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As a Soto Zen priest dedicated to the Buddhist path, I can say with great confidence that no religion has all the answers, even Buddhism. Yet every religion has some treasure to offer humanity.
The purpose of this piece is to help the reader reflect not so much on another religion, but on themself, and on the lens through which they look to see reality.
My contention is that when we notice the lens – that we have a lens through which we are looking out at the world as well as in toward ourselves – we have greater choices available to us.
Our “lenses” are like a set of eyeglasses. We have to clean them from time to time. We also need to replace them when our vision changes.
We live in the most dangerous time that humans have ever known. Human history only goes back some 40,000 years. It’s hard to get our minds wrapped around that many years, let alone the 4.4 billion year history of the Earth. If we keep the lifespan of modern humans in context with the lifespan of Earth, then we have only just arrived, a relatively new species compared to all the diversity of life that appeared before us.
The Earth has experienced five mass extinctions based on scientific research of our fossil record. A mass extinction is an exceedingly rare event given there have only been 5 in 4.4 billion years of Earth history.
The last mass extinction was 65 million years ago with the dinosaurs. Many reports are coming in now that we are in the midst of a 6th mass extinction, and this one is caused by the ways in which humans are living and the ways we see ourselves in relation to mother Earth. Mass extinction means that whole species go extinct. Humans are no exception to that. This is why we can say that we live in the most dangerous times known to humankind.
Add to this poverty, resource scarcity, and the threat of nuclear war and the future looks quite bleak.
The world’s religious traditions have functioned historically to address ways of living ethically. We have moral teachings against homicide, suicide, and genocide. We do not yet have a comprehensive ethics around ecocide, the killing of the environment.
The world’s religions have a huge challenge ahead of them if they wish to remain viable. Christianity has an emphasis, for example, on going to Heaven. Buddhism has an emphasis on attaining Nirvana. Both of these concepts, heaven and nirvana, are problematic in a culture that gives priority of the individual over the group, community, culture, nation, or natural world. The challenge to world religions like Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and others is to communicate concepts from within them that embrace and affirm this world, not a world in some far off future, or one that we go to after death.
Historically, religions have functioned to motivate people to change their hearts and to live an ethical life. This particular function needs to be activated once again in regards to mother Earth. The world’s religions have developed ethics around homicide, suicide, and genocide, says Thomas Berry. In other words, they have spoken out against the killing of others, the killing of oneself, and the killing of whole cultures. They have not, however, collectively recognized the need to speak out against ecocide – the killing of our environment.
What follows are ways to re-imagine the relationship of religion to our lives, the relationship of the world’s religions to each other, and ways that modern people may be able to engage with religion, especially given a secular orientation. As Thomas Berry has also said, the heart of the ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis. We’re not going to “solve” this problem in one generation, nor will any one institution or religion be able to “fix” it. The ecological crisis requires the concerted efforts of everyone from diverse disciplines including religion, but also economics, science, technology, business, and politics. It is something that demands not a 5 or 10 year plan, but a 10,000 – 20,000 year plan.
How are we to grow in such dangerous times, where it appears Mother Earth’s resources are becoming more scarce everyday, when anxiety rules? Mass migrations are happening simultaneously in many countries like Haiti, Afghanistan, Honduras, Ukraine, and Syria due to political instability, greed for oil, and exacerbated by changes in our climate. Do we think this won’t happen in the United States?
What does it mean for us today to be a body moving through time and space? What is this body? What is time? What is space? What kinds of spaces do we move through, and how do those spaces inform what we do with our body, or how we perceive time? Is time simply the movement of three slender arms around a circle? Does time include our body’s connection with our childhood, or the childhood of our parents, or their parents? Whose body is this, and why am I here?
Strange as this may seem coming from the heart of a Buddhist priest, I am deeply indebted to Christian thinkers, believers and practitioners for my understanding of the world, of time and space, and for my embracing of Soto Zen Buddhism. Without the presence of Christianity, I wonder if World Religions, or the subject of religion itself would be a lens through which some of us see the world. Religion is often associated with beliefs, practices, and ethics that are connected to a higher power, be it God, Allah, Krishna, Buddha, Great Spirit, creative intelligence, perhaps the Universe itself, and a host of other names. In almost all religious traditions are evidence of violence and intolerance in the name of religion, bringing in to question the relevance of religion to our present times.
As problematic as many of the early, and even present interactions between Christian missionaries have been, however, Christians have also helped to identify and appreciate the existence of other ways of knowing and being in the world. Painting a black and white picture of any religion doesn’t really do it justice.
My earliest memories with religion began around 4 years of age with my mother in bed reading to me from a children’s version of the Bible just before going to sleep. This hardback thick picture book gave a synopsis of some of the major stories, and it was punctuated with large images that were impressed upon my mind. The first story read to me while I was in bed was about the creation of the world and the second story is about Adam and Eve. In both stories, I had the idea that
an “event” took place long ago before I and any of my family were born.
Of the many images that stood out for me in the “Children’s Bible” was that of Adam and Eve running for their lives with fig leaves strewn over their private parts. A storm with black clouds and lightening was brewing in the background, and I associated the foreboding sky with God’s anger at them for disobeying Him. The message to me as a child is that when you disobey God (and by extension your parents) you get punished.
