“Our Common Spirituality?”
“All religions are the same.” A friend shared these words with me recently. They are words I’ve heard often over the years. They are words I fully respect as they come, it seems to me, out of a desire to emphasize the goodness that unites us regardless of specific religious affiliation or adherence. They are words of hope, in many ways, while also being words that seek to describe the present age. Yet are the words true, essentially true? My answer would be partly ‘yes’, and partly ‘no’.
One of my favourite professors at the University of Calgary way back during my undergraduate years was the Rev. Dr. Leslie Kawamura (sadly, he passed away last year). Dr. Kawamura (I would never even imagine calling him Leslie), was an outstanding, gifted teacher, always trying to be the facilitator of our own discoveries of knowledge and insight, not one who simply provided information. His knowledge of Buddhist traditions was immense, vast, and awe-inspiring. His immersion within Buddhism, on a personal level, was total. He lived what we taught.
Near the end of the first course I took with Dr. Kawamura we students were required to write a lengthy paper/essay and then share it orally with the rest of the class. One of my fellow students chose as his topic “the similarities between Buddhism and Christianity”. On the day of his presentation all were listening intently to his fifteen-minute essay, including of course Dr. Kawamura. When the student had finished, silence enveloped the room as many other students simply and gently nodded their heads in agreement while looking at the floor (perhaps hoping Dr. Kawamura would not make eye-contact with them and thus ask for their opinion). I, on the other hand, couldn’t contain myself. I did make eye contact with my teacher, who with his eyes encouraged me to speak up, which I didn’t do very often. And so with meekness and far too much self-consciousness I ventured forth into the silence of that classroom with an opinion. I quietly suggested that the primary foundation on which my fellow student’s paper rested, was untrue – that both religions accepted the notion of the existence of God. Dr. Kawamura agreed and class discussion took off.
The class was Theravada Buddhism, the earliest form, some would say the purest form of Buddhist thought. It is the form of Buddhism dominant today in places like Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. The tradition maintains that there is no God and further that human beings do not have a soul or spirit (the ‘anatma’ doctrine). What it does maintain is that through ethical practice, by seeking to do certain things, possess certain attitudes, live in certain ways with certain priorities, one can emerge from what is called ‘suffering’, experience peace, release, and possibly a state of bliss (nirvana).
Are all religions the same? By reflecting on some of the core tenets of Therevada Buddhism, or Islam, or Judaism, or Jainism, or Shintoism, we may come to recognize the significant differences in terms of central belief structures. Perhaps it is important to recognize and respect the differences. Yet when it comes to ethics, the living out of the variety of beliefs proclaimed by differing religions, perhaps there is more common ground, a great deal more common ground, making my friend’s statement “all religions are the same” much more plausible and in fact, on some levels, accurate.
You probably know that the “golden rule” – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, is not original with Jesus, or with Christianity in general. It goes back much further. Yet it could be argued and demonstrated that this teaching, this wisdom, is a central tenet to all major world religions.
It is an ethical fundamental, a spiritual non-negotiable spanning religions and religious traditions. In that sense, as well as others, all religions are the same.
Isn’t it all about spirituality anyway? Clearly, contemporary Western culture is moving away from identification with “religion” and toward either atheism (which may itself be a religion?) or spirituality. How does Christian spirituality take shape? What do we, from our very particular beliefs about God and the universe, our central tenets, what some would term ‘truth claims’, what do we have to contribute to the world today as far as living out what we believe? Is there room for increased inter-faith dialogue, but beyond dialogue room for increased inter-faith ministries on behalf of the world’s marginalized and oppressed, in the name of justice, mercy and compassion? Perhaps these are the questions Christians ought to be asking as we move into a new and undetermined era, a time of global uncertainty yet infinite global possibilities, a time perhaps for the tearing down of old walls and the building of new bridges?
How about you? What is your “religion”? Do you have one? Better, perhaps, what is your spirituality? Can you describe it? How does it inform your life? Do you pray? Do you read scripture, and which ones? Do you meditate? Do you follow the Ten Commandments? Do you seek to live the golden rule? Do you ask yourself, in the face of every challenge, ‘what would Jesus do?
Are all religions the same? What do you think?