The most obvious question that suggests itself at the close of this
inquiry is: What have we gotten out of it? Has it done any good?
It would be surprising if we had not picked up some facts along the way:
what the yogas are, Buddha’s analysis of the cause of life’s dislocation,
Confucius’ ideal of the true gentleman, what the yin/ yang symbol
signifies, the literal meaning of “Islam,” what the Exodus means to the
Jews, what was the “good news” that excited the early Christians, and so
on. Such facts are not to be belittled; a well-stocked mind adds interest
to the world that comes its way. But is this all?
The Relation between Religions
To the question of how to pattern these religions, three answers suggest
The first holds that one of the world’s religions is superior to the
others . Now that the peoples of the world are getting to know one another
better, we hear this answer less often than we used to; but even so it
should not be dismissed out of hand. The opening chapter of this book
quoted Arnold Toynbee as saying that no one alive knows enough to say with
confidence whether or not one religion is superior to the others —the
question remains an open one.
A second position lies at the opposite end of the spectrum: It holds that
the religions are all basically alike. Differences are acknowledged but,
according to this second view, they are incidental in comparison to the
great enduring truths on which the religions unite. ..the religions differ
in what they consider essential and what negotiable. Hinduism and Buddhism
split over this issue, as did Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
A third conception of the way the religions are related likens them to a
stained glass window whose sections divide the light of the sun into
different colors. This analogy allows for significant differences between
the religions without pronouncing on their relative worth.
The Wisdom Traditions
If we pass a
strainer through the world’s religions to lift out their conclusions about
reality and how life should be lived, those conclusions begin to look like
the winnowed wisdom of the human race.
Though the word virtue now carries a heavy moralistic ring, the wisdom
traditions emphasize the root meaning of the word, which inclines toward
power; philosophical Taoism has remained particularly alert to this
The religions begin by assuring us that if we could see the full picture
we would find it more integrated than we normally suppose . Life gives us
no view of the whole. We see only snatches here and there, and
self-interest skews our perspective grotesquely. Things that are close to
us assume exaggerated importance, while the rest we view with cold
dispassion. It is as if life were a great tapestry, which we face from its
wrong side. This gives it the appearance of a maze of knots and threads,
which for the most part appear chaotic.
A mystery is that special kind of problem which for the human mind has no
solution; the more we understand it, the more we become aware of
additional factors relating to it that we do not understand. In mysteries
what we know, and our realization of what we do not know, proceed
together; the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of
wonder. It is like the quantum world, where the more we understand its
formalism, the stranger that world becomes.
Things are more integrated than they seem, they are better than they seem,
and they are more mysterious than they seem; something like this emerges
as the highest common denominator of the wisdom traditions’ reports.
If one of the
wisdom traditions claims us, we begin by listening to it.
Jesus, blessed be his name,
“Do unto others as you would they should do
Said Buddha, blessed be his name as well,
“He who would, may
reach the utmost height— but he must be eager to learn.”
If we do not
quote the other religions on these points,
it is because their words would