Over the centuries of Christian theology, this particular story
was used by some church fathers like Saint Augustine to formulate a foundational concept within Christianity, that of Original Sin.
The theory basically states that because of the original disobedience of Adam and Eve God condemned them to death. All their offspring (the human species) and each one of us alive today has inherited this Original Sin, and therefore death. The only way out of this dilemma is through acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s lord and savior. Accepting Jesus leads to everlasting life with God in Heaven.
While the Jewish perspectives of this story, as well as some
Christian perspectives, dismiss the idea of Original Sin, the predominant Christian
narrative in our country whether a person is a literal believer in the Bible or an atheist revolves around Original Sin. I believe this is the case because we have not explored other symbolic possibilities the story presents. This was the interpretation that I inherited
and never really thought much about until encountering evolutionary biology.
Evolutionary biology paints a
very different picture of how the world came to be, and where humans come from, and it appears to be at odds with both the Original Sin perspective of the creation found in the Bible as well as the idea that the universe as we know it was created within seven days.
Poor interpretations of the story of creation in the Bible are partly responsible for
creating polarization in our country with the often-sad effect of delegitimizing people who are drawn to religious pursuits, and of throwing into question the orderliness and mystery of the universe. If we follow only Biblical literalists, we must
minimize the part of our brain that gives voice to reason and logic. It doesn’t make sense, in modern times given what we know about evolution and the great expanses of time required for life to form on earth, to follow a story that suggests all life as we know it was created in seven days’ time.
If we follow only what the science says, we risk suppressing
our faculties of wonderment and symbolic knowledge and may fall on the side of a meaningless,
haphazard universe where everything is due to chance occurrences. Life is often portrayed by mainstream scientists as a random event.
This way of portraying the creation of the universe falls short of meeting the human need
for making sense out of why we are here, and it also downplays the human place among its fellow creatures – animals and plants – seeing the human as superior
to all other species.
How can we avoid these two extremes so predominant in our
I remember at home my mother teaching me how to pray. We bent over on our knees, putting our elbows on the mattress, bowing our heads forward. It was a beautiful posture that I never really thought about at the time. What were we bowing to? What were we saying? What were we wishing for? To whom were we entreating?
I learned the “Our Father,” “Hail Mary,” and the “Glory be.” These words entered my mind like a potter’s thumbs pressing against unmolded clay. At my grandmother’s house were religious images and crucifixes, and life sized statues of Jesus and Mary. Jesus wasn’t just a thought or a spirit, but was embodied in those statues, someone I could feel with my whole being. My great grandmother was the most religious of all. (I remember her well because she lived to the age of 98, and I was 18 when she died. She had a constant exuberance and all the children loved her.)
My great grandmother came to the United States with her father from Sicily at the turn of the 20th century. She spoke only a few words of English, and though I never learned to speak Italian, she was able to communicate with me religious truths far beyond what words can say.
One memory I have was watching her pray the rosary. She was sitting in a sofa chair, bowing her head forward a bit, holding a string of beads in her wrinkled hands while squeezing her black and white eyebrows in deep concentration. Yet, she didn’t seem to be doing anything in particular. She wasn’t reading a book. She wasn’t cooking or cleaning, she was just praying. To my 5-year old mind, it was a sight to behold because why would someone be so internally engaged, not paying much attention to her surroundings? Except for the few occasions that my mother prayed with us before bedtime, I’d never witnessed my mother, father, or even my grandmother do anything remotely like this except inside a church. Why was my great grandmother doing this outside of church and in the middle of the day, and it wasn’t even a Sunday?
I remember her turning her head slightly and her gaze landing on mine. I felt seen at that moment. I was startled and a bit scared to be noticed. It was what Rudolph Otto called, “The numinous experience.” There were simultaneously feelings of fear and attraction within me. Her eyes radiated light. I could feel a sense of warmth and compassion coming from her. My real “confirmation” was that shared meeting of spirits. In a way, I believe she taught me more in that one moment of exchanged glances about religion than I ever learned by going to church, listening to sermons or in religious education classes that prepared me for the sacrament of Confirmation.
Religion, to me, meant a host of things, some I enjoyed and some I did not. It meant going to Church on some Sundays, but especially Christmas and Easter, being around images and statues of Jesus and other saints, walking in close proximity to priests dressed in special garments as they gave us “the Body of Christ” in the form of bread, sitting in pews impatiently, and witnessing the faith of my great grandmother, not necessarily listening to her words because all of them were in a language I did not understand.
My best friend in elementary school was Jewish. Our bodies revolved not around a church or synagogue, but around Star Wars’ action figures and playing Dungeons and Dragons. I had no idea what it meant to be Jewish nor his beliefs about Jesus, and even if I did, it would not have mattered to me. We had fun together. What bonded us was our shared interest in the Star Wars saga, not religion. The idea of “The Force” made a lot of sense to me; that I could somehow have control over the elements of nature or move objects with my mind.
In High School the friend I was closest to was Jewish. He was explicit about that to me on one occasion. I didn’t give it any thought at the time, and it didn’t stand in the way of our friendship. On the swim team we threw our bodies into pools of water, sometimes flailing, other times gracefully. Two fish in a pond, moving shoulder to shoulder, racing to the finish. We got into trouble together, and we were in most of the same classes in school together. He was a heck of a lot smarter than me, and I leaned on him to encourage myself to study harder and swim faster. We never spoke about religion. It didn’t matter to either one of us. What bound us together was our shared interest in competitive swimming and academics.
