The Great Religions By Which Men LiveBrahmanic Hinduism - Buddhism - Taoism - Confucianism -
Christianity - Shintoism - Judaism - Islam
Floyd H. Ross and Tynette Hills
TOWARD A RICHER FAITH
Most of us tie our faith to a fixed set of beliefs. We tend to look upon other religions as less pure or genuine. We forget that the Oriental finds many of our beliefs incredible.
Yet no religion should be measured by its lowest expression -- it should be measured by its highest. And looking at the great prophets of the great religions, we see how similar they were in many of their attitudes. To honor one does not mean to dishonor another.
Prophets are people who live out on the fringe of their society. They are not tied down to the manners and ways of their own people hut walk out where their vision takes in wider horizons. They carve out new paths. Their religion is open and outreaching.
Priests are those who minister close to the altars of convention. They are the salesmen of wares handed on to them and the distributors of tradition. They do not so much create as conserve.
All religions have their prophets and priests -- few of the former and many of the latter. The institutions such as the shrine and the temple, the church and the synagogue are the concern of the priests; reform, new revelations, and fresh insights are the meat and drink of the prophets.
Christianity (like all religions) has been a religion of many facets. Down through the centuries it has had its full measure of both prophets and priests -- the latter in the great majority. Most of us have been taught our religion by means of some institution, and we easily come to believe the institution’s interpretation of it. We tie our faith to the faith of the church (our church), to a set of beliefs, to fixed forms and patterns. We tend to look askance upon others not of our own household -- regarding others as "less pure" or less genuine. Institutional religion is by nature divisive: it sets people off from each other, sometimes deliberately (with creeds and polity) and more often unconsciously (by the nurture of pride that we are the possessors of religious truths). Priest religions are like nationalisms: self-perpetuating and self-conscious.
When we look across the borders to other religions, we tend to look down from our self-assertive heights. We like to point out how naive and superstitious are the beliefs of people in other geographical and cultural areas, how immature their gods, how fantastic their practices. We forget that if an Oriental looked at us from his heights he would find many of our Christian practices and even our beliefs equally incredible and many of our religious manners fantastic.
It is unfair to measure any religion by its lowest expressions. All religions have their heights as well as their lowlands, and the heights are to be seen clearly in their creators, their founders, and their great literature. The measure of a religion is its best ideals. We expect others to estimate our religion by its best expression; and, in turn, as an elemental courtesy, we should judge others by their best. A Christian always prefers to have Jesus of Nazareth represent his religion when it is judged; and those of the other faiths would choose their best prophets to represent them when comparisons are made.
If our approach is in this spirit, we come to see how much alike the greater prophets in all the greater religions are as they have pointed the direction for men, how similar they are in estimating virtues, and how, presumably, their best gods show character not unlike some of the best traits we know. The metaphors of religions differ greatly. All religions thrive in metaphors appropriate to specific times, places, and cultures. But metaphors are instruments and not ends. God is always more than any metaphor.
To believe in a worthy God is to believe in a God of all people, whatever the race or clime; a God not far from consecrated human spirits anywhere.
There are many prophets of divinity, though the light may be transmitted more brightly through some than through others. To honor one of them in deepest reverence does not mean to dishonor others. We need to know more about the prophets of other treat religions who presumably have transmitted divine light, even as we ought to hunger to know more about the unclouded message of the founder of our own religion. We can afford to be charitable toward those who so haltingly understood their prophets and who, as priests, have gotten lost in the coarse details of their religion.
This book, it seems to me, is a prophetic hook. While it shows forth priestly religions, it sets the sights toward the prophetic in all of them. It is prophetic in its evident purpose: to stimulate a warmer appreciation of great prophets and great prophetic literature. It is prophetic in its evident desire: to promote the attitude that the sons of men must cultivate in the days ahead, while cultures are impinging upon cultures, while people are being drawn together in the interchange of communication and in the awareness of a common destiny. The way the world is going, we shall have to grow big in spirit, in tolerance and fraternity. There is hardly any other choice for survival.
It is my own belief that if the founders of the great faiths were with us today they would cross the borders that their disciples have set up between them; they would sit down at a table to express their agreements and discern the truths behind their various metaphors. They would find kinship in a common world of spirit, their common God.
