Last modified: January 15, 2011

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Are all religions heading toward the same goal?

by Ernest Valea



This table summarizes a comparison of the major topics analyzed in the previous files on world religions. Please do not jump in here without first reading the previous articles. Otherwise this short abstract may be confusing.


Topic

In the Eastern religions

In Christianity

1. Ultimate Reality

In most cases impersonal

Hindu pantheism proclaims the impersonal Brahman as the source of any existence. The gods are mere products of its manifestation. Theistic Hinduism accepts personal gods as Ultimate Reality, but karma limits them. 

Buddhism states an Ultimate Truth to be followed. 

In Taoism there is the Tao as impersonal principle that rules the universe. 

God is triune and personal (the Holy Trinity), distinct from his creation. 

(In Judaism and Islam, God is also personal, but not triune.)

2. The physical world

Manifestation of the impersonal Ultimate Reality in Hindu pantheism and a source of illusion.

Manifestation of the primordial substance (prakriti) in the dualistic Samkhya-Yoga. 

Transformation of a primordial substance by the gods of Hindu theism. 

(In Gnosticism and other dualistic philosophies matter is the creation of an evil god.)

God’s creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). Matter is not illusory and is not evil in itself.

3. Human nature

According to Hinduism humans have a divine essence (atman, purusha) of an impersonal nature. In Buddhism it is the product of five aggregates which generate the illusion of personal existence. Personhood is a hindrance in attaining liberation. 

(In Gnosticism humans are spiritual beings imprisoned in material bodies.)

Personal status is created by God in order that humans may have a personal relationship with him.

4. The human condition

Ignorance prevents us from knowing our true divine nature. Ignorance and karma are closely linked and force man into the reincarnation cycle. 

Fallen into a state of alienation from God, called sin.

5. The meaning of salvation

According to the pantheistic religions, detachment from the illusion of personal existence and merging of the divine self with the impersonal Ultimate Reality

In Buddhism nirvana is the annihilation of personal existence. 

(In Gnosticism salvation is the souls' return to their original angelic state.)

Return to a personal relationship with God, which will endure forever.

6. The way of attaining salvation

Humans have all resources in themselves for attaining liberation. One can choose the way of devotion (bhakti marga), the way of selfless living (karma marga), or the way of introspection (jnana marga). 

In most cases of theistic Hinduism and devotional Buddhism, the gods (or bodhisattvas) can help humans only if they deserve it, as a result of their own efforts. Grace plays a minor role, except in a few particular cases (prapatti in Hinduism and Pure Land Buddhism).

Humans cannot attain salvation by their own efforts. God took the initiative and gave the only solution for salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We have to accept this grace

7. The moment of attaining salvation

Only spiritually evolved masters can attain liberation during one life. Most people need to reincarnate many times in order to live out the consequences of karma and overcome ignorance.

This is our only life and it is enough to accept God’s grace.

8. The meaning of freedom

Life is shaped entirely according to the dictates of karma. Humans have to accept their preordained destiny.

There are no previous lives and humans are free to choose their eternal destiny here and now.

9. The identity of Jesus Christ

Guru, avatar, enlightened master, saint, etc. He is a perfect example of what any of us can achieve.

God the Son incarnated, one of the hypostases of The Holy Trinity. (In Islam just a prophet, in Judaism a blasphemer against God.)

10. The meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross

Irrelevant. Humans can escape their karma and find liberation only by their own efforts. 

(According to Gnosticism it was either an illusion or a historical hoax.)

The only solution for our salvation. 
(In Islam it is not accepted as true. In Judaism it is the right punishment Jesus got for blasphemy.)

11. The view on Jesus’ physical resurrection

Absurd. Spiritual progress cannot mean a return to the physical body. 

(According to Gnosticism a ghostly appearance.)

The proof of his divinity and efficacy of atonement for our salvation. 
(In Islam and Judaism not accepted as true.)

12. The nature of evil

Evil and suffering are a result of ignorance and the subsequent work of karma.

Its origin is a being, Satan, who rebelled against God. Human sin perpetuates evil and suffering in our world.

13. God’s solution for the problem of evil

Humans have to work out their own karma and do their best to escape suffering by transcending personhood. The Hindu avatars are just reminders of the right spiritual path. Buddhist bodhisattvas help people to attain a spiritual realm where they can hear the proper doctrine and attain liberation easier.

God solved the problem of evil through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. At the end of history he will judge and punish all evildoers.

