Friday, January 30, 2015

Aren't all religions the same?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

Do you think all religions are the same? They sure look the same, all that bowing and scraping and odd clothing and relics and shrines and pilgrimages and fundraising and rules. They sure seem the same to me.

Yours ever,  

T. O’Lerance

Dear “T”,

The answer to your question is a yes and no answer. All religions look the same because all people are the same. Funny, people look so very different from each other but really aren’t very different, and religions look so very similar but are really completely different from one another. People have taken to ignoring the Genesis account of creation because they think science has disproved it. Nonsense! The Genesis account got it exactly right. It is a poem about God’s love for humanity that says all human beings are descended from one man and one woman and thus are meant to be one family. 

We can be proud that we Christians have always believed it when people like Hitler and the pseudo-Darwinists believe that there are different species of humans, their species, of course, being the master race. Christian Scripture and tradition both teach that there is no such thing as race. There are certainly different cultures and religions, but we are all the same race: human. Religions look alike because people are alike. We all want the same things, a peaceful life for ourselves and those we love, health, a roof over our heads and a decent meal with people we enjoy, a good night’s sleep and fair weather.  

These are things we all want, though some of us want a little bit more, like Hitler who wanted Europe and beyond, or Stalin who wanted power over the lives of all others or Kim Jong-un or the Castro brothers who to live in luxury while those around them starve. We are all the same with the same basic needs and wants, but somehow something has gone terribly wrong when the world produces those who would be happy at the price of others’ misery. In short, we all want paradise; the question is how to attain it. Our desire is the same. Our methods differ wildly.

Buddhism, as I simplistically understand it, deals with human suffering by refusing to suffer, as did stoicism in the Greco-Roman world. Hinduism sees suffering as the result of bad behavior, bad karma, in a former life. The three monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam believe that suffering is the result of sin, albeit my sin or perhaps others’ sins or the sins of our first parents. We monotheists all ask the question that Rabbi Kushner asked, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  His answer is that God is not really omnipotent. Islam answers the question by saying that God is omnipotent, but arbitrary. He can do what he wants. Who are you to question? 

Traditional Christianity has a completely different answer. Perhaps we are the most opposite to Buddhism. We don’t believe that suffering is to be escaped. It is to be embraced. Suffering is the currency of love. God allows suffering for the sake of love. Carefully trained by the romanticism of three centuries, we moderns think of love as a kind pleasure. It’s about how we feel, not what we do. Christians repudiate that definition of love. 

We believe that God sent His very heart to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In Him, God lives our life and cries our tears. Jesus defined love by a horrific death on the Cross. He was faithful to the end for the love of humanity and in trusting, loving obedience to his Father in heaven. On the Cross He redefined love. This is the sense in which we are different from all other religions. We define love by the Cross. This puts us in complete contradiction to the world in which we live. For this culture and even for many who claim to be Christian, suffering has no value. 

 We believe that love is always and only what you give away. Love has no expectation of return. It simply gives. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an offering for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)  

When we look at Christianity and see nothing but the rules and rituals, we miss the point. So many people look at the rules and rituals of the faith and conclude that since they are merely human, they are unimportant. That’s the point! They are human. Our rules and rituals express human longing for ultimate truth. They lift humanity to the divine.

Christianity is the opposite of the religions of the world. Some religions deny pain, some try to explain it away. Christianity believes that God Himself embraced pain for the sake of love.  Christianity believes that you cannot know God without knowing the Cross. You cannot be saved but by embracing the Cross. The Mass, which is at the center of traditional Christianity, is the renewal of the sacrifice of the Cross.  We are allowed to be part of the cross of Christ by receiving Holy Communion. 

The whole discussion of who may and who may not receive Holy Communion forgets the basic truth. The discussion should be about who will embrace the Cross. It isn’t about my rights or my privileges. The Mass asks me to embrace His Cross. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  (1 John 4:8)  You cannot know real love, love as Jesus defines it, without knowing the Cross.  

Our goal as individuals and as a Church is to bring every human being to a saving knowledge of Christ. That saving knowledge is not simply to know a religion or a moral system, or to join a certain club. It is to know the Cross and to embrace it. Without the Cross there is no love, and all our religion becomes senseless. 

In the current religious disaster, I suspect that we, the Church have taken our eyes off the Cross, and wish somehow to reconcile our own narcissistic desires with the absolute demands of sacrificial love. We cannot do it and we are fools, or worse, to think we can.

Rev. Know-it-all


  1. thank you, Fr Simon, for reminding us that Jesus is the very heart of the Father as eucharistic miracles make manifest

  2. I'm not a scholarly person but I do have some knowledge of world religions. In Hinduism the dharma of this age is giving. And Buddha's dispassion is not necessarily a avoidance of suffering but a reaction against the yogis who fetishized it and a way of acting without being attached to the results. Amor fati, to make the heavy burden light, etc. I see a lot of similarity to medieval Christian thinkers who were heavily informed by the stoics