Tag: Comparative Theology

Jesus: What is the Difference?

by on Oct.04, 2009, under History, Sermon, Theology

An art critic once decided to judge, once and for all, which of the great master painters was the most true to life. He arranged for representative works from each of these masters to be gathered in one gallery. He wandered around for a while, gazing upon paintings of great beauty, rich with colour and form, but try as he might he could not decide. Then he struck upon the answer: Going to the gallery’s lighting controls, he dimmed the lights until the paintings could barely be made out and, standing at a distance, declared them all to be the same!

This story is, of course, absurd. You cannot evaluate the truthfulness of a painting (or anything else) by obscuring or ignoring the things that make it distinctive… yet that is exactly what some people try to do when they examine the competing claims of the world’s religions! ‘All religions are the same,’ they claim, ‘they all teach the same things.’ A common illustration used to explain this is that different religions are simply different paths up the same mountain; they all lead to the same God in the end. The name given to this viewpoint by people who like to name such things is pluralism.

What motivates such people? Some do it out of laziness – there are so many religions, so many views and perspectives, that it is easier to lump them all together and condemn them all at once.1 Others prefer a kind of generalised spirituality that borrows from each of the major religions, allowing them to pick and choose the elements that most appeal to them and binding them to none. More commonly in recent years, however, it is driven by a fear of religious intolerance. This last is a genuine concern, yet it is best dealt with not by closing our eyes to the differences between, say, Hinduism and Judaism, but by encouraging adherents of each to listen to one another respectfully even when we disagree.

Occasionally, pluralists will claim that, ‘If you put Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and other religious leaders in the same room they would get on just fine.’ This is the claim that I intend to explore today. To do so, we will consider the lives and teachings of three very different men, each of whom in his own way changed the world. Incidentally, if you wish to explore further on this topic, I can highly recommend John Dickson’s book A spectator’s guide to world religions, from which much of the material for this sermon has been gleaned.2

Some time in the 5th century BC, a man name Siddhartha Gautama was born into a Hindu family of the ‘warrior-king’ caste of Indian society. Around 29 years of age, so it is told, he left his palace to survey his kingdom, and was overcome with grief by what he saw: a frail old man; a desperately ill man; and a corpse. The next day, however, Gautama saw a very different man who was to change his life forever: a Hindu ‘ascetic’ – a guru who had chosen to pursue the ‘Path of Knowledge’. Siddhartha was so impressed by the serene appearance of this guru that he decided then and there to give up his life of luxury and seek the secret of serenity in a world of suffering. And so he left his privileged life, his beautiful wife, and his newborn baby, to search for an answer to the problem of suffering. He found it, one May night, sitting under a tree meditating. This was the moment of ‘enlightenment’ for Prince Siddhartha, and henceforth he was known to his disciples as the Buddha, which means ‘the enlightened one’.

What was the Buddha’s insight? It may be summarised in what has come to be known as ‘The Four Noble Truths’ of Buddhism: (1) suffering exists; (2) suffering springs from desire; (3) suffering goes when you eliminate desire; and (4) to eliminate desire you must follow the ‘Eightfold Path’, a sequence of steps that aim to help eliminate any concept of the self. The force of the logic is powerful: it is our desire for self-satisfaction, self-existence and self-advancement that creates the experience of pain. Therefore if you remove the self, desire goes; and when desire goes, so too does suffering.

Some thousand years after the Buddha lived another man, named Muhammad. Born in modern-day Saudi Arabia, his early life was filled with tragedy: before he was born his father died, whilst his mother also died when he was 6; after a brief stint living with his grandfather (who died when he was 8 ) he was cared for by his uncle, Abu Talib, a prominent clan leader in the city of Mecca. Muhammad was a contemplative man who frequently left the busyness of Mecca in favour of a cave where he could consider the mysteries of life.

One day, when he was about 40, he heard a heavenly voice repeating the word, ‘recite’. Muhammad didn’t know what to ‘recite’ until finally the voice – identified as that of the angel Gabriel – explained that he had been chosen as a ‘Messenger of God’ to restore to the world the truth about the Creator. From that moment on, Muhammad was referred to by his followers as the ‘Prophet’.

