Monotheism and the meaning of Coexistence: A Philosophical Perspective

Union of Faiths

Dr. Hans Köchler's talk at the 3rd International Conference on The Origin of Life and the Universe


Never before in the history of mankind has there been a situation where a multitude of civilizations and religions has co-existed in a more complex and immediate form than in our era of globalization. Anywhere on the globe, the human being is faced with the simultaneity of different metaphysical conceptions and belief systems. This diversity exists under conditions that are increasingly determined by technology of which, at the beginning of the 21st century, the most salient feature are the digital information and communication techniques. In earlier eras, a community may have been able to retreat into its own domain and shield itself from outside influences. This option – not to interact, not to communicate – is not available anymore.

Through all of recorded history, religious differences have all too often been causes of conflict between communities of believers or the political entities (states) in which those communities were organized. The crusades of the Middle Ages are testimony to this. People have eagerly tried, and invested a lot of intellectual and emotional energy, to identify the differences that distinguish them from one another in order to assert their cultural and religious identity. Drawing the borderlines between “us” and “them” – as a means of self-assertion – has been part and parcel of identity politics until the present day (to the point that even within communities, sub-groups have zealously striven to distinguish themselves from one another). Inter- and intra-religious conflicts, often fuelled by socio-economic interests, have constituted an important part of the history of civilizations. Since Samuel Huntington, upon the end of the Cold War, introduced the thesis of an intrinsic hostility between different religious worldviews, the paradigm of the “clash of civilizations” has become a buzzword in discourses on world order, and in particular as regards relations between the Western world and the world of Islam.

The simultaneity of distinct civilizational and religious life-worlds and value systems under the conditions of our “global village” has given new importance to peaceful coexistence, to the ideals of peaceful coexistence. In the context of globalization, the plurality of religious faiths has become, as I indicated in the beginning, a fact that determines every-day life in our interconnected world; it has indeed become an inescapable social reality. To “manage” cultural and religious differences in a rational manner is now an imperative of peace, at the local, regional and global level. This is where philosophy of religion can play a useful role.

There should be no misunderstanding: Acknowledging a plurality of religions and analyzing or accepting their structural content does in no way imply a defense of relativism. Accepting religious pluralism is also not to be confused either with a reductionist approach that merely derives religious dogma and belief from historical or socio-cultural factors, subordinating it to the empirical realm, or with forms of religious syncretism.

To describe the compatibility of a plurality of faiths with the universality of truth, one might use the metaphor of the Copernican model in cosmology: All theistic belief systems actually reveal different aspects of one and the same reality of the true God, merely taking different paths to achieve the same goal, in a way that is similar to the planets’ revolving around the same star (the sun), which keeps them in their unique place, but along different trajectories.

It is certainly legitimate to describe the actual multitude of belief systems empirically and in their sociological, psychological and historical dimensions, but only a deeper phenomenological approach will help us to understand religious experience as a comprehension of the world sui generis, and to grasp its inherent metaphysical truth – in a manner that allows us to reach an understanding of ourselves in the context of the cosmos (the universe). Just to give one example: The classical Aristotelian notion of the Supreme Being as the proton kinoun akineton  (“the first unmoved mover”) has through the ages informed metaphysical thinking in different religious and civilizational contexts.

General ontological concepts – that transcend, that go beyond cultural differences – indeed allow the philosopher to undertake a structural comparison between distinct systems of faith and their metaphysical notions, and, subsequently, help the believer to better define, and defend, his own position. A logical point can also be made in this ontological context, namely in regard to the ultimate truth that is expressed in and conveyed through the three monotheistic religions:

