Religions and their commonalities and differences

 

We’re Not the Same…And That’s OK. Stephen Prothero says the leaders of the interfaith movement have a problem: call it the Kumbaya Effect. Instead of grappling with our religious differences, he says they gloss them over, creating a ‘pretend pluralism’ that does more harm then good. Stephen Prothero, author of God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter.

The current episode of Interfaith Voices is on why our differences matter. It is an interesting topic, so before I listen to it (if I do!), I thought I would explore it for myself first. I am usually not so interested in religion, so it is good for me to take a look at it.

When it comes to emphasizing commonalities and differences, it seems appropriate and helpful if we emphasize commonalities these days. With increasing connection among people of different religions, emphasizing commonalities helps diffuse tension and ease interactions. Within that context of emphasizing commonalities, there is also a great deal of benefit in acknowledging and looking at the differences among religions.

Ecosystems are more resilient and stable the more diverse they are. And although social systems are not identical to ecosystems, it does seem healthy for humanity to have a wide diversity of approaches to religion, spirituality, and God. Each provide their own unique perspectives, contexts, and insights. There is a richer set of approaches and tools for us to try out. They provide contrasts to each other. There is an incentive for each tradition to clarify and refine their own approach. And there is an opportunity to find apparent universals and commonalities within the diversity. And as in an ecosystem, we don’t know which “species” will show itself fit and thrive in the future.

We can even acknowledge the benefits of the varieties that are apparently not so healthy, such as the ones with weird ideas, views not aligned with science, and fundamentalism in general. They provide a mirror for us, a contrast, an incentive to find alternatives that are more kind, wise, and aligned with reality, and they provide an opportunity for exploring and implementing strategies in relating to them such as working to minimize damage, invite changes, and developing more attractive alternatives.

Whether we take religion as meaning beliefs or providing pointers for own exploration, differences obviously matter.

If we take religion – or our relationship with God – as having to do with beliefs, differences matter in that many religions will be mutually exclusive. We cannot “be” a good conventional Christian and a Buddhist at the same time, because the teachings, if taken at a surface level and literally, cannot co-exist. Even more importantly, differences matter because one set of beliefs may be “true” while another set of beliefs may be “false”, and the consequences of choosing wrong may be great (according to some religions). Even if we see religions as different and relatively equivalent paths to God, the practical consequences of the different beliefs are likely to be important to us. Some religions and groups within the religions emphasize empathy and tolerance, while other emphasize truth and the “one true path”, and those beliefs certainly influence our lives and how we act in the world.

If we take religion and spirituality as providing pointers, guidelines, and questions for own explorations, differences still matter. Some pointers, from some traditions, will be more helpful for us than others, and the practical consequences of applying different pointers and guidelines are important.

In that sense, those who follow beliefs and those who use teachings as pointers share a concern. What practical consequences – here and now – do the stories have for my own life, and for society as a whole? Even if I take these stories as beliefs, is there a way I can use them so the practical consequences are more desirable for myself and others? Which stories help me heal and mature, and live from more clarity and compassion for myself and others?

Even for mystics, differences matter. They matter in terms of practical consequences of pointers and guidelines, as above. Some pointers will at certain times be very useful for inviting insight and openings, and other pointers will be less useful. Some pointers will help us live with more clarity and compassion, and others less so. And some pointers will help us heal and mature, while other may not. There will also be a great deal of difference in how a realization is interpreted and lived in daily life. Interpretations, choices, and actions will be filtered through culture, tradition, training, the level and type of health and maturity of the individual, and individual inclinations.

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– differences matter
— belief: whether the “true” religion or not, or at least one of several valid paths
— pointers: how useful, accurate, their effects when applied etc.
— in either case: look at the effects, which ones seem more useful etc.

……….

– commonality & diversity
— if one sided, then not so good, better to include both
— diversity – explore the effects of beliefs/pointers + what happens when taken as belief or pointer, and which one is encouraged by the tradition
— …

……….

– depends on how relate to, if take as “belief” or guidelines, pointers, questions
– if belief, then mutually exclusive
– if pointers, then can make use of pointers from many/any traditions, and whatever is outside of any tradition
– also, mystics in different traditions, same or very similar – clothed in different words depending on age/culture/tradition
— certainly difference in how it is expressed in words
— and also in how it is lived – flavored by age/culture/tradition
— also how is experienced, to some extent – the flavor of it, what is emphasized, noticed, in foreground
— and certainly how the human self has been trained before awakening, and lives it out w/in

– if belief, then assume that reality can be captured in a story/thought/image (or that we are “good” people by believing something, and this will save us)
– if pointer, then assume words can point to something which we can explore in our own experience/life + assume life is more important, how we live our life

– in any case, good to have a diversity of traditions
— just like an ecosystem, want diversity
— richer, more angles, contrast to each other, don’t know what will be useful in the future
— also good with the flavors that are apparently not so healthy, the weird ideas, fundamentalism etc. – provide a mirror, a contrast, an incentive to find a better alternative, an opportunity to explore strategies – work to minimize damage, work to change it, work to develop attractive alternatives (and so learn more about oneself), etc.