When my brother married a Jewish woman and converted to Judaism, however, this mattered to my family. I believe my mother felt a kind of loss in him converting to Judaism. Maybe she thought that what she taught him would not be transmitted to his children, but instead a religion to which she had accumulated a number of negative stereotypes. Several months prior to the wedding my brother was visiting my parents, and I was home from college. He was putting his shoes on by the garage door, preparing to exit and engaged in light conversation. Then, like a strong gust of wind, he turned his head to the side and as he was walking out the door feverishly said, “Oh yeah, and I’m converting to Judaism,” and promptly closed the door behind him. He was obviously afraid to say this directly, and he sent me an indirect message that such an action would draw a lot of criticism. My mother looked at me at that moment and asked, “What did he just say?”
It was my first experience of a Jewish wedding, and I was most impressed by the solemnity of the ceremony that ended with the smashing of a glass (which for some reason felt really appropriate after all that solemnity) and then lots of dancing, including witnessing my brother being lifted high in a chair and carried around the dance floor by several other men. While this was a celebratory event, the message being sent to me when my brother announced his conversion was that it was okay to be friends with Jewish people, but just don’t marry one or convert to Judaism.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I began to realize that my understanding of religion – as much as it gave me a healthy perspective with which to see the world – was far too narrow and incomplete. My view didn’t address the religious intolerance so prevalent in today’s society, despite the plurality of religions. I had a vague idea that there were other cultures, though I did not associate them with a particular religion. I naively thought that pretty much everyone shared similar beliefs that I held. I was clearly mistaken.
I was like a fish that doesn’t recognize the one thing it is surrounded by: water. I was not aware of what barriers confined that water, or that the particular pool I was swimming in wasn’t necessarily connected in a clear way with other pools of water. Our community is like the water a fish swims in. Our prejudices are like the barriers between pools of water.
Like Prince Siddhartha who remained confined to the property of his Kingdom, as a culture or community, we remain caught in small pools of communal thought, each of us only interacting with those people that think similarly to us. Yet, like Siddhartha we intuitively know there is something beyond what we can see with our eyes, or understand with our mind.
Until my view of the world enlarged, as though looking at the earth from space, I didn’t recognize the particularity of the “water” I swam in. Up until that point, I was content remaining in my own ignorance.
All of us, whether identifying specifically as a religious adherent or not, agnostic, or atheist have to reconcile with differences because it opens us to the great diversity of life. Appreciating and valuing diversity is needed sorely on so many levels. Biodiversity on the level of plants and animals is what creates a healthy ecosystem. Monoculture crops like soy and corn provide abundant food, but at the expense of undercutting diversity. Monoculture systems practiced in modern farming is very vulnerable to disease and inclement weather patterns, such as what Iowa saw with the derecho of 2021. Iowa lost some 30-40% of its corn crop in an hour. On the human level, too, we benefit from a multitude of perspectives. On the other hand, when we feel our view is the only view this can lead to violence and genocide, as we have seen with the holocaust.
Whereas it takes a great deal of maturity and reflection to develop a view that is open to the multiplicity of religious perspectives, religions themselves see diversity as positive. Consider this verse in the Quran:
And one of [Allah’s] signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors. Surely in this are signs for those of ‘sound’ knowledge. (Surah 30:22)
This verse from the Quran affirms the great diversity in religious and cultural views that exist in the world, seeing them as signs from God.
Or consider the following verse from the Avatamsaka Sutra, considered the king of Buddhist Sutras:
Different are the various names
Of all the guides
In all worlds of all times;
They are spoken so all may see.
Built into these statements is the affirmation of differences in language, custom, and culture. But for many of us the encounter with diverse expressions of faith, rather than being a sign of God, brings us fear. We are all brought up accepting a certain set of beliefs about the world, however rudimentary or well thought out those beliefs are, and if we don’t have a means to reconcile or acknowledge differences, or at the very least allow for them with “don’t know mind” this can have devastating effects.
When someone is taught to believe that, “Jesus is the only way to salvation,” that person is also under pressure to convert others so that they may not be eternally damned. This way of relating to the world sets up a hierarchical relationship whereby the saved person perceives themselves as above those that do not accept Jesus. Curiosity gets robbed from the believer, as they set out to “save” others.
Or consider the biologist who is taught that humans come from apes, and that God has nothing to do with the process of evolution, that life is simply a chance event. How is this person any different in their pattern of thinking than that of the Evangelical Christian preaching Jesus is the only way? Each in their own way sees themselves in the top rung of a hierarchy, incapable of being curious about that which they do not know or understand.
Our world is getting smaller. Open our computers and we can investigate differences in beliefs in an instant. No need to do like our ancestors who walked entire continents for the truth. Or even as our closer ancestors did to roam a library with their feet in search of a number corresponding to the book they were looking for. Our interactions with various religious traditions can happen as much or as little as we desire. This makes it ever more imperative that we come to the study of religion with some degree of maturity.
