fundamentally different, superficially similar: why all religions can’t be true

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There’s a genuine struggle deep down within our human nature that wrestles between our personal convictions and the desire to be collectively agreeable. What I mean by that is this: we have a beautiful gift of being able to find common ground with anyone, so it’s not surprising that we have the tendency to drift to a place where we look at all religious convictions as only slightly different paths that lead to the same destination.

Don’t shut down on me just yet. This article is not with the interest of spewing opinions with out-of-context Bible verses. Believe it or not, I’ve had the opportunity to study many of the world’s most common religions, and I’d like to share some of the findings and logic that have led me to embrace Christianity as true above the others. And you’ll be thankful to see these reasonings don’t start and end with “because the Bible says so.”

There is a really interesting story from the Bible I would like to start with, though. Not a command or teaching. Just a quick history lesson to show that this concept of embracing more than one religion as equally right or true is not quite the revolutionary, progressive idea it’s being made out to be in our increasingly pluralistic society.

In 2 Kings 17, we can read what happened when the Assyrians attempted to resettle the land of Israel after they had taken the Jews into exile. We’re told that God sent lions among the Assyrian people because they were worshipping their own gods and not the True God. The response by the Assyrians was to petition their king to send a Jewish priest back to this land of Samaria in order to teach them how to appease “the god of the land.” But even as they attempted to respect God, they continued their other religious practices, which would’ve included everything from prostitution to sacrificing their first born kids.

Amazingly, this story is close to 3,000 years old, and yet we can recognize many of the common elements of pluralism in it that we think are unique to our modern, culturally-aware society. The Assyrians feared God. They recognized His existence and influence, making no attempt to deny Him. But they also made no attempt to consider how this God could be as true and real as the other gods they were lighting their kids on fire for. (I guess no one stopped to recognize or wonder how the Israelites had never been known for fertility problems– quite the opposite, actually– as they worshipped God without prostitutes or killing their firstborn.)

To say we should all respect and even practice a bit of teaching from multiple religions, thereby achieving greater tolerance or spiritual maturity isn’t a new idea. It’s fun to think new ideas are possible, especially when it comes to spirituality. But if you do enough digging, you quickly realize that even what we call “New Age” spiritual ideas are actually ancient ideas presented with a bit of updated cultural relevance. Even with our self-driving cars, we’re just not as clever as we think.

Of course it’s easier to say everyone is right. We all appreciate the chance to avoid rubbing someone the wrong way, especially an entire group of people with hundreds or thousands of years of cultural heritage. I completely get that, and to be clear, I’m not saying we can’t all live together without violence and oppression. That’s ironically the kind of tolerance Jesus Himself displayed. But to go to the extent of saying that Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva in Hinduism get us to the same truth as Islam, Taoism, Animism, Buddhism, and Christianity, would require us to ignore each religion’s fundamental teachings and only focus on human nature, which has nothing to do with a religion’s teaching. In fact, human nature is the problem most religions attempt to resolve.

Let me unpack that a bit because it’s really important.

Discuss religion with enough people (sadly, even with many self-professing Christians) and you’ll start to recognize a common belief that all religions are fundamentally the same and only superficially different. That is to say, dedicate yourself to any one of them and you’ll end up where we are all hoping to go. Maybe we’ll just be dressed a bit differently when we get there.

There is serious misinformation fueling this belief, though. Because if you study any one religion for a single hour, you quickly realize that not only does each one claim to have an exclusive understanding of what is true, they each introduce a competing set of characteristics as to the nature of who they call god and what we must do in order to find favor with each of their gods.

The argument goes something like this: since most religions forbid things like murder or stealing, then they have fundamentally similar teachings and everyone benefits the same by following any one of them. But this logic is focused purely on morality and only reveals that humans were created with an embedded understanding of basic right and wrong. That is superficial and is actually another religion in itself (humanism). In this, we have not even touched anything supernatural yet. If we wanted to go there, we’d have to start asking how we resolve, or find forgiveness for, the wrong when it’s committed from a higher power. And for this, every religion has a different truth because the nature of each of their gods is different.  The core of each religion presents a path that is not parallel to the others, but one that is more perpendicular. We make the mistake of thinking that because two paths intersect briefly at the very beginning, they’re not still taking their journeyers to different locations.