If there exists only one god, then this God must be one and the same for all. There cannot be three different “gods” for Jews, Christians and Muslims – only three different perceptions of God or manifestations of truth in the context of the respective revelation. Awareness of this logically obvious, but nonetheless often neglected, truth can foster a deeper sense of community among believers and may contribute to religious and societal peace beyond all those historical and socio-cultural differences. In this context, let me recall a message from one of our religious leaders in Austria, the late Cardinal Franz König, Archbishop of Vienna, underlined that “particularly today a discussion between Islam and Christianity on monotheism has a beneficial function and should contribute towards the reduction of suspicion, towards the understanding of the peoples of the world and the peaceful coexistence of nations.” He made these remarks in a message addressed to the first international conference on “The Concept of Monotheism (Tawhid) in Islam and Christianity,” which I organized in Rome in the year 1981. I had then characterized the aim of this undertaking – namely an analysis of the central metaphysical notion of monotheism – as to “deepen one’s own self-comprehension, or self-understanding, through the encounter with and respect for other religious and cultural traditions.” This is what I have identified as “dialectics” of cultural identity, which is the basis of a genuine understanding and mutual appreciation among civilizations. It goes without saying that this reflection about the nature of monotheism also includes the teachings of Judaism.

As regards the role of philosophy in thinking about faith, I would like to make one more point. It is obvious, but must be stressed nonetheless, that “philosophy of religion” is not identical with “religious philosophy.” The philosophical approach per se is neutral vis-à-vis a particular faith; it embodies the universality of the mind – without prejudice to the individual religious commitment of the philosopher. A widely used term such as “Christian philosophy,” to give just one example that illustrates this semantical, or terminological issue, relates to the philosophical ideas developed by thinkers who, as individuals, belong to the Christian faith; it does not mean that the specific notions or theories expounded by them as such are exclusively “Christian.” And the same could be said about other philosophical discourses in other cultural and religious contexts. No one can claim the λόγος / lógos (reason or, in a modern context, rationality) as a privilege of his religion alone, excluding believers of other faiths from the “community of discourse” and denying them the status of equal partners in the quest for metaphysical truth. Any exclusivist approach is intrinsically alien to the philosophical mind – in whichever historical or sociological context.

Endowed with the capacity of self-reflection (which cannot merely be reduced to the physical realm, as for instance evolutionary epistemology tried to do), the human being has always striven for the ultimate truth and meaning of life. The search for the transcendent has united thinkers of all civilizations throughout the ages. This genuinely philosophical quest is based on experience and reason in a comprehensive sense (and not only in the meaning of European Enlightenment). Through its universal outlook, and transcending cultural differences, philosophy has created a common space of reflection on the existence of the absolute. This is the essence and basis of the mission of philosophy also in the present age – in spite of the vain efforts, in our modern era, to relegate religious experience to the psychological and sociological domains.

It is here where the question of the specific meaning of coexistence between different religions, and the civilizations associated with them, comes into play. We cannot avoid posing the one fundamental question: In what sense may one speak of “coexistence” if one bears in mind that each religion represents the ultimate truth in the form that is unique to its socio-cultural environment and the circumstances of its revelation? In view of this uniqueness in the self-perception of each tradition, one may conceptually distinguish between institutional co-existence, implying mutual respect, between different religions with their specific manifestations of truth and religious practices on the one hand, and the joint spiritual undertaking among those who analyze and compare the underlying metaphysical notions, on the other. The latter relates to the efforts of those who engage in the philosophy of religion, who analyze the distinct forms of revelation of the absolute, and its categorizations, and who undertake to relate the basic elements of each system of faith to other such systems. Hermeneutical analysis and structural comparison between concepts of faith is the field where a philosophical approach – in clear distinction from an apologetic one – is conceptually appropriate and theologically legitimate.

I would like to conclude by referring again to the anthropological constant that is at the roots of religious belief as well as philosophical thought: The quest for the absolute is an intrinsic characteristic of the human being; it is the essence of our common spiritual heritage. While, in the religious domain, this effort is pursued on the basis of revelation and faith, the philosophical method is solely dependent on (human) reason. These two distinct approaches are not contradictory, but complementary. Without imposing itself on the original domain of faith, philosophy – through an analysis of the common structure of religious experience – may assist the believer to overcome a merely apologetic approach, and to reach out to the truth revealed in other religions.

In this way, philosophical reflection of and understanding between religions may give metaphysical depth to our modern technological civilization, which, in its globalized version, risks forgetting its metaphysical roots. In the spirit of “unity in diversity,” coexistence between the monotheistic religions can indeed become the cornerstone of a lasting order of peace and justice in the 21st century.

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