With regard to ultimate truth, there cannot be a positive without a corresponding negative.
Every enduring religion distinguishes itself by its unique claims to ultimate truth. If its central beliefs were common to itself and another religion, then it would cease to be a religion standing on its own. Instead, it would be simply a minor “variation on a theme” — what we would call denominations or sects.
I point this out to highlight the futility of trumpeting what competing religions hold in common (and yes, I use the word “competing” intentionally, because every religious or philosophical world view denies that others “get it right” in the ways that matter most).
To politically correct ears, it sounds appealing to seek the common ground between opposing systems of thought. And certainly this is important when attempting to live in peace with those of different convictions. Yet when it comes to seeking ultimate truth, settling for the lowest common denominator is a waste of time. What matters is a discussion of the competing truth claims, wherein one can weigh the positive, unique claims of each religion.
For example, let me compose a list of 10 areas of common ground between Christianity and Buddhism:
1) Both were founded by thoughtful individuals;
2) Both recognize that worldly pursuits will not lead to fullness of life;
3) Both agree that human suffering is caused in large measure by wrongful attachment to things and relationships.
4) Both religions are reform movements, Christianity of Judaism and Buddhism of Hinduism;
5) Both Jesus and the Buddha practiced meditation;
6) Both teach that wrongful actions have consequences;
7) Both call their adherents to speak and act in truth, non-harmful ways to others;
8) Both believe that all human being inherently seek happiness;
9) Both believe that ignorance is a great impediment to spiritual growth;
10) Both agree that life in this world is always evanescent.
11) (Bonus points) Both commend prayer, bowing, sacrifice, pilgrimage, fasting, etc., as regular spiritual practices of adherents.
So, what do you really learn about each religion that is useful? Would a Christian say that this list presents what is at the heart of orthodox Christianity? Hardly. Would a Buddhist tout this list as a fair reflection of Buddhism? No way. So what have we accomplished? Perhaps we have made ourselves feel better that we have some bridges to walk over together, even though they won’t get us very far on the road to truth. Perhaps, if we are feeling apologetic or ashamed of our own religion’s bold and exclusive truth claims, we can squirrel those away behind the smokescreen of what we believe in common. In the end, though, the exercise of promoting what we have in common with other religions leaves us with a false syncretism that does injustice to the unique convictions of each religion.
Back in May, during a weekend men’s conference I taught a seminar entitled “10 Ways That Jesus Outshines Muhammad.” It was a clear, well-documented presentation that received much attention and positive response. Recently I learned that a Presbyterian minister (Mr. Matt Curry) who attended the conference but did not come to my seminar was apparently unhappy with my focus highlighting differences between the two religions. Unhappy enough to write a blog about it soon after the conference end — “10 Areas of Common Ground Between Muslims, Christians.”
His contention? “…knowing that Christians are called to live in peace with everyone to the best of our abilities (Romans 12:18) and coming from a theological perspective seeking positives instead of negatives, I began to wonder if I could make a list highlighting common ground.” Apparently, my negativity needed to be countered by his positivity. The problem is, only the most grossly self-evident statements are free from the need for many qualifications. A couple of his common agreements are actually incorrect.
I won’t bore you with a full analysis, but let me offer some salient points to drive home the truth that we learn most about what others believe when we do a “compare and contrast” that is fair to both sides..
His first point of common ground: Muslims and Christians both bear the image of God. From a Judeo-Christian point of view, this is accurate. However, Muslims do not believe that human beings are created in the image of God — in fact, such a statement verges on blasphemy since God is wholly other. Mankind bears no special likeness to God. Hence in this statement, Mr. Curry misrepresents Islam in seeking to create common ground. His approach is naively “bibliocentric,” and hardly politically correct.
Second, God plays no favorites, hence none of us can speak from a position of superiority but only seek understanding from the Light we have been given. This sounds good, until Christians declare that Christ is the Light of the world, and the Bible is the unique, infallible revelation of God that points us to Jesus. Muslims counter with the unyielding claim that the Quran is composed of the literal words of God, spoken to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. Both groups claim to speak from the platform of God’s revelation, which privileges their declarations over those of anyone holding to a different authority.
Third, Muslims and Christians both acknowledge they are sinners, we are told. But for Muslims, sin is basically seen as forgetfulness of God’s sovereignty through neglect of His commands. There is nothing so serious as to demand atonement. God simply forgives or doesn’t according to His will. No mediator, no sacrifice, no cross, only reminders not to forget God in the future. For Christians, sin is an irreparable breach in relationship with God, irreparable from the human side, but covered from the divine side by the atonement of the Son of God on behalf of helpless sinners. It is true that both religions speak of sin; but what they mean by it is discovered only by contrast, not by common verbalizing of the word.
I could go on, but you get the point. Well, let me give one more statement of common ground, only because it makes me smile. Mr Curry in statement #5 says, “Like Christianity, Islam has many different interpretations.” Now that’s something we can really sink our teeth into. Except that one could substitute any religion or serious work of thought for “Islam” and say the same thing. “Like Christianity, the Constitution has many different interpretations…, the Law of Maritime Admiralty…, the PCUSA Book of Order…, voodoo…, European Union common law…, The Iliad and the Odyssey….
Finding common ground is certainly essential when one is trying to build relationships, but not when trying to discern unique truth claims or to test them. Then it is crucial to do the hard work of uncovering the real meanings of words and practices rather than skimming along on surface appearances while humming “We Are Family” with Sister Sledge.