Case in point: Let’s consider Buddhism and Christianity on their common elements of suffering and charitable works.

Buddha’s four noble truths acknowledge suffering. Jesus also acknowledges suffering when He told His disciples they would suffer on account of Him. But this superficial similarity can’t blind us to what each was saying about suffering: Buddha, that you can escape it by achieving enlightenment; Jesus, that suffering for His name should be accepted and even embraced as a way to illustrate the suffering that Jesus Himself went through for our eternal salvation, and that God alone can redeem the world’s suffering.

Similarly, the eightfold path of Buddhism advises charitable works while Jesus commanded His followers to love their neighbors sacrificially. Again, we have to look behind the scenes and understand the motives for each religion’s teaching. In Buddhism, this charitable work contributes to a follower achieving enlightenment. But in Christianity, it’s purpose is to reveal the character of God and how He has given of Himself to care for us. There is no human achievement involved when it comes to salvation in Christianity.

These are fundamentally different teachings that cannot and do not coincide. They cannot both be true.

I read an article recently that suggested Christians embrace Muhammad as having the same source and intentions as Jesus. The article called this progress. But what sounds really nice to say is actually impossible in practice. The Qur’an teaches that Jesus did not die for the sins of mankind, which is the cornerstone of Christian belief. For a Christian to embrace Muhammad and therefore the Qur’an, they are rejecting everything that Christianity teaches.

Someone practicing Buddhism will tell you that it is up to their own efforts to achieve their ultimate goal of enlightenment. A Christian will say that what Jesus did on the cross by offering Himself as the ransom and justification our sins demand is the only way to find forgiveness and eternity with God. And a Muslim would say, somewhat similarly to Buddhism, that Allah will give them paradise if at the end of his life his  good deeds outweigh his bad deeds (even though he  also must admit their religious texts show that Allah doesn’t always use the same standards for judgement with every person).

And this is just three examples.

Ironically, it’s the devout adherents to each single religion (who these people are trying desperately to affirm) that reject pluralism most immediately. It’s the people who actually understand even just one of the religions beyond a surface level who see most clearly how every religion cannot lead to the same place and be equally true with others. In their great effort to say everyone is right, the people and beliefs they affirm are looking at them and calling them wrong. And the maddening part of all of this is that it’s here where the pluralist thinkers get frustrated and pressure devout adherents of one truth to say that they, too, are right, ignoring that by doing so, a devout adherent would be recanting the very teachings they’re being affirmed of. No religion gives its followers permission to embrace other religions as being true.

I fully accept this article is likely not going to change anyone’s mind from wanting to believe that we’re all going to the same place through obedience to any religion. But what I hope to do is encourage Christians and adherents to other individual religions to allow themselves to explore other religions and go beyond just surface level. I think part of the resurgence of this pluralistic idea is due to a lack of understanding about what makes each of the world’s religions unique and different. And as long as we are unable to explain those differences in intelligible ways, people will continue thinking they’re all the same. Christians, especially, should know what Islam teaches and what the Qur’an claims. We should know what Hinduism and Buddhism teach, and be interested in learning about the other truth claims out there, because it’s only then that we can truly defend what we believe.

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5 thoughts on “fundamentally different, superficially similar: why all religions can’t be true

  1. I was born in a Christian country. I was also born again in Christ. I was also deeply involved in Buddhism.Taoism.Zen . . . not so much Muslim or Hebrew, but I’ve read about them. . . . so after 30+ years of all that religion . . . I realized that all roads do lead to the same place . . . a higher state of consciousness.

    All religions, if used properly, are merely stepping stone’s to the greater truth . . . YOU, the man in the mirror. . . . Stepping stones that when used wrongly quickly become stumbling blocks along the way to our own maturation of spirit.

