Separate But Equal?

It’s not true for race but is it for religion? Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, argues in The New York Times that compassion is “a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths.” 

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.


Back on April 25th, The Boston Globe ran an op-ed by Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, who thinks glossing over religions’ differences “is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous.” 

There is a long tradition of Christian thinkers who assume that salvation is the goal of all religions and then argue that only Christians can achieve this goal. Philosopher of religion Huston Smith, who grew up in China as a child of Methodist missionaries, rejected this argument but not its guiding assumption. “To claim salvation as the monopoly of any one religion,” he wrote, “is like claiming that God can be found in this room and not the next.” It might seem to be an admirable act of empathy to assert that Confucians and Buddhists can be saved. But this statement is confused to the core, since salvation is not something that either Confucians or Buddhists seek. Salvation is a Christian goal, and when Christians speak of it, they are speaking of being saved from sin. But Confucians and Buddhists do not believe in sin, so it makes no sense for them to try to be saved from it. And while Muslims and Jews do speak of sin of a sort, neither Islam nor Judaism describes salvation from sin as its aim. When a jailer asks the apostle Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), he is asking not a generic human question but a specifically Christian one. So while it may seem to be an act of generosity to state that Confucians and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews can also be saved, this statement is actually an act of obfuscation.

A sports analogy may be in order here. Which of the following — baseball, basketball, tennis, or golf — is best at scoring runs? The answer of course is baseball, because runs is a term foreign to basketball, tennis, and golf alike. Different sports have different goals: Basketball players shoot baskets; tennis players win points; golfers sink putts. To criticize a basketball team for failing to score runs is not to besmirch them. It is simply to misunderstand the game of basketball.


While the Dalai Lama is right that “mutual understanding” between faith traditions can help promote “peaceful coexistence,” Prothero gets it more right that “we need is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate. The world is what it is. And both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know whatever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.” 


Just a note: I also found it oddly uncharitable of the Dalai Lama to reserve his scorn for “radical atheists” while minimizing the actual threat of violent jihadis inspired by Islam. Religion and ideology can promote compassion or can promote cruelty – pretending they don’t or that it’s not a real version dangerously obscures reality. 


(image from Jason Lee of The Boston Globe)

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