November 01, 2003
Many gods and many lords

Compare and contrast: recent posts on Christian-Muslim relations from Bill Cork and Allen Brill (and his commenters), plus an older post from Lynn on Christianity and other religions in general, and another oldie from Telford arguing for Christianity's uniqueness.

I don't really have a clear position on this question. Heck, I still don't have a clear position on Christianity itself, so I'm sure not going to have a position on how exclusive it is. I agree with Telford that the modern Western category of "religion" is kind of arbitrary. The fact that the Chinese, for instance, have historically followed several different religions at once -- Confucianism, Buddhism, local pagan cults -- stems from the fact that these belief systems don't really overlap at all, and so don't conflict with each other. For that matter, if we're going to call nontheistic faiths like Buddhism and Taoism religions, we might as well call Marxism, Freudianism and Objectivism religions, since following them completely basically excludes other faiths. Meanwhile, it's been argued that Hinduism isn't really a coherent religion at all, but a conglomeration of Indian philosophies and folk cults sharing a broadly common worldview.

Nonetheless, the resemblance between Christianity and Islam is obvious -- it is, after all, a family resemblance. The relationship between them, and with Judaism, comprises an argument over the nature of the same God.

This reminds me -- I mentioned earlier that my new pastor is a converted Jew, and I was curious about his story. I got a chance to ask about it, and it turned out (not surprisingly) that he hadn't been a practicing Jew; his father is, in fact, not Jewish, so like me he was raised "nothing." He was won over in high school by a youth group called the Luther League, the name of which somehow amuses me -- it sounds like the Superfriends! His parents were none too pleased, and even less please when he decided to go to seminary. Oh well, at least they're not afraid he's going to hell...

Posted by Camassia at November 01, 2003 04:15 PM | TrackBack

Despite the political utility of ecumenical mushiness, Christianity is undeniably an exclusionary religion. We have it straight from Jesus himself that nobody can get to God, except through Jesus. This is reiterated in various other forms throughout the New Testament.
Islam, for its part, is the only major world religion that was founded after Christianity. As such, it is the only world religion to consider Jesus on the pages of its sacred writings and to specifically deny his divinity. When you add to this the fact that Muslims believe the entire Koran to be the dictated word of God, delivered to Mohammad via the angel Gabriel, you see that, in Islam, God himself states explicitly that Jesus is not his son, and that he has no peers, or partners, and is not a Trinity, but a monad: One, and only one.
Whereas either could co-exist with Buddhism, or Taoism, Islam and Christianity are oil and water to each other, and fundamentally antagonistic.

Posted by: Rob on November 1, 2003 05:12 PM

Hi Rob,

I wanted to address the section of comment about Buddhism co-existing with Christianity. I would like to point out that one of the reasons that Buddhism can often mesh with other religions in something like "co-existence" is that, as the Buddha taught in the Diamond Sutra, "What is called Buddha-religion is, in fact, not Buddha-religion." One interpretation of this passage is that, because the Buddha taught self-reliance (see the Mahaparinibbana-sutta) as opposed to reliance on God or another outside force to attain enlightenment, to call Buddhism "Buddhism" is to make the mistake of ranking the figure of the Buddha with that of a God in another religion. Buddhism is, in fact, not a religion at all, but a practice. Notably, Buddhists have rarely called themselves Buddhists--such appellations are given by those outside the community. I bring this up because the force of Buddhism's practice is not, therefore, dependent upon belief *in* something. (Camassia brings up this point in her post: no conflict means co-existence?).

Problematically, because most other religions and religious sects require belief in such an outside force as God, co-existence between Buddhism and other religions is not so pat as it sometimes seems in the post-new age world of commerical fuzzy Buddhism ("we don't care what you believe"). While religions can learn from one another (meditative techniques, devotional attitudes, living a holy life, etc.), because ultimately Buddhism demands that one let go of *all* attachments, including to God, rare is the truely co-existent Muslim Buddhist or Jewish Buddhist. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has urged interfaith work and warned against sloppy spiritual practice--which is what I believe some co-existence slides into. This arguement should be carried out into greater depth than I can do here, so I apologize for the truncated thread.

