Having finished Huston Smith’s “The World’s Religions” I must once again reflect upon my continued search for the divine, the other. Every time I open a book and study even a little portion of what another religious tradition has to say about the Truth I am usually left more confused than when I began. In some ways I hate this fact but as it continues to happen I have come to appreciate the inferences that can be drawn from such a result. First it implies that there really is something out there to know beyond what we can see and touch. Second it illustrates a shared human experience over the history of this planet, the struggle over questions of meaning and purpose. And third, though by no means last, it shows that ultimately no one really knows what awaits us after death no matter how much they feel their religion has shown them.
My study of various religions has convinced me of two things first is that I cannot see any one religious tradition as being superior to another. Where one religion has failed another succeeds and often the crimes of one religion have been righted by that of another and so on. Does this mean that one religion is not ultimately superior to the others? I do not know though I doubt it and as I said before I do not think anyone else knows either. Those most convinced of the superiority of their own religion are often those clueless to the beliefs and histories of the others. But while I can see no one religion as superior to the others the second thing I have found in my studies is that all religions are not “basically the same.” Even the differences among varying groups housed within the same tradition should be seen for what they are, differences. Now the similarities between the various religions are important and worth noting. The basic ethics such as found in the 10 commandments and some version of the Golden Rule can be found in almost all religions but the differences are real and should not be swept over in a desire for unity. This is hard for me because above all else I desire peace and sometimes it feels like the easiest way for that to be achieved is just by convincing everyone that we are all the same creating some kind of super religion. But any kind of peace built upon the falsified foundation of sameness is bound to fail. For just as the geography of the earth is vast and varied so too are the great religions of the planet and how you build a solid foundation on a field is not same as how you build one upon a mountain or in a marsh. Rather it seems true peace can only be built upon genuine understanding. In Smith’s book he notes that understanding leads to love and it is the love for each and every person, which all the major religions affirm that is needed for peace. Smith is quick to observe that understand and love maintain a reciprocal relationship for just as understanding leads to love so too does love lead to understanding. They need and feed one another.
My study of religion, as well as philosophy has also allowed me to acknowledge and even appreciate mystery. For while all religions claim to have certain answers to various questions most of them maintain the belief that there are things we simply cannot know. Even as science unlocks more and more doors for us we often find only more and more questions. I love how Smith speaks of mystery. He says, “Reality is steeped in ineluctable mystery; we are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery.” And he is clear about what he means by mystery saying, “A mystery is that special kind of problem which for the human mind has no solution; the more we understand it, the more we become aware of additional factors relating to it that we do not understand. In mysteries what we know, and our realization of what we do not know, proceed together; the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder. It is like the quantum world, where the more we understand its formalism, the stranger that world becomes.” (389) Similarly for me the more I study different religions the stranger both the divine and the world becomes because as one begins to see these from more than one angle one cannot but be dumbfounded both by that which is above us (divine/other) and that which is us (human).
I was born into and raised in an evangelical Protestant Christian home. From a very young age I picked up the bible and have not put it down since. As I have grown up I have learned about the many layers that make up the Christian religion both in the present and in the past. I have spent more of my time, effort, money and life on the study of Christianity then upon any other thing I did or could have done. Through this one of the things that I have learned is that Christianity is an amazingly rich and magnificent religion of which I am proud to come from. But as I dug through the layers of Christian theology and history I had to admit, partially in frustration and disappointment that no matter how much time or effort I spent in study there was just no way I could ever learn about all of it in my lifetime. In Christianity’s short existence it has grown into a mountain that cannot be climbed in the short span of a single life. So if I cannot hope to learn all there is to know about Christianity before I die there surely is no way I can learn everything about all the religions of the world before my breath gives out still I will continue. In many ways for that reason alone I understand why so many people who commit themselves to a religion never learn about the beliefs of any other. For once you have found a source of meaning in your own life how can you do anything but pour yourself into it completely. In my time at seminary I spent almost three years pouring myself into the study of ancient languages, biblical commentaries, historical treatises, ethical issues and philosophy. This time exposed me to many problems and issues that face the Christian religion that are not found among the devotional literature of the typical evangelical bookstore. And while I am thankful for those experiences as I look back one thing above all else left me disappointed and that is that nowhere in my study was it every required that I crack open a book and study about another religion. (Judaism being the one exception due Christianity’s complete dependence upon it) Some of these classes (World Religions, Islam, etc) did exist and I took them but they were always among my smallest classes containing no more than 10 to 12 students one of them amounting to only 4 students. So the one thing that could make love and understanding among different religions possible is the one thing that was not required or even encouraged by all my religious training and that is learning about the other, from the other. So even as I understand people’s desire to devote themselves wholly to one thing what happens when that one thing blinds us from all else and prevents us from the chance for something better?
Huston Smith ends his amazing book with the simplest idea; listen. He notes, as I alluded to above that when one religion claims us the first thing we do is listen to it. I went to church, read the bible and devotional literature and prayed for 14 years all so I could hear and understand God and those wiser than I about how I should live. But then I began to listen to other voices and my world could not help but change. Truly if we are to understand others; we must listen to them. The world is too small to ignore those different than ourselves. I sit here in Korea more aware than ever about how easy it is to associate what is foreign or unknown with that which is evil, bad or wrong. The only way to prevent such reactions is through mutual listening because that which is unknown will always remain as such unless we decide to learn about it. As science speeds along shrinking the world and creating more and more ways for us to connect with one another how will we use those connections? Will we use them only to speak or will we also use them to listen? Seminary taught me how to speak to others about Christianity’s spiritual wisdom but it failed to teach me how to listen to the wisdom of other religions.
I grew up being taught that it is better to give than to receive. If one passes by those who are hungry to pray at church of what value is your prayer? Similarly if one speaks to others about one’s own religion with your ears plugged how valuable are your words? For in the world of thought and wisdom truly it is better to receive (listen) than to give (speak). Smith says, “We must have the graciousness to receive as well as to give, for there is no greater way to depersonalize another than to speak without also listening.” (390) That is one of the simplest and best things I have learned from the study of other religions, at the end of the day I should just shut up and listen.