………

– diversity, different angles/insights etc.
– when there, also helpful with the more weird versions
– explore the effects of the different approaches (already done, f.ex. in religion psychology)
– belief vs pointers
— if belief, then mutually exclusive
— if pointers, then can use from many traditions
– mystics, shared (same general terrain) and diversity

………

– emphasize commonalities, helpful, find mutual respect, cooperation
– emphasize diversity, the benefits of diversity

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Interfaith Voices, why our differences matter

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religions

  • cannot “be” a buddhist and christian etc. b/c often mutually exclusive views
  • but commonalitites, and can learn from each
  • and identical for mystics

………..

If we assume that reality (God) can be captured in words and traditions, then

………..

Initial draft….

The current episode of Interfaith Voices is on why our differences matter. It is an interesting topic, so before I listen to it (if I do!), I thought I would explore it for myself first. I am usually not so interested in religion, so it is good for me to take a look at it.

First, just as in an ecosystem, it is good and healthy to have a wide diversity of approaches to religion, spirituality, and God. Each provide their own unique perspectives, contexts, and insights. They provide a richer set of approaches, they provide contrast for each other, they provide opportunitites for looking for and finding (apparent) commonalitites. We don’t know what will present itself as useful in the future, and from where it comes.

It is also good with the flavors that are apparently not so healthy, the weird ideas, fundamentalism, and so on. They provide a mirror for us, a contrast, an incentive to find better alternatives (more kind, wise, aligned with reality), and they provide an opportunity for exploring and implementing strategies in relating to it – from working to minimize damage to changing it to develop more attractive alternatives (and so learn about ourselves).

Then, it depends on how we relate to religions and spirituality. If we take religion – or our relationship with God – as having to do with belief, then – yes – differences obviously matter. The religions are mutually exclusive at this level. We cannot “be” a good conventional Christian and a Buddhist at the same time, because the teachings, if taken at a surface level and literally, are mutually exclusive.

If we take religion and spirituality as providing pointers, guidelines, and questions for own explorations, it looks quite different. Then, we can make use of pointers from many and any tradition, and also whatever we find outside of spiritual traditions (often equally helpful). Here too, differences matter, and we want differences, and we are free to make use of whatever seems useful in any tradition.

Finally, it appears that the mystics of the different traditions all share a quite similar realization. And yet here too, there are valuable and important differences. There may be differences in the realization itself. There may be identification with an “I” (oneness) or a release of this identification. The realization is expressed through a human self, and there will be a great deal of differences here. For instance, there will be a difference in emphasis among head (insight), heart (love, compassion), and belly (reorganization of emotions, release of fear). The health and maturity of the human self will be quite different. There will be a difference in the training of the human self prior to awakening, which is reflected within the awakening. In general, there will be differences in how it is interpreted, lived, and expressed in words, since this is colored by age, culture, and tradition. Each of the differences creates an overall richness in how reality realize itself, and express this realization.

…..

Finally, it appears that the mystics of the different traditions all have a quite similar experience of the world and God. It is certainly different in how it is expressed in words, since it is colored by their age, culture, and tradition. It is also somewhat different in how it is lived, for the same reason. And the interpretation of the realization is obviously quite different. It may also be quite different in the flavor of the realization, such as what is noticed, emphasized, and in the foreground.

…….

When it comes to emphasizing commonalities and differences, it seems very appropriate and helpful if we over-emphasize commonalities these days. There is enough strife in the world as it is, and people from different religions encounter each other more frequently and intimately now than ever before, so emphasising commonalities eases the interactions. We may get more respect for and understanding of other religions, and can also join forces on projects that comes out of our commonalities, such as human rights and sustainability.

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4 thoughts on “Religions and their commonalities and differences

  1. Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter “Mystic Viewpoints” in my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org on comparative mysticism:

    Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

    Conflicts in Conventional Religion. “What’s in a Word?” outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

    Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

  2. Thanks Ron! I am looking forward to taking a look at your book.

    “Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.”

    I agree completely.

  3. In an earlier comment I had mentioned the similarity of the mystical traditions vs. the difference of orthodox religious doctrines, as outlined in my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org In fairness to Dr. Prothero, I came across a later editorial review he which states: Mystics often claim that the great religions differ only in the inessentials. They may be different paths but they are ascending the same mountain and they converge at the peak. Throughout this book I give voice to these mystics: the Daoist sage Laozi, who wrote his classic the Daodejing just before disappearing forever into the mountains; the Sufi poet Rumi, who instructs us to “gamble everything for love”; and the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, who revels in the feminine aspects of God. But my focus is not on these spiritual superstars. It is on ordinary religious folk—the stories they tell, the doctrines they affirm, and the rituals they practice. And these stories, doctrines, and rituals could not be more different. Christians do not go on the hajj to Mecca; Jews do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; and neither Buddhists nor Hindus trouble themselves about sin or salvation.

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