SEARCH OF A RELIGION
ARENT THEY ALL ESSENTIALLY THE SAME?
The sight of Hindus praying on the banks of the Ganges at Benares or of Muslims from the Maghreb stopping in their tracks and prostrating themselves openly in the street when the muezzin calls ; this always gives rise to a fundamental question in the minds of Westerners. Is Christianity a specially favoured way to God ? Arent other religions just as good ? Isnt the choice of a religion a question of temperament, of civilisation and therefore simply an accident of birth ? In order to attempt to answer these questions, we will examine :
I The attitude of man in search of a religion.
II- The different types of religion from which to choose.
III Some practical suggestions to guide the seeker in this quest.
IN SEARCH OF A RELIGION
It is possible to explore the question of the plurality of religions simply out of curiosity ; but this attitude of mind goes no further than casting a superficial glance at the religious phenomenon. The same applies when a person, pondering on this question, is already seeking God. Indeed, he has then discovered that the Absolute is a perfectly free and sovereign person. He longs to meet Him but he knows that God cannot be reached outside of a concrete encounter which He has himself revealed to man. The latter then has to question those who claim to be sent by God in order to find out if their mission is in fact true. However, faced with the multiplicity of witness that he finds, he is disconcerted.
a) Common elements in contradictory views
An initial solution appears to be quite simple. In all religions we find similar rituals (meals, purification) ; the same type of prayers (adoration, petition, thanksgiving); related images (creation, initial catastrophe, end of the world, divine kingship) ; comparable institutions (priesthood, instruction, consecration to God). But at the same time, contradictory religious options are to be found. Is this not the the sign of the evil that gnaws away at the heart of man ? Shouldnt all religions be reduced to their common denominator in order to find the trace of God ? But if one were to do that, the message of each religion would be horribly impoverished as a result. This would amount to drawing a robot portrait of a man which would resemble hundreds of individuals taken at random.
b) The personality of each religion
On the contrary, it must be remembered that in a religion man is seeking to express his contact with God by human means. These means are like a language that does not have an infinite vocabulary. It is therefore quite natural that the symbol of the bath should be spontaneously used to express a purification ; that the person in authority should assume the features of a king ; that the creation of the world should appear to be the work of an artisan- God. The important factor here then is not the images used but their synthetic meaning, the relationship to God that they embody. Each religion has its personality, its originality.
The echo of God must be sought in its depths. However, if God is one, it does not seem possible that He would reveal himself to men in a contradictory manner. In as far as they are in opposition to one another, religions cannot therefore all be equally revealed. So, how can this be reconciled with the fact that a God who is unique is the God of all men ? Isnt it scandalous that He should reveal himself to a privileged few ? But a presupposition lies behind this question. Each person desires, more or less consciously, to receive the divine revelation personally, without any intermediary, like a " Damascus Road " experience that would force him to believe. But, to force God to intervene in the world with this kind of uniformity is to limit his freedom and power. It would appear much more in keeping with Divine Wisdom that God should respect the freedoms He created by giving them the responsibility of passing on a revelation entrusted to a few. And so, in addition to truly divine activity, we must note the counter-currents created by the sloth, the selfishness, the ignorance, and the weakness and sin of men who reflect them in their activities.
This is more than enough reason for the multiplicity of religions.
c) Discovering an order of values
If we push the above explanations to the limit we might be tempted to claim that all religions carry the same weight, that they are all like paths, equally imperfect, converging at the one and only summit of the mountain. This is of course, a possible hypothesis ; but again, it reduces the act of revelation to a single activity of the Divine Freedom, reflected in different ways, but all equally significant. Now, it could also be supposed that God in his infinite wisdom does not reveal himself entirely all at once, but that he acts progressively, gradually preparing mankind for the final Revelation. Only a hypothesis such as this takes fully into account the Judeo-Christian religious phenomenon. It supposes that religions do not have the same value. Each one offers an attitude to the Divine Absolute that is more or less perfect ; and, at the same time, announces and promises a truth beyond its limited historic form.
