I found inspiration recently, in of all things, The Edicts of Ashoka, ancient inscriptions written by Emperor Ashoka of India in the third century before the common era. They represent some of the oldest examples we have of what today we might call interfaith dialogue. For the most part, Emperor Ashoka is waxing eloquent on a newly arrived faith tradition called “Buddhism.” However, he also spends some time speaking about other religious traditions. Here’s some of what he wrote:
“The beloved of the gods… [he referred to himself in the third person that way] values this – that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause… it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others… The beloved of the gods… desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions… And the fruit of this is that one’s own religion grows…”
With these words, Emperor Ashoka provides one of our first references to religious pluralism, suggesting a relationship beyond peaceful coexistence, towards finding essential wisdom in traditions not one’s own, and perhaps finding an underlying truth common to all traditions. Whatever his precise intention, the relationship between diverse faith traditions and their various truth claims has remained an important issue throughout our history.
For example, four hundred years or so after Ashoka we find Saint Paul wrestling with this very question. Paul lived in the first century, a time during which the earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish. Christianity as its own religion developed slowly, more of a process than an event, a process that some scholars say played out even into the fourth century. So, at first, followers of the Way of Jesus were one Jewish sect among many others including, for example, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, the Essenes, and the Mishnah. So when we find Paul speaking of unity between Jews and gentiles, he’s inviting a spirit of inclusion into his already diverse Jewish tradition, arguing that since in Christ we are all one, everything else, including an important tradition like circumcision, is secondary.
Paul’s primary audience, gentiles, were themselves an eclectic group, with a diverse array of religious traditions from mystery cults to competing philosophical ideals.
The amazing thing about Paul’s message, is that he wasn’t insisting this diverse group become Jews, subscribing to Jewish belief and practice, in order to follow Jesus. For Paul, Jesus had already done all the necessary work, so being embraced by God’s Love had no membership requirements. All anyone had to do is recognize this truth, that we’re not divided by our various beliefs and traditions, and are unified by a more fundamental Truth.
Now, not everyone was a fan of this very radical message. Paul for example, mentions Jesus breaking down the dividing wall, a reference that Jews at the time would associate with the wall in the Jerusalem Temple separating the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of Israel. To give you an idea how shocking that idea would be to most Jews of the time, an ancient inscription written in Latin and Greek warns Gentiles that to cross this boundary in the Temple is to risk death. And even today this message of radical unity continues to be difficult for many.
Imagine, for example, that instead of Paul being a Jew two thousand years ago, encouraging the inclusion of gentiles in God’s saving covenant, he’s a Christian today. And he’s proclaiming inclusion of all peoples, regardless of religious tradition, in the embrace of Christ’s Love and the deliverance from sin and suffering. That message would and does get met with a lot of resistance. Many feel that only Christians, and sometimes only certain Christians, are the sole beneficiaries of God’s mercy and grace. And the same sort of exclusive claim can be found in varying degrees within all religions. It’s enough to make one believe we haven’t made that much progress since the time of Emperor Ashoka. And, even a passing glance at the news these days should be enough to convince us that progress is desperately needed.
Unfortunately, if anything, religion has been used too often as an instrument of hate and oppression, which is why much of humanity’s suffering and grief is laid at our door; and make no mistake, we have a lot to answer for. Examples of religious intolerance breeding horrific violence and alienation continue even now, threatening to make a mockery of the message we want to be sending: the message of God’s infinite loving-kindness and compassion. It’s probably no surprise, then, when each new poll charting religious demographics sees a declining number of people defining themselves as religious. And if all this doesn’t create some feeling of righteous anger in you, it should. It should, because if by our words or action or inaction we promote any kind of exclusion in God’s Kingdom, any hint that God’s Love is limited, we’re acting in direct opposition to the primary message of the gospel, and offering a foothold for intolerance, mistrust, and hatred.
A few years ago I came across a half tongue-in-cheek bumper sticker, and it struck me as an important reminder on the value of humility regarding one’s faith tradition. It read: “God is not a Christian,” and it helped me remember that non-Christians are as inundated with God’s Love as I am. It reminded me that the name, “Jesus,” is both a unique expression for God in my own tradition, and also one name for God among many. What I’m suggesting is that in a world as filled with fragmentation and suffering as ours, we need a relationship with other faith traditions aiming a bit higher than mere peaceful coexistence (a stance you may have seen advertised in another popular bumper sticker).
Paul, in his time, was radical in his message. We Jews, he might have said, do not uniquely participate in God’s saving covenant. As Jesus taught and demonstrated, God’s covenant is with humanity as a whole, and being human is the only qualification. In fact, our participation in God’s Truth is simply what it means to be fully human and be embraced by the divine. In Truth, there are no dividing walls, and we as Christians need to reflect that in how we relate to all our sisters and brothers, whether they be Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or any other faith tradition.
On the need for such radical inclusivity and the honoring of mutual wisdom among religions, the theologian James Cutsinger writes “Without in any way denying the miraculous fact of Christ’s life or the saving truths of Christological doctrine, the Christian pilgrim must make an effort to abstract from those facts to their essential meaning, and to look along these truths toward the Truth.” We must make this effort, because our world is only getting smaller, and an acknowledging tolerance among those of varied faith traditions is not enough. If we can’t find evidence of God’s Truth and the Holy One’s eternal wisdom in the doctrine and practice of our neighbors we share this planet with, then we need to practice opening our hearts a little wider, praying that by the glow of Christ’s Light we can recognize God’s most essential Truth wherever it may be found.
Some might fear this could dilute or weaken their faith, but in my experience the potential is for just the opposite. Anything we recognize as wisdom and Truth, regardless of the source, can only strengthen and deepen our faith, and enrich the experience of our tradition. It would be like, for example, finding God’s Truth reflected in wisdom written by a long-gone Buddhist ruler, over 2400 years ago. Emperor Ashoka saw the value in honoring and finding Truth in all religions, and that’s as true today as it ever was.
Our world is at least as divided as Paul’s world of Jew and gentile, and so filled with the suffering this division causes. But, Paul knew that the Way of Jesus was one of inclusion and of tearing down dividing walls. As followers of Jesus’ Way we’re called to bear the fruit of God’s love by practicing this profound Truth, the Truth of our essential unity, our shared humanity with all people, through which we all participate in Divinity and are all embraced by the Holy One.
It’s as if God is telling us, look, you are all my beloved children. You may seem so very different, but only in glorious expression, not in essence. Just as the Father and Son are One, you are all One in my Peace and Light and Love. My Love embraces you all, just as the rain and sun embrace everyone. You are all so beautiful and good and awesome, that sometimes it hurts a little just to gaze upon you all. My wonderful creations, truly, there is no divide, no separation between you, because with me, in me, and through my Love, you are One. You are One. And, you know, the world could really use the fruit of my Love right about now, so please, please start acting like it.
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