The false idea that all religions are essentially the same is as old as, well, religion itself. But advances in communications over the centuries – from the printing press to social media – keep giving syncretism a fresh set of legs.
For example, 18th century poet William Blake wrote the seminal book All Religions Are One.
A century later Mohandas Gandhi declared, “Belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions.”
These days, the Dalai Lama affirms, “The essential message of all religions is very much the same.”
The “all religions are one” mantra reverberates throughout today’s culture, at least in part because it serves as an antidote to the vitriol with which so many religious zealots defend their faith.
Even so, it isn’t true.
God is Not One
In his best-selling book God is Not One, Stephen Prothero writes, “The Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it. But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place.”
Highlighting eight of the world’s largest and most influential religions, Prothero acknowledges the comforting thought that the great religions make up one big, happy family. “But this sentiment,” he adds, “is neither accurate nor ethically responsible.”
While distinguishing these eight religions from one another, Prothero points out that they all address four common issues:
(1) A problem
(2) A solution to this problem (which also serves as the religion’s goal)
(3) A technique (or techniques) for moving from this problem to this solution
(4) An exemplar (or exemplars) who charts the path from problem to solution
For example, in Islam, the problem is pride, an ignorant or audacious refusal to surrender to the transcendent creator.
The solution is submission to the will of Allah, resulting in paradise (if Allah wills).
The technique is the Five Pillars of Islam: Shahada (confession); salat (prayer); zakat (almsgiving); observance of Ramadan (30 days of daylight fasting to commemorate the giving of the Qur’an); and the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
And the exemplar is Muhammad.
The same four issues may be applied to the other religions.
Let’s take Buddhism, for which the problem is suffering caused by desire.
The solution is awakening, resulting in nirvana.
The technique is the Noble Eightfold Path, which includes such classic Buddhist practices as meditation and chanting.
And the exemplars are arhats (“perfected ones” who have attained nirvana – for Theravada Buddhists), bodhisattvas (compassionate beings who delay nirvana in order to help others – for Mahayana Buddhists); or lamas (spiritual leaders or gurus – for Vajrayana Buddhists).
A Christian response
How does Christianity address these four issues?
(1) Mankind’s problem is sin, which separates us from God. Scripture is clear that all people are sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23) and the penalty for sin is death (Rom. 6:23).
(2) The solution is divine forgiveness of sin, which is salvation. That means regeneration (being made spiritually alive); justification (being declared in right standing before God); sanctification (being set apart and marked off as belonging to God); and ultimately glorification (being fully conformed to the image of Christ).
(3) The technique is faith alone in Christ alone. Here is where Christianity takes a decidedly different turn from the other great world religions. While others are works based, Christianity upholds the biblical truths that the one true and living God sent His Son to pay the penalty of sin for us. God now extends to us His grace and mercy, which we receive with childlike faith.
(4) The exemplar is Christ. He did not come to earth to tell us the way; He is the way. He didn’t just claim to know the truth; He is the truth. He didn’t lay out a noble path to life; He is life.
These four issues, which Prothero writes about in his book, are helpful conversation starters. We may ask our friends: In your opinion, what is mankind’s problem? What is the solution? How do we get there? And who can show us the way?
Their answers should tell us a great deal about their worldviews, perhaps even their religious backgrounds.
Not that all answers are equally valid, for we must lay all claims of truth against the yardstick of God’s Word.