In a concentrated study of religious differences, the word “religion” itself needs to be clarified. What does it actually mean? From where did the concept of “religion” come? Am I willing to accept the probability that my ideas of religion are not “religion” as other cultures may see it?.
Religion is a mental construct that has no basis in reality, some might say. Consider the following statement from Sebene Selassie, author, educator and student of religion:
Furthermore, one scholar declares that,
In other words, the word “religion” has become such a common household word that it would seem inappropriate to even question whether the subject of religion has an objective basis in reality. Yet, questioning the objective reality of religions is exactly what needs to be done.
If “religion” is a mental construct based in a white Euro-centric worldview, or a white Christo-centric worldview, what does this say about how those outside of that particular mindset may be perceived by those within that mindset? In other words, are we using the right set of lenses to see beyond our own traditions, cultures, and religions? Or are we like the man who is searching in the dark for his keys. Another man asks him where he dropped them and he responds, “way over there.” The man asks him, “why aren’t you looking over there?” He responds, “Because the light is over here.”
Can we say we understand anything about another religion if we insist on staying in our small pool of knowledge? What might our religious traditions themselves teach us about going beyond the known, going to the places that are mysterious? They actually say a lot.
Part of our spiritual growth needs to include leaving the familial, leaving our families behind, either literally or figuratively. This is why traditions like Christianity and Buddhism have monastic orders. Monks are those people who choose on purpose to leave the comforts of their own home and join a community where nothing can be considered “mine,” not their clothes, housing, or the food they receive. Everything is seen as a gift, and working for the sake of serving others – not for self aggrandizement – is the intention. Within Christianity, the Gospel of Luke says the following:
Though some may take this passage literally, I believe it is meant to have a figurative expression. What could it mean to “reject your family,” similar to the way my brother decided to marry into a Jewish family and convert? In Jesus’ time, unlike today in many families in the United States, family bonds were tight. But, as a rite of passage to adulthood, and of spiritual growth, children must let go of familial bonds and become their own person, one that is not totally identified by their family. One would need to recognize the source of their life, which is not their mother and father, but the great mystery which some call “God.”
In order to be able to preach the word as a disciple of Jesus it was commonly recognized that, “no prophet is accepted in his own native place.” (Luke 4: 24) One’s native place is the physical location in which one is most familiar, which one would call home, where one associates with family. This location needs to be left behind in order to get a new start. A spiritual seeker or follower of Jesus will not be effective in their native place because everyone knows them from when they were a little kid and have therefore created opinions and prejudices about who they are. That person’s teachings will not be taken seriously. One needs to leave behind one’s native place and become a stranger in a strange land in order to be a prophet, or simply in order to be listened to without prejudice.
Within the Buddhist tradition is the story of Siddhartha, the prince, leaving his kingdom in search of enlightenment. He leaves everything behind: his father, his wife, his newborn son, all of his wealth and power. This is the beginning of his maturation into adulthood.
In the same way, if we want to understand another religion, we need to be able to let go of what we hold precious: our present understanding of the world. Or that which is familiar to us.
That said, what is “religion?” How can we define it?
Many would respond to this question by saying that religion is a set of beliefs about God and one’s relationship to the world that help one to navigate through life and offer a set of ethical codes by which to follow.
This is not a wrong definition, but the language used to define religion betrays a kind of western and Christo-centric perspective. It assumes that all religions have a statement of beliefs or set of doctrines that define what it means to be a member of a particular group. However, for many religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, what one believes is really secondary to the practices – behaviors, ways of thinking, rituals, actions – within a religion. This is not to say that Christianity holds practices below beliefs. However, in the west we tend to orient around what one believes when trying to understand religion.
The assumption that the word “God” is found in all religions, too, is not correct. Not all religions, such as Buddhism or Confucianism, center on talk about “God.” Though this may be the case, it’s not fair to assume that Buddhists or Confucians are “unbelievers” in the way a Christian might think of that term. So, the above stab at a definition is painfully inclusive only of those religions – namely the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that focus on beliefs and God.
Consider the following influential efforts to define religion:
The above definitions each offer a biased approach if we were to use them exclusively. Emile Durkheim, being a sociologist, emphasizes the social aspect of religion and neglects the mystical dimension.
William James, a psychologist and philosopher promotes a personal and individual nature of religion, but neglects the social dimension. Paul Tillich, a Protestant Theologian, offers a definition of religion that is extraordinarily broad. It seems that almost anyone can fit within his rubric. However, this definition ignores the social and institutional aspects of religion.
Rather than any specific definition, we can turn towards a multi-dimensional approach to understanding what religion is, or what it does. These seven dimensions by religious scholar Ninian Smart offer us ways to approach all of the religious traditions:
These seven dimensions are inclusive of the previous three definitions and allow the student of religion a much broader way of understanding the great diversity we see in religious traditions. The seven dimension approach equalizes all of the religions, not making one better or of more worth than the other.
In my beginning studies of Asian religions, especially Buddhism, I was intrigued by the question of how a religion can function without reliance on God verbiage. I grew up Catholic, and it was taken for granted that God was the creator of the world. I wanted to know how another culture saw life without necessarily believing in God or gods. How might they see the world? How might they understand how to live a good life? My exploration took me from the classroom to the Buddhist meditation hall to learn more. This eventually landed me not only into the formal practice of Zen Buddhism, but a committed study of over 15-years in Zen temples in the United States, Japan and France, culminating in my recognition by the Japanese Soto school of Buddhism as a Soto Zen priest and teacher.