Belonging to a given religion, adhering to it with all ones strength ; this then is what it means to be filled with a divine impulse which leads one to seek further. Let us take the case of a Hindu who comes on a pilgrimage to Benares. In so doing, he makes an authentic act of commitment to God but, in order to be truly religious, he has to discover that salvation cannot be bought with a magic or superstitious act. He has to wait for a divine grace which surpasses what he experiences in the ritual he enacts. In some circumstances, the person will go as far as seeing sufficient reason to give up the religion into which he was born and to adopt another one that he finds better. In other cases, reasons of this nature can only be discovered by one who observes a higher religion. This is why the Jews and Muslims have a better understanding of the inadequacies of fetishism than the pagans who live in terror of their sorcerer.
In the following pages a Christian examines the different religious attitudes in an attempt to find the truth in each of them as well as the motivating force that drives them to search for God and whose main tendancy he finds in the Holy Judeo-Christian History.
FUNDAMENTAL RELIGIOUS TYPES
The study of the different religions enables us to classify the attitudes of man face to face with the Absolute, in two fundamental types.
In the natural religions, man discovers God as creator from his traces in the universe. He responds to this knowledge with a spontaneous reaction. But now, he becomes aware of his various unsatisfied aspirations and he reflects on the problem of suffering and evil. The suggested solution offered proves inadequate and a further search is required.
The religions coming from the Old Testament recognise God from his intervention in the history in which he chooses a people, guides it and saves it. Judaism and Islam record the significance of this history, "The Word of God ", in a book. Christians believe that this divine Word is totally realised in the Man-become-God : Jesus Christ.
A- NATURAL RELIGIONS
Human behaviour confronted by the divinity in the natural religions varies according to the importance they give, as source of knowledge of God, to the message of the vital forces, of human awareness or even the social constitution of mankind.
1) Primitive religions
In the so-called Primitive religions, God is discovered as the author of life. By this very fact, he has power over death. To escape from misfortune, man must communicate with the divine power and fathom his secrets.
2) Mystical religions
In these religions, the best known example of which is to be found in the religions of India, or in the religious philosophies of the ancient Greco-Roman era, man discovers the Absolute within the mystery perceived in the depths of his own heart. Indeed, once he reflects on his own life, man discerns infinite depths and possibilities of domination of the whole universe. But, while he believes himself capable of understanding all things, he is, paradoxically , shaken by the forces of nature. This is where evil and suffering come from. They arise from the illusion (maya), the lie through which the man who bears the Absolute within himself clings to particular, external things which are thought to attain to that freedom(moshka) which is life in the Absolute. Man must therefore be detached from all desires which bind him to mortal things. This detachment must not be purely negative like the ascetics or like that of the yogi. Indeed, it is by willingly giving everything one possesses, to the extent of giving ones very life and really keeping nothing for oneself, that the true Self, which is the Absolute, will one day be found.
Buddhism has pushed this self-giving to the limit. Freedom itself, a discovery of the divine mystery of Nirvana, must be communicated. So the mystic becomes a preacher. The Buddhist mission emanates from India and spreads throughout the rest of Asia and as far as the furthermost bounds of Europe. The Absolute is now seen to become manifest through the influence and the history of the followers. This is what has led us to examine a new type of religion, State religions.
3) State religions
When a political state adopts a religious attitude which it perceives to be universal, it discovers in this experience an impetus leading to its propagation of this belief in the same ideal in the surrounding peoples. In a certain manner, the perception of the Absolute and the perception of the forces of expansion of the society merge. This phenomenon can be noted in the Egyptian as well as the Assyro-Babylonian religions, the Persian or Roman religions.
