Many Traditions, One Message

Many Traditions, One Message March 21, 2019
Courtesy of Pixabay

As one who grew up in the Christian faith tradition, Jesus has always been a large part of my life. Throughout my childhood and then into my young adult years, I held the belief that Jesus was the exclusive savior of the world. Let me rephrase. Jesus was the exclusive savior of those who accepted him as “lord and savior.” The rest, of course, were no doubt destined to the utter darkness, where the worm dies not, where their thirst could never be quenched, where the flames rise up forever and ever. In a word, they were condemned to hell. Buddhists. Muslims. Sikhs. Atheists. Agnostics. All of ‘em.

I no longer hold to that view, and for a litany of reasons.

But I still gravitate toward Jesus. His teachings. His ethics. His love for humanity. His grace. His mercy. His compassion for all living beings. Everything.

At the same time, I cannot help but notice how the mystics—the enlightened ones, the ones who earnestly seek and see God in all the spaces of the Universe—of the many scores of other faith traditions talk about the same sort of things. Love. Grace. Mercy. Compassion.

One such teacher was the Buddha.

Disclaimer: I am not an authority on Buddhism. I’m no Christian scholar, but I’m even less of a Buddhist one. At the same time, I can’t help but notice that in spite of these seemingly two disparate traditions—Christianity and Buddhism, each ripe with their own cultural assumptions and linguistics—with regards to what it means to be human, they are pointing toward the same thing.

Case in point: take a look at Luke 6:31. In this verse, Jesus tells us to “do to others as you would have them do to you.” We call this the Golden Rule. And while most of us probably fail in applying this ethic in our daily lives, it was a point of emphasis for Jesus. Big time. The same goes for the Buddha. In Dhammapada 10.1, he says: “Consider others as yourself.” In other words, do to them what you would have them do to you. The Golden Rule.

This “golden rule” is fleshed out and even expanded upon in Luke 6, when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us. In Dhammapada 1.5 and 17.3, the Buddha gives following advice, and it should sound strikingly familiar: “Hatreds do not ever cease in this world by hating, but by love; this is an eternal truth . . . Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good. Overcome the miser by giving, overcome the liar by truth.”

What is being emphasized is that to live free, to live as a human being should, we do not hold grudges against our enemies or return hate with hate. We turn the other cheek, as both Jesus and the Buddha advised (see Luke 6:29 and Majjhima Nikaya 21.6, respectively).

But mercy and compassion are not just confined to these two faith traditions. No! Open your Qur’an and you will notice the same thing in many places. In fact, out of the 114 chapters of the Islamic Holy Book, 113 of them begin with this hermeneutical lens: “In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate.” Mercy. Compassion. Emphasized right there in the beginning of each chapter of the Qur’an.

Sufi mystic Rumi takes this Quranic point of emphasis and turns the overall message into the most beautiful poetry the world has ever known. In the same spirit of Jesus and the Buddha, he writes: “Be like the sun for grace and mercy. Be like the night to cover others’ faults. Be like running water for generosity. Be like death for rage and anger. Be like the Earth for modesty. Appear as you are. Be as you appear.” In other words, stand toe-to-toe with hatred, anger, malice, and violence, and confront it with grace, mercy, and love.

Continuing on: In the Baha’i tradition, Baha’u’llah beautifully describes the mercy and compassion of God as follows: “A drop out of the ocean of thy mercy suffices to quench the flames of hell, and a spark of the fire of thy love is enough to set ablaze a whole world.” One drop of God’s mercy can quench all the flames of hell! And one spark of the love of God can light the whole world on fire!

If only we all applied this to our lives today . . .

Why do I point all this out? Because I’m sick of seeing those of various faith traditions fight with one another over who is right and who is wrong. I’m sick of people proselytizing and then inflicting violence on one another when they don’t convert. We all tend toward describing our own tradition as “the way,” completely missing the point that the true Way transcends our cultural and linguistic presuppositions. When Jesus said that he is the way, the truth, and the life, he didn’t mean “join Team Jesus or perish.” He meant that peace is the way and the way is peace. Nonviolence is the way and the way is nonviolence. Love is the way and the way is love. Mercy is the way and the way is mercy. Compassion is the way and the way is compassion.

