed., op. cit., Vol. III, p. 125 ff.; S.G.F. Brandon, ed., op. cit., p. 215, etc.

[3] See R.C. Zaehner, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths (New York: Hawthorn Books Inc., 1959), passim.

[4] Huston Smith, The Religions of Man (New York: Harper & Co., 1958), passim.

[5] Person I owe this point to Professor Norbert Samuelson.

[6] See Harry A. Wolfson, Structure and Growth of Philosophical Systems from Plato to Spinoza, Vols. 1-4 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1947-1976), passim.

[7] Wm. Theodore de Bary, ed., Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 537, 539.

[8] Ibid., p. 53.

[9] Wm. Theodore de Bary, ed., Sources of Indian Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 158-159, 176-178.

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One Response to “4.) Do Different Religions Agree on the Relationship of the Ultimate Reality to the Universe”

  1. stumblingmystic Says:

    Dear Professor Sharma,

    A very interesting and thought-provoking post.

    It reminds me of Sri Aurobindo’s insistence that the Supreme Reality is multi-faceted and is impossible to characterize with any one mental formulation. One has to seek an integral spiritual *vision* which is something that inevitably transcends the intellect and senses.

    I quote him from his aphorisms in which he makes the point quite wonderfully:

    “When thou affirmest thy soul-experience & deniest the different soul-experience of another, know that God is making a fool of thee. Dost thou not hear His self-delighted laughter behind thy soul’s curtains?”

    And:

    “The whole truth about any object is a rounded & all-embracing globe which for ever circles around, but never touches the one & only subject & object of knowledge, God.”

    In short, the Ultimate can be experienced in many ways and from different “poises”, which is why there are so many different phenomenologies and mental formulations of such experiences.

    With very best regards,
    ned.

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