Often in my work, people seeking to affirm our connections with one another, state that the world’s religions are really all the same in the end. There is nothing but good intentions behind this view. I affirm those sentiments but want to suggest another possible way to approach our planet’s religions.
I noticed the claim that all religions are the same really took off after 9/11. Facing the possibility of demonizing Muslims and dividing societies into Us and Them, the statement was important for uniting voices. And, in fairness, there is something to it. Religions often seem to address similar questions around the nature of the cosmos, human origins, and what is a good life. You also see similarities in practices – Quakers’ quiet meditation can resemble a Zen session and the ecstatic joy of Hare Krishnas bears some resemblance to some Pentecostal gatherings.
However, there are also vast differences. Quakers are monotheists while Zen teachings have no god. Pentecostals believe we live one life followed by eternal reward or punishment whereas Hare Krishnas believe we live innumerable lives in an epic quest to finally achieve enlightenment.
But this question is more than academic: I think much is lost if we see religions as essentially all the same. The religions of the world display the enormous span of human living – its beauty, its horror, its wisdom and folly, practices that console and strengthen and teach us about community and our own bodies. Admittedly, if everyone else’s tradition is just like mine, maybe it is easier to accept them….but only at the cost of erasing those things that make them unique. I might feel there’s little need to learn about these other ways of life (since there’s no real differences) and that would deny me a golden opportunity.
I think the key is how do we approach difference? If we treat difference as mainly a threat, a cause of conflict, then we will have to insist everyone else is a copy of us in order to keep the peace. But if we treat difference as an opportunity, a chance to see what other paths have learned, where they have developed impressive teachings and practices, as well as where they have gone astray, then the obvious path forward is curiosity and outreach – the desire to learn about others. To see them authentically as sometimes like me and sometimes really different. There lies both personal growth and the opportunity to connect more authentically, by seeing other people and communities as they really are.
Maybe we’re not all the same….and that’s okay. Even a good thing. I revel in the differences between Jewish Shabbat and a Hindu aarti service. If all religions were the same, it might honestly be boring. It’s a big world. We can live peaceably and even benefit from our diversity. The best thing we can do is to connect and spend time learning about each other. Let us know if Encounter can help.