At first, Muhammad found little welcome in his home town of Mecca. His calls for equity and charity were not popular in this centre of commerce and trade. In the end, Muhammad was forced to leave Mecca for Medina, a city some 400km north. In Medina, Muhammad was able to establish a community founded on two things: belief in Allah as the one true God (rather than a Zeus-like overlord of the gods); and belief in Muhammad as his messenger. More than just being the religious leader of this community, however, he was also made the civil ruler of the city – and so the first Islamic state came into existence.3

Relations with Mecca continued to be strained until, in the year 624AD, Muhammad fought a major battle at the town of Badr. In spite of being massively outnumbered, by about 3 to 1, Muhammad prevailed. Over the following years, Muhammad’s forces steadily grew, until in 628AD the Meccans were forced to sign a truce, allowing the Prophet’s followers to visit his birthplace. This did not last long, however, for in the following year Muhammad accused the Meccans of breaking the truce, and lay siege to the city with 10, 000 men. The Meccans, helpless, surrendered and converted to Islam.4

The central concept of the Muslim life is submission to God’s law as revealed in the Koran and the example of the Prophet. Indeed, the word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission’, whilst the word ‘Muslim’ means ‘one who submits’ (to Allah). Surrendering yourself to God’s law leads to eternal Paradise, whilst disobedience leads to destruction on the Day of Judgement. The heart of the law is found in what are often called the ‘Five Pillars of Islam’. These are (1) a declaration of faith, that ‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet'; (2) daily prayers; (3) payment of a tax for the poor; (4) the fast of Ramadan; and (5) a pilgrimage to Mecca. By submitting to these 5 demands, men and women hope to secure their place in Paradise.

Nestled in the middle of the years separating these two men is Jesus of Nazareth. The birth of this man literally divides history, with the preceding years numbered as BC – ‘before Christ’ – and the following numbered as AD – anno domini, or ‘the year of the Lord’. Born to working-class parents, and growing up in the backwater Palestinian town of Nazareth, Jesus had little to distinguish him from other men, except some unusual events surrounding his birth. Yet in his early thirties he began a public ministry that was attended by extraordinary miracles and, in the eyes of some at least, even more extraordinary teachings. About 3 years into this ministry, he was arrested by Jewish authorities, illegally tried, and turned over to the Roman authorities to be put to death. He was certified as dead by a Roman executioner, buried in a tomb, and yet 3 days later he was seen alive by numerous people – even as many as 500 at one time!

Chief among Jesus’ teachings concerned the nature of his relationship with God, whom he claimed as his Father in an utterly unprecedented way. As he spoke the words that we have heard read, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6), he both affirmed his own ability to bring others into relationship with God, and denied that anybody else was able. In fact, the relationship between Father and Son is so profound, that knowing the Son is equivalent to knowing the Father (14:7, 9), for Jesus and the Father are one (10:30)!

It is at this point that it becomes utterly impossible to sustain the belief that ‘all religions are the same’. The Buddha rejects the notion of any God at all, yet Jesus claims not only that there is a God, but that to know Jesus is to know God. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to realise that no God is not the same as one God – let alone the many gods of the Hindu religion! Muhammad claimed to have a revelation from God, whereas Jesus claimed to be a revelation from God. And for Jesus to claim, as he did, that he and God are one would be cause for death in Muhammad’s eyes.

Another irreconcilable difference between Jesus and the others is their different solutions to the problems of human existence. The Buddha taught that the problem was suffering, which originates in desire; the solution, then is to eliminate desire and so eliminate suffering. The Prophet taught that the problem is that men and women are disobedient towards Allah, and that the solution is to submit to the Law. Both men implied that you have the ability, by what you do, to solve the problem of your existence. This is attractive in our age of self-help, where independence is almost the cardinal virtue.