The Buddhist mystics say this.

The Muslim mystics say this.

The Sikh mystics say this.

The Baha’i mystics say this.

The Jewish mystics say this.

And, incidentally, the Christian mystics say this.

So, let us keep this in mind and realize that life isn’t about converting others to your religion. Life is about living in such a way that we move humanity from suffering and into the kingdom of heaven.

Shalom. Salaam. Namaste. Peace be with you all.

Matthew J. Distefano is the author of 4 books and a co-host on the Heretic Happy Hour. He lives in Chico, California with his wife and daughter. You can read more about the author here.

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  • soter phile

    If a white man tells a black man, “our cultures are basically the same” –
    progressives readily acknowledge how uninformed & mistaken that statement is.

    But when it comes to religion…

  • Ellen Hammond

    I have said for decades, that if people looked for the similarities of various faiths instead of judging others by their differences, and trying to convert them, they would be surprised at how closely they all conform to the ‘golden rule’ and we would be able to live in peace with all ‘others’. Thank you for expressing this so well.

  • Apples and baseballs

  • soter phile

    by to your reductionist logic: both apples & baseballs are round, so they’re the same.

  • soter phile

    I read an essay lately by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a famous atheist, and she says people ask atheists, “What do they live by?” She decided not to live by the Golden Rule. Do you know why? She says it’s unrealistic. The Golden Rule says you meet the needs of other people with all the joy, energy, creativity, and faithfulness with which you meet your own needs. Everybody knows that. She realizes that is too much. She says she tries to live by Kant’s categorical imperative, which is just to treat people as ends and not means to an end. She says, “I can’t even do that.” Anybody who says, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you live by the Golden Rule,” has never looked at the Golden Rule.

    – Tim Keller

  • Haha. Good one.

  • Just Me

    I think you’ve completely missed the message of the Bible. The gospel is a message of salvation but one that requires faith and trust in Christ alone. It is a unique message, not one of many. John 14:6, 1 Cor 15 say it very clearly as do so many other verses. Without faith in Christ there is no hope of salvation. You can choose to not believe that, but do not twist the Bible into something it is not.

  • Cool, bro.

  • There are cultures and traditions that are historical and fascinating. The characteristics are similar: peace, love, mercy, compassion, nonviolence; “the golden rule”, “one to another”, forgiveness (not holding grudges). Humans desire the same things. Nobody wants division, strife, violence, war…not really. I began learning about “mystics” over thirty years ago; especially in the context of unity and global consciousness. It “seems so true”, but it misses the saving grace of Jesus on the cross; and you cannot get around it. You wrote it best, “the true way transcends our culture (cultural assumptions, cultural relevance, etc.). The true way is not about tradition, culture, religion. The true way is of the Holy Spirit of the Triune God that Jesus left as a gift for us. Regardless of what kind of change you experience (conversion, transformation, baptism, transcended) IF it is not of Jesus; it is not of Holy Spirit; it is not of our Father God. It can be beautiful. It can seem true. And, it is very accepted by secularism; especially in the area of beauty, art, travel, etc. It is worldliness at its finest. I do not desire “one drop of the ocean”. I desire “Living Water” that flows from the throne of grace. To see God in “all the spaces” comes through a lifetime of the many ways we become closer and dearer to Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit we can see Christ clearly; not by what we see with our physical eyes. The crucifixion of Christ on the cross and all the implication of His sacrifice; and His resurrection; is The Only Way to our Father God. Jesus said that He is The Way to our Father. Jesus said He is The Life. Jesus said He is the Truth. One can find “life and truth” in many ways; yet one can never find the “life and truth” “only found in Christ Jesus”; and for that, be thankful, very thankful…..your life depends on it. Respect tradition, culture, beauty, art, literature, forms of media, even your family; yet do not make them your idols. WHEN JESUS SAID THAT HE IS THE WAY, THE TRUTH, THE LIFE; HE WAS SAYING, “FOLLOW ME”.