14. The proper attitude toward suffering

Ignoring the problem, withdrawal from its reality. One can only accept the misfortunes of life as dictates of karma.

Humans have to oppose suffering, following the example of Christ.

15. The role of compassion and charity

Mere instruments for cleansing oneself of egoistic attachments. They do not seek the welfare of the one that is suffering, but are rather a means for escaping the world of illusion by the one who performs them. 

Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the role of compassion for all beings, but also views them as ultimately illusory and their true nature as voidness.

Means of expressing the relational nature of the human being, for the benefit of others.

16. Social involvement

Only detached social involvement is possible, devoid of any personal motivation (as the Bhagavad Gita requires).

The root of social involvement is the command to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12,31).

17. The meaning of moral values

Morality has no value in itself, as it may produce false attachments. It is a mere instrument for defeating egoism and advancing toward liberation.

There are positive and negative moral values, between which one has to exercise discernment (Galatians 5,17-23).

18. The view of history

Cyclical. Periodical dissolution of the universe determines an endless repetition of the world’s history.

Linear. Human history has a beginning and an end.

19. The way the two perspectives consider each other

Christianity is, at best, a mere inferior way (a bhakti type) of attaining liberation.

As man cannot attain salvation by himself, and Jesus said he is the only way to God (John 14,6), other religions cannot play the same role.

 

Christianity and religious syncretism and pluralism


The obvious conclusion is that the major topics in world religions have fundamentally different meanings, especially in the case of Eastern religions vs. Christianity. Two important implications result:

              The teaching of the Hindu tale of the blind men who tried to describe the elephant is valid
              only for pantheistic religions. They are all heading toward the same
              impersonal Ultimate Reality, using similar means. However, the monotheistic religions
              reject this view and therefore cannot be included in this picture.

              Christianity cannot be used as an ingredient in order to produce a syncretistic world
              religion.

Despite these implications, there are many attempts to "reconcile" Christianity with "the big family" of world religions. The first important syncretistic movement was Gnosticism at the beginning of the 2nd century AD. During the Middle Ages, Gnosticism flourished and generated several related movements such as Manicheism, Catharism, Bogomilism, Albigensianism, Hermeticism, etc. More recent syncretistic movements include Theosophy, founded by Helena Blavatsky, and Anthroposophy, founded by Rudolf Steiner. The fact that these movements are closer to Eastern spirituality than to Christianity becomes obvious when examining their main tenets: Ultimate Reality is not a personal God, but the all-pervading oneness; the world is a manifestation of this impersonal Ultimate Reality; the human being has a divine inner nature which is the higher self; karma and samsara are fully accepted; one’s true spiritual nature is to be found in meditation; the chakras have to be activated by spiritual exercises, etc. In fact, these religious movements are not attempts to find a middle way between Christianity and Eastern religions, but rather to adopt Christianity in the big family of pantheist ideologies.

Apart from Theosophy and Anthroposophy, there are many Eastern masters today who travel all over the world in order to present their teachings in a "suitable" manner to the Western world. As a result, we can see many worldwide cults promoting Eastern teachings in a most attractive way for their adherents. The ultimate product of adapting pantheist teachings in the Western culture is called New Age spirituality. The element that makes it so attractive is the virtuosity it proves in combining the essence of Eastern pantheism with occult traditions and the individualistic mentality of the West. It abandons Eastern pessimism, its understanding of life as suffering, and replaces it with an optimistic view of eternal progression of the self towards superior levels of existence. Occult traditions are accepted under its umbrella as various perspectives on the same ultimate truth, while the "unpopular" demands of Christianity, such as accepting that we are all sinners and need repentance, God’s grace through Jesus Christ, etc, are all rejected.

One of the major claims of the New Age syncretism is that Christianity can no longer give the answers to our spiritual quest, so that it is necessary to accept the teachings of Eastern spirituality in order to get a comprehensive picture of the meaning of life. But does Christianity really need such "completion" or "crutches"? Does it have gaps that can be filled by the help of Eastern spirituality? The Apostle Paul’s answer is negative. When reading his Epistle to the Colossians, we can figure out that his readers were struggling with the same issue, religious syncretism. He writes about the possibility that Christians may find spiritual help in the Hellenistic philosophy of that time:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority (Colossians 2,8-10).

If we can have "fullness in Christ," what other completion can Eastern religions bring us? Any element added to this "fullness" would only compromise its essence and efficiency. Present day syncretism cannot bring spiritual progress and peace, as is claimed by the New Age Movement, but only confusion and spiritual delusion. Jesus Christ warned us against such attempts:

Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, "I am the Christ", and will deceive many (Matthew 24,4-5).