I share the personal experiences that preceded this and that follow for the sake of illuminating the misunderstandings that accrue when people, including myself, steeped in a Biblically based worldview – whether they are practicing Christians or not – often encounter within themselves when they study a non-Abrahamic religion. For me, the study of Zen meditation with bonafide Asian and White Buddhist teachers was a gateway to understanding another worldview both from an academic perspective as well as an experiential perspective. Yet I did not initially contrive reasons for this study, only that I was drawn to it.
Zen meditation allowed me to experience feelings of inner peace like I had never had before. The alcohol and marijuana I had been experimenting with in my youth were, at best, a substitute for the real thing. At the time, I could not capture in words why I continued to practice Zen meditation regularly. I just knew I needed to do it.
On one occasion during Zen meditation, Jesus came to me. It wasn’t Jesus in an embodied form, but an intuitive feeling that I had that I identified as Jesus. I could feel His spiritual presence in the room. I wanted to remain with him, not let him go. There was no conversation taking place. He was just present sitting with me, and silent. My intuitive feeling of His being must be an indication, so I had thought, I had attained some level of awareness, that I had become more spiritual, that I was Enlightened in some way. I sought out my Zen teacher, Dai-En Roshi (Roshi is a title meaning “Old Teacher”) to verify this experience.
After nervously sharing what I felt in meditation, making myself vulnerable to critique, she said somewhat sarcastically “Well whoopee.” She looked at me directly and pointedly in the eyes, kind of like my great grandmother did when praying the rosary. My initial thought was, “Oh, I am such a fool. What was I thinking?”
I knew what I needed to do with that experience of Jesus – let it go and not get caught in the fanfare of experiences or images that arise in the mind during meditation. I was caught in conceptual thought and not in touch with reality right before me. I felt embarrassed but also relieved. I realized I didn’t have any superior knowledge despite my experiences with meditation, nor my four years of academic training in the study of world religions. Meditation, I was learning, was about coming back to this moment, not being stuck in the past or the future.
“Do you have the experience, or does the experience have you?” Dai-En Roshi asked. If the experience had me, then I was carrying around a lot of baggage that was extra. If I had the experience, then I could be appreciative of it and keep it in the past where it belonged. There was nothing wrong with having an experience of Jesus. The problem was that I thought it made me somehow “chosen” or special. Dai-En Roshi was calling me out on my own arrogance.
I was fairly new to Buddhist meditation practice. I’d only been doing it for a year. But I thought I knew something deep and profound about Buddhism based on a previous experience as well as taking classes on Buddhism and Hinduism. Like the above story illustrates, the danger of studying any world religion for a short time is that we may think we know something when really we’re only scratching the surface of something that is far greater than we can fathom.
Our previous knowledge may block our learning. Embarking on the study of World Religions is not about coming to know everything about another’s religion, but about seeing into the limitations of our own ideas and beliefs about the world.
I first began studying world religions in 1991, and I was not prepared for the level of learning that I had entered. I was 17 years old when I enrolled in my first class called “Intro to the Bible,” and I took it because I needed to satisfy an elective. Bucknell University, where I attended as an undergraduate, is a highly respected private academic institution in central Pennsylvania that has a good reputation for preparing students for careers in the sciences. All of my friends were studying to be either engineers or medical doctors. I initially wanted to become a veterinarian but added the study of religion after my sophomore year.
The academic study of religion is different both from the theological study of religion as well as the study of the sciences. The theological study of religion is faith based and refers to those religions centered on God, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. A student of theology may be preparing for a leadership role in their church and wanting to deepen the articulation of their own faith. Theology is meant primarily to clarify and reaffirm what one already knows.
The academic study of religion does not preclude theology, but it’s not the main focus. Theology is important work for anyone wishing to better understand such things as the nature of God, or their own religious tradition. However important this study can be for some, it is not central to the academic study of religion. A course in World Religions is not catechism, or the study of how to become a member of a religion.
For the academic study of religion, one need not identify as religious at all. The purpose of religious studies, in contrast to theology, is to develop awareness of the diversity found both among religious traditions as well as within any particular religious tradition. It is to learn how religious traditions have shaped and been shaped by culture and history, and how they have changed over time. It is to interpret the meanings behind the myriads of religious symbols found in the world. In short, it is coming at the study of religion through analyzing information.
The study of religion, whether academically or theologically, also differs from how one may engage in the study of sciences like Biology, Chemistry, Physics, or Mathematics. It shares the component of insatiable curiosity, but the end results are not the same. The Sciences challenge a student to extend one’s knowledge of the external world, and to become curious about it, to investigate it, and to not be satisfied with previous knowledge. This knowledge can be of how to construct a bridge, how to perfect the aerodynamics of a space shuttle, or may share the knowledge of how to do a heart transplant, for example. Knowledge builds on previous knowledge and it’s only through continual curiosity that new discoveries are made.
Religion, on the other hand, is not focusing on “how” things happen but “why” things happen, or who we really are. As Russel Haitch writes:
Thanks to modern science and technology, youth know the answers to more how questions than any generation in history. But modern science and technology were never designed to produce an entire worldview or to tell us of reality in its totality. They were never designed to tell us why we live.