  • And my Buddhist friends follow him better than many Christians I know

  • “…the rest, of course, were no doubt destined to the utter darkness.” Hell is a concept that is not biblical but rather a man-made religious doctrine without foundation or reason; whether it succeeded in making people obey God’s commands or not.

  • “…I’m sick of seeing those of various faith traditions fight with one another over who is right and who is wrong.”

    Amen! That’s why it was so uplifting to see people of all faith traditions (led outstandingly by an agnostic!) coming together to stand in love and unity in Christchurch this week.

  • Agree.

  • Martha Bienert

    Dear Just Me,
    Please go outside and find any beautiful, alive thing you can look at–like, say, a tree. Please look at the leaves or needles, even the dormant winter branches–whatever it has for you. Do you sense the aliveness of all those cells? Do you see how they are alive now, and now, and now, and now? How does this miracle happen? Can you feel the love in it now, and now, and now? This is God, without Whom it would all fall apart–never have existed. Scientists in their laboratories could assemble proteins and molecules in exact configuration to make even one cell of a leaf, but the cell would not be animated with Life! Life comes from God, infuses and embraces our world. God is with us always! We are so blessed!
    For me, salvation in the literal, fundamentalist sense of the tiny cup into which people hammer it led me to feeling God with every breath, with embracing him with all my ability to see, with unending gratitude and deep, deep love for my Savior. He gently, slowly led me out of the tiny cup into a great universe of Loving, Giving, and Receiving. Every breath in and every breath out says His name. And Just Me, if you are not comfortable with what I am writing here, I want you to understand I am not trying to force my experiences and memories onto you, or to say that my path is somehow “better” than yours. God is joyous dances of countless pathways of love. When people tell me, basically, your path is wrong-headed because it doesn’t fit in the little cup, I just feel sad. I wish only that we can bless each other.

  • Just Me

    No they don’t. You cannot follow him without a right belief about who he is. A right Christology is required. Buddhists do not believe the Gospel so they, by definition, cannot follow Christ.

  • Just Me

    Not sure what any of that means, but my point is simple. The Bible, which is the word of God, defines salvation – not you or anyone else. Sola scriptura. Man does not get to create his own meaning.

  • Dhammarato

    yes and we laugh at the silly Christians who want help (with salvation) rather than finding their own happiness within (as JC recommends in Luke 17)

  • Dhammarato

    JC was very close to Buddha, and Christianity is close to the Buddhist Religion. Happily, there is more than just the Buddhist Religion, the deep teachings of the Buddha can be used for ones own personal salvation from the sufferings of life. And the Christians are all screwed because the do not do as JC taught. They are the Pharacies of modern times. political and greedy.

  • Dhammarato

    There are many messages in the old dusty book, “Kill all non-Jews” in Jericho, is a favorite. Store Gays. stone hos. many messages. But as for salvation: from what? all suffering is mental, one needs to clean out the mind, not put more lies and stupid stories in to confuse. Humans do not need a 2000 years dead dude with good advice. We only need his advice. Buddhas advice is better and not so painful and not so heated and conceited. So twist away that old book wring it out, take all the JC you can and burn the rest.

  • JT Orzan

    According to this article, Jesus is just Another Good Guy who teaches us how to live. That is part of who he is, but not the entirety, which is conveniently left out of this article.

    Jesus is God, who came to us in the form of a man (because we cannot even begin to grasp the extent of who God is), to live a blameless, sin free life, in order to make us holy before God. Without that holiness, no person can stand before God. Without the death and resurrection of Christ, he is no different from any other man, and maybe that is the point of this article: Jesus doesn’t really matter. He is no different from Buddha or Mohamed or any other religious leader, because they all (according to this article) say the same thing. But — Jesus is MORE than all that. He is God.

    All humans are made in the image of God, and we have stamped upon our psyches a conscience; a knowing of the difference between right and wrong. This is why the major religions have the commonalities upon which the article focused To live in the world, we must focus on those commonalities, but when one talks about life after death, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.

    This article, and it is not unique, wants to soften (or eliminate) the theology of sin, and the fact that the theology of Christianity is unyielding in its claim to be the only way to God. This is an offense to people (as was acknowledged by many of the writers of the New Testament), and Christianity has to be stripped of that in order to be “acceptable” in today’s world.

