Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Comparative Religion

I wrote this in response to a thread at TexAgs.com asking whether or not the resident Christians had studied other faith traditions. Please forgive any inaccuracies I may have written below, as my study has been self-initiated and is, in all likelihood, incomplete.

In-between my formative years when my family attended first an Independent Fundamental Baptist Church (Worth Baptist, Ft. Worth), then Southern Baptist churches (Matthew Road, Grand Prairie; First Baptist, Euless) and my conversion to Orthodox Christianity, I did study Buddhism and Taoism. Growing up, I went to my best friend's synagogue (Congregation Beth Shalom, Arlington). In college I had gone from my Baptist roots (First Baptist, Bryan) to non-denominational (Grace Baptist, College Station). When my then fiance and I started talking about churches we visited churches based on her background as well (St. Thomas Episcopal, College Station). We ended up halfway between our faith backgrounds (A&M United Methodist, College Station).

Our pastor there, Buddy Walker, a Baptist convert himself, helped me start to understand issues such as infant baptism. When I brought my thoughts about Buddhism to him, he also made the point that the same Christ that said to love our enemies probably wouldn't have much problem with most of what Buddha said.

I have in the last two years done fairly extensive reading on Baha'i and Islam. What I have found in all of my reading and participation is that there seems to be something innate in most people that draws them to be part of something bigger than themselves. I concur with prof. gradoo that I'm likely to have approached all of my study through the lens of some basic "Christian" assumptions, but I've also shattered some of those assumptions along the way (e.g. OSAS, Sola Scriptura).

The assumptions that I have left are that we are intentionally created (though I don't take a dogmatic position on how or when); that Christ is God; and that our calling is to love one another. Besides Christianity, Buddhism & Taosim come the closest to providing a framework for understanding my experience. The difference for me between these two and Christ is that instead of the person being subsumed in an everythingness of Being, in Christianity, the person becomes an integral part of unity in God, but retains his personhood. For a great meditation on Lao Tzu as a pre-Christian prophet (ala Aristotle) see Christ the Eternal Tao by Fr. Damascene Christensen.

Coming to Orthodox Christianity, I struggled with some concepts (e.g. veneration of icons, the role of the Theotokos, confession) more than others that were more familiar in my upbringing (e.g. the Trinity). What I discovered is that while there is a wealth of texts and traditions in Christianity, so too there are a wealth in other faith traditions as well. This is, finally, what I think faith is. I decided that I would trust Christ's word that he had established a temporal church and that it would persist (Matt. 16:18) and be led by God into all Truth (John 16:13). Along with trusting that Christ’s church existed and persisted to our times and had preserved Christ’s teachings intact and unaltered, I had to trust that those things which I didn’t cognitively understand would be made clear.

With respect to the comparative religion, I don’t disbelieve Judaism but think that Orthodox Christianity is a fulfillment of the Law and Prophets in Christ (and Judaism post-Javneh has a flavor of damage control for the “Christian problem”). Islam is a radical monotheistic reaction to Christianity. Baha’i is a universalist reformation of Islam. Buddhism/Taoism, like many pre-Christian religions (including Native American religion and Zoroastrianism) reveal mystical truths which are fully revealed in Christ. I’ve not studied Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, or Sikhism in any depth past casual reading. Confucianism is more of an system of ethics than a faith, and as such isn’t necessarily at odds with Christianity. In the case of Hinduism and Jainism, I think that multiple gods and/or ancestor worship can be influenced by evil spirits and/or point to later, more fully revealed truths in Christianity. Sikhism also points to a “Universal God,” which is beyond human ken…also has the ability to be interpreted as fulfilled through the Trinitarian understanding we have of God as uncreated and outside of time.

The bottom line to comparative religion for me is a truth that I discovered in Orthodoxy (it certainly wasn’t an aspect of the Evangelism Explosion training I received in the Baptist Church) is that I am called to focus on my own salvation, to work that out in “fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) and not worry about what someone else is or isn’t doing, but to love them as icons of Christ.

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