Likewise, the answer to who we really are can’t be found on an internet search. As we explore the World Religions we are investigating ways that various cultures and religions across time have attempted to respond to the question of “why” things happen, not necessarily “how” they happen. This exploration gets at questions of purpose. Why are any of us here? What are we doing? What should we be doing? Who is the doer? Questions of ultimate purpose have us confront the Great Mystery of life in an unadulterated form. Though it may be tempting to accrue more information about what a religion says or believes, perhaps another way to traverse the territory of religion is to look at the ways religions point us to ultimate mystery, beyond our understanding.
Over the years I’ve had students say to me, “I want to learn everything about these religions so that I can fully understand them and why people think the way they do.” This is a common initial goal for a beginning student. There is no way, however, that over the course of a few weeks, a semester, a few years, or even a lifetime, that one can say they have fully understood another’s religion or come to any concrete conclusions. If one can claim this after a semester of world religions, it is a failing on the part of the teacher.
I have been surprised to find that even mature and well studied theologians, religious leaders and scholars who attempt to write about or explain Buddhism from the outside, for example, have seriously stumbled in communicating basic Buddhist concepts. Unless one’s information comes directly from a devoted practitioner of the religion of study a seasoned scholar easily runs the risk of being insensitive or unintentionally disrespectful. How much more so is this the case when students who don’t know anything about a religion or culture begin to write about it.
Yet, this fact should not deter us from trying to understand or appreciate another religion. There is a need not for knowledge so much as cultural humility.
The images to the right are of practitioners in various religious traditions bowing. Every religion offers practices that acknowledge the limitations of knowledge. The practice of bowing is an essential aspect of cultural humility.
When I first took a class on Buddhism, I wanted to escape the world I was living in. I was not happy, I was often anxious, and my thoughts raced all over the place. I thought that maybe the Buddha would have something to say that Jesus didn’t. I wasn’t interested at all in respecting another culture. I was looking for personal gain. I was also looking outside of myself to find someone that embodied what I wanted.
In the academic study of religion you may learn some central concepts of the major religions that can be personally helpful, but it’s more about learning cultural humility. Buddha was a person of color and he knew nothing of Jesus. Yet, something of what he said and did profoundly moved a big bulk of the Asian continent for centuries, otherwise we wouldn’t be studying about him. Whatever I gain personally from studying his teachings cannot be divorced from the fact that the Buddha, from my white male Catholic American perspective, looked pretty weird shaving his head, wearing strange clothing and being called “Buddha.” How do I explain my strange attraction to my family and friends, who may or may not be interested or, worse, think that I have gone mental?
The study of world religions is an encounter with diversity, but it is also an encounter with our self. History has shown us that encounters between cultures have often brought fear, anger, confusion, frustration, and even war. Buddhist monks in present day Myanmar are violent towards the local Muslim population. Japanese Buddhist temples opened their gates to help the training of soldiers during World War II. Christian missionaries with the best of intentions physically and sexually assaulted children from Africa in the process of conversion. Clergy across religions have been found guilty of sexual misconduct.
Hostile reaction to the point of annihilation has been the quick solution on an individual, social, and political level. Examples abound of the man who slanders or even hunts down a neighbor because they are Muslim. Or on the social level the red lining of communities in order to force segregation by race. Or on the political level of preventing or banning people from other countries that represent certain religions, such as Islam, from entering into the United States.
Reflection: After watching the video, “Zen at War”, take a moment to reflect on your level of trust of religious leaders?
What these examples have in common is fear. Though it will almost never be admitted by perpetrators or those without religious or cultural sensitivity, fear is an underlying motivator. Yet, according to Taneeza Islam, fear of the other is not natural upon meeting differences, rather it is a learned response. It’s not necessarily learned in the way one learns a subject like math, but it has to do with the underlying thoughts and behaviors of the society that we move and breathe in. We cannot help but be educated for better or for worse by those we share Mother Earth with.
The study of World Religions, at its best, is an attempt to counter the misunderstandings and prejudices that arise and are endemic to us with honesty, and to meet the plurality of religious views with a sense of curiosity or possibly even gratitude and awe.
How do we personally encounter religious differences? What attitudes do we notice in ourselves when we choose to expose ourselves to ways of being that are foreign to the way that we were brought up? In what ways do our family of origin, local community and wider society support and affect our exploration and understanding of religious diversity? In what ways do our experiences of religion influence the way we understand the religious activities of another culture? How does our race affect the religion we find ourselves at home in, and what does our religion or the religion of another culture have to teach us about social and ecological justice?
These are questions that demand attention when studying the world’s religions, yet they are often either not stated explicitly, are understated, or ignored. When studying another culture and religion one may feel thrown into that study unprepared to process the differences encountered. One may also feel triggered when hearing about the history of the way a certain religious community has been treated by outsiders. As an example, consider the effects of the Shoah (more commonly known as the Holocaust) not only on present day Jewish people but on us personally. How do we process the atrocities of the Nazi’s during World War II? Or the genocide of the indigenous peoples of North America? Or the brutality of people from the African continent during the U.S. slave trade? Or the treatment of people in the LGBTQ+ community? How do we make sense of it when we see ourselves living in a primarily loving world?
