Question 2: Are all religions the same?
There is an often repeated story which people tell to describe the relationship beteen religions.
The story describes a group of blind men who come across an elephant and begin to describe what the animal is like. One grabs hold of the leg and declares that an elephant is like a tree-trunk. Another finds the ear and decides that the elephant is like a banana leaf. A third locates the trunk and concludes that an elephant is some kind of snake.
The point of the story is of course that all the blind men are right even though it sounds like they are describing completely different creatures. And the reason why the story is told is to suggest that this is how we should think about the differences between the different religions.
Initially this idea seems very promising. There is something attractive in the idea that we might all be brought together and find that we have all been worshiping the same God after all. At the same time this approach seems to short circuit the arrogance and intolerance of people who claim that their religion is right and everyone else’s is wrong.
Yet there is a massive problem with the story. The tale fails to mention one of the people who is at the scene — namely the person who sees the situation and observes the true situation.
This person who is the one who tells the story is in-effect claiming to be the only sighted person out of a world of blind religions. This person not only sees the true shape of God but also understands every other religion better than it’s most faithful adherents. At this point the story looks less like tolerance and more like a patronising attempt to tell everyone else what they really believe.
In the end the most honest approach is to let religions disagree. Perhaps none of them are right. Perhaps they are all partially right. But nobody is helped by a pseudo tolerance that shoe-horns contradictions into a grand meta-religion. It is true that there are similarities between the world’s great religions. All insist that people need to change and that there are problems with the world. All insist that there is another reality beyond this life of flesh and mortality.
But the truth is the similarities end right about there. Religions inevitably make definite statements about the world which must either be true or false and which often contradict the teachings of other religions.
When Buddhism tells you that you will be reincarnated after death and Islam says that you will face judgment and go to paradise or hell they can’t both be right. When Hinduism describes God as a universal force and Judaism tells us that God is a great and powerful person one of them at least must be wrong.
Religions disagree and contradict each other at many points and it helps no-one to pretend that these differences are insignificant. The most respectful way of dealing with the differences between the faiths is to acknowledge them and try to understand them. Here is a brief outline of three distinctive teachings of Christian faith that set it apart from other religions.
1. God wants a loving relationship with you.
More than any other religion, Christianity is preoccupied with relationships and love. Some eastern religions emphasise God’s unity of being with the universe — “everything is a part of God” —and others stress that God is so great that he cannot really be known. The Bible portrays God as a person who longs for friendship with the people he has made and is prepared to make enormous sacrifices to bring about reconciliation.
2. You can never be good enough for God
Many religions tell us that to get right with God we must do good deeds or observe certain rituals to ensure that our virtues outweigh our sins; the Bible says that we can never be good enough. Our fundamental problem is that we have broken our relationship with God by trying to live apart from him. We are guilty and we cannot make up for that guilt simply by doing the good things we should already have been doing.
3. God offers us free forgiveness
If there is to be reconciliation between us and God, we will have to admit our rebellious attempt to live without him and agree to change; but even this will not do us any good if God does not find a way to forgive us. The great message of the Bible is that this is exactly what God did when he sent his own son Jesus to die for us. Jesus completely bore the penalty of our guilt so that anyone who wants to begin living a new life with God can no matter what they have done! God offers us a free gift of complete forgiveness! Listen to how the apostle Paul described it:
We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God! God made [Jesus] who had no sin to bear our sins that through him we might become right before God. (2Corinthians 5:20-21)
For more information:
- Christianity and Buddhism
- Christianity and Islam
- Christianity and Hinduism