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Forgiveness is a hallmark teaching within monotheistic religions. This Element introduces the topic in three ways. First, it considers the extent to which forgiveness is specific to or constituted by monotheistic beliefs, by a comparison with analogous teaching and practice in Buddhism. Second, the most extensive section explores the grammar of forgiveness shared across the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – elements of repentance, intercession, and eschatological deferral. This section identifies some of the divergent tendencies or emphases on this topic among those traditions. A third section addresses the role of forgiveness and monotheistic religions in human cultural evolution and the emergence of eusociality. The aim is for the reader to gain an introductory view of monotheism and forgiveness from a comparative religious example, from an internal examination of Abrahamic traditions, and from a developmental, secular perspective.
At the pinnacle of his career, the renowned sociologist Robert Bellah did not choose to write a magnum opus refining the influential work of a lifetime, focused particularly on contemporary American society. Nor did he choose to offer an unbuttoned reflection on the future of his discipline or the culture he had so closely studied. Instead, he devoted thirteen years to a project of breathtaking scope, religion in the evolutionary history of the human species, from the primordial soup to the Dalai Lama. He asked where religion had come from, not where it was going. He eventually felt compelled to truncate this story at the “axial age,” in the first millennium before the Common Era. This 700-page “fragment” of the original vision (before his recent death, he held out hope for a smaller companion book to round it off) is a work of judicious audacity. It is high tribute to Bellah's intellect and industry that it merits the first modifier no less than the second.
Conflict in the testimony of religious experiences appears to seriously
undercut its evidential value. Arguments that make positive appeal to the evidence
of religious experience usually deal with this objection by denying evidential value
to the particularistic elements in such experience as descriptive of an ultimate
religious reality and an ultimate human end. Using the work of Jerome Gellman, I
contend that the referential value of diverse and particular religious testimony can
be saved. I suggest that the strongest form of this argument requires two
assumptions: the possibility of multiple religious ends and intrinsic complexity in
the religious object. If the argument is valid, these assumptions may also serve as
In his Gifford Lectures, An Interpretation of Religion, John Hick presents his pluralistic hypothesis in its fullest form, a religious account of the variety and unity of the great faith traditions. He summarizes this hypothesis in the assertion that in religious traditions and experiences an ‘infinite Real, in itself beyond the scope of other than purely formal concepts, is differently conceived, experienced and responded to from within the different cultural ways of being human’. It is in relation to this infinite Real that salvation/liberation takes place within each religious tradition as the ‘ transformation of human existence from self-centredness to Reality-centredness’.
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