Let there be peace in our individual identities

Q: Are all religions the same? The Dalai Lama, who just celebrated his 75th birthday, often refers to the ‘oneness’ … Continued

Q: Are all religions the same? The Dalai Lama, who just celebrated his 75th birthday, often refers to the ‘oneness’ of all religions, the idea that all religions preach the same message of love, tolerance and compassion. Historians Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith agree that major faiths are more alike than not. But in his new book “God is not One,” religion scholar and On Faith panelist Steve Prothero says views by the Dalai Lama, Armstrong and Smith that all religions “are different paths to the same God” is untrue, disrespectful and dangerous. Who’s right? Why?

Whenever I see smart people take opposite sides of an issue – as Steve Prothero and Armstrong/Smith/the Dalai Lama do on this question – I tend to do four things.

First, I look for truth on both sides. Each side sees something worth seeing. So all religions do have commonalities – all, to one degree or another, promote compassion, forgiveness, self-restraint, and so on. But there are obvious and important differences – what the Qur’an does for Muslims, Jesus does for Christians, for example. To underestimate either side of the equation – the commonalities or the differentness – would be untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous in different ways.

Second, when questions create polarized camps with wise and good people on both sides, I tend to look for limitations or flaws in the way the question is framed. For example, the question itself may assume agreement on unspoken questions that need to be addressed. In this case, one such unspoken question would be, “What mountain are we talking about? Which mountain are we trying to climb?”

And here, the differences within religions can be bigger than the differences between religions. For example, for many – maybe most – Christians, the big mountain is “Going to heaven when you die.” Some Muslims would agree that this is the mountain that counts most, but few if any Jews would. For other Christians – I’d include myself here – the mountain is “God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.” Here, some Muslims and some Jews would agree.

Third, when I come across questions that divide good people from each other, I often look for the rhetorical purposes of the question and its possible answers: what good do they intend to accomplish – beyond the intermediate goal of engendering agreement or disagreement? In this case, I might proffer this hypothesis:

Those who emphasize the similarity of all religions are interested in peace. They’re worried that when differences are emphasized, feelings of religious superiority or supremacy will rise, resulting in inter-religious conflict, violence, war, and death. Things well worth being against!
Those who emphasize the distinctiveness of all religions are interested in identity. They’re worried that when differences are minimized, religion in general or their religion in particular will become trivialized, marginalized, and colonized by secularism, consumerism, relativism, nationalism, militarism, and so on, and as a result, the unique treasures and contributions of each religion will be lost. Things well worth being against!

The problem comes when people on either side assume the worst about their counterparts. When distinctivists accuse similarists of being against religious identity, or when similarists accuse distinctivists of being against peace, each contributes negatively to the causes of dialogue, the common good, and wisdom.

Finally, in situations like these, I try to hold the good things that each side values, and encourage each side to do the same. Those who want to distinguish religions can still seek peace, neighborliness, and collaboration for the common good. Those who emphasize commonality can still affirm the distinctive identities of particular religions. We can distinguish in order to unite, and unite in order to distinguish, because in the end, our quest for goodness, beauty, truth, and peace can lead us beyond “us-ness” and “otherness” – to one-anotherness.

  • Secular

    At the core all religions have one thing in common. A belief in a whole slew of unnatural phenomenon. Each slew may differ from religion to religion, in some cases even overlap. Discussing these religions and trying to make sense of them is just as fruitful and as stupid as to comparing and contrasting Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” against Alexander Dumas’s “Count of Monte Cristo”.When discussing the religions, I cannot get past these superstitious beliefs in the organizing documents (scriptures). Be it be the virgin birth and resurrection of Christians, Parting of the Waters and the Joshua being swallowed by a fish of Judaism, The flying horse or talking bones of Islam, or the many a superstitious beliefs of Hinduism, Jainism, & Buddhism from monster heads swallowing the moon & the Sun to the sweat (or the semen) of an ape swallowed by fish giving rise to a fully grown man. Any memes (all religions are indeed memes) that are based on all these silly theses deserve no respect and have really nothing to teach the 21st century humanity. I sincerely wish and hope that they are all relegated to the dust heap as the humanity as done with Alchemistry, Thorism, Zeusism and thousands of such other memes.

  • Jihadist

    And here, the differences within religions can be bigger than the differences between religions. For example, for many – maybe most – Christians, the big mountain is “Going to heaven when you die.” Some Muslims would agree that this is the mountain that counts most, but few if any Jews would. For other Christians – I’d include myself here – the mountain is “God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.” Here, some Muslims and some Jews would agree.- Brian McLanren*******************************************When I die, I want to go to heaven and get “72 virgins” for doing God’s will on earth. I agree with you that the problem comes when people on either side assume the worst about their counterparts. Quite a challenge to have inter-faith dialogues when there are so-many intra-faith differences, divisions and sects, churches, schools of thoughts within the so-called umbrella of major faith groups such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.I agree with you that all sides be encouraged, including within the same faith groups, to strive for collaboration for the common good and peace. Poverty, education, health, the environment human rights are common interests all faith groups can collaborate. In experiencing sharing and best approaches at the very least. This is more productive rather than arguing ad infinitum, over what is “TRUTH” and whose “TRUTH” is more valid or better or right. The plain truth is, poverty and environmental degradation etc happens and we all know it. Man’s lack of will on this still remains. We may be making hell for future generations here on earth.

  • jonno965

    Damnit Brian! You didn’t answer the question. I know. You like to stimulate discussion by asking more questions. This makes us think. You need to tell us what you believe: are all religions the same? Do all paths lead to the same place? Then–and only then–will we know what to believe. (You see, we like our neat little boxes and people telling us what can and can’t fit into them.)

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