Are all religions the same?
Richard R. Crocker
November 10, 2010
Exodus 20:1-4 and Amos 5:21-24
Are all religions the same? While some people might say yes, the correct answer is no. Look around. Some religions believe in one transcendent God. Others believe in many, or none. Some believe in reincarnation. Others do not. Some believe in dietary restrictions, others do not. Obviously, all religions are not the same.
I think everyone knows this. But I think that people who argue that all religions are the same would say that they are all the same in some important way, despite their relatively unimportant differences. I think that is also not true. So why would anyone say that it is true? Because they want it to be true. Many of us are embarrassed by the particularity of our religion, especially if that particularity includes the assertion that other religions are wrong. So we try to minimize the differences and maximize common concerns. As a strategy for civil dialogue, this is good. But, in religions, as in most other areas of life, the differences are often the most interesting things, and the most important things, about us.
Consider the analogy of language. Language is the closest thing to faith. Faith is how we conceive of meaning. Language is how we express it. Language, in fact, may not simply express our deepest perceptions, but shape them. So, let us ask, just for interest, whether all languages are the same. Obviously, they are not. If they were, translation would be easy and a computer could easily do it. But, as anyone who has tried to translate literature knows, translation is very difficult. Some meanings in one language are simply absent in another.
I stand before you as a person who has studied and passed competency tests in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and German. I also stand before you as a person who cannot really use or understand any of those languages. I can only really express myself in the language that has shaped my mind – English. I also stand before you as a person who has had some instruction in Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, as well as various kinds of Christianity. But I am only fluent in Christianity – and then only in one dialect.
I don’t think this analogy is misplaced. All languages are not the same, but they all have a common purpose: they help us to create and express our thoughts, by which we seek to comprehend the world. Religions have a similar nature. They are not all alike, but they do all have a similar purpose, which is to help us create, express, and comprehend the meaning of our existence.
So if all religions have a common purpose, doesn’t that mean they are all the same? Not at all. They are different. Every religion in some way is concerned with helping us conceive and relate to what is ultimate, but they have very different concepts of what is ultimate. That is why I absolutely reject the trite metaphor that religions are all paths up the same mountain. They are different paths up different mountains, I think. Not every religion is, for example, a path up Mount Sinai, where Moses received the ten commandments – the first two of which we read today, and which seem to imply an exclusive view of the ultimate that cannot easily be turned into relativism., Yet when we look at the prophet Amos, who spoke from that tradition, we encounter a person who, speaking in the name of God, declares that God despises rituals and solemn assemblies. What God requires instead is justice.
Well, then, can’t we all agree that while religious rituals might be different, they are all concerned with justice? No. Conceptions of justice, too, are very different – even among people of the same religion. For some, justice demands eternal punishment as well as eternal bliss. For others, justice requires capital punishment for adultery. For others, such ideas are abhorrent. There is no way to bring us all together under the umbrella of justice.
But let us not despair. Even though all religions are not the same, even though there are very different pathways and very different mountains, there is yet an important commonality. All of them are concerned with what is ultimate. And though all of them conceive of and describe the ultimate in different ways, there can still be conversation – conversations in which we learn and grow.
Conversations. So we are back to language. As I told you, I have studied many languages but feel competent only in English. All other languages require a dictionary and a lot of time. But conversations between people of different languages can happen. They require effort and preparation and study, but they can happen. We can learn to appreciate, even if we cannot fully speak, another language, and to find its peculiar concepts interesting and meaningful. Some people may even become so at home in another language that they come to prefer it – one can even say they converted to it. But most of us continue to feel most comfortable with the language we learned as children, even though our vocabularies continue to grow. It is how we make sense of the world.
I know that you are now asking: isn’t he really saying that it doesn’t matter which language you speak? Isn’t he really saying that it doesn’t matter which religion you practice – because it’s a matter of what you learned? To a degree, I am saying that. It’s hard – but not impossible - to truly adopt another language or another religion. But in another sense, I am not saying that. Different religions promote different virtues, different rituals, different understandings. This is another way of saying that they can produce different fruits. If there is any important practical difference in religions, it is known, as Amos said, not in its different rituals, or even in its different theologies, but in the fruits it produces in its followers. That is why it is so sad when people look at Christianity, expecting to find the love and compassion it preaches, and find instead violence and oppression. An honest look at the fruits of our own faith should cause us all to be humble. Humility is the prerequisite of all learning.