Friday, December 09, 2005

What's the Difference: An Authentic Look at World Faiths

The Jewish Philosopher Abraham Heschel writes, "Plurality is incompatible with the sense of the ineffable [God]. You cannot ask in regard to the divine: Which one? There is only one synonym for God: One."I agree, to some extent, with Heschel; I live in an area of the United States where the truth of religious difference isn't popular. Many of my friends have this idea that 'many rivers lead to one ocean' applies to religious difference (a belief that actually comes ironically enough from one specific religion, Hinduism). I've also read this numerous times in popular magazines; it surrounds us. I feel like it isn't very thoughful though, and even slightly arrogant. Most of my friends that have this pluralistic attitude towards religion don't even claim a specific faith, and that is where the arrogance lies. They are projecting their thoughts on a whole bunch of different faiths, none of which they are a part of. It's similar to a Republican setting limits to what a Democrat can believe to be a good government, it just seems wrong (not to mention silly).

I received my B.A. in Religious Studies from a small university in Washington state. While studying there I found, in contrast to popular opinion, that there are striking differences between religions. Sure there are congruities in the categories of ethics and wisdom but when it comes to the area of the unseen (afterlife, salvation/liberation, God) there are many incongruities. I would say that Christianity is the biggest divergent among all the faith traditions because of how it understands the issue of the Human-Divine Gap.

The Human-Divine Gap

Every faith tradition has to address the Human-Divine Gap. It, as some scholars think, is the reason for religion, because as far back as human experience has been recorded there has been the elements in human wonder at the infinite and the beyond and the human emotion of detachment from that infinite and beyond. That is the Human-Divine Gap, and that, again as some scholars say, is the foundation for all religion.

Hinduism, perhaps the oldest faith, tells us that through life each person goes through stages of purgation to get rid of desire and produce good karma. The last stage is to become a Yogi. These people are the 'spiritual-select' bunch. And, it is usually believed, that Yogis are the only people that achieve liberation from Samsara (the wheel of reincarnation) and unification with Brahman (the Universal Spirit). Since bad karma is easy to acquire it usually takes life times and life times to bridge the Human-Divine Gap.

Buddhism is what is called a Heterodox Indian Philosophy. That is, it is a teaching that came out of India but contains many differences from Hinduism. Noting that it should be mentioned that to most people not familiar with Indian philsophy Buddhism and Hinduism look rather similar. Traditional Buddhism (Theravada) tells us that only Monks (lamas) can attain liberation from Samsara (as a note for both traditional Hinduism and Buddhism maintain that if you are a woman you must be reincarnated as a man to achieve liberation). Again bad Karma is easily acquired so this takes many reincarnations to finally bridge the gap Human-Divine Gap. It should be noted though that in some forms of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana) there spiritual beings called Bodhisatvas that assist humans in there path towards liberation from Samsara.

Judaism's manner of bridging the gap is different. Instead of a system of judgement independent from a personal will (Karma) there is a sovereign God (YHWH or I am that I am) who reveals himself to the elect (the Jews). It is God who revealed Torah (a set of 613 laws governing public and private life) to Moses and Israel. Though many contemporary expressions of Judaism (conservative, reform, reconstructionist) do not believe in, or care little for, an afterlife with God, maintaining that the present life is the only concern, traditionally Torah has been the bridged the Human-Divine gap, and consequently been the portal to eternal life. Israel is living in holiness when she submits to Torah as God's commandments--then becoming one and bridging the Human-Divine gap, likewise, when Israel does not submit she is characterized as a wayward wife (the book of Hosea).

The salient difference of Christianity is that not only is revelation dependent upon God but the act of bridging the human-divine gap is also. Salvation/Liberation isn't dependent upon one resolving one's own karma, nor is it in found in adhering to a legal code. Salvation/Liberation is found in Jesus Christ. Jesus is recorded as saying (Matthew 5:17), "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." Christianity maintains that while the law is good man will always fall short of adhering to the law in full, it is as if the human-divine gap is a canyon that no person can jump, thus man needs God to bridge the gap on mankind's behalf. Because of this Jesus the Christ (according to Christian thought: Israel's awaited Messiah) came to take the weight of Israel's and world's sin. That took place on the cross and his death and was fully realized in his resurrection from death. This makes Christianity fundamentally different from the world faiths.

Post your thoughts. Is this a fair representation of world faiths?


mrteague said...


Well summarized. In On Being a Christian, Hans Kung offers the same conclusion--that what makes Christianity absolutely unique is Jesus Christ (that's after he exhaustively deals with humanism, the similarities of world religions, demythologizing the scriptures, and historical critical scholarship...I'm glad he wrote it and not me...).

mrteague said...

One more...

You have this quote in the booklet I gave you when you moved, but I'll repeat it here for others.

"The crucified and yet living Christ is the concrete summing up of the Christian message and the Christian faith. He is himself the wholly concrete truth of Christianity." Hans Kung

mrteague said...
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mrteague said...

Hinduism promises (if you can call it a promise) absorption into the one, into Brahman. Dissolution of self is the name of the game. In contrast, Christianity conceives of union with God in terms which preserve both individual and corporate identities: "That they all may be one, as you, Fatherare in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us" (John 17:21)