Thursday, May 17, 2012

All religions teach basically the same thing, right?

Pictured: me, my two children, and (far right) two of my Chinese employees, at a statue of Laozi


I have mentioned before that I have been blessed in my job to get to see other countries, and have spent a couple of months total in China. Whenever I go somewhere, I love to visit religious sites or listen to people talk about their religion: there is much to learn about people in that way. I have been to a Buddhist temple in China, and discussed Buddhism and Taoism with Chinese and Hinduism with an Indian. In the photo above, my kids and I are being shown a statue of Laozi, founder of Taoism; written all around the statue are the writings of Laozi which form the Taoist bible.

These travels have really revealed to me some powerful truths about Christianity and the Gospel, and answered for me a question which is frequently asked by doubters: "Don't all religions basically teach the same thing?" You hear versions of this argument all the time from non-believers: "Jesus was a great moral teacher, just like Buddha and Confucious and Moses--they all are basically teaching the same thing." By which what they really mean is, "All religions just teach to be a good person, so stop taking all this Gospel stuff so seriously."

What I have found in my travels is that the answer to this question ("Don't all religions teach basically the same thing?") is: "Yes! And no."

It is true that if you look purely based on the ethical/moral side--which is to say, "How should I live my life"--they teach basically the same things. Whether you are studying Jesus or Buddha or Moses or Laozi or Confucius, their views on moral ethics are remarkably similar. Even though they were developed in different cultures at different times and in different situations, all the great philosophers and religious leaders basically preach the same standard of ethics: the Golden Rule, or "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." All teach that you should be just to other people. All teach that you should avoid dishonesty. All teach that you should be brave. All teach that you should retain sexuality within its natural boundaries. All teach that you should show mercy. All teach that you should live humbly. All teach that you should do things in moderation. All teach that you should seek knowledge. And most teach that the soul is eternal and does not die, but lives on in some form.

Now they may disagree in some particular details--for example, different cultures may disagree on how many wives it is appropriate to have: but no major religion ever said that rape or adultery is okay. They may disagree with whether you can be a part of a battle, but all agree that cowardice is wrong. Muslims and Baptists may think that "temperance" means never drinking alcohol, while most Christians and Jews think it means avoiding drunkenness; so the cultures disagree on some details, but the basic concept--you must drink in moderation--is completely agreed upon. No religion teaches, "Going to get drunk all the time and dying in an alcoholic stupor is the height of virtue."

C.S. Lewis noted this in Mere Christianity, pointing out that there has never really been, in the entire history of the world, a wholly different morality. Everyone believes in the same virtues, and everyone believes in the same vices. Morality is the same everywhere, and we all agree on the same virtues; culture merely creates minor variations in how we define these virtues.

Stop and think about that for a moment, especially from a non-believing evolutionist's mindset. Why in the world would this be the case? Our customs and laws and politics are massively different from culture to culture; and yet, we all maintain basically the same morality. Lewis says that this is what the ancient philosophers called the "Law of Human Nature"--we all basically agree on the same principles of living life, whether we are Mayans or Chinese or Indian or European. We all share the same basic morality because there is One True Morality that we all share in common in our hearts.

I have seen this very much to be true in my travels. There clearly is one great moral code of "righteousness" that everyone has in their hearts; one basic form of living justly that we all agree upon, regardless of culture. All of my international team of engineers--three Arkansans, two North Dakotans, a Pole, a Dane, an Indian, and three Chinese) view "rightness" the same way. We all agree at a basic level of what it means to be a "good person". Culture does add in some differences, mostly in priority: we all agree that we should honor our elders, but the Chinese give that a higher priority than you and I; we all agree that you should work hard, but the North Dakotans take this to a higher level; we all agree that you should spend a great deal of time investing in your family and taking care of your household, but the Dane takes this as his highest priority; etc.

Morality is the steak--culture is the steak sauce. Each culture provides a slightly different flavor, but we all share the same basic moral code.

And in that way, the skeptic is correct--all religions are basically the same. Lao and Jesus and Buddha and Confucius and Moses could sit as judges over our behavior and probably have near-universal agreement on whether we were acting "right" or "wrong" in any given situation. So yes, all religions are basically the same.

And no, that does not mean that Jesus is just "one of the crowd" of religious philosophers.

Because in one way, Jesus was unique. In one area, His teachings are insanely radical. All other religions basically can be summed up in this one sentence: "If you live according to the teachings of _______, you will achieve the afterlife (immortality/resurrection/nirvana/reincarnation/etc)." Jesus adds a "but" to the end, which no other religious teachers add: "If you live according to the teachings of _____, you will achieve the afterlife. BUT, you aren't good enough to live up to those teachings."

You see this through all of Scripture. Jesus said that it was impossible to get to heaven based upon your works, but only based upon God's work (Mt 19:26). He said that even living according to the restrictive Jewish Law only cleaned the outside of us, but that inside we were still corrupt (Mt 23:27). He said that the only chance for the afterlife came through dying to our lives here (Mt 16:24-26) and being born again as spiritual beings (John 3:3-7). He says that we are basically evil but God gives us good gifts anyway (Mt 7:11). He says that we must pray for forgiveness constantly, because we fail constantly (Mt 6:12). And while having a passover meal to celebrate God's substitutionary atonement, Jesus identifies Himself as the atonement for our sins (Lk 22:19).

So yes, Jesus taught the same basic morality as everyone else. All are pointing to the same "goodness" that God sets in each of our hearts. We all know the difference between right and wrong. And all the great moral teachers--Lao and Buddha and Confucius--are catching a glimpse of the Divine God when they were inspired to teach a better way to live, a holier way to live. There is no shame or risk or danger or fear in these 'pagan' religions: for these religions do nothing but seek to find the afterlife through living a holy and pure life. Indeed, even we Christians can learn from some of them about how to live a better lifestyle! For they all are all derivatives of the same Pure Moral Code--great and wise teachers trying their best to explain the Divine desires in each of our hearts.

But Jesus teaches one thing different--and really, only one thing. He teaches that you cannot possibly achieve that moral code. He teaches that the standard is too high, for the Universal Moral Law requires purity both of deed and action. And Jesus is the only one of these teachers to explain how we have both the desire to adhere to this great moral law, and yet also lack the capacity for doing so. Then, as if that were not enough, He provided us a path to being made right before this law--not through our own works (which are too impure) but through our faith in Him as God-incarnate.




So didn't Jesus just teach the same basic thing as every other religion? Yes and no. With regard to "good works" and living righteously, you can find similar teachings to Jesus' in a half-dozen religions. This is why so many people of different religions live "good" lives. Jesus was by no means radical in His teaching of pure ethics.

Where Jesus was radical was in one way only: He claimed that we always fail these ethics, no matter how hard we try--and that He is the physician with a plan to heal us (Mark 2:17). If that has been your experience--that no matter how hard you try, you cannot possibly be a perfectly good person--then only the teachings of Jesus resonate with you.

And if the teachings of Jesus resonate with you, then remember what C.S. Lewis said: "Christianity, if false, is of no importance and if true, is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important."

Jesus was not "just another moral philosopher". He was a radical. And He invites you to follow in His radical understanding of sin and depravity, and to accept the work that He has already done on your behalf--instead of trying to work your way into impossible perfection.

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