Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Comparative Religion and Worldview

How do you respond to the assertion that all religions are basically the same, only differing in minor topics?

Someone I care about said that to me recently and I’ve been wondering about it.

I’ve been noticing lately how much alike Jews and Muslims can be. Christians may share large swaths of common ground with both.

But set Islam against Hinduism or Christianity against Buddhism and the differences seem quite large, as many practitioners and converts between any two of these traditions will tell you.

And of course each of these is a global religion, perceived and practiced in diverse ways, so even defining what it “is” or describing what it is “like” suggests oversimplification.

Though we all walk in mystery – and may indeed be like the proverbial six blind men and the elephant – monotheism and polytheism, humanism and spirituality seem like vastly different views of the cosmos.

Maybe the question hinges on what we consider the big things and what we consider the small things.

Perhaps we’ve got the circle inside-out if we think “the nature of reality” and “the meaning of life” are the minor topics, while things like "the Golden Rule," the role and practice of prayer and meditation, and the exercise of kindness and discipline are the big ones.

Our platitudes and ideals are often the same or similar. Our assumptions about God, man, reality, the way life works, often not.

What do you think?


bman said...

I would agree with your accessment. I think a lot of people just want to think that all religions are the same because it gives them the excuse to pick and choose what they believe in, and what they don't.

I was watching something on TV where a guy was talking about his conversion to Atheism from Christianity. He said that he liked all the morality and stuff like that but couldn't believe in miracles because they "just don't happen." So, he took all the good works, the morality, the teachings of Jesus, and applied them to his life without the saving grace of the ONE PERSON who can save him.

No one wants to believe in something they can't understand.

This was a great post!

Marti said...

Thanks, Brian. There's a word for skimming off the icing and putting it on your own cake - syncretism. A pretty common human tendency, right?

While ultimately I long to see everybody have the chance to know the truth and be set free, dialogue and 'borrowing' on the surface levels can have some value as well. Perhaps we could take yoga classes from a Buddhist without buying into the Buddhist worldview, just as I studied world literature under Marxists at university, and of course learned a great deal from my (then) very secular humanists parents and teachers while growing up.

Similarly, we like to see religious people serving their communities through values-based programs that help people make wise decisions and kids stay out of trouble, even when they don't share the core stuff that connects people with God.

There's value in it. Huge value? Maybe not. We get to a point where it's all 'meaningless, meaningless, under the sun.'

I hate to see secular friends never exploring the ultimate questions or life or daring to believe that there might be some answers for those who ask. What is it James says, "Draw near to God and he will draw near to you"? "If anyone lacks wisdom he should ask God who gives freely to all without finding fault"?

I spoke about this at the Islam class where I taught recently, sharing how as a young Christian I thought I could safely stay agnostic toward questions about heaven, hell, angels, demons, healing, God speaking to people, etc. But then I got involved in ministry to people with a much greater awareness of the spiritual world - starting in Haiti, where people regularly invite evil spirits into their bodies in hopes that by giving a little, they can fend off greater evil. Whoa... I realized, spiritual questions were not irrelevant. Even in the 'rational' West.

bman said...

You make a good point about the give/take aspect of religions because doing some of the smaller things, the "not so big" things, can actually lead to opening doors for future conversations.

The problem is when said person only takes the things that they want to do. At some point, in the quest for finding worth, you have to anchor to something.

And really, only one anchor is going to hold.

@ngie said...

Good food for thought here. I had never seen that culture chart before. Thinking about comparing religions reminds me of 'Eternity in their Hearts'.

Marti said...

I think the "Kwast" article has been in every edition of the "Perspectives on the World Christian Movement" book... though am not sure it has ever appeared anywhere else. I'd be happy to scan and email it to anyone interested. The current edition has a three-page version.