Jesus’ view of the problem is similar to both the Prophet and the Buddha: disobedience towards God – which he calls sin – leads to suffering, death and, ultimately, judgement. It is Jesus’ solution that is so very different for, he says, men and women are not capable of overcoming this problem. Instead, it is only by the actions of Jesus himself – God taking on human flesh, suffering death as a penalty for sin and being raised from the dead – that sin, suffering and death can be defeated. Where the Buddha and the Prophet point you to what you must do, Jesus points to what he has already done.

It is this personal intervention that is at the heart of the often-used image of the shepherd in Jesus’ teaching. A man was travelling with a guide through Palestine, and came across a shepherd and his sheep. The shepherd showed him the fold into which the sheep were led at night; it consisted of four walls with a way in. The man said, ‘But there is no door,’ to which the shepherd replied, ‘I am the door.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘When the light has gone, and all the sheep are inside, I lie in that open space, and no sheep ever goes out but across my body, and no wolf comes in unless he crosses my body; I am the door.’5 This is what Jesus means when he says, ‘I am the gate for the sheep… whoever enters through me will be saved’ (Jn 10:7, 9) and ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (Jn 10:11). It is Jesus who acts to rescue us from the terrible fate that sin has brought us to. Without the shepherd we are but prey; with him, we are utterly safe. Men like Siddhartha Gautama and Muhammad may give an appearance of protection and security through what they teach, but when the wolf comes they are no help, for they are merely hired hands and have no investment in you.

Consider the case of Kobayashi Issa, a Japanese poet and devout Buddhist, whose life was marked with tragedy. He believed what the Buddha taught, that the things of this life are fleeting, in his words a ‘world of dew’. Yet after the death of his second child, he wrote the following haunting words:

This world of dew
Is only a world of dew
And yet… and yet…

When tragedy struck this man, the teachings of the Buddha were little consolation.

A lot more could be said in comparing these three men, if time permitted… but unfortunately it doesn’t! As mentioned earlier, if you’re interested in exploring these issues further, I highly recommend John Dickson’s book A spectator’s guide to world religions, which also considers the teachings of Hinduism and Judaism.

What then are we to conclude? Claiming that all religions are the same is nonsense, for as we have seen even the three religions we have examined are neither compatible nor interchangeable. Indeed, claiming two things are the same when they are not leads to tragedy, as witnessed by a Sydney couple convicted this week of the manslaughter of their nine-month-old daughter. Tragically, the couple wrongly believed that their homeopathic remedies for the girl’s eczema were as effective as western medicine… and their little girl paid the price as a result.

So a choice must be made. The Buddha offers a path from a life of suffering to a life stripped of desire. The Prophet prescribes a life of submission to the Law in order to achieve Paradise. Jesus Christ calls you to a life lived under the protection of the Good Shepherd… and has himself done everything necessary for that to happen. The choice is yours.

    – Tim Campbell (4/10/2009)

Bibliography

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.
Dickson, John. A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions : An Introduction to the Big Five. Sydney South: Blue Bottle Books, 2004.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Rev. ed, The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995.


Endnotes

  1. e.g. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), 35-6. Dawkins writes, ‘Life is too short to bother with the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many… I decry supernaturalism in all its forms. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.’
  2. John Dickson, A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions : An Introduction to the Big Five (Sydney South: Blue Bottle Books, 2004).
  3. This event was so important, that it marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. The current year, for a Muslim, is not 2009AD, but 1430 AH, where AH stands for the Latin anno Hegirae, ‘in the year of the emigration’ to Medina.
  4. Lest it be thought that Islam is a religion founded on military force, it is important to recognise that Muhammad was no more warrior-like than any other clan leader of his time; in many ways he was considerably more just and compassionate. He customarily offered three options when communities came into contact with Islamic expansion: (1) Conversion; (2) Protection, meaning that the community could keep its way of life, but was obliged to pay a tax to the wider community; or (3) Battle. Only when a community refused the first two options was the third exercised.
  5. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, Rev. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995), 451 n. 32.
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