    Jesus promises that we will live forever if we believe in him. I don’t know what “live forever” means and I don’t know what happens after death. Christianity is mystical in that we can’t understand it intellectually and so all I can do is trust through faith and leave the details to God.

    In the meantime, I will try to share the grace that Jesus has bestowed upon me, not deserving of any of it, with others. This means that I will try to follow the instructions he gave his followers, knowing that I will fail, and knowing that my efforts are an expression of my faith and are not a means to my salvation. Jesus is the means to my salvation, and I, in gratitude try to live my life in service to others.

  • Solar Scriptura is a man made idea. Can you say irony?

  • Thanks for commenting.

  • Christ is universal. Some call it the Living Buddha, but why quibble?

  • soter phile

    Christ is universal? the Living Buddha? Not the Christ found in the Scriptures.

    Buddhism abstracts from the physical // Jesus fully entered the physical to restore it.
    The physical is bad; suffering is an illusion // The physical is good; suffering will be healed.
    Buddha came as a teacher // Jesus came as Savior who insisted ‘the Messiah must die.’
    Nirvana is achieved through your own efforts // Jesus achieved what humanity could not.
    Attachments are bad; there is no sin // Sin is real & humanity is enslaved to it.
    And on & on the differences go.

    Why quibble? Because, Marie Antoinette, you cannot eat your cake & have it, too.

  • soter phile

    Irony: Jesus’ view & use of Scripture looks much more like his than yours.

  • jekylldoc

    Sooooo — loving correctly is much more important than loving at all. My reading of this is that anxious efforts to find salvation have further and further refined the requirements for it, without ever getting what it is. Those who were endorsed by the Father at the final judgment scene had no concept that they had shown love for Jesus. They just couldn’t help doing something for the people they felt compassion for. It ain’t about the formula, it ain’t about the right hermeneutic, it’s about living differently from the cruel Order of the World, so that the spark of life can ignite inside. Too simple for a lot of people.

  • DuckyShades

    Do I really want to read down through all the inevitable evangelicals here preaching the “gospel” against such dangerous “anathema” written above? No, lol, no I don’t. You can’t open someone’s mind. It has to be opened. Christians need to give up their love affair with absolute rightness, innerrant dogma, and self loathing before they can start to understand love. Do a good hard study on how much Jewish culture and myth is forged into the pages of your gospels. That’s a good starting point. Sorry but Christians I know just love believing stuff. The sermon on the mount is how to live…what the emphasis should be. But the infatuation is The Nicean Creed i.e. what to believe. It doesn’t do anything outside Sunday morning and small groups. Other religions actually put it to practice in the world.

  • In my opinion: All religions and traditions should be equally treated and that a golden rule to live life happily.. 🙂

  • Chorbais Dichault

    Christian believers say it is absurd to ascribe Hindu or Buddhist teaching to Jesus as he was given a Jewish upbringing, but they forget that every heterodoxy springs from an orthodox background. Spinoza, the pantheist, was given an Orthodox Jewish upbringing, but he formulated a doctrine totally heretical in the eyes of his coreligionists.

    Hindu and Buddhist teachings were already well known in Greece, let alone the Middle East, at the time of Jesus. Pythagoras had been heavily influenced by them, as were many Jews of that time. Jesus’s great misfortune was to preach the teaching of “I and my father are one” in a Jewish setting; had he been in India, he would have won renown as one of their great gurus, but to the Jews the idea of a God-Man was (and still is) the rankest heresy.

    As for CS Lewis’s rant to the effect that Jesus never intended to be a teacher, that’s just a devout Christian trying to desperately steer the reader’s thinking to the “correct” way (“Turn that way, dammit! THAT WAY!” I can almost hear him say when writing it).

  • soter phile

    Have you read the Sermon on the Mount? It’s impossible. That’s the point.
    Telling Sisyphus to ‘try harder’ is not loving or helpful.

    No, Jesus didn’t come to make people better;
    he came to make people new… he came to raise the dead.