At the present time, an analagous situation can be observed when the christianised West identifies its colonial expansion with the crusade for Progress and Freedom. Everthing unfavourable to the extension of the Empire is considered a force of evil. Depending on the circumstances, the earthly struggle is seen as a parallel to a celestial struggle between Good and Evil (cf. the ancient Persian religion), or, on the contrary, kings, emperors and cities are divinised. The true religion of the people is enshrined in the personality of the Chief, in patriotism, in an unconquerable faith in victory.
However, sooner or later, the Empire is destroyed by adverse external or internal powers. In this event, the Absolute, perceived in the political order, must then be sought elsewhere. Those persons who do not wish to retreat into a past golden age of natural religions or to escape from the world into philosophical contemplation are reduced to seeking a holy history in which to find a place for themselves ; a place not subject to the vagaries of civilisations. Such a unique historical figure in which God reveals himself and enters into a dialogue with man is to be found in the religions coming from the Old Testament.
B) THE OLD TESTAMENT AND ITS CONTINUATIONS
One is struck by a double phenomenon when approaching the Judeo-Christian religious lineage. On the one hand, these religions announce Gods intervention in history ; on the other hand, they emphasise the free act of faith by which man adheres to the Word of God.
This will be evident successively in the Old Testament and in its symetrical interpretations by Judaism and Islam.
a) Old Testament
In about 2000 BC, a nomad named Abraham, in response to a call from God, left Mesopotamia to settle in Palestine. A nation was born of his descendants. God then revealed himself as a partner of this nation in a dialogue which continued throughout 2000 years of history. He appears as a person who is active and loving and at the same time reveals man to himself in his infinite aspirations, and also in his ingratitude, hatred and selfishness of heart. The ways of God are not mans ways. But in spite of the unfathomable distance that exists between the Creator and his sinful creature, God promises to those who are his own that they will one day enjoy union with Him, that union brought about in Love. Will this come about through Gods direct intervention or, on the contrary, by his sending a man capable of living in a close relationship with God and drawing his brothers in with him ? The Old Testament does not settle the question.
Among the heirs of the Old Testament, we find that Judaism refuses any additions to the revelation found in the Law, the Prophets, the Writings of the Sages and what Christians call the Old Testament. However, the religious attitude of the Jews is not identical to that of the Hebrew people of former times. The Jewish religion is essentially a religion of the Book. Union with God is achieved by meditating on the Book and its commentaries as well as observing scrupulous obedience to the Law. So the promise of union between man and God seems, in spite of its greatness, to arrive at an attitude that offends by the limitations of its racial exclusiveness and its literal legalism. Is this the only possible way of observing the religious Tradition of the Old Testament ?
Islam rejects the limitations of Judaism. There is a beyond in the Old Testament which settles any questions that may remain unresolved. Mohammed is the last of the prophets. Revelation comes to an end with him. Thereafter it only remains to await the last judgment in which God, in his mercy and transcendance, will welcome into Paradise all those who during their lifetime professed that he is the one God and acknowledged the mission of Mohammed. This time of expectation is not passive ; on the contrary, one must do everything in ones power (including going to war) to serve the community.
Every person, even if he does not believe, must at least recognise the authority of God in Muslim political power. However, the revelation given to Mohammed remains enshrined in a book : the Koran. There is no clear indication of a source of lively commentary on this book. What is its meaning for man today ? Islam is not able to define this with enough precision. It therefore remains helplessly locked into the past. This is its problem. How can it possibly be the vehicle of Gods Word today ?
HOW TO GO ABOUT SEARCHING ?
You have thought about the question of the diversity of religions and maybe you would like to revitalise your own relationship with God. For this purpose the above analysis, necessarily quick and brief , is naturally inadequate. The search for God is the commitment of a lifetime which involves in particular three types of basic effort which are mutually interdependent.