Furthermore, one is often unaware of implicit bias. These biases, if unnoticed, can actually serve to harden religious intolerance, or confirm one’s own sense of cultural or religious superiority. A person from a predominantly white Christian background, for example, may reaffirm the superiority of their own views when learning about Islam. This is a real danger of the study of World Religions, and it is an unfortunate and unintended consequence.
Yet the study of World Religions itself has its origins in medieval Europeans desiring to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, Islam, Paganism and, later, what came to be known as the “World Religions.”
Acknowledgment of this history is vitally important in the undertaking of the study of World Religions because these earlier Europeans set a precedent for how Christians ought to study non-Christian religions. While there may not be the intention among any individual students to consider some religions as better than others, we are still affected today by how medieval Europeans viewed the world. Furthermore, I have encountered numerous instances of judgments made by students which characterize some religions as better than others. Some do this unconsciously, but their way of writing betrays their thought pattern. Others do this consciously. To think one can remain unbiased when studying world religions is also impossible. My suggestion is that acknowledgment and honest reflection upon one’s religious and cultural biases is a form of deeper appreciation of the oneness of human experience.
Would I be struck down by God’s angel for meditating with a Buddhist priest while sitting next to an altar with a carved wooden image of the Buddha on it? This question seems totally ridiculous to me now, almost 30 years after, as a Catholic, I first visited the Buddhist nun who was to become my Zen teacher. I was in my senior year at Bucknell University, had just completed my Honors Thesis on Inter-Religious Dialogue, and was getting ready for graduation. I didn’t realize it then, but at the time I was wrestling with unconscious beliefs about learning religion from a non-Christian. I wasn’t thinking of the story in Exodus where Moses commands the killing of some 3000 Israelites who he interprets as not being “for the Lord” because they had made a golden calf and worshipped it (see Exodus 32).
The story of the golden calf was so deeply embedded in my unconscious mind that I was living it out. I was the sinner. God might kill me. I felt fear. My heart rate went up while sitting in meditation. Isn’t meditation supposed to help me feel relaxed? Or so I thought. I found it hard to calm my mind. I couldn’t put words to it at the time, but I was anxious about being punished by God or other Christians for what may be interpreted as worshipping an idol. How could I talk with my family or other Catholics about what I had done? I chose not to. I thought I was open-minded toward other religions, but this experience made me realize that I had quite a bit of work to do.
I was struggling with the fact that the only altars I had ever experienced had crosses on them, not Buddhas. When I approached the altars in Church it was a sacred event. I was not allowed to get too close, and had no business being near a priest when he was at the altar. I would meet Jesus in the flesh and blood and say a prayer to Him once I was given Eucharist. What was I doing at this Buddhist altar? I was standing right next to the Buddha statue. Something felt wrong that I was not able to put into words. Was Jesus there?
Paradoxically, I had experienced deeper peace of mind through Zen meditation then I’d ever felt receiving the Eucharist. Prior to taking the 30-minute drive through small rural towns and across the rolling Allegheny mountains of central Pennsylvania to the Buddhist temple, I had been attending my Zen teacher’s meditations at Rooke Chapel every Monday during the non-swimming season for a full year, and also developed a daily practice on my own. I was practicing Zen meditation in spaces that were familiar – a Christian chapel or my dorm room. I didn’t realize then how difficult it would be to actually go to a space that was unfamiliar.
I found that Buddhist meditation not only helped me with anxiety, but it also greatly reduced the cravings I had to smoke pot or drink alcohol with my cronies. It helped me to feel a greater sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose to my life that, up to that point, was absent. Yet, the practice didn’t somehow feel authentic simply doing it by myself, for personal reasons, on my own terms, without a community, and in familiar territory. When I finally mustered the courage to visit Dai-En Roshi at her Buddhist temple, I was testing something that I felt intuitively inside me – that the location was irrelevant. Even though I was nervous about being in a dedicated Buddhist space I could still access the peace of mind I discovered at Rooke Chapel. But it took persistence and an honest reckoning with my own prejudices and the operative archetypes in my unconscious mind.
For Christians an encounter with a foreign religion may invoke feelings of anxiety or dread, whether or not there is conscious awareness of the playing out of the stories one learned from one’s family or church community. Christians have been taught to see the sacred in a certain, often prescribed way. By “sacred” I am referring to that which brings one to a sense of being deeply part of something greater than oneself, within a certain form or forms. It’s the “numinous experience” which Rudolph Otto explains as invoking both a sense of mystery and fear. The sacred may look like Jesus hanging on a cross, for instance. The sacred takes the shape of a church, or the nativity scene, or any of a host of images from the Bible that may appear on stained glass windows. For some Christians, the sacred may be a church with bare walls with no images of even a cross, such as is found among the Quakers. The sacred may be one’s participation in the activities of a church community, or it may be a sense of awe in being alive, given the gift of conscious self-reflection from the creator. By practicing Zen meditation and visiting a Buddhist temple, my definition of what “sacred” looks or feels like was being called into question.
I rejected God. In college I was somewhere between agnostic and atheist. Sometimes I’d go to church, but just found it confusing and conflicting with what I was learning. I didn’t have a lot of patience with what seemed like empty rituals to me. Why should I stand in line to receive a flat wafer that didn’t taste like anything, and call that Jesus? I think about these things very differently now, but at the time, that’s where I was in my religious life.
