How to Make Sense of World Religions -suggested guidelines to bear in mind A curious fact of life is that while there is something we all have in common it is actually the very thing which divides us and makes us different from everybody else! That something is of course our own personal point of view. Shaped by upbringing, personality, education, beliefs and other factors, our individual outlook or opinion is what distinguishes us from other people and to a large extent makes us who we are. In this connection the present troubles in the world arising from terrorism, warfare, the pandemic, ecological concerns, and so on, have prompted a certain current interest in people, young people in particular, to explore the meaning of life. Naturally they turn to various philosophies, ideas, political ideals and social systems for answers. And prominent among the quest for an understanding of life is the expansive world view offered amongst others by each of the Big Six world religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. However, while a study of other religions apart from one’s own is interesting and educationally beneficial, the outcome can be very confusing. How to decide which, if any, is the ‘right’ one? Are they all pointing in the same direction? And since there are contradictions and conflicting ideas between them, which one may we trust? Furthermore, not everyone is religiously-inclined and yet since everyone has a point of view the question is how can one’s opinions be best influenced by looking at the mega-systems found in the great religions of the world? The search for truth, demanding as it is, obliges us to set out some guidelines which we may follow in discerning a way through the variety of claims and alternate visions which religious beliefs of many kinds set before us. To begin with, a good practice in life generally is to respect other people and their beliefs, whether religious or otherwise. It may be that we disagree with what they stand for or even think their views are misguided and unhelpful. But we still try to take their views seriously because we are convinced that those who hold those opinions should be respected as people. There is more than a grain of truth in what Michael Bond’s children’s character, Paddington Bear, declared: ‘If we’re kind and polite the world will be right’. Another general principle is to seek to learn something from people who follow other religions than our own. To take an interest in what they believe and not simply write it off from the start is both wise and caring. We have much to gain from others and their life- style. This is because religions often lift us beyond ourselves to something greater and higher. Religious belief can be an antidote to narrow-mindedness and selfishness and religious practice such as meditation can calm the mind and enlarge one’s personal horizons. If the first two approaches are respectful and humble in the sense of being willing to learn, the third principle is more investigative and questioning. When comparing one religious set of ideas with another it means asking questions. Which approach best covers the facts of life and of living? Which one is better at meeting human needs of acceptance and forgiveness? Which gives a more adequate explanation of the existence of the universe and the diversity of human life? While some religions appear to play on people’s fears, others seem to be largely based on superstition, still others perhaps on an unacceptable idea of God as being distant or vengeful. This gives a lie to the popular idea that all religions are basically the same, each leading to an identical Higher Being like many different paths leading up to the top of a mountain. So what is so special about Christianity? How does it differ from all the other great religious faiths? Its distinctiveness has been put quite simply: while the other religions are people reaching up to God, in Christianity it is God reaching down to us. Competing religious world views may be confusing but eventually we must know where we stand and so to realise that we have a Heavenly Father who has come and made Himself known to us through Jesus does not in any way make us smug or superior but simply eternally thankful. In his acclaimed book written at the beginning of the twentieth century, ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ William James famously explained religion as ‘the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men [sic.] in their solitude’. So when it comes to it, in what or in whom do we place our trust? The uncompromising statement of the Apostle Peter, referring to the crucified but resurrected Jesus Christ of Nazareth is so relevant here when he said: ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’.
Michael L. Diamond - October 2021
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