In the first place, it is not possible to set out in search of God without trying to pray. If God is God, He alone can take the initiative and man must be resolved to place himself at his disposal and submit to his will. One cannot just accept the principal, it is necessary to go further and try to involve all ones emotional and moral energy. To achieve this, it is essential to set aside time for prayer. At first, it can be a simple hypothetical invocation like " God, called Love, if you exist enlighten me ". During this prayer, you can try to open yourself up, in the depths of your being the first glimmer of light, however demanding this may be. If, on the other hand, you already have some religious knowledge, you must try to make use of the knowledge you already have of God to ask him to come.
The second step is a moral effort, reaching out to others. All religions require a process of this order as a practical step towards finding God. If one were to reject a religion on the grounds of its being too demanding, this would amount to a certain dishonesty in which the theoretical reasons would simply be masking a fundamental selfishness. On the contrary, by experiencing authentic availability to ones brothers and sisters, one gets a bit of an idea of what being available to God could be like.
However, the moment we faithfully try out this double effort of love, we discover our weakness, our sin. Only a real revelation from God can rid us of these and sustain our wavering goodwill. To reach this point, and this is the third step, it is necessary to hang on and be determined to get to the bottom line (deep meaning) of one or the other concrete religion. One has to start by taking a new look at the religion of ones childhood or of the cultural setting in which one lives. If this religion is other than the Christian religion, a comparison with the Christian faith would have to be made. If, on the contrary, one has been raised in the Christian faith, additional enlightenment can come from a parallel reflection on one or the other of the present day religious attitudes (e.g. Islam or one of the Indian religions). Two points must be noted in this regard. In the first place, a religion must be taken as it is ; and we must not just accept those parts we like while rejecting the things we dont like in it ! If God reveals himself in a particular framework, that framework must be respected in all its aspects ; otherwise it amounts to setting oneself up as a founder of a religion without having received a mission to do so. In the second place, one should not try to examine all the religions before making a decision, just as it is not necessary to know all the girls in the world before choosing the one you love. There is an inner criterion which quickly enables one to appreciate the worth of a religion. An encounter with God is an encounter with the most extraordinary personality imaginable. Now, every encounter pre-supposes an understanding with ones interlocutor, a relationship in which one is understood by the other person and in which ones own person blossoms. But, at the same time, every dialogue is a contact with another person which gives us a jolt and disturbs our habitual ways of thinking and acting. When God is the other person we meet, the one who is the Other beyond compare, the Infinite One but also the Creator, Wisdom itself then the degree of being both unsettled and settled must be at the maximum. The true religion responds perfectly to mans aspirations while at the same time profoundly disturbing his comfortable self-satisfaction in an infinite number of ways.
But how is one to know if one is on the right path ? When you find yourself standing before a locked door with a bunch of keys in your hand and one of them unlocks it, you dont need to look for another key. When a certain religious approach really opens mans heart up to Gods generous outpouring, it is not desirable to take refuge and hide in endless studies. He must try to walk in the way opened up to him. Such a decision is usually made in progressive stages. By searching faithfully and really, one comes to the realisation one day that the search is carrying on but there is no more turning back.
The Christian who is the author of the above reflections can testify that in the combat with Christ, dead and risen again, both man and God, he has discovered that it is possible to have a wonderful divine friendship, victorious over evil, suffering and sin ; and at the same time experience a continually renewed demand for self-giving, for love. The Word of Christ has given him the answers to all the major problems in life but also the need to search still further. Being settled and unsettled through the discovery of the person of Christ proved to be enormously far reaching for him. The study of a few of the great religions only served to whet his appetite still more. But this testimony is above all an appeal for dialogue. This has scarcely been touched on in these few lines. Now, it remains to take it further in live debate. You cant walk the path to God on your own because God is only found in dialogue. The important thing is to engage in it. But this implies making a decision that no-one can make in the place of the person concerned. Nevertheless, whatever his response to this invitation might be, the reader may be certain that the brotherly prayer of Christians will accompany him in his search - to help him and support him on the way.
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