Christianity has a long history of making exclusive claims to ultimate truth. Indeed, many Christians point to the simplicity of John 14:6 — “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
This seemingly unambiguous verse serves as an effective thought-blocking mechanism. It is often interpreted as Jesus claiming to be the one and only way. I would argue, however, that other religious traditions are not a threat to Christian beliefs, but rather a needed friend in difficult times.
Instead of becoming mired in complex theologies, I propose a thought experiment. Rather than being a cosmic landmine to one’s salvation, perhaps studying the wisdom traditions of other religions would actually expand one’s empathy toward their neighbor in a globalized society — an activity Jesus would support. (See Mark 12:31.)
Christians can grow in their own faith without betraying their core principles. By examining corollaries in other traditions, much can be learned from their best principles like charity, love, forgiveness, mercy and grace. Jesus himself drew heavily on the world around him. He offered his disciples, and those within earshot, grounded, reality-based teachings.
“Christians can grow in their own faith without betraying their core principles.”
More than 2,000 years later, our world affords us accessible knowledge of other religions at our fingertips. We can digitally tour a mosque, synagogue, gurdwara or temple on YouTube. This kind of accessible knowledge (or, in some cases, knowledge overload) is likely one of the reasons more and more young Americans identify as “nones” — those without religious affiliation.
Following the teachings of a Jewish rabbi, early Christians drew on the same Hebrew Scriptures Jesus knew, recited and interpreted. They also turned to the wisdom of Greek philosophy to examine their theological claims. Just as humans grow and change, as their spiritual needs grow and change in the seasons of life, so too should they be willing to embrace these complexities and draw on other traditions to understand their own.
What would this look like in practice? For our thought experiment, let’s look at two ideas from ancient India. In the first example, ancient Indians formed some of their core beliefs around the idea of ahimsa, or radical non-violence. Ahimsa has taken many different directions in various Indic religions: for some, it is expressed in their dietary choices (refusing to eat anything that causes death of any sort). For others, ahimsa is a form of non-aggression, even in the most dire situations.
The attitude reflected in ahimsa — that is, a way of going through the world where peace is the one and true goal — can be meaningfully correlated to Christian mercy. Christians believe their sins are forgiven in the sacrifice of Jesus and in God’s definitive “no” to the finality of death. The principle of ahimsa, as a form of radical non-violence even in the face of real threat, is a form of mercy in the world.
“The principle of ahimsa, as a form of radical non-violence even in the face of real threat, is a form of mercy in the world.”
Christians can pattern their own behaviors of mercy to live out their claims that they received a joyous gift through the ultimate sacrifice. Lived mercy could be the ultimate expression of spiritual gratitude for such a gift. Christians might also look to Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. as examples of living out ahimsa in the modern world.
In the second example, a core teaching of Buddhism is impermanence. This means everything, eventually, goes away. Whether we look at ourselves, the natural world around us, or even the larger cosmos, nothing stays the same. It changes, decays and changes form. One step in Buddhist awakening is not only conceptualizing impermanence but coming to peace with it.
When we realize nothing is permanent, we create a deep empathy with the world around us. We are subject to impermanence, as is everyone else. In this moment, here and now, we can feel more care and compassion for those around us because we are all in the same boat, so to speak.
The corollary with Christian teaching could be charity and love. Are these emotions and actions rooted in acceptance of a common fabric of existence?
I don’t suggest these teachings as a spiritual enhancement for Christians, but as a deepening of their intensity in their following of Jesus. There is a spacious reservoir of wisdom in other religious traditions that can intensify Christian spirituality.
Does our thought experiment succeed? Have we explored a little beyond Christianity while maintaining its core principles while also avoiding cultural appropriation and irresponsibly taking from others? I suspect if our thought experiment succeeds — and Christians intensify their spirituality by learning from others — then they might also contribute more peace and empathy to a hurting world.
James Willis III is an assistant professor of practice for religion in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Indianapolis. He holds a bachelor of arts degree in theology from Roanoke College, a master of literature in divinity from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and a Ph.D. in comparative religion from King’s College London in England. He is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.
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