Posted by: andi on November 2, 2003 03:11 AM

You make a good point. I happen to believe that salvation within Christianity requires a high degree of detachment. In this, I believe that Christians (or Muslims) can learn much from Buddhist and Taoist thought. Christian saints and contemplatives, and Sufis within Islam, all practice detachment in one form or another, as did Jesus (consider the lilies of the field...).

Posted by: Rob on November 2, 2003 05:21 AM

Yeah, I think of Buddhism and Christianity as incompatible for the reasons Andi says. They both offer a way of salvation, you might say, but they are mutually incompatible ways. The reason Buddhism coexists with those other beliefs in the East, so I gather, is that Buddhism doesn't offer those other aspects we Westerners associate with religion -- a code of social conduct, communal bonding, explanation and manipulation of the natural world. (At least in its pure form it doesn't; syncretic versions have all kinds of interesting things...)

Christianity is unusually all-embracing in its system: your way of salvation is also a way of relating to others which comes from the creator of the world, so it's all connected. My point was that not everybody connects those things, so the belief systems are not inherently equivalent.

Posted by: Camassia on November 2, 2003 09:26 AM

Andi: "Notably, Buddhists have rarely called themselves Buddhists--such appellations are given by those outside the community."

Interesting, that-- "Christians" never referred to themselves as such until the term was coined as a diminutive pejorative by opponents of Christianity during the Roman Empire. Most Early "Christians" simply called themselves "Followers of The Way" (or considered themselves Jewish).

Rob: "Despite the political utility of ecumenical mushiness, Christianity is undeniably an exclusionary religion. We have it straight from Jesus himself that nobody can get to God, except through Jesus."

The Gnostic would disagree. My understanding of Jesus's statements to this effect is that he means that anyone following his path needs to follow *his* path-- follow *his* lead, not the lead of televangelists or charismatic preachers or their Roman Era equivalents, etc. I don't think that he meant that only Christians will be "saved," "redeemed," etc. In fact, this is part of the problem I have with accepting the epistles as Canon.

This very subject has caused endless misery and suffering inflicted on those of other religions, and one must ask one's self, is Christianity so exclusionary that *only* Christians will get to "go to Heaven," "be saved," etc.? I don't think so-- I think the Way is open to anyone, in any spiritual tradition, provided he or she finds it for him or herself.

Posted by: J. Puma on November 2, 2003 11:38 AM

It is clear that orthodox Christianity is an exclusive club: salvation only through the Christ. But I believe that there is an esoteric Way according to which Jesus is understood quite differently.

Posted by: Rob on November 2, 2003 02:12 PM

Man, the "Luther League" is one of the best names ever.

I can so imagine them having a Legion-of-Doom-esque headquarters church shaped like a skull, way out in the middle of a swamp.


Posted by: Kynn Bartlett on November 2, 2003 06:25 PM


Good point about how groups get named, or identified by others. I get the sense that, at the beginning of any great spiritual period in human history, there is a distancing from labels and an immersion is actualizing and practice--i.e., "Followers of the Way," or students of the Buddha being unable to articulate the teachings, but only being able to practice.

Camassia, syncretic Buddhist sects certainly offer conventional religious structure, but I would also point out that the Three Jewels of Buddhism--Buddha, Dharma (teachings), and Sangha (community) create through their interaction a code of social conduct, a community to which one is connected, and a fundamental re-orienation to the way in which the mind manipulates the natural world. The Buddha said to his students when he died that, upon his passing, the Sangha's teacher would be the pratimoksha, or "vows for individual liberation" (meaning the vows a monk or nun takes upon him/herself, rather than setting an individual apart from a community). These vows, and their related upasika/upasaka (laywomen/laymen) vows, are explicit guides for moral and social conduct. And the taking of them creates the same sense of community which defines any religious gathering.

Posted by: Andi on November 3, 2003 07:04 AM
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