    • I so appreciate your comment but I have to admit I’m pretty confused by most of what you said. From what you remember of Christianity, can you help me understand what aspect of Jesus’ teachings are meant to lead us to a greater truth that is found within ourselves, or where the goal is a higher state of consciousness? There’s a vast difference between Eastern religions like Buddhism/Taoism/Zen, which have fundamentally introspective, humanist, self-fulfilling goals, and then all of the Abrahamic religions, which teach an explicitly outward/upward focus on who God is apart from ourselves. I’m having trouble understanding how you see them all as equal stepping stones to a maturation of spirit when the goals and motives are so opposite between them. Can a devout Buddhist believe that Jesus was sent by God and rose from the dead? Can a devout Christian believe in moksha or nirvana?

      Many religions, especially Buddhism and the other Eastern religions, teach self-reliance and achievement. It’s a system that is designed around ourselves in this life and making our experience better and more fulfilling. I don’t find any promises in those religions that deal with what happens after we die or, more importantly, how God is there for us and interacts with us (both now and in what is obviously coming for each of us). That is where it breaks down for me. I also couldn’t accept Buddhism’s teaching on a perpetual Earth with no creation, and perpetual existence, when science has proven otherwise. Truth, to me, must coincide with our experiences and the sciences that I believe God created. That includes consciousness, which Eastern religions treat as the goal and almost as the deity in itself, when none of us decided to come into being or can create anything purely with our consciousness.

      Ultimately, I think it’s important to understand what Christianity’s teachings are focused on, which is absolutely not ourselves, but Jesus. The point of being born again is not to find ourselves but rather to be in waiting for Him to fulfill His promises to us as we wait for His return. The stumbling block, in my opinion, is when we are led into “using” religion (as you say) to simply benefit ourselves in this life, as if that is all we are here for. If it wasn’t a self-focused system designed around and upholding our own humanness but rather the truth of how and why we came into being in the first place, then there can only be one way and one truth.

      Again, your comment is appreciated and I am very open to hearing your further reactions!

      • 🙂 I’m sorry to confuse because one of my goals is to reveal the simplicity of the Godhead! HA. . . not doing too good it seems . . .

        I would say , and it’s been proven to me by others, that if one is locked into the Christian box, this all sounds like nonsense (and maybe it is) but I have spent many years studying the bible, even lived in a Christian community. I wanted more than bible speak and personal salvation. . . . I wanted to know WHY I had to be saved in the first place . . . and WHAT I was saved for. . . . . so I went wandering and wondering and fearlessly challenged all aspects of all main religions . . . something I am still doing. If your interested in that sort of thing I have many writings on my blogs http://www.jjwalterspress.com and jjwaltersblog.wordpress.com I have no doctrine to speak of as I have not obtained perfection enough to know all the realities of this mysterious entity we call God . . . anyway I appreciate your lack of dogma.

      • My apologies for the delay. I think you would agree that while the Godhead can be simple to explain, that explanation will always have to be a vague and metaphorical explanation since, as created beings, we will and should never understand it. I hope I never can explain it because suddenly my limited brain would be able to explain the Creator of the Universe. And that would be a massive problem because I would then take His place as God… something I want nothing to do with.

        One of the most freeing things I ever did was to allow myself to open my mind to ask the questions I thought were forbidden, and truly consider other religions’ truth claims. What those religions were for me, though, were separate truth claims that each claimed to work independently to explain a complete story. Within each religion is the teaching that it is exclusive in its truth. And what troubles me about this approach you’re taking is that it flies in the face of what each religion says about itself. By attempting to practice and respect all of the major religions, you essentially prevent yourself from practicing and respecting any of them for what they teach. I can’t see how it can be any other way.

        This is probably what you would consider to be an example of being locked into the Christian box, but the nature of any truth claim (ie, a religious system and especially an Abrahamic religion) is that it is complete. It needs nothing else and is not meant to be part of something larger than itself. It is the larger thing that all things point to. That’s the point. That’s what I was after in my quest… the truth about God and why I was here, much like you in that respect. But if the same God is found in any and all religion, then God is inconsistent at best and cruel at worst. And there would be no command to make disciples of any religion. It wouldn’t matter if we each would be fine left to our own ideas.