Many of us are finding out how alike people are in their deepest aspirations. If you exchange ideas with a liberal of the Jewish faith. you will find him close to your own (if your own has the breath of fresh air that the prophet breathes). You will not be surprised if one of our friends calls himself both Christian and Buddhist, if you know something of the essentials of each faith. You will attend the simple service of a Ramakrishna meetinghouse in New York City with the feeling that the founder of your own religion is present in this house of God. And you will appreciate the Hindu affirmation that truth shines more brilliantly when it shines from many angles, like the diamond with its many facets. You will be impressed by the counsel of the Hindu who urges you, not to give up your own religious heritage, but to see it with the help of its greatest prophet rather than the dogmas of its priests.
Dr. Ross is eminently qualified to point the way to a larger faith. Professor of World Religions at the University of Southern California, he is the author of The Meaning of Life in Hinduism and Buddhism and Addressed to Christians: Isolationism vs. World Community, and co-author of Ethics and the Modern World. He knows his own historic religion intimately, and his studies have brought him closer to the prophets and prophetic literature of other great religions.
Mrs. Hills has been a public-school teacher and a member of the religious-education staffs of several large churches. After majoring in religion at the University of Southern California, she went on to study for her M.A. degree there.
Together they have produced a book that points in the right direction for the days immediately ahead.
The authors wish to express their appreciation for the assistance of Sophia L. Fahs in the editing of the total manuscript. Jeanette Perkins Brown made helpful suggestions on earlier drafts. Rabbi Edwin Zerin went over the material on Judaism and made valuable comments. And Professor Paul Irwin of the School of Religion, University of Southern California, made many pertinent suggestions regarding the over-all planning.
1. WE LOOK AT LIFE
A story is told of three men who were shipwrecked on an island in the South Seas. As the ship was pounded to pieces on the coral shoals, food, clothing, and equipment were lost in the surf. The three exhausted survivors pulled themselves up on the beach out of reach of the pounding waves. Having caught their breath, they began to take stock of their surroundings. Beyond the sandy stretch arose wooded hills and then rocky ledges and steep precipices. There was no evidence of any human being aside from themselves. The only sounds were the roaring of the ocean and the noisy cries of the gulls.
Not one of the men had a compass. Their radio had been lost in the wreck. Their immediate urge was to find out whether the island was inhabited. The food supply, they saw, would be no problem, for tropical fruits abounded. But they desperately wanted to find out where they were. They realized that this meant making a search for other persons who might be able to give them a clue as to their whereabouts. It was decided that one man would work along the beach in one direction, a second man going in the opposite direction. The third man was to penetrate to the foothills. Each sought some sign of human habitation -- a footprint, a cultivated field, or smoke from some village in the distance.
In the hours of search that followed, it was the third man who discovered the first trace of human beings -- smoke rising from a small hut high up on a mountainside. He reported back to his companions, and all three set off for the village. The islanders proved to be quite friendly. Before many weeks were past, the men found passage on a small boat, which took them in the direction of their homeland.
OUR ISLAND UNIVERSE
You and I are in a similar situation. Without choice we have been cast up on this "island" called Earth. Like shipwrecked men, we can either feel terribly sorry for ourselves or start looking around to try to get our bearings. To be sure, we do not have to search for people, for we are usually surrounded by them. However, we sometimes find it difficult to locate people who can help us find out exactly where we are or assist us toward our destination.
As children, we take for granted that our parents know all the answers. As we get older we sometimes try to solve our problems in the same ways our parents seem to have solved theirs. We sometimes forget that they cannot know all the answers to all life’s problems. They live on the island, too. And nobody asked them if they wanted to be here. Finding themselves here, they set out to make the best of it. They have found some answers through their living.
We are guided in our early years by their learned wisdom, partial though it is. But we cannot safely guide our lives solely by the ideas of those who have happened to live ahead of us. Nor can we accept their suggestions blindly. We must remember that an answer can be ours only when we have made it a part of our experience. No parent or teacher can live for us. There is much we can learn only through living and learning for ourselves.
CAN WE BE HONEST WITH OURSELVES?
Some people appear to be living day by day without taking much time to think about it. They never seem to wonder about the world in which they live or their place in it. Their living is controlled by habit, and they do not seem to look for any improvements. It is unfortunate when this happens to anyone, for he is losing his opportunity to grow and progress. The continuing search for better answers about the nature of life and the universe adds zest to living. It is much more thrilling than having to accept old answers and customs and habits just because they are old.
