It is sadly true that people from different religions have sometimes, naively or otherwise, falsified the truth claims in other religions in order to make a mockery of them. This type of crude propaganda is unloving, unreal, and divisive. In order to be able to assess the validity of each religion, one must be willing to investigate with humility, not only for the sake of learning, but also out of respect for those of other faiths.
The question presupposes, however, that in order for one to judge the truth claims of a religion one must experience that religion. But what is meant by ‘experiencing’ a religion? There are two main categories of experience that I think are being referred to; knowledge of the doctrines of that religion, and a supernatural experience of God.
Knowledge of doctrine
There is much in the knowledge or understanding of different religions that can be tested. Some primary questions might be: Do they cohere with history and human experience? Does the belief system explain human origins? How does it deal with the problem of evil? And so on. These questions are helpful in ascertaining the validity of a world-view.
The three seats
Additionally, such knowledge will provide you with a basic understanding of the three main seats of religion (which will be discussed in further detail below). All religions fall roughly (not exclusively) into three camps in regard to what it means to be either a Muslim, Hindu, Christian and so forth. Firstly, what you do, secondly, what you think, and thirdly what you feel. For example, to be a Muslim you need to believe that Allah is one and has no partners among other things (The Qur’an: Surah 112), and you need to do good, and live in such a way that Allah will grant you paradise in the afterlife.
You can’t argue with experience
There are groups from different religions who claim that they have had a supernatural experience of God, or a transcendental experience of reality. If these religions claim to be exclusive, how can this be correct? Either, all ‘experience’ is physiological; or all are experiencing some aspect of God, an interpretation that might be proposed by a Hindu or a member of the Baha’i faith. It is important to recognise that the term ‘religious experience’ can mean vastly different things. For some faiths, experiencing God in a personal way contradicts the fundamental teaching of that faith. For example, to say that a Buddhist experiences God in his/her meditations would be shocking since Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) taught that an understanding and compliance with the Four Noble Truths, would lead one to nirvana (the perfect peace of the state of mind that is free from craving, anger, and other afflicting states). Therefore, saying that a Buddhist experiences God contradicts the concept of nirvana, as nirvana has nothing to do with ‘God’ and everything to do with ones personal mind and being. There is no Other that provided to experience.
There is not enough time to examine the Islamic concept of ‘religious experience’ in detail here, however, we can briefly look at the concept of ‘Tauhid’, the oneness and otherness of A’llah. It has been proposed on numerous occasions that the God of the Bible, and the God of the Qur’an are the same. However, the differences between the two must not be underestimated. Indeed, most Muslims believe that the Bible has been changed by Christians and Jews to suit our divergent beliefs about God (People of the Book (Jews and Christians), why do you deny God’s revelations when you can see that they are true? People of the book, why do you mix truth with falsehood? Why do you hide the truth when you recognise it? The Qur’an: The Family of ‘Imran: 70-71. Also see: The Mystery of Jesus by Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, and is the Bible Gods Word? By Ahmed Deedat). In contrast then, the God of the Bible is fundamentally relational, existing in community within the Trinity, an idea that is repugnant in Islam (The Qur’an: Surah 112). This is because the concept of Tauhid reveals A’llah to be great, absolutely transcendent, unknowable, and beyond us. Therefore, the idea that God can be personally known is out of place and does not appear in orthodox Islam.
There is, however, a branch of Islam that does interact with the supernatural: the Sufis. Still, ‘experiencing a personal relationship’ with A’llah in our human bodies and minds does not strictly cohere with the doctrine of Tauhid. It is a perplexing but well-established fact that much of Sufi teaching directly contradicts some of the most fundamental doctrines of orthodox Islam (Geisler, L., Norman. Saleeb, Abdul., Answering Islam: The Crescent in the light of the Cross, 1993, Baker Books.) As one Muslim author observes: Beyond their speculations concerning God, the necessity of his existence, and his properties, Muslim theologians and philosophers have apparently felt no need to question the possibility and reality of a human experience of God . . . It is difficult to find an appropriate Arabic or Persian expression for ‘experience of God’ without running the risk of encroaching on the absolute transcendence of the God of Islam, of anthropomorphising him’ (Annemarie Schimmel and Adboldjavad Falaturi, We Believe in one God, New York: Seabury Press: 1979)
To have a personal understanding and experience of God is not only coherent within Christian orthodoxy, but a necessary component of being a Christian. Often Christians have a dramatic revelation, or experience of God at the time of conversion or soon after. The Bible makes many references to these events especially in Acts 2: 1 –12; these encounters are still happening today. The foundation of ‘being a Christian’ lies in a relationship with God, not exclusively in any of the three seats (mentioned above). Rather, when one meets God in a personal way the result is a dramatic change in what one thinks, feels and does.
In conclusion, to assess the reliability of truth one can do so intellectually to a certain degree. If a religion is claiming to have supernatural referent, then it is worth assessing what this really means. Is the idea coherent within the doctrine of that religion? If it is, then is it a central tenant of that religion? If a religion claims supernatural or transcendental experience, it does not necessarily validate the claims of that religion.
The evidence for the reliability of the Christian faith lies not only in its historic foundation, and understanding of human nature and needs, but in the profound reality that God himself meets with those who accept Jesus. Christianity is, therefore, an experiential religion, not only in doctrine but also in practise.
• Orr-Ewing, Amy., But is it Real?, Chapter 1, Inter Varsity Press, 2008.
• Geisler, Norman. And Saleeb, Addul., Answering Islam: The Crescent in the light of the Cross, Baker Books, 1997.
• The Qur’an., A New Translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem.
• In Defence of Miracles, Ed. Geivett, Douglas., Habermas, Gary., Inter Varsity Press, 1997.
• Annemarie Schimmel and Adboldjavad Falaturi, We Believe in one God, New York: Seabury Press: 1979