Aren’t all Religions Basically the Same?

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  • Aren’t all Religions Basically the Same?

    by Craig J. Hazen

    There is a very old and famous fable-- of either Buddhist or Jain origin-- that has been used through the centuries to illustrate what is thought to be a fundamental truth about the religions of mankind. Several blind men were led into a rajah’s (king’s) courtyard, where they encountered an elephant. One felt a tusk and concluded that an elephant is like a spear. Another touched a leg and thought that an elephant is like a tree. Yet another bumped into the side of the beast and thought that it is like a wall. And so on. The rajah heard the activity, came out on his balcony, and told the blind men that they were each encountering only one small part of the magnificent whole.

    The lesson by analogy, of course, is that the different religious traditions of the world are all stumbling upon only one particular aspect of ultimate reality and are blind to the total picture. But all the religious hands are touching the same essential truth.

    It is easy to see the appeal of this unifying approach to the broad spectrum of religious beliefs. After all, exclusive claims to religious truth are seen by many to be the root of so much violence and suffering in the world as believers in one tradition fight those of other traditions-- sometimes for centuries. If at their core all religions are the same, or each is heading toward the same end, there is no real reason for conflict or quarrel.

    Ironically, this fable has built into it an element that is not highlighted in the traditional interpretations but may be the most important issue in the story. How do the blind discover the truth about their encounter with the elephant? It is revealed to them from above. The rajah steps out on his balcony and from his transcendent perspective, and with his intact sense of sight, communicates to those below the full picture of their experience. The more profound real world question that emerges from the fable is where is our “Rajah” who can see all and can reveal to us the truth that is not accessible from our limited perspective?

    Unless there is some word from above to tell us that all religions are basically the same, there is no good reason to conclude they are, because the evidence is stacked heavily against it. Although one can identify common beliefs and practices, some of the differences among the traditions are stark and irreconcilable.

    Compare, for instance, Mormonism, Buddhism, and Christianity on the critical question of what is ultimately real. Mormon scripture teaches that ultimate reality is material or physical and that even God and spirits are material objects whose constituent matter has existed for all eternity. Mahayana Buddhists believe that ultimate reality is emptiness (sunyata) or beinglessness (nisvabhava)-- no gods, no matter, no spirit, no self. Christians, by contrast, see ultimate reality in God, who is an eternal, personal, triune Being who created all there is-- both physical and nonphysical-- from nothing. By any measure these are dramatic differences.

    The conflicting ideas are multiplied once other issues are addressed. What is a human being? Why do we exist? What is good? Why is there pain and suffering? Where is history going? How do I reach salvation or enlightenment? Given the deep divergence on such timeless questions, it is completely legitimate to wonder if the essential unity of all religions is really just a noble wish or a pious hope. Indeed, without a word from the “Rajah” to tell us that the contradictions among the great faiths can be overcome, the notion that all religions are the same seems utterly untenable.

    Another irony about the fable presented here is that there is excellent reason to believe that there really is a Rajah who has spoken to mankind and has given us the transcendent perspective we need to know the truth. Jesus Christ is a radical figure in the history of the great religious traditions in that he is the only leader who claimed to be the one eternal God in human flesh. He knows the beginning from the end and knows the deepest religious yearnings of all people. He said definitively that there is only one God and only one source of salvation: Jesus Christ Himself. Moreover (and this is very important), Jesus did not leave us with “blind faith” as the only means to know that His claims are true. Rather, He established the truth of His claims objectively through His glorious resurrection from the dead-- the central miracle of human history.

    The King has indeed spoken from on high. All religions are not the same. And although we are all blind in sin, we can still hear the Savior’s words. He who has ears, let him hear the voice of the King.
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