A person may stop wondering and questioning because some adult discouraged him. Sometimes teachers and parents are too tired, too busy, or too impatient to give helpful attention to a younger person’s questions. So lie just quits asking after a time. Others become so interested in social activities or sports or work that they ignore their deeper wonderings about the nature of things.
Yet the questions are there inside us. What is life? How did we get here? What is God like? What is the difference between right and wrong? What is love? What happens to us when we die? These and many other questions like them have been asked by people of all lands and all times.
If we are honest with ourselves, we let such questions absorb some of our attention and our efforts. Searching for answers is the way we learn. We should never feel ashamed to raise questions. Nor should we feel that someone else, no matter how famous he is, has found all the answers for us already. In order to live fully, all of us must ask about the meaning of life and try to find some satisfactory answers. Doubts and questions are healthy signs of honesty with ourselves and are a measure of our effort to increase self-understanding.
DOES RELIGIONS HAVE THE "ANSWERS"?
Some people talk about religion as though it had all the answers, but the claim only raises more questions. What is "religion"? Is it going to church, singing songs, listening to prayers, learning how to pray? When people talk about God, what do they mean? Where do people get their ideas of God? How do we know whether they are right or not? Why should we feel that we have to believe in a certain way?
No religion has all the answers, no matter what ministers or priests may sometimes say. All religions try to raise the questions that matter most. Religions also provide a record of how some people have answered these basic questions. Many persons think that their own religion offers the best answers to everyone’s questioning. But the wisest teachers of the religions have not said so. Instead, they have encouraged others to explore the meaning of life, as they themselves were doing.
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM OTHERS?
As we look for the answers to our wonderings, it is often helpful to look beyond ourselves. Many people of other cultures and religions have found some important clues to the meaning of life. Their ideas may furnish us with some valuable suggestions. A study of them will give us more help than the study of one "answer" alone -- exclusively that of our own nation or our own religion. It will offer us a shorter path towards the wisdom that others have gathered.
We must choose carefully the people to whom we go for help, for life does not allow us time to quiz all of our ancestors and examine all the religions of other generations. We must choose persons who have tried to be honest in the quest. We do not want to waste our time with insincere or self-important teachers, ancient or modern.
Neither do we want to get lost on a slumming expedition among the people whose religions we are going to study. If we want to discover whether Beethoven wrote music that we might like, we need to listen to his symphonies or sonatas. We should not worry over the fact that he often went around with egg stains on his tie. In the same way, if we want to find helpful suggestions from other people, we need to examine their ideas about life. We should not become preoccupied with the ways in which their clothing or customs differ from ours.
Scientists, artists, engineers, teachers, philosophers, and theologians -- all, regardless of race, language, or country, are trying to find new meanings about life. Someday we may have a much more complete picture than we now have. At the moment it is as though we are still trying to put together a big jigsaw puzzle. Some people are working on one corner of the puzzle, some on another, and so on. Many of us get so interested in the tiny details that we forget the total picture. Only in our more imaginative moments do we try to get a glimpse of the whole of life.
Almost always people have looked to their religions for some sense of the whole picture of life, even though countless pieces have not yet been fitted into the puzzle. Perhaps we shall learn a few things from other religions that may help us to understand more.
WHY SHOULD WE STUDY LIFE AT ALL?
As children we were very concerned with the immediate activities of every day. But as young persons we begin to discover that, while separate activities are important, they are but a part of our whole lives. And our lives are part of something much bigger -- the life in which all beings share. We become more concerned about what each life is and how it relates to every other. We begin to explore the meaning of life. We are interested in doing more independent thinking than we have done before.
Our lives become increasingly a matter of our own making, and if we think about it, we make our lives meaningful. Because men everywhere, have found that the meaningful life was a goal of all people, they have developed religions to help them decide what is really important. The world’s religions have much to offer to us today in our personal quest for meanings and answers. All men’s searches for right relationships to themselves, to others, and to the world are parts of that common search in which we too are involved.
Let us take up the challenge of this quest for meaningful life, raising our questions and searching constantly and gladly for answers we can accept. As we do, we shall gain inspiration from those who have asked and answered in other times and places. Let us see what they have to say to us, and let US use what will help us to continue our search for better ways to live.
Sincere thanks to Venerable
Thich Tam Quang for making this digital version available.
(Bình Anson, 05-2004)
last updated: 26-05-2004