Resonance and Dissonance Between the World’s Great Religions

Religion. The very word strikes fear in the hearts of your average citizen . . . or boredom, or maybe confusion. My Uncle Joel, a Chemistry professor at UC Berkeley, kept a scrapbook of clippings he said proved religion to be the root cause of humanity’s ills. And who could blame him? The traditionalist mindset holds tight to its religious construct, sure he is right and others wrong, convinced his life depends upon it. Wars are fought, atrocities excused, fear promulgated year after year, all in the name of a god. Humbug.

It’s understandable that culture heaves a deep sigh of relief as the modernist mindset deconstructs the traditional religious myths. The archeologist, the geologist, and the religion historian all play their part in unraveling the context of meaning which has sustained humanity for 4000 years.

The evolutionary biologist and the cosmologist spin a new story of a big bang and the slow development of species. But, and this is important, the neuroscientist sheds light on the remarkable workings of the human brain and we discover that our minds need to generate narratives, stories, to make sense of the universe. A coherent story is the very definition of sanity.

Narrative provides sanity and yet the dominant modern narrative seems devoid of meaning save “survival of the fittest,” extrapolated to mean we want to live as long as possible as comfortably as possible. What kinds of decisions does this narrative foster? Look around you.

Faced with the global challenges of environmental degradation, intolerance and fear threatening even now to cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war, we turn our eyes again to religion, but not with an eye to return to the past, rather as a guide into the future. We approach religion, be it the tradition of our youth or another, unconvinced of its unique claim on truth. And so we search out the deep structures of each religion looking for some resonance, some coherence that will guide us. We find them. Love is always there. Mystical practice within each tradition calls us to let go of the self and move towards union with all that is.

Yes, there is resonance, but there is dissonance too, for what does “love” mean? The traditions cannot agree and their differences are integral to what each one would have us believe. The theme of forgiveness, letting go, can be found in each of the world’s religions, but only Christianity uses it as an organizing principle. Each major tradition has devotion to the divine nature as part of their context of meaning, but only a Bhaktia yoga expression of Hinduism uses it as an organizing principle. When we explore the resonance and dissonance with one another – absent the arrogant posture that “I am right and you are wrong” – we wake up to the realization that we are evolving the narratives themselves; we are evolving the context of meaning within which humanity lives and we’re doing it none too soon.

 

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About Sam Alexander

Sam Alexander is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael and also serves as Adjunct Instructor in Homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary.


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