Many of us unknowingly hold assumptions about the nature of the world that stem from the cross-fertilization of Greek philosophy and Christianity. One may not recognize deeply held beliefs about the world as just that – beliefs that have their origin in Greek philosophy and/or Christianity.
For example, consider the idea about whether God created the Universe or there was a “Big Bang” at the beginning. Which was it? There have been countless debates between theologians and scientists around the question of whether a divine being could have created the universe, or if it just happened as a result of the creative forces of life. In both cases there is the often-unquestioned assumption that the universe has an origin that goes back in time. Furthermore, it’s assumed that either God started everything as a “first cause,” or that no God was necessary to start something.
Reflect for a moment on whether you assume that the Universe has an origin, and that we can trace that beginning if we go far enough back, or whether you more align yourself with Paremenides view that matter is neither created nor destroyed but IS.
This idea of the universe as having a beginning that can be traced back in linear time is not universal, however. Chinese religions and philosophies such as Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism do not have as a basic assumption, beliefs in the origins of the Universe, where there are origin stories within Chinese culture, they don’t occupy a lot of headspace, in stark contrast to U.S. culture.
Non-being is a concept that may be considered negative in western thought. This is not the case, however, as Wing-Tsit Chan explains:
This concept of “No Birth, No Death” can also be applied to the origins of the universe. The Zen Buddhist understanding is that there is no origin point, but a beginninglessness, and that, if there is an origin then every moment, even right now, is the origin. Questions of the beginning of the world in the Abrahamic sense were not practical or interesting for many Asian cultures. There is no story, for example, in the Analects of Confucius that gives a metaphysical understanding of the origins of the universe. The Daoist text, the Tao De Jing, however does say that being and non-being produce each other. In other words, things only exist because their opposite exists. If there is something we can call “beautiful”, it’s only because there is something that can be called “ugly.” If there is something that can be called, “good”, it is because we have awareness of “bad.” We can acknowledge that something exists because we know there is non-existence. When we extend this logic to consider the origins of the universe, we can say that non-existence and existence, or matter and non-matter, create each other. This is one of the meanings behind the yin-yang symbol.
The main question, then for many Asians, is not about whether God can be proven to have started the universe, or that the universe was begun by a Big Bang, or to debate about the right age of the universe – whether 6000 years old or 13.7 billion years old – but how do we live in alignment with the laws of nature in such a way as to create a harmonious society?
This idea of being and non-being creating each other is extraordinarily difficult for most westerners to grasp because we, myself included, ride on the shoulders of centuries of Greek philosophers and theologians who assumed, thought about, wrote, and communicated ideas that presented the world as having a beginning, that saw time as independent from space, and saw matter as the foundation for knowledge.
What gets lost when we don’t look at our basic assumptions about the world and where or how we came into the world? The study of World Religions introduces us to the limitations of our particular worldview, whether or not we believe in a religion. Therefore, it is extraordinarily relevant for anyone to study the cultures out of which religions emerge, and also to understand the role of religion in your own way of seeing the world. This study, at its best, can help us to develop cultural humility, and prevent arrogance, which is the basis for world conflict.
Another type of person I’ve encountered is the religious eclectic. This is the person who is eager to explore all the different forms of religion and may consider themselves more spiritual than religious. They may not be interested in being a part of a religious community, and religion is a very private matter for them. They may resonate greatly with William James’ definition of religion.
They may consider themselves quite liberal and open-minded, and they may have a clear idea of what “sacred” is to them, and it may be a very personal experience.
This position, of religion as a personal and private experience, runs counter to the reality that all the World Religions developed within community, and in the context of a larger culture. The danger of the position that religion is a private matter is that a person can culturally appropriate symbols (such as “OM”) or images (such as Ganesh) of another religion which they find pleasing or agreeable, and not acknowledge or have any contact with the people or culture from which those symbols come from. They may even profit from what’s known as “cultural appropriation.”
Religious practice has traditionally been a means to become more selfless. However, the religiously eclectic person runs the risk of using ideas, beliefs and practices from other religions to whom they have little or no accountability, and actually making money without giving anything back to those religions or communities. Examples of this abound in the world of yoga. Yoga is a huge for-profit industry in the United States. I myself am a teacher of hatha yoga. I love teaching how to do headstands and how to sit like a pretzel. However, in India, where yoga came from, yoga teachers lived off the donations of their students. This made yoga accessible to the wealthy and the poor alike. In the United States in some places, including Iowa, one has to pay a good sum of money to a yoga studio or teacher to receive teachings. Thus a sacred practice becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold, and done so without building a relationship with a teacher or community.
The ways in which a person encounters religion is obviously varied, and the examples that I’ve painted above are of real people that I’ve met. These examples are by no means exhaustive; however, they point to the need to examine or reexamine our own assumptions and motivations around studying religion prior to actually engaging in an introductory class on World Religions. To this end, the field of Inter-religious dialogue can help one sort out one’s assumptions and to think about various approaches to the World’s Religions that may be conducive to deepening one’s connection to God, to the sacred, or to simply feeling more confident within communities different from one’s own – whether those communities are culturally different, or have beliefs counter to one’s own.