  • Matthew thank you for highlighting the dangers we face with biblical literalism. Much of the pushback you receive comes from people who hang their understanding of G-d and the Christian faith on their limited reading of a translation/transliteration of languages with much more depth than our young English language could even attempt to capture. We are also victims of mis-contextualizing the scripture in an attempt to contain the faith within the boundaries of religion.

  • Dhammarato

    good stuff is good stuff all over, so if JC said some good stuff that matches those even more wise than he, please give his some credit. He did say good good stuff, gave good advice. trouble is, unlike Buddhist who head those words of wisdom, Christianity has fallen to greed hatred and a big pack of lies, there is no JC in the churches, just tomfoolery, lies, filled pew numbers and a sex ring or two. Oh and above all things JC was a Jew he was not christian.

  • Dhammarato

    Besides the golden rule sucks. The hubby give espan and black nickers to wife and she gives him pots and pans for Christmas, that’s the golden rule, give other what you yourself want, how christian, not Buddhist at all, Why not treat others and give gifts that they what not what you selfish christian trash wants. Those who seek an abortion do not want some Christian doing that golden rule number on her. .

  • Dhammarato

    Some massage. Take a cold bath in muddy water with all your cloths on, and your save from sin, but if sin persist you can get a do over. Its not about some old smelly book of fools, it is about Christians running their bat shit crazy ideas in public, Christianity needs to be kept in a closet as per JC. Christianity is at its best when it is not seen and not heard.

  • Just Me

    I think that maybe you don’t know what the term means. The definition is “the Bible alone is our final authority in all matters of faith and practice”. This was the formal cause of the reformation in reaction to the Catholic church adding to the scripture. So no it’s not man made it is in complete alignment with the scripture itself. Do you think you have something worthy to add to the Bible?

  • Just Me

    You’re totally and completely missing my point. Went right over your head. It is a very simple point: the Bible defines what salvation is, not man. You can re-phrase it or explain it, but that must align with the scripture. You said: “for me, salvation in the literal, fundamentalist sense of the tiny cup into which people hammer it led me to feeling God with every breath, with embracing him with all my ability to see, with unending gratitude and deep, deep love for my Savior”, however that statement does not align with scripture. Loving God and our neighbor is a result of our salvation but is not salvation itself. We are saved by something that Christ did 2000 years ago, not anything we can ever do. We love others out of gratitude for what Christ did. You’re confusing the categories.

  • jekylldoc

    Well, actually, loving God and our neighbor is exactly what salvation is. It isn’t the road to salvation, it is what is meant by salvation. Yes, what Christ did transforms the whole relationship (as much by rising transformed and by living as the Prince of Peace as by going to his death at the hands of the Romans) but salvation is spiritual life, not passing the bar in the next world. This is a major point of confusion in Christian doctrine, brought about by the desire for power on the part of the church. The Bible does not define salvation, it attempts to tell the good news of salvation. The Bible is not a rule book or how to manual, it is a soaring effort to transmit spiritual truth. And please don’t quote Martha Bienert as my words.

  • Just Me

    Are you actually serious when you say “the Bible does not define salvation”?? Have you ever read & studied the book of Romans? Paul labors for many chapters to provide such a definition. Paul’s other many epistles also provide such a definition. And the Bible does not “attempt to tell the good news of salvation” it does in fact tell that good news. That good news is, by definition, the gospel and Paul lays out what that good news is in 1 Cor 15. That good news he tells in 1 Cor 15 is what we need to believe to be saved. Have you ever studied a systematic theology? Every systematic theology includes the doctrine of salvation, which is a Biblical study of salvation from justification to glorification. Have a look at Romans 4 where Paul says that Christ was raised for our justification. There is part of the definition. That verse tells us that something happened 2000 years ago to gain our salvation. Something external to us. And all throughout Romans Paul provides these important parts of the definition. Look at Romans 8:29-30 which is called the golden chain of salvation. If you’re not seeing the definition of salvation in then Bible then you’re missing the whole point.

