Sunday, April 11, 2010


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.


  1. Zach, while I share your thirst for knowledge and understanding I can't help but be reminded, by your questions, of the very dilemma that faces atheism and ultimately discredits it. I'll choose to explain myself this way; if I am in a room surrounded by a presumably infinite number of doors and my desire is to get out of the room I need only find one door that is an exit and use it. An atheist says, "i know that there is no God" and in the case of the room, "i know there is no way out of this room" and therefore stops looking. this is different from your assertion in that you continue to look for exits, but is the same in the sense that both require a great amount of arrogance to assume that one could know everything (or whats behind every door). but thats not even the biggest problem with it. you have effectively changed the desire to get out of the room to a desire to explore where the doors lead and you your self said thats too much for one lifetime. it is a fact that so many religions are contradictory to one another, it stands well to say that they cant all be right. Blaise Pascal might even say that your pursuits are spiritually suicidal, that is if what you say is true that other voices have led you away. zach, i love you man and i say all this to say, please be careful how far you let your curiosity take you away from the one true "Door"

  2. Good to hear from you Jarrod it has been a long time. The difficultly created by that is of course that neither of us has any real clue about what is happening with the other person. I will not spend a lot of time hear responding to your claims we can do that on facebook or through email if you want.

    I will point you to an older post of mine in my blog titled Pride and Humility. Your accusation of arrogance cannot help but remind me of it. Just note that you are the one saying atheism cannot be true not the other way around and you are the one saying there is only one true Door even though in your own analogy finding one door out of a room by no means gives you any bases from which to claim it is the only way out of the room any more than it gives another person the bases to say there is no way out. The fact is the only difference between you and the atheist you described is that you have opened one more door then he has. Honestly if a person only bothers to look behind one door and accept what they find there their escape from the room is based upon luck and laziness as much as anything else. A person's beliefs will always be true if they never bother to learn and allow them to be challenged. (Check out a post of mine in February called Faith and Reason)

    It is also worth noting that there are various types of atheism so not believing in the Abrahamic God does not mean you must be a materialist who believes there is nothing out there. And while you will not agree atheism does not trap you inside of the "room" you describe instead it is also one of the doors that might lead out. Feel free to take a look. I know what is behind your door and your "Door" is just a door to me. Valuable yes but by no means superior.

  3. Zach, excellent post. To listen is a skill that we all possess (it is innately human, I should think), and yet hardly use. On your struggles with plurality, consider what the Amritabindu Upanishad teaches: "The milk of cows of any hue is white. The sages say that wisdom is the milk and the sacred scriptures are the cows." We can acknowledge that the cows differ, while still drawing something of the same form and substance (the wisdom-milk) from them.
    With regard to the room-full-of-doors analogy, how do we know that to leave the room is the ultimate goal?

  4. Huston Smith uses the idea of a stainglass window, which when light shines through it creates numerous different ("conflicting") colors.

    I also like the idea in the Koran that says, "And We (God) never sent a messenger save with the language of his folk, that he might make (the message) clear for them." 14.4 It allows for some sense of univerality and shows some understanding of the importance of context and language when it comes to belief

    As far as the room goes I admit I was just dealing with the analogy head on accepting certain assumptions of the author in order to demnstrate at least a few of the weakness of the idea. I just did not really want to get too far into all the problems I see with it. Your question would of course be an important one to ask. First what is the room? and second why should we think we want to get out of it? There are of course others but I did not want to get side tracked from the issues of my post. Plus I was in a hurry. :)

  5. Oh and as always thanks for the comments. They are always helpful.