Spirituality is far more popular than religion — it sells more books anyway. It often is deeply entrenched with, or overtly pluralistic. Stepping up to the spiritual buffet line, the spiritual-but-not-religious person chooses from a smattering of the world’s religions from which they choose their beliefs. What’s more is this view is growingly considered to be more enlightened from a large swath of the population than traditional theistic belief. One such example of the gross ignorance of the theologies of religions which are sampled was posted on the Huffington Post in an article called, 5 Insights From the World’s Religions by Jeffery Small. In it he highlights the most appealing of what he understands to be the major world’s religions’ doctrines.
We fear what we do not understand. Creating opportunities for those of different faiths to interact can reveal that behind the doctrines of these faiths, we find many similarities. For example, the Golden Rule (“treat others as you would like to be treated”) is found in every one of the world’s religions. But one of the greatest benefits of interfaith dialogue is that by studying another’s faith we might learn a bit of wisdom, a new way of looking at reality, that we can incorporate into our own. Here is just a single insight from each of the five largest religions — Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity — that might have meaning to someone from another tradition.
Already Small is filtering each religion through the “prism” of pluralism. Present in his approach is that each religious system is incomplete (See: The Elephant In The Room) but basically the same (See: Do Differences Matter?, and Cyanide, Aspirin, and Breath Mints) i.e., no one has all the truth and we have something to learn from other systems. It seems Small has either a serious lack of understanding of at least the three of the doctrines he has included in his article on Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Or he not concerned with what they teach and has adopted a more palatable take.
1. Judaism’s monotheism
In contrast to the religions of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, in which different deities oversaw various aspects of the universe, Judaism great contribution was the declaration that there was only one ultimate source of all that is: one God. The name of this deity, YHWH, translates as “I am that I am.” God cannot be defined or contained. This development of theological thought (which took centuries even within Judaism) meant that behind the physical realities of our day-to-day lives was a single indescribable Ultimate Reality.
The monotheism of Judaism is much more significant than Small is implying. It was not merely that there was one “Ultimate Reality”, rather that there was one personal God responsible for all existence and all others were false invented non-existent gods. The God of Judaism would not tolerate Small’s pluralistic endeavor explored here. Many times in the history of the Israelites they mixed other pagan practices and gods in with their worship of YHWH, and they were punished by God for doing so. The Jew’s idea of monotheism (specific monotheism to the exclusion of all other worldviews) would likely be considered intolerant and antiquated by Small.
4. Islam’s peace through surrender
The world Islam literally means a peace found through surrender. What is it one needs to surrender in order to find this peace? Islam teaches one must utterly surrender oneself to Allah, to God. Since Allah is the ultimate truth and source of the universe, we suffer and we cause suffering when we elevate ourselves over Allah. We find peace through a complete surrendering of every aspect our lives to this greater reality. The purpose of Muslim prayer five times a day (Salat) is to connect with Allah, to remind oneself throughout every day to surrender.
Small plays on the ignorance of his audience by portraying the concept of surrender the way he does, or he himself is. The surrender to Sharia which is demanded by the Qur’an is not a voluntary one (See verses 9:29-30, and 47:3-4 in the Qur’an, for example). When non-Muslims are encountered by Muslims, they are to offer them to “surrender” to Allah, pay a tax, become slaves, or die. True peace is achieved only when the world is submitted to Allah.
5. Christianity’s love
When asked about the greatest commandments from scripture, Jesus replies that there are but two: “love God with all of one’s heart, soul and mind,” and “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Christian ideal of love was one of the aspects of the early Christian community most noticeable to those outside of it. The Greek language has two words for love: eros and agape. Eros is what we would consider romantic love. It is that feeling in which we are drawn to another to the extent we feel we cannot live without them. Whereas eros focuses on our own feelings, agape is outwardly focused, away from us. Agape is unselfish love. It is a love without bounds or conditions, a love that doesn’t require reciprocity. This is the love that Jesus commands. It is the love that leads to social justice, to peace and to charity.
Small makes the same mistake here as he does with Judaism. What it means to love God, is to love and commit yourself to Him at the exclusion to all other gods and religious systems. Jesus is not preaching social justice, peace, or charity. This is a summary of the Ten Commandments. By loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind you effectively are obeying Commandments 1-4: have no other gods, make and worship no images of God or any other deities, not taking the Lord’s name in vain, and resting on the Sabbath. When you love your neighbor (Love is defined in 1 Corinthians 4-7) you fulfill the 6th-10th commandments: honor and respect your parents, not murdering, stealing from, or lying about your neighbor, being faithful to your spouse, and not jealously desiring your neighbor’s belongings.
The three world religions I address from Small’s article are by their nature exclusivistic. Whether one or any of them are correct is irrelevant to this particular discussion. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all make very specific claims which are rigidly proclaimed. Regardless of whether people disagree with a particular understanding does not negate the fact that these religions do not allow for piecemeal adoption and application. All three demand an exclusive adherence i.e., Judaism and no other; Christianity and no other; Islam and no other.
The approach Small takes is common. The Oprahfication of religion and spirituality is — in my opinion — more dangerous than atheism. It gives the impression that it’s all no big deal, that God is as malleable as you desire — which I believe says one doesn’t take God seriously. Whether God exists or not; what kind of God exists if one does; and what God expects from man is far more important than to reduce God and religion to a sort of spiritual Mr. Potato Head — take a general lump of “religion”, and add and subtract the pieces and concepts to your desires.