  • jekylldoc

    Just Me – I have studied Romans many times. There is no definition of salvation within it. If God had meant the New Testament to be a work of systematic theology, it would read very differently. That’s why I say “attempt to tell” – Paul mainly preached in person, and faith is more caught than taught. The point you say I am missing is the point of later writers, not of Paul. If you consider I Cor 15:17, for example, you will find a view expressed by Paul which does not fit traditional theology, namely that without the Resurrection “you are still in you sins.” And later in the chapter, a verse that only Joseph Smith ever tried to create a theology of: “If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?”

    Paul, and others, had some ideas what salvation is, and how it happens, and what proceeds from it, and I think it’s great if people want to study their writings and understand those ideas. But this will go better, and be more effective, if those are treated as inspired writings rather than dictated communications from another realm. Even worse to consider them some kind of legal text just because Calvin was a lawyer.

    There are even canonical scriptures which are quite simply misleading, as with Hebrews 10:26-27. I might recommend that a seeker spend more time on Romans 8:13 than verses 29 and 30 of the same chapter.

  • jekylldoc

    The Roman Catholic church had become very much a tool of the ruling class. Its power structure was controlled by the princes of the sword, leading to exclusion of the Prince of Peace from its decision-making. Luther and Calvin sought another source of authority with as strong a claim to moral rule as the church had, and found it in scripture. All good. But they bought into a theology of control that had been developed over the centuries by a church bent more on authority than on genuine spiritual truth. Not so good.

    Jesus didn’t go to the cross so we could joust with one another using holy texts, but so that we could find our own sources of life in moral truth. Those who find it liberate others – they don’t need to point to doctrines or procedures or institutional structures, because moral truth is immediate and direct and inescapably leads to encounter with the Living One.

  • Just Me

    I never said that Romans *is* only a systematic theology. It is that, but also much more. If there is any one book that lays out a systematic theology then it is the book of Romans. And that is not just me saying that but many, many theologians that have gone before us.

    The basic elements of Biblical salvation are regeneration, election, justification, sanctification, glorification & atonement; in no particular order. Reading through Romans (I just re-read the book) you’ll find every single one of these categories discussed in great detail. Justification in particular is something that Paul spends a lot of time on and is the key element of our salvation. There is no single passage that says “here is the definition”, but one of the purposes of Romans is to lay out in clear language what salvation is. There is one of these elements in every chapter. If you honestly can read the book and miss this then you’re not reading the Christian Bible, you actually cannot read, or you have blinders on preventing you from understanding the meaning of the text.

    Try reading it again and look for these categories — they’re everywhere.

  • jekylldoc

    I am not rejecting a claim that Romans is *only* a book of systematic theology, I am rejecting any claim that it is a book of systematic theology at all. Paul believed that time would end soon, and was not trying to set out ideas to stand for the ages – there would be no ages. He uses justification, salvation, sanctification and reformation nearly interchangeably, and where he uses them differently it has as much to do with the context he is using at that moment than with any true distinction between them.

    The most respected analysis in current Pauline studies notes that his contrast with a process of salvation through obedience to the law is more a matter of contrast between the road to salvation for Jews and the road to salvation for the Gentiles than it is some kind of repudiation of faith leading to good works. Luther’s message was, again, by contrast with that of the church of his day which, for example, sold indulgences, than a straightforward reading of Paul from the point of view of how Paul saw the process.

    Traditionalist theologians tend to downplay verses like Romans 8:13 because they don’t fit the theology of the Reformation. But such verses have as much role in revealing the thought processes of Paul as any others. To be saved is to put to death the misdeeds of the body. To be saved is to have your mind governed by Spirit and to see the fruits of the spirit in your life. To be saved is to love God and love other people. To be saved is to be vulnerable to the needs of the poor. How can you say you love God whom you don’t see if you don’t love Somali and Yemeni children you can see?

    Our task is not to assemble a careful account of how the bits and pieces of a puzzle fit together from having been scattered around the New Testament, but to see into the process they are talking about in a way that brings to life encounter with the Living Word. Take the Gospel seriously, not as something that is verified or not after you die but as a message to meant to write God’s law on your heart today.

  • Just Me

    Right, you know better than every theologian since Christ. Good to know.

  • It is not a contest.