Sunday, June 01, 2014

Thoughts on comparative religion

Driving home from seeing my mother today after church, I listened, as I normally do, to the NPR program To the Best of Our Knowledge.  The speaker at the end of my drive was Karen Armstrong, a writer about religious belief (that's vague, isn't it?) I don't know her credentials, but here is the interview.

I found her thesis interesting, that is, that the major religions started at about the same time and were all based on a response to the violence of that historical time that asked the follower to stop being egocentric and have a non-self orientation to life.  I think it would be a good starting point for apologetics, and having not read her whole book, I can't really comment, so this response is based on only what she said.

First, Judaism is based on a different understanding of God, not the self.  That different understanding may have changed the understanding of self, but it wasn't the start.  I also don't know that that period was any more violent than any other time.  The 20th century was pretty violent due to weapons of mass destruction and ideologies (Nazism and Communism) more than religions (or established ones; a broad definition of religion would let any belief system to a religion, but I prefer to think of it as a belief system based on an understanding or conception of God or gods other than oneself, whichever the case may be.  She also didn't show much conversance in Christianity.  She said that Jesus said the same thing that Confucius said about the supposed "golden rule" (the Bible doesn't call it that), but he did.

Confucius' version said "Don't do to others what you don't want them doing to you."  Jesus said, "Do to others what you would have them do to you."  I see this as very different.  Jesus' is saying "be active, insert yourself into the mix, live life in this assertive, positive way."  Confucius is saying, "be conservative; essentially do nothing."  If I do nothing, I will then follow Confucius' rule; if I actively serve in love, I follow Jesus' commandment (not rule, big difference).

She also said that the religions were at their core a taking self off the throne and putting someone else on it.  Well, she's half right about Christianity in that sense.  Moving away from an egocentric life is the core of living as  a Christ-follower.  However, the "love-God-then-love-your-neighbor" paradigm is the basis of Christ's teaching.  Also, in a sense, Jesus said, "put yourself off the throne and put me on it."  There is no denying that Jesus accepted worship and presented himself as God.  It's pretty pointless to argue otherwise.  A person can reject his assertion of deity, but that's different from denying he said it in the first place based on what the New Testament says.

Yet Jesus, in saying, "put me on the throne" did something the other leaders didn't, and this is what captured the world's imagination.  He chose to be martyred and executed for the good of others; he modeled the denial of egocentrism in a way no other religious leader has.  Now, I know, I am a good Calvinist, that it was atonement and sacrifice, but I think we miss something if we see it simple as "Jesus died for my sins."  He did, but there was a lot more to it. 

So I think there is something to be said for looking at other religions to see how they have little bits of human truth that point to the real TRUTH.  If religion is about denying egocentrism (not sure it is, but that is Armstrong's argument), then why not follow the one who lived the denying of egocentrism and died to do so?

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