Saint Eustache / church in Paris HDR /FUJIFILM...
Saint Eustache / church in Paris HDR /FUJIFILM FINEPIX S100FS (Photo credit: mamasuco…est de retour via Flickr)

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Let me begin by stressing that this 5-part article is not about the Hindu, Buddhist or Christian person who integrates his or her religious beliefs within a peaceful and considerate lifestyle. Rather, it’s about some of the scriptures, doctrines and beliefs that have emerged from the figures of Krishna, Buddha and Christ.

Moreover, this article is in no way a direct or indirect affront to entire religious groups or individual believers. If any particular individuals or subcultures are singled out, it’s those who interpret aspects of these three religious traditions in a misguided attempt to legitimize unjust acts of violence.

Ideas and Perspectives

In my graduate studies days monthly colloquia afforded professors and students an opportunity to discuss ideas, mostly about methodology in Religious Studies. One issue that stood out was that of clearly identifying one’s biases at the outset of a study. Old notions of ‘objectivity’ have pretty well gone the way of the dinosaur in the Humanities. Today researchers speak of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity—that is, personal perspectives which may, in part, be shared.

In keeping with this idea, I’d like to say that I’m writing as a believing Catholic who tries to see God in everyone, regardless of their beliefs. I believe that everyone can express different degrees and types of truth at any given moment.

Universal Salvation

Well-meaning individuals often say that all religions are the same. It doesn’t matter what path we choose because we all arrive at the same heavenly place in the end. Some even say that murderers and cruel tyrants will be seated in heaven aside the saints. I hope they’re right. It’s nice to think of God as so loving and merciful that even the nastiest among us will eventually enjoy everlasting, heavenly bliss.

Theologically speaking, this is called universal salvation. Although an intellectually attractive idea, I remain unconvinced, mostly from reading the diaries of Catholic saints who tell of interior visions of souls lost in unspeakably terrible hells. Some critics of the belief in hell maintain that Catholic copyists or editors probably added and deleted certain passages in a given saint’s diary to fit with the official Church teaching that hell is real and eternal. Myself, I find this assertion doubtful, especially with regard to the more recent saints.†

But I digress.

Simple and Complex

In briefly comparing Krishna, Buddha and Christ, we should remember that religion is a complex topic dealing with the entire individual, from birth to afterlife. Religion involves beliefs about cosmology (a working map of the universe), morality and soteriology (salvation).

Religion is made simple if we look to its endearing aspects, like cultivating goodwill, friendship and trying to do the right thing. It’s nice to discover similarities that hopefully will bring everyone together. In fact, most religions emphasize the The Golden Rule of ethical reciprocity to encourage interfaith dialogue and peaceful accord.

But clearly not all religions are identical in every respect. And to gloss over religious differences for the sake of political agendas might get you on TV but, put simply, it’s lousy theology.

† Others contend that the Catholic saints receive visions that fit with their innate predispositions and developmental conditioning. That is, God reveals images in accord with a saint’s belief structures, making it possible for the saint to understand what God is trying to tell them. Another interpretation says the saint internally creates a unique interior perception and corresponding spiritual reality. According to this view, truth is whatever one believes in. And yet another view combines the previous two: God reveals according to a saint’s belief structures, the saint then engages in a secondary, creative process of interpretation. Some thinkers maintain that, in all three of these instances, it could be too disruptive for the saint to discover that other people’s truths are just as real as his or her own. A further belief is that God reveals an absolute, immutable truth to a saint (e.g. the Holy Trinity). Catholicism stresses the need to carefully discern between interior perceptions from God and Satan. For Catholics, individuals are continually under attack by evil and in a constant state of spiritual warfare. But the Church also recognizes the possibility of mere imagination, hallucination and delusion. Meanwhile, the Freudian would say that spiritual visions are fantasies stemming from the libido as the sex instinct attaches itself to an imagined object. Similarly, the materialist would say that alleged spiritual visions are hallucinations stemming from inner psychological states. There is no heaven, hell or afterlife for the materialist. Religion merely comforts weak-willed individuals thwarted by a mysterious and oftentimes harsh world. For a more detailed discussion see Mysticism and the Idea of Sainthood.

© Michael Clark

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5