Are all religions basically the same?
Do all religions lead to the same destination?
In a word, “No.”
The world’s religions don’t even agree on what the destination is. For example, Buddhism teaches that your problem is suffering. The solution is the eight-fold path and the goal is nirvana, which means you essentially become extinct with respect to the material world.
Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that your problem is sin, the inborn tendency to go your own way apart from God. The solution is forgiveness, by which God restores the broken relationship, and the goal is a resurrected life in a renewed heaven and earth.
In Hinduism, your problem is a vicious cycle of life, death and rebirth. The solution is discipline in various forms — ritual actions, wisdom or devotion to the god of your choosing, and the goal is not salvation from sin but to escape the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
In Islam, your problem is self-sufficiency, or acting as if you can get along without God. The solution is submission to Allah by following the five pillars of the faith, and the goal is a paradise of sensual comforts.
In Judaism, the problem is a rhythm of wrongdoing, punishment and exile. The solution is to return to God by remembering the covenant and following the commands of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible. The goal is to repair the world by doing the commandments and restoring righteousness.
Some religions emphasize that life has gone wrong, while others emphasize that life itself is wrong.
There is no agreement on the destination, neither is there agreement on the problem nor the solution.
Certainly there are common elements among religions generally: belief in some kind of transcendence, an ethical system, rituals and stories about creation and the end of the world.
Popular writers such as Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith, as well as those engaged in interfaith dialogue, have emphasized these and other similarities, and that is appropriate to a point.
All too often, however, people assume that these very different belief systems are just alternate paths up the same mountain, and that fails to do justice to the distinctiveness of what each religion teaches.
It is condescending to lump all religions together as if their various pillars or foundational teachings are more-or-less tangential to their similarities.
I am a Christian because I believe the Bible provides the most convincing explanation for the moral weakness and fallibility we all experience, and because it provides the most realistic remedy: grace, mercy and forgiveness for the undeserving, not by our own efforts, but solely by the efforts of the one who died and rose again for the sin of humanity, Jesus Christ.
That’s not an inconsequential point, just as the Shahada is not inconsequential to Islam nor enlightenment to Buddhism.
The very notion of religious toleration, which characterized our nation’s founding, assumes that the differences between religions are real and substantive.
Such honesty need not be divisive and, most importantly, it is being respectful of the various traditions.
Tolerance grows only when differences are first acknowledged and then allowed.
The Rev. John Armstrong is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Columbus, and may be reached at [email protected] gracecolumbus.org.