        That is actually connected to what you said about wanting to know why you had to be saved in the first place. We are naturally selfish and, as you say, imperfect. A child left without any training or parenting reveals this truth about us. One thing that is refreshingly honest about Christianity is that it does not reveal a God who stands ready to condemn the world and all of us in it. We stand already condemned and imperfect and unworthy of our Creator. We know that deep inside we are lacking. Christianity presents a God who entered this broken and condemned world in order to restore it through Jesus and the payment of His own life. Now, to say that this is true, but that it’s only part of the story, and that simply trying to be a better person works just the same, is kind of a slap in the face to God. And if God doesn’t mind the incredible and impressive lengths He went through to restore us, then He sure went through a lot of unnecessary steps since He planned to already take us imperfect and selfish as we were.

        I do believe Jesus is the only way to the Father, as Jesus said about Himself, because to embrace Christianity means I have given myself to embrace what Jesus said (a lot of really hard things on top of the fluffy and out-of-context all-inclusive stuff we see get quoted much of the time). But I have no fear or qualms with questions and open-mindedness. I just think that none of us are meant to open our mind and then leave it open. To open our mind to something still demands a decision about whether what something says is true or not, and whether it can be as true as another claim. We open our mind with the purpose of closing it again on what we believe is true. To do anything else means we are claiming that truth no longer exists.

        And finally (sorry for the book), if God is the one who created us, just as God is the one who saves us… I believe His motivation is simple and uniform: it is all for Himself. Before He created us, He was no less worthy and perfect. And He would be no less worthy and perfect if Earth and the rest of the universe vanished tomorrow. So our purpose is to glorify Him who creates, sustains and even rescues. The fact that He allowed us to get to a position where we clearly need rescuing… and then that He did it for us… shows that He wants to be known as our rescuer. Looking beyond religions as a whole to find out what they all point to, and especially coming to the conclusion that they somehow point to ourselves, is missing the point, at least in the deistic religions. The Greatest Commandment of Christianity tells us what our purpose is, plain and simple. It’s to look at God and see that He is the point, and that we are not. And so the Greatest Commandment cannot be combined with the other truth claims that point to ourselves or other created things as equally-worthy or valid purposes to life. It’s just God. If He’s real, how can it not be?

        That was much more than I intended to say. Perhaps that’s why I was so delayed in responding, though. I’ve been mulling over what you said and I knew there was a lot to unpack.

      • I actually understand all that and yet . . . as to the various religions I respect the foundational (what I believe to be ) truths. that’s all. Love, mercy, grace, and kindness, are the cornerstones of all (what I’d call viable) religions. I believe in that part only.

        When it comes to God . . . I believe God is not necessarily an individual entity, but a state of being . . . actually in this dimension what isn’t God? would be a better question. Therefore I personally see God everywhere . . . if I study an acorn I see Him . . . if I study a newborn baby I see him . . . If I study the bible I don’t see Him, I see what others have written about Him and Jesus and all that , but nothing beats first hand experience . . .

        I don’t pray to God, I talk to Him in an endless dialog. I don’t know pure truth because truth changes every time I have a further awakening . . .

        Your truth is yours, mine is mine. I do not live in fear of sin and death . . . I don’t think you do either. I don’t believe in condemnation and judgement (I think you do). . .

        I believe in karma and through my own experience and observing others around me, I know whatever I put out will come back so I do my very best to be kind all the time because I don’t want to suffer the effect of my wrong doings. . .

        I am responsible for myself before God and man, and knowing that is far more freeing than seeing myself as a creature saved only by the grace of my big brother. (and in my world that slot is still owned by Jesus of Nazareth)

        I am a creator, I create my tomorrows by the thoughts and actions I take today. I revel in the fact that I have control over my life. I no longer wonder why I, out of all the people on this planet, had the opportunity to be saved . . . and nobody could tell me why I was saved in the first.

        I don’t preach with my lips, but with my feet to the best of my ability . . . I get no recognition, no followers, but I don’t care . . . I am free . . . 🙂

        PS I am sleepy, hope I made a little sense . . .

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