One of the more recent harbingers of religious syncretism was Baha’ullah, the founder of Baha’ism in the mid 19th century in Iran. He stated that each of the major religions founders were manifestations of God and thus in each religion must be recognized a measure of truth. Jesus would be only one of the nine major religious teachers of the world and his teaching would not contradict that of the others. But although all world religions hold a measure of truth, they must be seen as incomplete, valid for the past ages of human history and for a limited group of people. The religion of the future would be the ultimate revelation of God in Baha’ullah. However, as we have seen in our analysis such perspective can only result from a superficial understanding of world religions and their founders.

The Judeo-Christian tradition is opposed to spiritual syncretism, as the very first command of the Mosaic Law requires no compromise in worshipping him alone (Exodus 20,3-5). The people of Israel met disaster precisely because they worshiped the gods of other nations. The climax of this situation was reached during the reign of king Manasseh (697 - 642 BC):

Manasseh did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had demolished; he also erected altars to the Baals and made Asherah poles. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them. He built altars in the temple of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, "My Name will remain in Jerusalem forever." In both courts of the temple of the Lord, he built altars to all the starry hosts. He sacrificed his sons in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practiced sorcery, divination and witchcraft, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, provoking him to anger. He took the carved image he had made and put it in God's temple [...] Manasseh led Judah and the people of Jerusalem astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites. The Lord spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention (2 Chronicles 33,2-10).

The worst thing Manasseh did, as no other king before him, was to bring the symbols of other religions inside the temple, which generated a syncretistic new religion. Even if it was politically justified, as he wanted to have peace and be accepted by the other nations, his innovative move compromised the only way of reconciling the Jewish nation with God. And although Manasseh later repented, religious syncretism entered people’s hearts. They reached a point where repentance was impossible and spiritual confusion became so great that God called the sin of Manasseh as paradigmatic for the fall of the whole nation (Jeremiah 15,4). So there is no sign of encouraging spiritual syncretism in the Old Testament.

The same situation is presented in the New Testament. Jesus Christ did not claim to be one of the many ways to God, but the only one:

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14,6).

This statement should be very embarrassing for those who try to find alternative ways to God, or a syncretistic middle way. If all religions had been valid alternatives to God, what use would Jesus' dramatic death on the cross have served? Why such an extreme solution for our sins, if each of us could reach God by diligently following the religious tradition of his choice? Although it is sometimes claimed that this solution for salvation was valid only for the Israelites of his time, Jesus himself dismissed this hypothesis by commanding his disciples:

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28,19-20).

Why would Jesus have commanded this, if all religions had been valid ways to God? Why would so many Christian martyrs die in order to proclaim one of the many alternative ways to God? As the conclusion of our quest, we can state that world religions do not lead us to the same finality. They are not compatible with each other, and cannot be taken as optional paths toward the same spiritual end.


 

A last thought on religious intolerance


Does such a conclusion fuel intolerance and hatred for people of different religious beliefs? It might do, but only for those who don't really understand and practice their own religion. Christians should be tolerant and loving towards all people no matter what their religious beliefs are. At least this is what Jesus taught by saying: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12,31 and Luke 10,27). The parable he used when he taught this (The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10,25-37) proves that one's neighbors are not necessarily people holding the same religious beliefs. Jews hated Samaritans for their religious beliefs, but Jesus used them deliberately as the teaching example in his parable. To be tolerant doesn't mean to embrace your neighbor's religion, but to respect him for what he is, a human being created in the image and likeness of God. Muslims should be tolerant with other people, at least with Christians and Jews. This is what the Quran teaches (2,62). Hindus and Buddhists should also be tolerant to people of other religious faiths. After all, according to the doctrine of karma people of other faiths will eventually reincarnate and get a new chance to understand the ultimate truth. Being intolerant to others would only fuel hatred and karma.

This site is not aimed at fueling intolerance. It is rather to be seen as a tool for a better understanding of the uniqueness of world religions. Even if world religions are not compatible with each other, we can still love each other. Tolerance cannot be achieved by being ignorant or superficial, but rather by understanding each other's faith. The result of ignorance, of half measures of religious understanding, is not religious tolerance, but religious syncretism and pluralism. And I hope to have done my best to argue against them as proper attitudes in interreligious encounter.


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Copyright Ernest Valea. No part of this work will be used or reproduced by any means without prior permission from the author.